To build his dream theme park in Anaheim a half-century ago, Walt Disney borrowed against his life insurance policy and cashed in property, including a vacation home in Palm Springs, to pay the $17-million construction bill.
When the Anaheim theme park opened July 17, 1955 — with cranky Southern Californians fanning themselves on a sweltering hot day — toilets clogged, the food ran out and women's high heels sank into wet asphalt. Disney officials still call it Black Sunday.
But from the start, there would be no denying the world's infatuation with Disneyland, a rite of passage for millions of vacationing families. In the 50 years since Walt Disney leveled Anaheim orange groves, the park has left an oversized imprint on American culture, influencing family entertainment, shopping malls, corporate branding and more.
"There's still nothing to compare it to," said Jamie O'Boyle, senior analyst for the Philadelphia-based Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis. "It is a cultural magnet for people…. Walt didn't build an amusement park. He really built the first virtual reality."
Others are less flattering, saying the park is too artificially controlled and idealized. Italian author Umberto Eco suggested that Disneyland is "the Absolute Fake." After facing tooth-baring alligators on Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, Eco was disappointed at seeing none while taking a paddle-wheel steamer down the Mississippi.