The Origin of Walt’s Disneyland Idea

“Everybody in the world was once a child. So in planning a new picture, we don’t think of grown-ups, and we don’t think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall.”
—Walt Disney

“Disneyland really began,” Walt once said, “when my two daughters were very young. Saturday was always Daddy’s Day, and I would take them to the merry-go-round and sit on a bench eating peanuts while they rode. And sitting there, alone, I felt there should be something built, some kind of family park where parents and children could have fun together.”1

But is that true? Did Walt first dream of Disneyland while sitting on a bench in Griffith Park? Maybe that’s how Walt remembered it, but that park bench is not where his dreams of Disneyland truly began. A news story published in the Long Beach Independent-Press-Telegram, Friday, July 15, 1955 (two days before Disneyland’s grand opening), stated that files in Disney’s Burbank studio archives contained “original Disneyland sketches, bearing the 1932 date.” Those sketches were dated a full year before his first daughter Diane was born. It was also four years after the first Mickey Mouse cartoon was released, and five years before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

GriffithParkBench-Wikimedia

Display at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The inscription on the bench reads: “The actual park bench from the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round in Los Angeles, where Walt Disney first dreamed of Disneyland.” (Photo: Sam Howzit)2

The dream of Disneyland existed long before Walt was a father. In fact, Disneyland was born in the heart and soul of a little boy growing up in middle America. When you walk down Main Street USA, or cross the drawbridge into Fantasyland, or journey through time and space in Tomorrowland, you’re exploring the memories and dreams of a young Missouri farm boy.

Walt grew up on a farm near Marceline, Missouri. He only spent four years there, but his brief time on that farm defined him. The animals were his friends and companions. He knew each one by name and he invented stories about their adventures. One pudgy little piglet (named Skinny) followed young Walt like a puppy.

In 1909, the Disney farm was failing and Walt’s father, Elias Disney, was seriously ill. He sold the farm for much less than he paid, and prepared to move his family a hundred miles away, to Kansas City. Eight-year-old Walt wept bitterly as the auctioneers sold off his beloved farm animals.

Elias used the proceeds to buy a newspaper distributorship in Kansas City. He put Walt and his brother Roy to work delivering newspapers without pay. After school, Walt worked at a corner candy store. He formed an intense work ethic at an early age.

Walt's KC House

Walt lived in this house at 3028 Bellefontaine Avenue, Kansas City, from 1914 to 1917, and again from 1919 to 1921. (Photo: Missouri Department of Natural Resources / Landmarks Commission, taken in 1977)

The Marceline years — some of the happiest years of Walt’s life — were over. But Walt’s Kansas City years gave him the inspiration for Disneyland. That inspiration was a place called Electric Park at the corner of 46th Street and the Paseo, a fifteen-block streetcar ride from Walt’s Kansas City home. Electric Park was built by Joseph Heim of the Heim Brothers Brewery in 1907, and remained in operation until 1925, when it was destroyed by fire.

Electric Park featured band concerts, ballroom dancing, vaudeville shows, penny arcades, shooting galleries, a carousel, a huge indoor swimming pool, cafés, souvenir shops, flat-bottomed boats that would “shoot the chutes” into a lagoon, a wooden roller coaster, and a carnival midway with thrill rides. A steam train ran around the park, and a fireworks show lit up the summer nights.

Unlike most amusement parks of the time, Electric Park was clean and well-maintained. Walt often spoke of Electric Park’s influence on his design of Disneyland, saying that Disneyland “has that thing — the imagination and the feeling of happy excitement — I knew when I was a kid.”3

Electric Park was named for the 100,000 electric lights that transformed the park into a nighttime fairyland. Visit Disneyland at night, and you’ll rediscover the incandescent glories of that lost Kansas City park, as remembered by Walt Disney.

!MainStreetAlmostEmptyNightDepot3

The thousands of lights that define the rooflines of Main Street USA are an echo of Walt’s memories of Electric Park in Kansas City.

The amusement park we now know as Disneyland was embedded deep in Walt’s thinking throughout most of the 1930s and 1940s. But Walt really began to get serious about his amusement park dreams after the end of World War II. He visited a number of amusement parks, from Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen to little Beverly Park in Los Angeles. Located at Beverly and La Cienega, Beverly Park was a modest but clean little amusement park with a merry-go-round, a waterless boat ride (the boats moved on wheels), and a small train that ran around the park. Walt sat on a bench, occasionally asking the children which rides they enjoyed the most.

Finally, in the summer of 1948, Walt knew it was time to get serious about building his dream. On August 31, Walt wrote a memo to Disney production designer Dick Kelsey, describing a detailed and fully formed vision of the Park:

The Main Village, which includes the Railroad Station, is built around a village green or informal park. In the park will be benches, a bandstand, drinking fountain, trees, and shrubs. It will be a place for people to sit and rest; mothers and grandmothers can watch over small children at play. I want it to be very relaxing, cool, and inviting.

Around the park will be built the town. At one end will be the Railroad Station; at the other end, the Town Hall. The Hall will be built to represent a Town Hall, but actually we will use it as our administration building. It will be the headquarters of the entire project.4

Walt went on to describe many other features of his vision for Mickey Mouse Park: Disney-themed carnival rides. A carousel or merry-go-round. A Wild West frontier town, complete with cowboys, a stagecoach, and a saloon-style theater. A scale model steam-powered train to take guests from Mickey Mouse Park, over Riverside Drive, and through the studio complex. A radio and TV broadcast studio. Shops to sell Disney books, dolls, toys, and other souvenirs.

!VehiclesFredGurley&LillyBelle-Big

The dream of the Park seized Walt’s imagination. “Once he got this bug about the Park, it was an obsession,” animator Ward Kimball recalled. “That’s all he thought about. I was in on the very beginning of that, because he started with his interest in the railroad. … I think the nurse and his doctor said he needed a hobby.”5

Seven years after Walt wrote the 1948 memo to Dick Kelsey, Disneyland opened its gates to the public. It was, without question, the most expensive “hobby” in history.


Notes

1. Randy Bright, Disneyland: Inside Story (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 33.

2. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

3. Kathryn Greene and Richard Greene, The Man Behind the Magic: The Story of Walt Disney (New York: Viking, 1998), 138.

4. Michael Broggie, Walt Disney’s Railroad Story: The Small-Scale Fascination That Led to a Full-Scale Kingdom (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning, 2006), 88.

5. Michael Barrier, “Ward Kimball: An Interview by Michael Barrier,” MichaelBarrier.com, August 2003, http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Interviews/Kimball/interview_ward_kimball.htm.


 

ABOUT JIM DENNEY AND WALT’S DISNEYLAND: Jim Denney has more than 120 books to his credit, and has co-written books with sports stars and Hollywood celebrities. His previous book on Walt Disney, How To Be Like Walt (co-written with Orlando Magic founder Pat Williams) has remained in print for a dozen years, and has garnered 4.8 out of 5 stars in 185 customer reviews on Amazon.com. Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look by Jim Denney (Anaheim, CA: Writing in Overdrive Books, May 2017) is available at Amazon.com; Paperback $15.99; Ebook $5.99.

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4 thoughts on “The Origin of Walt’s Disneyland Idea

    1. Many thanks, Dakota! Walt created Disneyland because he wanted, more than anything else, to make people happy. If he saw one of his employees at Disneyland not smiling, he’d stop and remind them, “Remember, we are selling happiness here!” I hope you have a magical time at Disneyland. All the best! —J.D.

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