Skip To Content

When Walt Disney Dreamed up the World's First Theme Park

The wild origin story of Disneyland's opening day.

From the Collection: Scenes of Summer
Children ride the “Mad Hatter's Tea Party” attraction on Disneyland’s opening day in Anaheim, California, July 17, 1955. Photo credit: Loomis Dean/The Life Picture Collection via Shutterstock

When Walt Disney had a dream, he stopped at nothing to achieve it. “I never know when Walt’s imagination is going to take off into the wild blue yonder, and everything will explode,” Disney’s wife told an interviewer for a McCall’s magazine article titled “I Live With a Genius.” In 1952, a determined Disney liquidated some long-held assets, including the family’s vacation home, and took out $100,000 against his life insurance policy. And though he had spent more than a quarter century building the brand behind his movie studio, Disney even sold the rights to his own name back to Walt Disney Productions. With these proceeds, he funded a new venture called WED Enterprises, after the initials of his full name, Walter Elias Disney. 

With those funds in hand, Disney set out with WED to build what they originally called Mickey Mouse Village. But as his plans for the park progressed, it became clear that the company’s artists, designers and engineers were creating a whole world. Disney had imagined, for the first time, an amusement park with themed regions: Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. He was involved in every detail, pushing to realize his vision of a place where visitors could step into a Disney film come to life. But such grand plans came at a price, and Disney needed more money to realize them. In mid-1953, his business partner and brother Roy negotiated a deal with the ABC television network: Disney would produce a weekly one-hour television show for the network, and ABC would put up five million dollars to build the new park. Construction began on July 22, 1954, leaving less than a year before the opening date Disney had already advertised on ABC.

The day dawned hot on July 17, 1955 in Anaheim, California. Already, the temperature was nearing 100 degrees when word came that traffic into Disneyland was backed up for seven miles. When the gates finally opened, things didn’t go smoothly. Work on the park was so rushed that women’s heels sank into still-soft asphalt. The attractions were overcrowded—thousands of people gained admission with counterfeit tickets—and refreshments ran out early. Fantasyland, where children spun around inside giant teacups in the “Mad Hatter's Tea Party” attraction, closed temporarily because of a gas leak; “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” seen in the background of this photo, was halted by an overload of the park’s power grid. But over the next year, 3.6 million people would make the pilgrimage to Southern California to experience an entirely new kind of vacation destination, one that Disney had dreamed, and then willed, into being. 

Support Provided by: Learn More
About Scenes of Summer

A new AMERICAN EXPERIENCE collection of images celebrating summer in America throughout the 20th century, from historical firsts like the original drive-in movie theater to iconic events like the 1977 New York City blackout.