Hello Dear Readers! Today we’re talking about just one subject, and that subject is the Disneyland Hotel. So let’s get started. Pack your bags, get ready to travel, and think about a vacation, back in a time when hotels weren’t quiet as plentiful as they are now, way back in 1955 ...

We’re lucky to live in a time that allows us weekly glimpses into the re-imagining of a theme park and a famous hotel. Eager for the latest tidbit about each addition to that mountain range growing up in the former Disneyland parking lot and clamoring for news of the Disneyland Hotel’s re-invention as a tiki-themed playground, we tune in every week to have a look at the glorious photos. And it’s all very exciting, isn’t it?

Back in the 1950s though, when there was no Internet, it wasn’t possible to get a weekly update on the construction taking place in what was then, a remote little town called Anaheim. Lucky for us again, we’ve got author Donald W. Ballard, whose newest book about the Disneyland Hotel, Disneyland Hotel 1954-1959: The Little Motel In The Middle Of The Orange Grove, allows us a chance to step into the wayback machine and see just what it was like as the hotel was being built.

Before I read Don’s new book I’m sorry to say I took the Disneyland Hotel a little for granted. It’s always been there, and sure, it’s really nice to stay there. I mean who wouldn’t want to, but I never really thought about how groundbreaking that hotel was as far as the hotel industry is concerned.

The Disneyland Hotel was a forerunner in the art of guest service. Some of the things we just expect today exist because the Disneyland Hotel was built. You want to bring the kiddies along and stay in a room that’ll hold the entire family? Thank the Disneyland Hotel for that; it was the first major hotel to openly welcome children. Looking for off-season rates to make your stay a little more affordable? Thank the Disneyland Hotel for that; it was the first hotel to develop the idea of seasonal rates. Want to eat in a nice restaurant; that again welcomes the kiddies, is reasonably priced, and situated right at the hotel in which you’re staying? Thank the Disneyland Hotel for that. Prior to the Disneyland Hotel’s existence, none of those things were part of a hotel stay. In much the same way that Disneyland set new standards and changed how the theme park industry functioned, the Disneyland Hotel changed the way hotels were run.

Back when Walt Disney was busy building Disneyland, he knew he needed a place for visitors to stay. It may be hard to imagine now, but in those days Anaheim was mostly a bunch of orange groves in the middle of nowhere, and Walt couldn’t ask folks to travel all the way out to such a remote place without having somewhere for them to rest their heads at the end of the day. The problem was that Walt had all his money tied up in building Disneyland and there wasn’t any left over for a hotel, so Walt selected businessman Jack Wrather for the task of building the Disneyland Hotel.

At the time, the general consensus in the business community was that Walt Disney was crazy for sinking everything he had into building his park, and the same held true for Jack Wrather and the Disneyland Hotel. No one thought either venture would fly. In a 1978 interview Wrather recalled, “I had heard a little bit about the Disneyland plan but when they told me where it was going to built, all I could exclaim was ‘Anaheim! Oh, God! Anaheim!’ Then I asked them why they didn’t call Hilton or Sheraton, since I wasn’t in the hotel business. They said they had called them but Hilton or Sheraton never heard of Anaheim and weren’t interested.”

Disneyland Hotel (lower in photo), Disneyland Park (above) February 16, 1956

The Disneyland Hotel officially opened on October 5, 1955 with only 104 guest rooms in what was later to be known as the Oriental Garden section of the Disneyland Hotel and room rates started at $9 a night. It was Orange County’s first major hotel and it was built to be a “year-round” resort, something very uncommon in 1955.

Curious about what it was like to anticipate something no one had ever seen before, I asked my mom if she could remember anything about Disneyland and the Disneyland Hotel opening and she recalled, “Oh yes, it was the most exciting thing ever and we all couldn’t wait to go to Disneyland and to see the new hotel.” When I remarked how cheap $9 seemed for a night at the Disneyland Hotel, she said, “You have to remember, $9 was a lot of money in 1955!”

If the business community doubted the success of the venture, clearly the public did not, and we all know how the story ended. Disneyland and the Disneyland Hotel succeeded and in a way no one could have dreamt, except perhaps, Walt Disney and Jack Wrather, two gentlemen of very much the same ilk, both risk-takers whose first consideration was for the guest’s enjoyment of their product.

The front cover

The tale of how the hotel got off the ground and the imagination it took to build something in a way that heretofore didn’t exist, is so fascinating it reads like a plot from a movie. In Disneyland Hotel 1954-1959: The Little Motel In The Middle Of The Orange Grove, Don Ballard vividly paints a portrait of the era and all the players from the architect on down to the landscaper (and everyone in between).

The money squabbles, the meetings, the movie stars, the explosion of development!  It all sounds like quite a time and through period photos (many never before seen), brochures, newspaper accounts, and menus (so quaint were tastes at the time, Jell-O was on the dessert menu!), Don’s new book manages to transport the reader back to those orange groves in that remote little city, allowing a glimpse of how exciting it must have been to watch it all happen.

As much as the book is the story of the Disneyland Hotel, it is also the story of Jack Wrather and his wife, Bonita Granville Wrather. Jack, a former Texas oilman turned entertainment entrepreneur (among other things, he owned the television shows The Lone Ranger and Lassie, radio stations and Muzak), and Bonita, a former Academy Award-nominated actress, are every bit as interesting as the Disneyland Hotel.

Sample pages from the book.

Savvy Disneylanders may recall Don Ballard’s earlier volume about the Disneyland Hotel, Disneyland Hotel, the Early Years 1954-1988 (now out of print) and wonder if Disneyland Hotel 1954-1959: The Little Motel In The Middle Of The Orange Grove is something they need. While there is some repetition in the new book (necessary if you haven’t read the first book), there is so much new information, it really rounds out the story of how the hotel came to be.

For my money, Disneyland Hotel 1954-1959: The Little Motel In The Middle Of The Orange Grove is a must-have addition to my collection of books about the history of Disneyland. In fact, allow me to let Don tell you why you need this book, his website’s description puts it succinctly:

Since the book “Disneyland Hotel, the Early Years 1954-1988” was published in July of 2005, we have received an enormous amount of new information, photographs, documents, testimonials, brochures and other items detailing the rich history of the fabulous Disneyland Hotel. These new materials (which includes an amazing vault find with extremely rare and some not ever seen by the public photographs and films) will help better document the history of this landmark facility and fill in many of the gaps, dates and information regarding the Disneyland Hotel. This edition is devoted to the years 1954 to 1959 from the details surrounding the initial talks with Walt & Roy Disney and Jack Wrather to the many additions and expansions to the building of the Disneyland Hotel in its pre-Tower configuration.

You can find out more about the book, including ordering information at Don's website for it, via this link.

We’ll end today with a little mention of this week’s D23 Expo. Yes, it’s finally almost here! Now lest you think I’m straying from our topic, I lied, and there really is more than one subject in today’s column, wrong, it’s still about the Disneyland Hotel.

Friday’s D23 Expo-attendees are in for real treat. Put it on your must-see list for the Expo — Friday morning at 9AM on Stage 28, Don Ballard has a Disneyland Hotel presentation in store for you and you don’t want to miss it.

But ... if you’re like me, a night owl who has a hard time with early morning stuff, not to worry. Don will be spending some time at the MiceAge/MiceChat booth #C514 in the Collectors Forum throughout the event, and you can stop by, say hi, and talk all things Disneyland Hotel. (Don will also have the book for sale in the D23 Expo Treasure Trove store [upstairs] and will do a signing for it there.)

That just about wraps it up for this week, just one more thing. If you want to know what I’m up to as I tour around the D23 Expo — I’ll be tweeting about everything I see, then you need to follow Pressing Matters on Twitter.

If you'd like to submit something to be considered for the column, please send it to both Sue and Al at the following email addresses: [email protected] and [email protected] with the words "Pressing Matters" in the subject line. Due to our already extensive email loads we won't be able to acknowledge each submission, but those under consideration may get a note from us asking for more details. Representatives from the items chosen are invited to answer questions from readers at the forum linked at the end of each column.

FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Sue Kruse and Al Lutz received complimentary advance copies of the book discussed in this article.

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2011 Sue Kruse