March 11, 2023



Touted as the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland is one of the most iconic and well known amusement parks in history. Originally opening in 1955, the Disney brand has gone through a massive expansion to include parks throughout the world.

But how did it all start? Tune in as I dive into the history of Disneyland. How did the idea originate? How did Walt get the funding? And how has it evolved over the years?


Barkas, Sherry. “Disneyland reopens: Disney parks in California open post-COVID closure.” USA Today. April 30, 2021. (LINK)

Marling, Karal Ann. “Disneyland, 1955: Just Take the Santa Ana Freeway to the American Dream.” Journal of American Art, Vol. 5, No. ½. (LINK)

“Reinventing the American Amusement Park.” PBS American Experience. (LINK)

Raman. “The History of Disneyland.” A Day in LA Tours. September 1, 2020. (LINK)

Strodder, Chris. The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, Restaurant, Shop, and Major Event in the Original Magic Kingdom. (United States: Santa Monica Press, 2017).

Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. (United States: Disney Book Group, 2017).


Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 


Hey everyone, welcome back. 


If you are listening to this on release day then happy Saturday! Today is ye old podcast host’s birthday. When I was mapping out my episodes for the first half of 2023 and noticed my birthday in the lineup, I knew I wanted to do something special. I thought it over and decided that I would share the history of a place that has many, many good memories for me. A place that is known throughout the world as the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland. 


An amusement park opened in a sea of former orange groves in the small town of Anaheim, California, Disneyland - and the Disney brand - has become an icon of family fun and an entertainment powerhouse. But how did it all begin?


This week, I am diving into the history of Disneyland. How did the idea originate? How did the opening day go? And what was its influence?


Grab your cup of coffee and your favorite churro, peeps. Let’s do this. 


I imagine most of you out there know at least the basic facts about Disneyland and how it began, but given this is a history podcast, we really need to start at the beginning. Before creator and founder Walt Disney gave his speech on that hot July day in 1955, he was a cartoonist. Born on December 5, 1901, Walter Elias Disney was the fourth of five children. Originally from Chicago, the Disney family moved to Marceline, Missouri when Disney was a young boy. This small town later helped inspire the look and feel of Main Street USA in the famed amusement park. 


As a young boy, Disney was interested in drawing and continued honing his talent, eventually becoming the cartoonist for his high school newspaper. He continued to hone his skills by attending additional classes at art schools such as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. After volunteering for the Red Cross and serving as an ambulance driver during World War I, Disney landed an apprentice role drawing cartoon advertisements for the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. Unfortunately, the art studio failed to earn sufficient revenue and Disney was laid off. Disney started a few businesses, where he became interested in the art of animation, but eventually picked up stakes and headed west, landing in Hollywood in 1923 at just 21 years old. 


For Disney, the prospect of directing motion pictures proved the greatest pull. It didn’t hurt matters that he had an uncle he could stay with and that his brother, Roy, was recovering from tuberculosis in a veteran’s hospital nearby. So, instead of heading to the cartoon and animation capital in New York, Walt took his chances in California. Unfortunately, Hollywood was as hard to break into in the twenties as it is today and despite his best efforts, Walt simply couldn’t convince a studio to give him a seat in the director’s chair. Feeling a little dejected, Walt commiserated with his brother, who was still convalescing in the hospital. It was Roy who suggested Walt refocus his energy on cartoons, suggesting it may be his brother’s best shot at cracking the Hollywood scene. 


Despite his initial rejection of the idea, Walt eventually decided to give animation another shot. The two brothers signed a contract with MJ Winkler to distribute six shorts based on Alice in Wonderland. After the initial success of the Alice series, Walt began tinkering with his first original character, Oswald the Rabbit. Distributed through Universal, the initial run of Oswald provided mild success. In 1928 when Disney went to renegotiate his deal, he discovered producer Charles Mintz, the man who set up the initial distribution through Universal, had betrayed him, convincing several of the artists working for Disney to jump ship. Faced with having to swallow a terrible deal or losing ownership of his beloved character, Walt made the difficult decision to walk away. So angered by the situation, Disney told friends he would never work for someone else again. 


Of course, the loss of Oswald the Rabbit led to the creation of perhaps the most iconic animated character in history; the loveable, adorable Mickey Mouse. The oft-repeated story goes that on the train ride back from New York, Walt was struck with the creative genius to create another character out of a mouse. This mouse was initially slated to be given the moniker of Mortimer before Disney’s wife Lilly intervened, stating her distaste for the name. Thus, the mouse came to be known as Mickey and the rest, as they say, is history. Collaborating with friend Ub Iwerks, Disney mapped out the character of a fun-loving mouse, even providing the iconic character’s voice until 1947. Ever the ad man, Disney sought distribution for his character, telling people quote, “it is our intention to carry on an advertising and exploitation campaign that should, in a very short time, along with good pictures and a good release, make the name of ‘Mickey Mouse’ as well known as any cartoon on the market,” end quote. I think we can all agree he was successful. 


The commercial success of Mickey Mouse helped Disney to expand his brand, leading to the creation of an animation studio where he produced movies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. But Disney was never really satisfied. Having conquered the film industry, Walt next turned his attention to this new idea known as the amusement park. The idea for Disneyland had been brewing in Disney’s mind for years and he traveled the world for inspiration, checking out county and state fairs, circuses, and carnivals. A visit to Coney Island, run-down and dirty with unhappy staff, gave Disney reason to pause, however, a trip overseas helped cure him of his doubt. Arriving in Copenhagen, Disney made a trip out to Trivoli Gardens and asserted the gardens, with open space and bright colors, are exactly what an amusement park should look like. 


Disney knew he didn’t want to build a permanent carnival. His park had to be different and have a different feel. He and his team visited places like Knott’s Berry Farm and carefully watched the guests. Where did they go? What seemed to draw their interest? How was the layout? After studying guest movement, Disney designed a park that would leverage a hub - a central location from which guests would veer off into areas of interest within the park. The hub was something new and some doubted its ability to drive traffic the way Walt envisioned, however, he stayed committed to his idea and the hub is now an often-seen part of any amusement park experience. 


The original choice for the location of the park - which went through many names before Disneyland proved to be the winner - was Burbank. Burbank was where Disney studios were and therefore was thought of as a perfect spot. However, city planners initially seemed disinterested. Though Disney eventually secured permission to build a park in Burbank, his vision had grown beyond the initial plot of land and he began to search for the perfect place to build his vision. Hiring researchers, Disney wanted to identify land that was fairly accessible and large enough to expand. After reviewing the area, the hired researchers suggested the sleepy town of Anaheim as the perfect location. The area enjoyed a year-round mild climate, was easily accessible via the Santa Ana Freeway and had the necessary acreage available to meet Disney’s large-scale dreams. Walt was convinced and moved forward with purchasing 160 acres of former orange groves to start building his dream amusement park. 


But building a park like the one Disney had in mind cost money - a lot of money - and despite running a successful movie studio, Disney still came up short. Unable to get the necessary investments through the bank, Walt developed a partnership with a television studio - the American Broadcasting Company, or ABC - to raise the necessary capital for the park. In exchange for developing programming for the network, they agreed to invest money into Disney’s visionary amusement park. Construction began in 1954 and, working at a breakneck speed, finished in just over a year. 


 On July 17th, 1955, Disney invited special guests and members of the press for a soft opening of Disneyland. Of course, what was meant to be a soft opening for a selected few, turned into a bit of mayhem as almost thirty thousand people descended upon the park. The heat, a scorching 101 degrees, left many people vying for some semblance of shade, and, without water fountains due to a plumber strike, guests could only quench their thirst with soda. Even the cement walkways became a bit of a nightmare, as women’s heels began sinking into the still-wet pavement. Despite all of this, Disney took the stage and, with nearly one hundred million people watching from home, addressed guests far and wide saying quote, “To all who come to this happy place: Welcome! Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world,” end quote. 


When the park originally opened, there were five lands for guests to experience: Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Main Street U.S.A. To get guests to explore various parts of the park, Walt made sure his designers, nicknamed Imagineers, included “wienies.” The term referred to the treats given to show dogs to get them to follow their trainer’s command. For Disneyland, the wienies were Sleeping Beauty’s Castle to get guests down Mainstreet, the rocket to pull visitors towards Tomorrowland, and Mark Twain’s riverboat to drive traffic toward Frontierland. The ticket price was a dollar, which equates to about $10.50 today. Guests could enjoy 18 rides, which required an additional fee ranging from between 10 and 30 cents each. 


Despite its rocky beginnings, the park was a tremendous success, welcoming five million visitors in the first year of operations alone. The park continued to expand and grow, per Disney’s original vision, quote: “it’s something that will never be finished, something I can keep developing, keep plussing and adding to,” end quote. Several additions were made to the theme park over the years, including Pirates of the Caribbean in 1967 and my personal favorite, the Haunted Mansion in 1969. More lands were added to the park, including Critter Country in 1992, and Mickey’s ToonTown in 1993. Always striving to improve guest experiences, Disney introduced their online queue system, FastPass in 1999. With FastPass, popular attractions issued paper tickets to guests with specified return times. This concept, Disney hoped, would allow guests to enjoy other parts of the park while virtually holding their place in line. Guests could snag FastPasses for big-ticket attractions such as Indiana Jones and Space Mountain and enjoy a quick ride on Pirates while they waited. 


Ever the visionary, Disneyland was limited in its ability to expand given the land around the park was gobbled up by other developers who built restaurants and hotels along the exterior perimeter of the park. This prompted Disney to look for a new spot to develop an even larger park, which he found in the Orlando area in Florida, which houses the largest Disney property Disney World. While a project started by founder and creator Walt Disney, completion of the park fell to his brother Roy after Walt passed away in 1966. 


But the original park still had potential. In the late nineties, the Disney corporation successfully acquired several pieces of property and earmarked them for development. This turned into the Downtown Disney District, two additional Disney hotels, and of course the massive Disney’s California Adventure park which opened in 2001. I remember visiting California Adventure in its early years and while I thought the theme was cute, it didn’t seem to match the splendor and imagination of its next-door neighbor. As its name suggests, the early park’s design was an homage to the golden state, with iconic visuals placed throughout the park, such as the miniature golden gate bridge and a mountainous water ride known as Grizzly Peak. 


Reception to the park was mixed, leading to a substantial overhaul of the property just a few short years after it opened. I think the Imagineers were more successful with their second version of the park, designed to mirror the Hollywood Walt experienced upon his arrival in the twenties. 


Open seven days a week, Disneyland only closed twice before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered its doors for more than a year. Upon its reopening in August 2021, Disneyland made several adjustments to its guest experience, including the retiring of its free FastPass system in exchange for a paid option known as Genie Plus. 


The park continues to draw large crowds every single day, with an average of 18 million visitors each year, making it the second most visited theme park in the world. Its sister property in Florida, Walt Disney World, owns the world record with roughly 58 million. 


As of 2023, there are six separate Disney properties, with one park in Europe and three in Asia. As a true Disney nerd, I have crossed the turnstiles in four out of the six Disney properties including Disney Paris and Tokyo Disney. The properties in Hong Kong and Shanghai remain on my to-do list. The Disney brand remains one of the most iconic in the entertainment industry and has expanded its reach throughout the world. 


While there are many fair criticisms of the park, it remains a popular vacation destination and continues to be touted as the gold standard in amusement park entertainment. Not bad considering it all started with a mouse. 


Before I sign off for the day, I am going to make one minor request. I love engaging with you all and reading your feedback on the show. Please consider leaving a rate and review for the show. You can consider it a free birthday gift. Your options are many including Spotify, good pods, and podchaser. Or you can send me a message through the website at www dot civics and coffee dot come.


Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.


Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.