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Reinventing the American Amusement Park

Walt Disney created a revolutionary vacation destination when he opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1955. The park featured four themed sections: Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Fantasyland, all accessed from a plaza at the foot of Main Street, U.S.A. Today, Disneyland still features these lands, but it also houses 83 attractions -– more than five times the number it opened with -– and sees an average of 44,000 visitors per day.

Walt Disney nurtured the idea of Disneyland for years. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s he visited other amusement parks and carnivals with an eye towards creating his own. He began to envision a cleaner theme-based park where families could become a part of the magical world that his films depicted on the big screen. In 1952, he assembled a small group of artists and designers from his Walt Disney Studio staff and created a new company called WED (his own initials) to help make his amusement park dream a reality.

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Walt Disney walks on the bridge in front of the partially finished Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland. Credit: AP Images

Walt and his brother and business partner Roy Disney obtained funding to construct the new venture from ABC, one of the three major networks then in existence, in exchange for creating and hosting an hour-long weekly television show. The resulting program, Disneyland TV, promoted his new park (and his persona of the beloved "Uncle Walt") to the largest generation America had ever seen: the Baby Boomers. The Boomers may not have been old enough to drive the family car, but they could drive family spending. Disney was gambling that in the flourishing, post-WWII economy, American families would have extra disposable income to spend on travel and entertainment, and Disneyland would become a tantalizing destination.

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland had its invitation-only opening day gala, which was broadcast live on ABC. Nearly half the American population watched the festivities from the comfort of their own living rooms. Eleven thousand people were invited to the park; several thousand more arrived and tried to get in with counterfeit tickets. The day was filled with record-level heat and mishaps – Fantasyland was closed by a nearby gas leak, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride succumbed to an overload of the park's power grid – but Walt Disney was ecstatic. When the park opened to the public the next day, visitors were lined up as early as 2:00 AM. The New York Times ran the headline, "Disneyland Gates Open -- Play Park on Coast Jammed -- 15,000 on Line Before 10 AM." Within its first ten weeks, Disney's new amusement park attracted one million visitors. By 1960, that number would rise to five million visitors per year.

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Ronald Reagan hosts the "Dateline: Disneyland" broadcast on ABC on July 17, 1955. Credit: Getty Images.

When it first opened, visitors could explore the parks’ four unique lands and stroll down the all-American Main Street, U.S.A. for an admission fee of $1. Ride tickets were extra – between 10 and 30 cents each. Within four months, however, Disneyland began selling ticket books for $2.50 that covered both the price of admission and eight ride attractions, among them Snow White’s Scary Adventures, the Mad Tea Party, and the Jungle Cruise. Walt Disney’s love of trains was evident throughout the park, which had more than a mile of railroad track circling the perimeter. Within the first five years of its opening many of the attractions and exhibits saw significant changes from Disney’s original concepts – the Adventureland alligators were mechanical, not real; guest rides on horse-drawn stagecoaches in Frontierland were eliminated, though pack mule rides through Nature’s Wonderland continued a few years longer; a smaller version of the popular Autopia ride was built in Fantasyland, then closed, and donated to Disney’s beloved boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri.

Most visitors were thrilled with Disneyland, as increasing ticket sales showed, but the park also had its share of critics. In a scathing 1958 article in The Nation, Julian Halevy denounced Disneyland as "a collection of midway rides, concessions, hot-dog stands and soft drink counters, peep-shows and advertising stunts…a sickening blend of cheap formulas packaged to sell."

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Walt Disney and Prime Minister Nehru of India tour Disneyland in 1961. Credit: Corbis

Despite criticism, Disneyland became a destination for not just a national audience, including nine former and future U.S. presidents, but an international one. In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev famously protested his exclusion from Disneyland when the Los Angeles police chief claimed that the leader's safety could not be guaranteed within the park. Prime Minister Nehru of India touched down in the park, as did the King and Queen of Nepal, the Shah of Iran, and political leaders from Europe, Africa and South America. For foreign dignitaries and heads of state, Disneyland provided a window into American culture and history. "What introduces all of it, that you have to go through when you come into the park," historian Steven Watts explains, 'is this idealized rendering of small-town America, the values, the feel, the ethics, all of that. What Disney’s trying to do at some level of awareness is to create an image of America that people would like to think exists."

Walt Disney loved the place, spending much of his time at Disneyland until he embarked on his next big venture. In the 1960s, he began secretly buying up huge plots of land in Florida for a project he called the "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow." EPCOT would be "the heart" of Walt Disney World. "Disney wanted a community where people really lived," explains former Disney executive Marty Sklar, "where industry worked with him to showcase and demonstrate new ideas, new materials, and new systems."

In December 1966, before Walt Disney could realize his dream, he died of lung cancer. Roy O. Disney became chairman, CEO, and president of the company, overseeing the construction and completion of Walt Disney World; but without his brother, EPCOT, as Walt envisioned it, never materialized. Roy passed away only three months after the new park opened in Florida in 1971.

The Disney empire continued to expand after the deaths of its founders. By the turn of the century, five cities around the world were home to 13 Disney theme parks, 46 resort hotels, a Disney cruise line and guided vacation experiences. In 2013 alone, Walt Disney attractions saw more than 132.5 million park visitors. The original park in Anaheim, Disneyland remains a popular vacation destination. The Baby Boomers still visit, now with their own children and grandchildren in tow. More than five decades since its opening, an antique lamp still burns bright in Walt Disney's personal apartment above the firehouse on Main Street, U.S.A. in memory of the man who dreamt up "the happiest place on earth."

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