Walt Disney was a busy man. Between feature films, both live and animated, a weekly hour-long television show, and the day-to-day operations of his studio, he had no time and even less money to invent and then build that strange thing he called a theme park. But he did...
Meet the cadre of six men who imagined and described the specifics of Walt Disney’s vision for a new kind of family entertainment park—the men of WED Enterprises, who began the process of inventing Disneyland.
Enter the bustling “Disneyland Plans Room” at Walt Disney’s custom-designed studio. Disney drew upon the talents of tinkerers and hobbyists, artists, writers, engineers, architects, builders, and—especially—Hollywood art directors to realize his dream.
See the site transformed from moonscape to wonderland and struggle along with the park’s management as they rush headlong toward an opening day that seems impossible to achieve.
Based on years of original research and interviews, this is the true but unauthorized story—complete with vintage photos—of just what it took to invent the happiest place on earth and make Walt Disney's dream come true.
Part One: Dreaming, 1953
Part Two: Designing, 1954
Part Three: Doing, 1955
Part Four: Reality, 1955
“Your car is waiting, Mr. Disney.”
Walt Disney, the American cartoon producer, admires the view of Hyde Park from his window. Acquaintances from California would be surprised by the midwesterner’s demeanor abroad. He insists that everyone call him “Walt” at home, for one thing, but not here. At home, he chain-smokes Chesterfields, but now he is developing a taste for French Gitanes cigarettes.
“I’ll be right down.” The staffer nods and sees himself out. The Disney brothers often visit Europe these days, looking after their worldwide film distribution, character merchandising, and other business. Walt Disney Productions keeps a small London office in Whitechapel. Walt and his older brother Roy, the president of the company, always stay at the Dorchester on Park Lane, though never at the same time.
Walt’s business is in Buckinghamshire, in the forests thirty-five minutes west of London. A team of British filmmakers led by director Ken Annakin are filming The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men for Walt Disney Productions at Denham Studios, not far from the more famous Pinewood Studios. Alexander Korda built Denham Studios to his specifications in 1935, four years before Walt built his own studio in Burbank. Korda’s land was three times the size of Walt’s, allowing construction of sprawling outdoor sets for films like The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Great Expectations (1946), and Hamlet (1948).
Walt likes to chat with workers—carpenters, electricians, grips—but he has quickly exhausted his driver’s collected knowledge, so today’s chit-chat touches on politics. King George VI reigns. Clement Attlee is still prime minister, but the driver hopes for the return of Winston Churchill. One might expect a driver to prefer the Labour candidate, but this one admires Churchill, the conservative. As a younger man, Walt had supported Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, but Walt’s politics have become increasingly conservative since the war and he now votes Republican.
Robin Hood follows the profitable Treasure Island (1950) and employs many of the same creative people. Lawrence Edward Watkin wrote both screenplays, and the Royal Philharmonic performed the music, for example. Gorgeous scenes in both films are actually matte paintings created by a young man named Peter Ellenshaw. Costs here are lower than they would be in Hollywood, but the production budgets are strictly managed nonetheless. The films were both completely storyboarded so that every camera angle was known in advance, and Walt had personally approved the storyboards in California. There is little reason for Walt to be on set, in fact, but he is beginning to enjoy escaping his office for weeks at a time.
Walt is feuding with Roy, and it has been going on for nearly three years. As with all familial relationships, the origins of the disagreement and its machinations are complicated, but as a result of the dispute, Walt was never fully committed to his studio’s most recent production, Alice in Wonderland (1951). Walt would later call it his least favorite Disney film, and the critics would agree. With Alice’s premiere set for July 26, Walt, his wife Lillian, and their two teenage daughters sailed for Europe aboard the H.M.S. Queen Mary on June 11 and did not plan to return home before Labor Day.
Walt travels with cans of chili and beans, Spam, two cases of Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky, toilet paper, and part of his famous hat collection. Europe is still recovering from wartime shortages, and Walt is more midwestern ordinary than continental sophisticate. As a tourist abroad, he might wear a loud sports jacket under a Tyrolean hat with a feather in public. His face had been on the cover of Time magazine before the war, but he is not generally recognized now, in part because he has lost his boyish but intense demeanor and seems almost haggard.
Walt uses London as a base of operations, but, as on previous trips, he makes forays onto the continent. In 1949, the family took a day trip to Lincolnshire, England, to a hamlet called Norton Disney. Typically, Walt was avid, Lillian stoic, and the two teenaged girls nonchalant.
The vicar of the seven-hundred-year-old church of St. Peter explained that the name came from the Norman invasion and Issigny, a French town. The conquerors in this part of the forest were from Issigny, or d’Issigny. Walt took home movies of the carved effigy of William Disne, the sheriff of Lincolnshire, who died in 1532. On that trip, it was thirteen-year-old Sharon who said, “Gee, Pop, we’ve had enough.”
Walt shops for miniatures for his backyard railroad, visits museums and zoos, and indulges his life-long fascination with tourist attractions. As a producer, he must understand what attracts a crowd, what generates interest, and what will satisfy their curiosity. Walt has spent hours at the Eiffel Tower, just people watching. Lillian is fed up. “If you’re going to visit more zoos and museums, I’m not going with you,” she told him, so he went alone on his side excursions.
Next summer, in 1952, Walt and Lillian will visit Zermatt, Switzerland, at the base of the Matterhorn, but by the summer of 1953, Walt will make the annual trip by himself.
Walt and Lillian travel to Venice, Italy, at the end of August for the Venice Film Festival. Alice is nominated, but loses to Kurosawa’s Rashomon. On this side trip, Walt first encounters what seem to him to be miniature horses—perfect, living horses with stunted growth. Told that the animals are Sardinian donkeys, he buys a breeding pair and has them shipped to Los Angeles, telling a reporter, “I haven’t decided whether to keep them at home or at the studio.” Lillian could have told him—they would stay at the studio, if anywhere.
Walt has few friends. He is known for keeping people at a distance, and he does not enjoy going out or attending parties. The social events he attends are mostly charity fundraisers, such as in support of his friend Jules Stein’s Eye Institute, or Dorothy Chandler’s events in support of the Hollywood Bowl. But the Disneys are friends with affable Art and Lois Linkletter. Art, a radio personality with a burgeoning television career, is ten years younger than Walt. Like Walt’s father, Art was born in Canada. The Disney’s home is just north of Sunset Boulevard; Art and Lois live just south of Sunset. The Linkletters named two of their five children after Walt’s daughters: Diane and Sharon.
The Disneys found themselves in Copenhagen, Denmark, with the Linkletters and Walt suggested that they visit Tivoli, a hundred-year-old pleasure garden at the former west gate of the city, the Vesterport. Tivoli was then a beautiful fifteen-acre walled garden with a large lagoon along one side, exotic architecture, music venues, puppet theaters, and cafés under dappled shade. The grounds were kept spotless. The lake featured a pirate ship at anchor, and the Coney Island-era roller coaster, the Rutschebanen, was decorated to resemble a snow-capped mountain. The place was full of wonders, such as the mechanical peacock’s tail curtain at the 1874 Chinese theater that required five men to operate. The Dyrekarussellen was like the merry-go-round in Griffith Park that Walt had patronized when his girls were young, except that the Tivoli model featured all kinds of animals instead of horses—seats were found on pigs and giraffes, or high on an elephant’s howdah. The park’s layout encouraged discovery, with winding paths leading to serendipitous delights. Tivoli’s management responded to the changing seasons with special holiday displays and fireworks during the summer months.
Nazi sympathizers burned Tivoli in 1943, but it had been rebuilt and restored by the time Walt saw it. In fact, when the park’s creator, Georg Carstensen, opened the gardens in 1843, he said “Tivoli will never, so to speak, be finished.”
Walt told Art that he had been thinking about the tourists who visit Los Angeles, hoping to see how movies are made, only to be turned away at every studio. The Disney brothers were constantly turning down requests for tours—the artists needed to focus on work, and the slow, steady creative process would be boring.
“So, what are you going to do?” Linkletter asked.
Walt leaned in conspiratorially. “I’m going to build Mickey Mouse Park on my property in Burbank.” The plan was a little smaller than Tivoli, but it would include a lagoon and a steam locomotive. The parcel backed up to the Los Angeles River flood plain and Griffith Park beyond, so it would “borrow landscape,” making it seem larger than it was. The village shops would be scaled down—still big enough for people, but smaller than usual to make the town seem larger. The shops would sell art by his studio artists, Mickey Mouse and other character merchandise, and would display Walt’s growing collection of miniatures.
“You’ve really thought this through,” Linkletter said.
In fact, Roy’s lack of interest in the project is a component of their dispute. Roy, the president of the studio, will not authorize funds and is openly skeptical of venturing into a new industry. “What if someone gets hurt and we get sued?” Walt was tired of the naysayers. He knew it would be successful. Walt wanted it, and that was a sure sign, to him, that he should pursue it.
“Art, I’m going to bring Tivoli to Los Angeles.”
Alastair Dallas is an architect and writer with a total of six years’ experience as an Imagineer working for WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) and a lifetime fascination with Disneyland and theme park design.
Alastair grew up in Los Angeles, focused on Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. At age nine, he planned to build a model of the Magic Kingdom. His professional résumé includes the planning office at Magic Mountain and two stints with WED Enterprises. He interviewed some of the key inventors of Disneyland, including Bill Martin and C. V. Wood, Jr.
Alastair is currently developing other Disneyland and theme park projects. He lives in Seattle, Washington.