1950s - 1980s

  1. 1950s
  2. 1960s
  3. 1970s
  4. 1980s
A Place in the Orange Groves
"Disneyland. To all who come to this happy place, welcome! Disneyland is your land. Here, age relives fond memories of the past . . . and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that created America . . . with the hope that it will be a source of inspiration to all the world."
-Walt Disney, July 17, 1955.

Population Shockwave
In the late '40s and early '50s, California experienced its third population shockwave The first had occurred a hundred years earlier during the Gold Rush; the second took place in the latter part of the 19th century when the a rate war between the 2 railroad giants, Southern Pacific and Santa Fe, led to cheap and easy transportation to the West. With fares as low as $1 from Kansas City to Los Angeles, Easterners flocked to California to speculate on rich farmland and real estate.

Sparking the third wave of growth, the economic and industrial boom that followed World War II hit Southern California with the force of an earthquake. From downtown Los Angeles, sprawling growth mushroomed in all directions, giving birth to a patchwork skyline of 2-and 3-story buildings as far as the eye could see. New businesses and rows of tract homes sprung up by the thousands in once remote suburban areas as the country rode a tidal wave of optimism. Highways and roads were paved overnight, transporting Angelenos off to emerging towns and cities that had been someone's farm just the year before.

The nation's new affluence brought leisure time -- time to build family relationships, to enjoy the bounty of the good life, and to explore the once distant world. In Los Angeles, people took to the roads. Among these was a man named Walt Disney.

Walt Disney's dreams were like few others. For years he had toyed with the idea of creating a park for families, a unique playground where they could find happiness and escape the pressures of the day. Local parks, he had discovered on visits with his daughters Sharon and Diane, woefully lacked imagination. Walt finally put his vision down on paper, planning to build his dream on an 11-acre lot across the street from his studios in Burbank.

This park -- called Mickey Mouse Park -- would feature activities for families to enjoy together -- a lake stocked with fish so parents and children could sit on the shore and enjoy fishing together, an island in the center of the lake for children to explore, boats to row to and around the island. A carousel, a bandstand and a replica of a traditional "Main Street" would bring the turn-of-the-century small town American experience to modern families. A special feature would be a miniature train, one of Walt's favorite hobbies.

With a schematic of the park drawn by his studio artists and a $10,000 construction budget, Walt presented his plan for approval by the city of Burbank. To his stunned dismay, city officials, concerned that the project would become a permanent carnival, denied his request.

Walt began revising his plans to make the project acceptable. But as he worked, new ideas filled his mind. One area of the park would be dedicated to the American frontier. In another, children would dream of frontiers in space in the world of tomorrow. The more he thought, the more he realized the 11-acre Burbank site would hardly be adequate to contain his new vision.

Taking a break from work 1 day, Walt jumped in his car and headed south in the freshly-paved asphalt of the 2-lane Santa Ana Freeway. As he drove out from downtown Los Angeles, the brownish haze of the sky dissipated into a deep blue, white clouds poked out from beneath the blanket of smog and homes and businesses grew farther and farther apart. When he finally entered Orange County, it was like being transported back to the Midwest. Miles of open farmland scented with the fragrant perfume of orange blossoms stretched out before him, interrupted only occasionally by a modest farmhouse. Victorian style homes were common and their distinctive gingerbread architecture seemed to be an odd transplant from another era, but 1 in which Walt Disney felt comfortable.

Anaheim was a lot like Walt's boyhood home in Marceline, Missouri. As he drove through the small town, it was like coming home. Here, in the middle of orange groves, he had found the place for his magical park.

In 1952, Walt created WED Enterprises for the purpose of building his dream. The initials were his own, but the investment was open to everyone. He put all his personal assets into the company and bent the ear of anyone who might want to join him as a partner. As the vision of Disneyland expanded, so did the cost of opening its gates, rising from an initial $10,000 to $4 million.

The then-fledgling ABC Network was looking for alliances that would give it instant credibility and stature -- a partnership with Walt Disney would do just that. A deal was struck: ABC would invest $500,000 in the park and be a partner with WED. ABC would also guarantee $4.5 million in loans to cover construction. In return, Disney would produce a weekly hour-long series.

This "Disneyland" television show would be integral to the park's success. Walt would use it as a vehicle to promote the park and the show would feature movies from the Disney Studio's portfolio, as well as original episodes.

Walt was certain Southern California was the best place to build his park, but Anaheim was not the only possible site he considered. To be sure, WED hired the Stanford Research Institute to conduct a search for the perfect site. The cities of Long Beach, Palos Verdes and Canoga Park were all considered but each had at least 1 strong disadvantage against it.

Anaheim seemed to fit all the criteria. Disney Studios already had established friendly relationships with the city, having designed floats for its annual Halloween Parade. And the company had a good reputation in the Anaheim community.

In addition, the Interstate 5 freeway was just being completed and it cut through the heart of Anaheim. The highway would connect the small agricultural town with downtown Los Angeles, tapping into its tourist base. Visitors staying in L.A. could be inside Disneyland's main gate within 45 minutes. The freeway also guaranteed to bring more residents to Orange County. The geography and weather which made the county prime land for growing oranges was also ideal for attracting tourists.

Anaheim city officials were hesitant at first. Disney went to work selling the idea that his park would be different than the tawdry, carnival-like amusement parks they were familiar with. He had no intention of building a carnival. There would be no barkers or sideshows. Cleanliness and a family atmosphere were his top priorities.

Anaheim Mayor Charles Pearson summed up the City's major point of concern when he said he didn't want to see Disneyland as the kind of place where peanut shells littered the ground. Walt agreed, vowing that his park would never sell unshelled peanuts or chewing gum. He would even drop his plans for creating a permanent circus on the grounds. Though his circus would have had a better presentation than touring circuses, he wanted to make sure the City was comfortable with Disneyland's appearance.

Construction of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, was announced April 2, 1954. Opening day would be July 17, 1955. This date was absolutely critical to the park's success. August was Americans' traditional vacation month, so the July date would allow Disneyland to cash in on the peak summer tourist trade. If delays pushed the opening into the fall, the park would sit virtually idle through the off-season. The press would have little mercy and Disneyland would be branded a failure.

While construction raced on, the park received good advance publicity through the success of the Disney television show. That fall, to a nationwide audience, Walt explained his plan to build "the happiest place on earth." He gave weekly updates on construction, using time-lapse photography to produce comical shorts on how fast the park was being built.

The grand opening of the Magic Kingdom was less than auspicious. Some 33,000 people showed up, many uninvited and so anxious to see Disneyland they forged their tickets. A gas leak closed Fantasyland. Rides broke down. The heat of the day caused guests to search water fountains that had yet to be installed. The heels of women's shoes left the newly-paved asphalt filled with indentations. And it all took place before the largest television audience ever, as millions witnessed ABC's live broadcast. In later years, Walt would refer to the first day of operation as "Black Sunday."

The press reviews were not kind, complaining of the park's obvious unreadiness. In the next few weeks before Labor Day, the park would prove a success or failure.

The answer was fast in coming. Only 7 weeks after opening, Disneyland's 1 millionth guest passed through the turnstiles, into the tunnel and onto Main Street.

Disneyland was here to stay. And Anaheim would be changed forever.

By the end of the '50s, Anaheim had become a modern day boom town. The park brought jobs with it. Many who helped build Disneyland purchased homes in the city. More importantly, Disneyland spurred other industries into building or relocating to Anaheim. The fact that the city operated its own utilities was important to many major companies because the city could directly negotiate lower rates with companies as an enticement to relocate. Anaheim residents also paid considerably lower utility bills than their neighbors in surrounding towns.

An entrepreneurial wave swept over Anaheim . For the balance of the decade, tourism and construction alternated as the city's leading industry.

As Anaheim's reputation as a good place to live, work or run a business mushroomed, city government rushed to meet the demand, creating an environment in which these tremendous changes could flourish. The city annexed 1,493 acres in 1953 to accommodate new development. The following year, an additional 2,700 acres were annexed. In 1955, the year Disneyland opened, 3,300 more acres were included within the city limits. By the end of that year, Anaheim was four times the size it was in 1953.

Stories hit the international news wires about the little California town that was making things happen in a very big way. In fact, Anaheim grew faster than any city in the nation during the decade and every three years, its size and population doubled.

The unprecedented growth of the 1950s set the stage for Anaheim to grow and mature into a major city in the coming years.