At dawn on July 17, 1955, all around the Magic Kingdom workers heigh-hoed, adding last-minute touches to the 22 attractions. Outside the gates, cars stretched bumper to bumper for seven miles along the Santa Ana Freeway southeast of Los Angeles. Thus began opening day of Walt Disney’s $17 million dream, Disneyland.
Admittance was by invitation only — 22,000 had gone out to Disney studio employees, politicians, celebs, and the press. Added to them were more than 10,000 uninvited who got in with counterfeit passes, so that by mid-morning a crowd of nearly 35,000 was mingling with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy.
”There were so many people I couldn’t see the park,” recalls actor Fess Parker, who as his TV/movie character Davy Crockett led the opening-day parade. Parker, who is now 65 and runs his own California vineyard, adds, ”Things weren’t complete. There were a lot of open trenches and ditches.”
Begun only a year earlier, the fun house that Walt built was still in want of more than a nail. Refreshment stands quickly ran out of supplies. Long lines of cranky visitors formed outside the few operating rest rooms. The Mark Twain Steamboat nearly capsized on its maiden voyage. Walt Disney later called the day ”Black Sunday.”
Ninety million viewers watched an equally chaotic ABC live-TV special on the unveiling, hosted by Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and Ronald Reagan. Dead mikes and miscued cameras made for some unintentionally comic moments. Linkletter, 79, says, laughing, ”The sun wiped out the monitor. I was forced to describe what I was seeing — say, Cinderella’s coach — while the camera showed Buddy Ebsen on horseback.”
Undaunted, Walt spent the next two weeks working the kinks out, and by September, Disneyland had welcomed its millionth visitor. From there, it was all zip-a-dee-doo-dah. Today, Disneyland, with 60 attractions, has hosted more than 300 million paying customers and redefined the amusement park for the world. Among its innovations were theme ”lands,” computerized high-tech rides, educational exhibits, the one-price all-day ticket, and the first monorail system in the western hemisphere. Disney’s corps of ”imagineers” went on to build Walt Disney World and Epcot Center near Orlando, Fla., as well as Tokyo Disneyland. The Euro Disney Resort outside Paris is scheduled to open next April.
Walt Disney, whom Fess Parker remembers as ”a man’s man, a visionary… second only to the Pope and the President in his acceptance by the American public,” died in 1966, leaving behind a unique entertainment empire. But as he joked on opening day of Disneyland, ”Let’s never lose sight of one fact…that this was all started by a mouse.”