DISNEY BASH: An 18-month celebration underway in the Anaheim theme park

ANAHEIM, Calif. - It was sweltering that day. And crowded. People gathered at the entrance even if they didn't have tickets, that's how eager they were to get inside.

"Hotter than hell" is how Art Linkletter, the emcee and Walt Disney's longtime friend, remembers it. "The asphalt had just been rolled and people's shoes got stuck in it. But we carried on. We didn't worry about stuff like that."

Fifty years is a long time but those who were there when Disneyland opened its gates on July 17, 1955, still remember the tiniest details -- rides that broke down, wet paint that rubbed off on guests' clothes, the smile on Walt Disney's face.

It wasn't a perfect opening but Disney's dream -- to build a family theme park unlike any other -- became a reality that day, despite the glitches.

The memories are flooding back as the Happiest Place on Earth approaches its 50th anniversary with an 18-month celebration -- dubbed the Happiest Homecoming on Earth -- that began on Thursday.

Employees who were there on the first day, or those who worked at the park in its early years, haven't forgotten how it all began.

"I remember the first day, seeing Walt walking down Main Street," said Bob Penfield, a ride operator when the park opened. "I'm an 18-year-old Iowa farm boy and I'm watching Walt Disney walk down the street. That's one thing I'll always remember."

The Disneyland of 50 years ago barely resembles the sprawling complex that covers 430 acres today and includes Disney's California Adventure theme park, Downtown Disney (a mall of retail shops and restaurants) and three hotels.

There were 18 attractions then; there are more than 60 now. Even the terminology has changed: Employees are called cast members, rides are called attractions.

But some things remain almost as they were when the park opened (with some tweaks and updates): Peter Pan's Flight, Mad Tea Party, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the Jungle Cruise. Sleeping Beauty's Castle seems as magical as ever.

The original park was built on 45 hectares that were once orange groves. Ron Dominguez's family was one of 17 who sold their land to Disney and, although he recalled that his mother was sentimental about giving up their four hectares, it led to a 39-year Disney career for the now-retired Dominguez -- from ticket taker on opening day to a variety of supervisorial jobs and eventually executive vice-president of Walt Disney West Coast.