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The Impossible Dream, Disneyland, Los Angeles

29 June 2015

Disneyland changed the way we view theme parks, California and holidays in general, but as it turns out, the world’s most famous tourist attraction almost wasn’t built at all.

Disneyland turns 60 this month, on July 17 to be exact – a remarkable achievement considering most people thought the park wouldn’t even last a year. Conventional theme park wisdom in 1955 demanded free entry and multiple gateways, not US$1 cover charges, one entry point and nostalgia-sculpted scenery. But by bucking all known trends, Walt Disney not only transformed the fortunes of Anaheim – the formerly sleepy Californian town where he built his dream – but changed the way we holiday forever.

Let’s start with the numbers, because at the very root of this type of success is always good math. Nearly 16.8 million people visited Disneyland in 2014, around 550,000 more than the previous year. It’s the world’s third most visited theme park by attendance, part of a division that contributed US$2.2 billion to Disney’s US$6.1 billion profits last year.

This is information Walt Disney could have done with in the early 1950s, when he was shipping the idea of an amusement park to sceptical investors. It’s one of the problems with being a visionary – you’re constantly pointing to smudges on the horizon that nobody else can see.

“I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral,” said Walt Disney, afterwards. “It’s no secret that we were sticking just about every nickel we had on the chance that people would really be interested in something we could create that was totally new and unique in the field of entertainment.”

Disney is alleged to have got the idea for Disneyland after watching his daughters on a merry-go-round in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. He’d also been inundated with fan latters asking to come and visit the Walt Disney studios, but he knew there was just nothing of interest to a child there. As it was, the park – first documented and referred to as ‘Mickey Mouse Park’ in a memo from Disney to studio production designer, Dick Kelsey, on August 31, 1948 – would then lay dormant due to problems with the funding.

After selling his life insurance for $100,000 to pay a draughtsman to draw up the plans, and selling his house to buy the 160 acres in Anaheim where it would be located, he had everything he needed – except the $17 million required to build it. His solution was typically far-sighted, laying down a template that has made his company one of the biggest brands in the world: tap into some cross-media appeal.

Roy O Disney – Walt’s older brother – pitched a television show to the ABC network called Walt Disney’s Disneyland, which served the dual purpose of entertainment and shameless PR intended to work the public into a lather about the forthcoming park. It succeeded. The show’s ratings skyrocketed, ABC invested in Disneyland, and Walt got to work transforming Anaheim’s orange groves into his theme park. After so much rejection, he must have felt like an illusionist pulling a rabbit from a hat. Only it wasn’t a rabbit, it was an elephant.

“Imagine if Walt Disney had never built his Kingdom,” says author Chris Strodder, in his book The Disneyland Encyclopedia. “The city of Anaheim, deprived of its biggest employer, probably would’ve grown up as an undistinguished bedroom community instead of as one of the state’s ten biggest cities, complete with major hotels, a busy convention centre, a modern sports stadium, the Angels, and the Mighty Ducks. Without Disneyland to learn from, Walt Disney wouldn’t have considered launching an immense Walt Disney World in Florida, and today there wouldn’t be Disney parks spread all over the planet.”

Unpicking history this way is often an exercise in aggrandisement, the economics of absence impossible to measure and so easy to abuse. With Disneyland though, the ripples of its influence aren’t confined to Anaheim. By setting up shop in California, Walt Disney inadvertently stuck a pin in the map and declared it the world’s theme park capital – a trick the company would repeat with Florida in 1971 when it opened Walt Disney World.

“It’s true, in terms of physical size, revenue and employment, the largest theme parks are located in Florida and California [home of Walt Disney World and Disneyland respectively], and they overwhelm all operators in other locations,” says IBISWorld analyst Farrell McKenna. “Industry players have found that there are synergies, promotional opportunities and other advantages in having a number of major operators located in the same area. Offering joint and single ticketing arrangements with discounts, such as a three-park pass, is a good example of how the industry’s developed.”

Every one of us holidays differently because Disneyland exists – whether we’ve been there or not. Before Disneyland, an amusement park was a collection of rides stuffed wherever there was space. People ate and drank, took a spin on the ferris wheel and left with their cotton candy. If there was a theme it was capitalism, the owners offering as much ramshackle fun as you were willing to pay for.

Disneyland was different because it was as much theatre as amusement park – an interactive cartoon filled with the company’s most famous characters. Everybody from the janitors to the princesses was playing a role, each of them dedicated to thickening the illusion. For the first time, the background mattered: the details, the grass, the rocks. It was a world brought to life, and one worth spending time exploring.

“Theme park development changed from selling a seven-hour experience to a seven-day experience,” says Clive B Jones, an analyst with Economics Research Associates.

“Disney, of course was the pioneer in this thinking. Now the top end of the industry is dominated by all-inclusive resorts, most notably Disneyland, that offer travel packages including hotel accommodation, park admission and special events. These larger amusement parks attract visitors from all over the US and abroad… and developers have realised the incredible economic impact theme parks have on surrounding properties like hotels, resorts, and shopping centres.”

But as it turned out, building Disneyland wasn’t enough for Walt. He employed an in-house team of artists and engineers called Imagineers to create rides people hadn’t seen before, investing heavily in new technology. Disneyland was home to the US’ first monorail, and later an animatronic Abraham Lincoln show that wowed crowds at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. This alliance of spectacle and fun drove Disneyland to heights its forebears had never dreamed of, and is now so integral to the theme park experience that any company looking to open one better do so with a healthy bank balance.

According to IBISWorld, most major operators spend about 20 per cent of their annual revenue on wages and labour costs. Between 2009 and 2013 – a period when most companies were hunkering down waiting for somebody to tell them the recession was over – The Walt Disney Company invested $2.4 billion in its domestic theme parks, while Universal Parks And Resorts spent $1.2 billion. That’s what it takes to compete in the modern market. Rocking up with a big dipper and some jangly music isn’t going to get it done – as Walt Disney knows from first-hand experience.

“Veteran fans still point to the 1990s as a difficult time for Disneyland,” says Strodder. “Even though there’d been some expensive new developments like Mickey’s Toontown and the Indiana Jones Adventure, not every major movie was received with universal acclaim and overall the park seemed to be focusing less and less on basic maintenance and upkeep. New upper management arrived in the 2000s that respectfully restored the park’s beauty and put the focus back on the guest experience.”

It’s the nature of looking back that eventually, inevitably, you begin to look forward. Nobody understood this better than Walt Disney himself, who was constantly re-sketching the lines of his creation.

“Disneyland is something that will never be finished,” he said. “It’s something that I can keep developing. It will be a live, breathing thing that will need change. A picture is a thing, once you wrap it up and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through. Snow White is a dead issue with me. But I can change the park, because it’s alive.”

It’s a process that’s kept Disneyland in good stead these last 60 years, the attractions constantly updated and improved without ever fundamentally altering the appeal of the park. But there are challenging times ahead. Disneyland’s limited acreage is beginning to tell, with long queues often blighting the kingdom’s appeal – a tricky problem to solve when visitor numbers are constantly rising. Moreover, it’s now been almost a decade since Disneyland unveiled a truly new attraction, a situation that’s almost certainly down to a lack of space rather than will, but a pressing issue given the pace of development elsewhere.

How Disney tackles these issues will shape how we’re talking about the park’s 120th birthday, but if the last 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that they won’t be rushed into an answer. Disneyland is Walt Disney’s greatest achievement and his most significant legacy. It’s the company crown jewel, and they’re not going to do anything that might tarnish it.

Words: Stuart Turton

Behind the Mouse: Three parts of Disney folklore we love

Dedication Day
Disneyland wasn’t quite ready for it’s opening. It had been constructed rapidly, in one year and a day, and around 20,000 people were expected. As it was, 35,000 arrived – most of them using counterfeit tickets. Some of the rides broke down, Walt messed up an address to camera (left) and, as it was so hot, ladies’ heels would sink into the asphalt. Walt named it: Dedication Day. Staff would, unofficially, call it: Black Sunday.

Pirate material
There are rumours that real skeletons were originally used in the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride. This was the last ride that Walt Disney himself participated in designing and it opened in 1967, three months after his death. It also boasts the urban myth that his cryogenically frozen body is buried beneath it (in reality Walt was actually cremated). It would also be the precursor for the Pirates Of The Caribbean movie franchise.

Club 33
If you’re looking to escape the cartoon mayhem for a while, the only place to get a real drink is in the discreetly hidden Club 33 in New Orleans Square. The most widely accepted reason for it is that this was Walt’s version of corporate hospitality. The only problem is that, even if you find it (it’s painted a shade called ‘Go Away Green’) you probably can’t get in. Membership is around $27,000 and as of 2011 there was a 14-year waiting list.

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