The Walt Disney Family Museum

Walt Disney Collection

Special Exhibit Articles
The Genesis of Disneyland
by David Mumford and Bruce Gordon

The magical kingdom of Disneyland exemplifies the greatest genius of Walt Disney - his ability to create something the public would overwhelmingly accept, long before they even knew they wanted it.

Walt never followed trends, he created new ones. He trusted his own instincts and intuition: Walt knew that if he really liked something, then the public would like it too. He was never swayed by the naysayers and doomsayers who proclaimed his ideas impractical or his dreams impossible.

In the late 1930s, for example, when Walt felt he had exhausted the creative opportunities in the field of animated shorts, he gambled everything on his dream to create the first feature-length animated motion picture. Despite the naysayers who had told him it couldn't be done, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" became a world-wide success.

In the early 1940s, Walt began searching for a new and entertaining way to spend some leisure time with his daughters. He had vacationed near famous European pleasure gardens and seen countless carnivals and fairs the world over, but he could never find what he was looking for: a place where a family could have fun together.

Walt soon realized that the only way he would find his family park was to build it himself. And that's exactly what he did.

Looking back, he could have simply built a west coast version of Coney Island, using Mickey Mouse and friends to decorate ordinary "carney rides." Instead, he once again relied on his instinct and gambled everything he had.

That gamble changed the face of entertainment forever, as the world's first theme park was born. At last, Walt would finally have his family park. He called it "Disneyland." It would become a "living" project on which he would focus almost all of his energy for the last twelve years of his life. And for hundreds of millions of people in the decades ahead, Walt's dream would become the Happiest Place on Earth.

"Gathering the Ingredients"
Where did Walt get the inspiration for his theme park idea?

Put simply, Disneyland was the culmination of the personal and professional experiences gathered during the first 50 years of his lifetime. The importance of some of these experiences are obvious, however some are not so apparent.

Let's explore the worlds of Walt Disney-a decade at a time-and take a look at the experiences that influenced the development of his original Magic Kingdom.

"Daddy's Day"
During the height of the depression, Walt was one of the lucky few who was enjoying great success in both his professional and personal life.

The animation studio he and his brother Roy had built from scratch was highly successful with both its "Silly Symphony" and "Mickey Mouse" short subjects. Walt himself was enjoying the riches of a happy family life. With the arrival of daughter Diane late in 1933, and three years later with the addition of Sharon, Walt took time from his busy schedule to spend Saturdays with his two daughters. He called it "Daddy's Day".

Walt was always looking for places to take his children. On some weekends he took them to the merry-go-round in Griffith Park. Other times, they could be found at a little amusement center called Beverly Park, at the corner of La Cienega and Beverly Boulevard in the heart of Beverly Hills. Beverly Park was a little one-acre carnival, with a dozen or so rides including a pony ride, a haunted castle and a merry-go-round. Walt would usually sit on a park bench eating peanuts while the girls had fun on the rides. As he sat and thought, he began to realize how much more fun it would be if the parents and the children could have fun together-sharing the rides, the adventures and, in years to come, the memories. The seed of a great idea had been planted.

Following the success of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", Walt's animation studio rapidly outgrew its home on Hyperion Boulevard in Los Angeles. A new, larger studio was needed. And true to form, it would be custom-designed by Walt to operate just the way he knew it needed to.

He found an appropriate site in nearby Burbank, but the deal required him to buy a parcel of 50 acres, far more than the 20 acres he felt he needed. He wasn't interested in the site until he remembered his idea of a family amusement park. Perhaps it could be built on the extra land.

And, at the same time, perhaps that extra land could fill another need which had existed since the 1930s. Back then, when a giant neon Mickey Mouse waved to the passing cars at the Hyperion Studios, Southern California tourists were frequently knocking on the doors asking if they might be able to look around and see where Mickey lived. While Walt and his animators were thrilled by the public's interest, they feared that the tours would be impractical, constantly interrupting their hectic production schedules. But now, with the extra acreage available in Burbank, perhaps both Walt's family park and a home for Mickey Mouse could be created.

In the meantime, Walt went to work planning his new Studio. Breaking away from the traditional Spanish revival buildings that dominated the Southern California landscape, Walt commissioned futurist architect Kem Weber to design the complex in a new style known as "Art Moderne." The buildings were styled with a horizontal and streamlined aerodynamic look, while large landscaped areas would give the Studio a "friendly" college campus atmosphere.

Walt involved himself heavily in the functional layout of the Studio buildings. The Animation Building was designed with a series of wings off a central corridor so each animator would be near a window with natural light. A basement tunnel connected the Animation Building with the Ink and Paint Building so that on those few rainy Southern California days, the valuable animation drawings could be carried across the studio without getting wet.

Walt would later apply much of the Studio's functional planning at Disneyland, and it would be put to even a greater use when he began to lay-out his dream for the experimental city EPCOT.

The Studio was finished in 1940. Unfortunately, the disruptions caused by World War II would put Walt's dreams of building a family park on hold for the next decade.

"Walt's Toys"
While the War had put a damper on his plans for a family park at the Studio, Walt continued to develop a number of diverse interests, hobbies and technologies that - whether he knew it or not - would eventually come together and allow him to create the three dimensional theme park he was dreaming of.

One of the earliest influences was not technology related at all, but centered around personal human interaction. Back in the late 1930's, Walt held a position on the Board of Governors for the Earl Carrol Theater. This dinner club was one of the most famous hangouts of the rich and famous in Hollywood.

Walt's involvement in the operation of a live entertainment theater strongly influenced his interest and understanding of live stage shows. As his plans for Disneyland developed, this experience assured Walt that audiences would enjoy live performances in shows like "The Golden Horseshoe Revue" in Frontierland. But more than that, it also impressed upon him the importance of personal interaction between park visitors and the park employees, who themselves would all become "cast members" helping to put on the show.

In a more physical sense, the outside world that surrounded Walt's daily life played a significant role in helping him understand the importance of creating a themed environment. In the early 1920s, when Walt arrived in Los Angeles, the city's architecture was going through a Spanish Revival period. Homes and buildings were "themed" to reflect the heritage of Southern California. Even the look of the Walt Disney Studios on Hyperion made use of this Spanish theming.

But Walt soon realized that as important as theming was, a carefully controlled contrast and a variety of themes provided even more interest. Just a few miles from the Studio, Walt and his animators spent frequent lunch hours at the Tam O'Shanter Inn. They spent so many lunch hours there, in fact, that it was soon nicknamed "the Disney Commissary." The restaurant, which opened in 1922 and is still a favorite eating place today, was designed by motion picture art director Harry Oliver as a fantasy version of a Scottish cottage. The Tam O'Shanter no doubt strongly influenced Walt's desire to create themed dining environments at Disneyland. It also interestingly foreshadowed Walt's use of motion picture art directors to design the Park's buildings and attractions - years later, when he asked his friend and neighbor, the renowned architect Welton Beckett, to help him with the first layout of Disneyland, Welton assured him that the necessary talent was right there at Walt's studio. An architect could not capture the dreams and visions that lived only in Walt's mind, Welton told him, it would take a very special kind of artist…and Walt had the best in the world.

Walt did have at least one first-hand experience commissioning the construction of a themed building. In the back yard of his Los Feliz home, he had a play house built for his daughters, themed to look like the dwarf's cottage from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

But Walt's strongest interests often centered around emerging technologies that could help him tell his stories and create his fantasy worlds. For his animated symphony "Fantasia", Walt and his staff invented a new audio system called "Fantasound", the forerunner of stereo. Special audio systems were installed in selected theaters for the "roadshow" premiere engagement in order to handle the multiple channels of sound. To create the "Fantasound" effect, Walt's engineers figured out how to use an optical strip on the film to control the on/off function of the theater's speakers. For example, the whirlpool music effect in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment would "move" from speaker to speaker through the use of this optical control. In the years ahead, the use of audio signals to control electronic systems would have a profound effect on Walt's future projects.

Perhaps the most significant influence occurred in 1946, during a trip to New Orleans. While visiting an antique shop in the old French Quarter, Walt bought a mechanical, musical "wind-up" bird. He brought it back to his machine shop and asked his machinist Roger Broggie to figure out how it worked. Walt was already starting to think about transforming his two dimensional animation into a brand new three dimensional art form.

In August of 1948, an event occurred that would become the driving force in pushing Walt's dream towards reality. He invited animator Ward Kimball to join him at the Chicago Railroad Fair. In addition to acquiring a fascination with live steam trains, Walt observed how the Fair was laid out in differently themed villages such as The Old West or New Orleans. These themed areas allowed the trains to be seen in their proper context, and helped tell the story of their past.

On the same trip, Walt visited Henry Ford's Greenfield Village. Here, visitors explore streets lined with a variety of historic buildings, from the Wright Brothers' bicycle shop to Thomas Edison's workshop. The park-like setting is encircled by a steam train, and bordered by a lake with a riverboat.

When Walt returned from his trip, he put two pivotal plans into motion. First, he set Roger Broggie to work on building a miniature live steam locomotive, to be called the "Lilly Belle" in honor of Walt's wife, Lillian. And second, he sent a memo to art director and storyman Dick Kelsey, reviving the long-dormant idea of building an amusement park at the studio. Dick had contributed his art directing talents to many of Walt's classic animated features, including "Pinocchio", "Fantasia", "Dumbo" and "Bambi", and was currently at work on the story for "Alice in Wonderland". Not surprisingly, the written description Dick pulled together includes elements very much like that of Greenfield Village.

Around the same time, Walt transferred animator Ken Anderson from the Studio staff and put him on his personal payroll for a very special project. For many years, as Walt vacationed around the United States and the world, he collected miniature furniture - chairs, tables, and even tiny place settings. When his friends and associates learned of this collection, they also began buying miniatures for Walt. (After all, what can you get for the man who has everything?) As the collection continued to grow, Walt decided to create a public showcase. He asked Ken to help him design and fabricate a series of little buildings to house the collection, and to develop a "population" of miniature animated people who would live in the tiny town. Though the details of the concept had not been worked out, the idea of creating three-dimensional amusements was beginning to crystallize in Walt's mind.

As the decade of the 1940s came to an end, a symbolic event occurred. On December 24, 1949, for the first time, Walt steamed up the scale model "Lilly Belle" railroad on a studio sound stage. The sound of the train's whistle echoing through the cavernous sound stage would be the signal to clear the way for the events in the 1950s that would make Walt's theme park dream come true.

With the ingredients gathered for the concept of Disneyland, Walt was getting ready to "cook up the meal."

"Reality Time"
Walt continued to get frequent studio tour requests from avid fans, and with the plans for his family park at the Studio still on hold, those requests were going largely unanswered. In 1941, as a partial solution to the problem, Walt produced the film "The Reluctant Dragon", which featured humorist Robert Benchley stumbling his way through the Studio, looking for Walt but inadvertently learning all about animation as he went from building to building. If anything, the film only fueled the fire of public interest.

But by the early 1950s, with the studio recovering from the financial troubles of the "War years", Walt was finally able to put his eye back on his "extra" studio property. His brother Roy, who watched over the financial end of the Disney Studio, was dubious about the whole idea of the little park, and frequently expressed his doubts to Walt.

Walt had always known intuitively that if he thought something was fun, then the rest of the world would too. His "Lilly Belle" train was now circling along a half-mile of track that traveled through the beautifully landscaped backyard of his Holmby Hills home. Firing up the steam boilers and taking the train out for a spin had become one of Walt's favorite pastimes. He felt that if he enjoyed riding on his miniature train, everyone else would, too. If he was nostalgic about his boyhood turn-of -the-century America, then wouldn't others be as well? And if he was fascinated with the Old West, then wouldn't others enjoy the chance to ride a real stagecoach or a ride down the river on a steamboat? He knew it was finally time to make his dream of a family park a reality.

In 1951, Walt hired artist Harper Goff away from his job at Warner Brothers, asking him to draw up some plans and renderings for a western style amusement park that would fit on the extra Studio property. About the same time, he moved horse trainer Owen Pope and his wife into a trailer on the studio lot to begin raising horses for the new park.

Watching these key events with keen interest, brother Roy began to realize that Walt was very serious about pursuing his dream.

An article in the March 27, 1952 "Burbank Daily Review" excitedly announced that Walt would build his "Disneyland" in their fine city. The article described the park in detail, but just a year later Walt's plans would greatly change.

It seems the State of California was planning to build a freeway on the Studio property Walt was planning to use for his park. And just as importantly, Walt's ideas were beginning to outgrow this small piece of land. It was time to look elsewhere.

The Stanford Research Institute was given the mission to find another, more appropriate site. The projected growth patterns of Southern California - driven by the newly planned freeway system - pointed to an orange grove in Anaheim, 35 miles south of the Studio.

In December of 1952, WED Enterprises was created. The company, today known as Walt Disney Imagineering, was originally named after Walt's initials - Walter Elias Disney. Walt dug deep into his own pockets and used his personal money to pay a small group of his animation staff and some of Hollywood's finest art directors to begin serious work on Disneyland. He would later dub the members of this creative team as his "Imagineers."

From here it was time to find financial investors.

Roy had finally conceded that Walt was serious about his theme park. In addition to putting up money from Walt Disney Productions, Roy helped obtain two major investors.

Walt figured out a way to have these investors not only provide capital, but to also help promote Disneyland. The fledgling ABC television network agreed to put up money in exchange for Walt creating a weekly television show. Walt developed a show called "Disneyland", which gave periodic updates on the theme park's concept and construction. The second major investor, Western Publishing Company, already a big publisher of Disney stories based on Walt's animated features, printed up children's books and comic books with stories that took place at Disneyland.

As Walt and his designers began their work, the layout of Disneyland quickly became apparent. Everyone has a hometown, and Walt always considered his to be Marceline, Missouri. To welcome guests to Disneyland, Walt would invite them into his home, or rather his home town. A single corridor, themed as a "better than the real thing" mid-western Main Street, would guide guests into the heart of Disneyland. From here, they could choose to enter a number of themed lands, each of which was based on a world that was near and dear to Walt's heart and populated with the characters he loved.

His fascination with history and the old west would be found in "Frontierland". His interest in nature would bring his "True-Life Adventure" film series to life in "Adventureland". The classic fairy tale characters Walt had built an animated film career upon would be realized in 3 dimensions in "Fantasyland". The public couldn't even have perceived it yet, but Walt was ready to show the world his plans for future living. His dream of allowing American technology to supply the building blocks for a better tomorrow would be showcased in "Tomorrowland".

In 1954, with the land purchased, initial financing obtained, and the site plan sketched out, it was time to build the dream. The stories of the construction of Disneyland are legendary. From the Frontierland riverbed that leaked dry the first time the banks were filled, to the flying Dumbo elephants that were too heavy for the ride's armature, it was clear nothing like this had ever been built before. Although the construction pace was accelerated in order to meet the scheduled opening, there were still a few seams showing when it was time for Disneyland to have its world premiere on Sunday, July 17th, 1955.


David Mumford and Bruce Gordon have worked nearly two decades for "Walt Disney Imagineering", the division of "The Walt Disney Company" responsible for designing all the Disney theme parks around the world. They have written articles for several publications, and are co-authors of "Disneyland: The Nickel Tour", a definitive history on Disneyland Park in California.