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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.