Overview of Disneyland's Amazing History

Walt Disney and Shirley Temple on Disneyland Opening Day

Disneyland Resort

When asked how he got the idea for Disneyland, Walt Disney once said he thought there should be a place for parents and children to have fun together, but the real story is more complicated.

In the early 1940s, kids started asking to see where Mickey Mouse and Snow White lived. Disney resisted giving studio tours because he thought watching people making cartoons was boring. Instead, he thought of building a character display beside the studio. Artist-architect John Hench is quoted in the Disneyland News Media Source Book: "I remember several Sundays seeing Walt across the street in a weed-filled lot, standing, visualizing, all by himself."

The Disneyland Source Book quotes Disney: "I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible because dreams offer too little collateral." Undeterred, he borrowed against his life insurance and sold his second house, just to develop his idea to the point where he could show others what he had in mind. Studio employees worked on the project, paid from Disney's personal funds. Art director Ken Anderson said that Disney didn't remember to pay them every week, but he always made good in the end, handing out crisp, new bills that he failed to count very accurately.

Building Disneyland History

Disney and his brother Roy mortgaged everything they owned to raise $17 million to build Disneyland but fell short of what they needed. ABC-TV stepped in, guaranteeing a $6 million loan in exchange for part ownership and Disney's commitment to producing a weekly television show for them.

When the City of Burbank denied a request to build near the studio, a crucial chapter in Disneyland history began. Disney engaged Stanford Research Institute, who identified Anaheim as the center of Southern California's future growth. Disney bought 160 acres of Anaheim orange groves, and on May 1, 1954, construction began toward an impossible deadline of July 1955, when money would run out.

Disneyland opening, 1955
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Opening Day: the Blackest Sunday in Disneyland History

On Sunday, July 17, 1955, the first guests arrived, and an estimated 70 million people watched via a live television broadcast. In Disney lore, they still call it "Black Sunday." They have a good reason. A guest list of 15,000 swelled to almost 30,000 attendees. Among the many mishaps:

  • Local police dubbed the seven-mile freeway backup the worst mess they had ever seen.
  • Rides and attractions broke down under the pressure of too many guests, opening and closing periodically to make way for television crews.
  • Fantasyland closed temporarily due to a gas leak.
  • Main Street's freshly-laid asphalt softened in the heat. Women who wore high heels sometimes left a shoe behind, stuck in the black goo.
  • Because of a plumber's strike, restrooms and drinking fountains could not both be ready by opening day. Walt opted for having the toilets working, leaving visitors hot and thirsty.

Most reviewers declared the park overpriced and poorly managed, expecting Disneyland history to end almost as soon as it began.

What Happened After Opening Day

On July 18, 1955, the general public, got their first peek - more than 10,000 of them. On that first day of its long history, Disneyland charged visitors $1.00 admission (about $9 in today's dollars) to get through the gate and see three free attractions in four themed lands. Individual tickets for the 18 rides cost 10 cents to 35 cents each.

Walt and his staff addressed the problems from opening day. They soon had to limit daily attendance to 20,000 to avoid overcrowding. Within seven weeks, the one-millionth guest passed through the gates.

Not bad for a place that some people thought would be closed and bankrupt within a year.

Landmark Dates in Disneyland History

"Disneyland will never be completed as long as there is imagination left in the world," Walt Disney once said. Within a year of the opening, new attractions opened. Others closed or changed, taking Disneyland through an evolution that still continues. A few of the more notable dates in Disneyland history include:

1959: Disneyland almost causes an international incident when U. S. officials deny Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev a visit because of security concerns.

1959: "E" ticket introduced. The most expensive ticket, it granted access to the most exciting rides and attractions such as Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean.

1963: The Enchanted Tiki Room opens​ and the term "animatronics" (robotics combined with 3-D animation) is coined.

1964: Disneyland generates more money than Disney Films.

1966: Walt Disney dies.

1982: The Disneyland Ticket Book is retired, replaced by a "Passport" good for unlimited rides.

1985: Year-round, daily operation begins. Before this, the park closed Monday and Tuesday during off seasons.

1999: FASTPASS introduced.

2001: Downtown Disney, Disney California Adventure, and the Grand Californian Hotel open.

2004: Australian Bill Trow is the 500-millionth guest.

2010: World of Color opens at California Adventure.

2012: Cars Land opens at California Adventure, completing the first phase of a major project to improve the park.

2015: Disneyland announces plans for a new, Star Wars-themed land

Mark Twain Riverboat at Disneyland opening, 1955
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Disneyland's Most Historic Spots

Walt Disney's private apartment is above the fire station at City Hall near Main Street U.S.A. It's still there and a few years ago, you could get inside on a tour. Unfortunately, access was discontinued and you'll just have to be content to stand and look at it.

All nine of the original rides that visitors enjoyed on opening day are still open: Autopia, Jungle Cruise, King Arthur Carrousel, Mad Tea Party, Mark Twain Riverboat, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Peter Pan's Flight, Snow White's Scary Adventures and Storybook Land Canal Boats

The windows on Main Street U.S.A. are also a little Disneyland time capsule, using fictional business names to incorporate significant figures in Disneyland history, including Walt Disney's father Ellias, his brother Roy and legendary Imagineers. You can find a list of them here.


There may well be as many urban legends about Disneyland as there are facts. To avoid repeating those untrue stories all of the material used is from Disneyland Public Relations.

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