SAMLAND: The Other Places Disneyland Might Have Been Built

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Features

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Published on July 04, 2013 at 3:00 am with 15 Comments

Go back to August 1953 with me. The team from the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) were about to present their findings for the ideal location of Disneyland to Walt and Roy Disney. Harrison “Buzz” Price was put in charge of the project, and with his brilliant mathematical mind, created a process that would narrow the vast Southern California region down to find the perfect location for Walt’s park. Walt paid the firm $25,000 for the location study. The only constraints were a minimum of 100 undeveloped acres at a price of no more than $4,500 per acre, preferably flat and with one owner. The ideal location would be somewhere between Chatsworth and Pomona on the north and Tustin and Balboa on the south. It should not be near the beach because Walt did not “want to attract the barefoot beach crowd.”

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Price divided the region into ten geographically homogenous districts. Then he eliminated the districts that were already fully developed, were producing oil, suffered from a bad topographic feature, or were under governmental control. By doing this, he immediately eliminated eight out of the ten districts. One of the remaining districts was located in the Santa Ana Freeway corridor called the Whittier-Norwalk area, and the other was further south, in Orange County. SRI did a complete search of land records and looked at a variety of factors, including utility conditions, accessibility, topography, and environmental characteristics such as temperature, rainfall, and smog. The SRI team came up with a list of seventy-one possible sites within Los Angeles and Orange counties. They immediately eliminated twenty-eight sites because they were not within the Santa Ana Freeway corridor. The remaining forty-three sites were examined more closely using surveillance and local realtors. The best sites were further investigated by air. Walt visited twenty-four of the locations himself.

Of the remaining forty-three sites, ten were knocked off the list because of surrounding blight. Fourteen more were stricken from consideration because they were not for sale. Out of the nineteen remaining properties, four made the final cut for deeper analysis. Any of these four locations would have worked according to SRI. The remaining fifteen locations were put on the back burner and soon forgotten.

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The site on the top of the list was the Ball Road Subdivision. It was adjacent to the city of Anaheim. It was also not on the original search list due to having multiple owners. Instead, the property came to the attention of SRI through a man named Fred Wallich. One of the families, the Dominguez family, did not mind selling some of their property but they wanted to keep one acre where the family home was located. This was only one of the problems with the site. More details will be found in the new book.

Another site was in La Mirada, and was made up of 5 parcels total 2,300-acres. Just think of what Walt could do with that much land. Known as the McNally Ranch, part of the property was slated to become single family homes and the rest was available for development. It would have cost more than Anaheim and it was not as close to the freeway. Today you can play a round of golf on the site.

The Leo Harvey property was on the boundary of Los Angeles and Orange counties near the intersection of Valley View Avenue and the Santa Ana Freeway. It was 650-acres and the owner wanted to sell 160 acres at the intersection of Miller Street (aka Valley View) and Orangethorpe. Today, the property is a giant warehouse.

The only site in Orange County was the Willowick Country Club just outside of Santa Ana. The lack of direct access to arterial highways was deemed a major fault.

And the rest, as they say, is history

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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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  • bakhuizen

    What is the title of the new book and when will it be out?

  • SoCalFan

    I heard on a tour, at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge, that Walt, at one point, considered buying up the property there for what would become the future Disneyland. Is this true? It’s so interesting if this spot was considered. It’s a BEAUTIFUL location with wonderful views of the San Gabriel Mountains right there.

    • Mousecat

      Yes. Descanso Gardens was on the early list before they hired Buzz to find the location.

  • DisWedWay

    Sam, I still wonder about the property Disney owns out in Antelope Valley on the far east side of town near the Palmdale Airport, which used to be farming or Alfalfa acreage. Are they waiting for a full on airport to go like LAX to develop it?

    • DisWedWay

      I know last pole to the residents showed they did not want an LAX because of pollution, noise and traffic.

  • DobbysCloset

    I didn’t realize that I was such a fortunate human as to remain two hours drive MAX from DL all my life! Imagine if they’d put it out of reach!

    Antelope Valley land question is interesting, but I don’t think enough money ever ended up out there to make a location feasible, especially once gas got expensive.

  • JiminyCricketFan

    I loved the story about how the land was selected. There is no question, now looking back with hindsight, that the Anaheim location was brilliant. Who would have guessed in 1954 that Orange County would have grown as much as it did. Disneyland got located right in the perfect location to take advantage of that. The moderate temps, proximity to the Los Angeles freeway, and central location for Orange County made the selection a great one.

  • WDWorldly

    Why didn’t they buy more land?

    • HollywoodF1

      It’s easy to forget the magnitude of the financial risk Walt was taking. Today, we know it would work. But in 1954, well, it was not as easy to convince people. So he bought all the land he could afford and get loans for, leaving enough (barely) to build the park itself.

  • MRaymond

    I would love to see a map with all the prospective sites on it. My parents lived near the I-5 Whittier-Norwalk corridor. I wonder if all the oil fields in that area was the reason the locations were scrapped.

  • Susan Hughes

    Another choice location for me would be Irvine. I’m sure back in the 1950s the city of Irvine was considered remote and not easily accessible. But looking at it today, with all the open land it “STILL” has, and the freeway systems, cool ocean breezes, low crime, no urban decay whatsoever, it would make the ideal location.

    • HollywoodF1

      The City of Irvine wasn’t founded until 1971. In the 1950s, it was the Irvine Ranch. And, you’re right– it was considered just out of reach of too much of LA’s population. I have to admit to wishing just a little that Disney could have somehow bought the retired El Toro Marine Corps Air Station when it was up for sale in the 90s. Move Disneyland– there’s a wild notion.

      • tofubeast

        I can only imagine how fired up the boards on MC would be if DL relocated!