SAMLAND: How Walt Disney Studied and Built Disneyland

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Disney History, Disneyland Resort, Features, Samland

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Published on June 27, 2012 at 9:00 pm with 11 Comments

Maybe it was inevitable that Walt Disney would build Disneyland. He certainly had been studying the idea his entire life. His daughter Diane Disney Miller said, “When I was growing up, he was always talking about doing an amusement park someday.” She speculated, “It probably went back farther than that, to a big amusement park in Kansas City that I’ve read he talked about. He and his sister would stand outside the gates and look in. I think he always had it in his mind.”


Electric Park


Walt and his younger sister Ruth were regular visitors to Electric Park in Kansas City, fifteen blocks from their home. What they saw was a magical place where a train ran around the perimeter and landscaping was carefully designed. The park rides were integrated into the landscape and the grounds were well maintained. Every evening, there was a fireworks show at closing time.

 

Animator Ollie Johnston recalled, “Disneyland was really born back before the War, in the early stages after we moved to the new Studio in Burbank. Walt talked about doing something on the Studio lot, then came the War, and all of that was forgotten, and then he built his backyard railroad.” Johnston noted, “The fun he had with his train made him begin to see possibilities. Once his enthusiasm with the backyard railroad was wearing off he started looking around the Studio lot again.”

For the longest time, Walt had kept his eye on sixteen acres adjacent to the Burbank movie studio. The land was south of the main facilities between Riverside Drive and the Los Angeles River. Walt said, “When I built the Studio over there I thought, well gee, we ought to have really a three-dimensional thing that people could actually come and visit.”

Disney historian Randy Bright said Walt’s “first thoughts was to build a playground for kids on the corner of the studio property where they could have all the things they ought to have, but didn’t have at the nearby Griffith Park.” Bob Jones, one of the first two people assigned to the Mickey Mouse Park project, corrected Bright by suggesting that Walt, from the beginning, emphasized that this proposed park should be for total family enjoyment.

“Walt was very thorough and he really looked into this stuff,” according to Ollie Johnston. Walt proclaimed, “When we consider a new project, we really study it – not just the surface idea, but everything about it. And when we go into that new project, we believe in it all the way. We have confidence in our ability to do it right. And we work hard to do the best possible job.”


Fairmont Park


Walt gathered his team and sent them out to learn what they could about the attractions business. Imagineer Bill Martin said, “One of the first things Walt had us do was to tour the big amusement parks back East. I went with bill Contrell, Bruce Bushman, and George Whitney to places like Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, Palisades Park in New Jersey, and other parks in New Orleans, Cincinnati, and so forth.”


Palisades Park


Walt Disney and Art Linkletter traveled to Europe to visit Tivoli Gardens in Denmark. Linkletter said, “He had this little notebook and he’d make notes in it, and I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “Well Art, it’s just a dream I have of having a ‘family fair’ sometime, and this represents to me an example of the kind of atmosphere I’d like to have.” Linkletter recalled how Walt “pointed out how many places they had for restful seating, that there was no alcohol or raucous entertainment and that everything was well lit and freshly painted every night. The place was meticulous.” Walt said, “Anything that I build will be kept clean, and the employees should feel that they are part of the show.”


Tivoli Gardens


Although it has been said that Tivoli Gardens was one of the inspirations for Disneyland, his daughter Diane suggested, “It was in his mind that this is what he wanted, and then he saw a place where it was working. He combined everything like the visuals from a movie set. The beautiful landscaping, live music and entertainment…everything was integrated.”

Walt personally spent time researching other facilities. According to Dave Smith, former Chief Archivist at the Walt Disney Company, “[Walt] went around to every park he could think of. He had a good friend who ran a carnival at the corner of Beverly and La Cienega [Beverly Park]…[Dave] Bradley was his name…and Walt talked to him for hours and hours at a time, trying to pick his brain.” Beverly Park was near the film studios and convenient for celebrities. Walt liked to spend Sunday afternoons studying the business. The park was very small, only three-quarters of an acre. Bradley had leased the property in 1945 and opened the park in 1946 with partner Don Kaye. In 1947, they built the first children’s roller coaster called the Little Dipper.

Dave said, “[Walt] would go down there and sit there on the bench and watch people in line, watch what they were doing…time how long it took them in line…check to see if they were surly after they waited in line for half an hours, whatever. He’d go pace off the length of a queue line. He was certainly doing that. Not only he but a lot of the designers who were working with him.”


The Timber Mountain Log Ride


Bud Hurlbut, creator of the Calico Mine Train and Timber Mountain Log Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm as well as a supplier of amusement park equipment used throughout the Los Angeles region, said, “Walt got to know [Beverly Park] very well. Bradley ended up doing a lot of research for Disney. Walt fixed him up with camera equipment and sent him to Europe to photograph rides for Disneyland.”


The Calico Mine Train


Walt also asked his team to meet up with Hurlbut. Hurlbut said, “Walt didn’t really come out to visit me personally, back then…he was just kind of looking around at my rides. This was in the early 50s. I saw this man come on my property, and by the time he was there the second or third time I decided he wasn’t just a park customer. I’d that before, and that’s how I sold lots of rides.”

Hurlbut was noticing that “Walt was studying how things worked.” So one day Hurlbut walked up to Walt and said, “You look like you’re interested in rides” and he said he was “kind of looking at them.” He was a really nice fellow, so I sat down with him and answered a lot of his questions.”

In a conversation between Hurlbut and Dave Bradley, Hurlbut said, “I’d been visited by a man who seemed to know a lot more than we did, and Dave said, ‘Oh, he’s been over to my place…I know him.’” Hurlbut noticed that “Walt Disney really did know what he was talking about…he had his mind made up and his ideas were different. Later, he invited me to see his property (across from the studio in Burbank) when he was thinking of building an amusement park.”

Hurlbut remembers, “Walt Disney brought several of his men over to my shop on different occasions in the 1950s. Even before he had his location in Anaheim, he had told me of the different rides he was planning. He invited me over to his house to ride his miniature steam train. I spent several Saturdays over there, and it was just like being with a neighbor.”

Walt was not afraid to share his thoughts and to test the water. Martin recalled, Bill Martin: ” We took all these sketches being done for Disneyland with us and those people said, “This’ll never go!” These were the guys who ran carnivals and we had this new concept, the theme park. Walt was selling nostalgia on main Street, the Wild West in Frontierland,and so forth.”

Early on, Walt’s brother Roy seemed to agree with the ‘experts’ and did not share his younger brother’s level of confidence. According to historian John Taylor, “Walt nurtured the idea of an amusement park since the thirties; by 1952 he had sketched out the project, but his ever-cautious brother, who considered it just one more of “Walt’s screwy ideas,” refused to invest more than $10,000 of the studios money.”

 

And the rest as they say, is history. Walt’s years of intense study brought about a brand new type of family entertainment that people still enjoy today.

If you enjoy reading SAMLAND, you’ll love his book. Walt and the Promise of Progress City is a detailed look into how Walt Disney envisioned the future of communities. Along the way, we explore many facets of a fascinating man.

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About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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11 Comments

Comments for SAMLAND: How Walt Disney Studied and Built Disneyland are now closed.

  1. Just goes to show that putting time, dedication, work, and most of all, heart into a project, you will achieve something worth a thousand lifetimes.

    Also…

    Linkletter recalled how Walt “pointed out how many places they had for restful seating, that there was no alcohol or raucous entertainment and that everything was well lit and freshly painted every night. The place was meticulous.” Walt said, “Anything that I build will be kept clean, and the employees should feel that they are part of the show.”

    Do you think the park will be able to go back to such a state or much time and changing ideas march on?

  2. This is an awesome look at how Walt worked. He saw good ideas, improved on them, and made them his own.

    • And your wonderful work (both in photos and writings) at Mice Chat show your real dedication to helping keep the Disney flame alive. Thank you Norm

  3. If, bit by bit, you disassemble Disneyland and replace it with someything else, at what point does it quit becoming Disneyland, and start being someplace else? Look what has been dismantled and replaced since Walt Disney died: the Mine Trains are gone. The Subs are pretty much gone, having been replaced by an underwater kiddy cartoon show. Skull Rock Cove and the Pirate ship (shown in the drawing on the Miceage front page) are gone. The Mission to Mars, Peoplemover, high-flying Astrojets, the Swiss Tree House, Twin Falls, The Carousel of Progress, the Skyway, the smooth, featurless pavement, Carnation Plaza Gardens, the Penny Arcade (now reduced to a couple of games). You used to be able to go on the Mark Twain at night. Yes, the Electrical parade came after Walt died, but it was something that he would have approved of. Now, Alice in Wonderland and Matterhorn have carnival railings, a lot of the smooth pavement has been replaced by real-life intrusive paving stones, or cement with graphic weight of enough intensity to draw attention to itself and away from the attractions. I could go on and on. How much longer before they tear down the castle?
    I wish Walt Disney could have lived forever…

  4. I appreciate how the Imagineers today studied Route 66 before building Cars Land and look what happened… a successful park! I truly think Disney is going back to its glory days away from the early 2000s era

  5. A very nice article.

    Timekeeper

  6. I love hearing these stories! It’s so inspiring when something (Disneyland) so successful is created from ideas and whole cloth!

  7. I think most people are surprised when they learn that most of Walt’s theme park “ideas” came as inspiration from other places. What Walt was brilliant at was vision and fixing things. He’d take an idea from this park and apply it to something that another park was doing and then add a level of Disney craftsmanship and show to it. Walt could see the flaws and fix them. He was brilliant, but not always original.

    FANTASTIC article Sam!!!

  8. What a wonderful article. I have followed the stories of “Walt’s screwy ideas” for as long as I could read. It is always a treat to read something with a fresh spin. And once again, Sam pulls it off. And, congratulations, you sold another book. Can’t wait to read it. Thanks again.

  9. While Algernon has a point about the past rides being replaced or maybe downgraded, Walt always said that Disneyland would never be finished and would continue to evolve. (Walt could never imagine Star Tours either). And like Strikeuptheband, I like the attention to detail shown in Carsland. I think Walt would have loved this portion of DCA, though I am sure he would not be happy about the alcohol purveyed.

    So times change, and so do we, but I think the spirit that Walt imbued into the Imagineers still persists, despite the occasional set back caused by the bean-counter mentality, will guide D’land well into the century. The one thing that I think Walt would really by mad about is the cost to enter the parks. He meant it to be for everyone, and it is unfortunately becoming more and more exclusive. And that is a pity.

    Thank you Sam for another great piece.

  10. I really enjoy reading about how Walt came up with ideas, how he studied things and people. Seems I am learning something new constantly that makes me appreciate his talents even more. True, some things have gone by the wayside that I miss (I honestly hate Tarzan’s Treehouse), but there are also many wonderful new ideas that have come along. And Walt did say Disneyland would never be finished as long as there was imagination left in the world. The changes in things like pavement (I think) are part of the attention to detail that sets DL apart from other companies’ theme parks. On my last visit, I got stuck sharing a ride on Mickey’s Fun Wheel with a couple and a child. Mom commented on the sidewalk leading into Ariel, and the seashells imbedded in it. She was delighted by the little things like that which are there if you look for them.

    I hope that the time and $ spent making DCA a worthwhile destination on its own (finally!) will convince the upper-level types that doing anything in the parks hastily or on the cheap is not the way to go. Ditto for overdoing certain themes (princesses and pirates, anyone?). And I agree with Horsecollar on two counts: the alcohol and the cost. I don’t have a problem with DCA selling alcohol at a couple of restaurants; I just think it needs to stay there. I don’t go to a Renaissance Festival to see Mickey; I don’t want to go to DL to see guys wandering around with beer in hand. And I do wish there were a way for DL to be more affordable for more people. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford an annual passport, but the daily ticket price is more than a bit hefty for an average family with kids.

    Great article!