by Jim Denney
One day, while walking through Tomorrowland with my family, I got curious: Whose idea was Space Mountain? I assumed that Space Mountain could not have been one of Walt’s ideas — after all, the attraction wasn’t built until almost a decade after he died.
As I continued my day at Disneyland, I wondered about many other attractions in the Park. How much of what I saw all around me was Walt’s original Disneyland — the Disneyland he opened in 1955, the Disneyland he spent the last eleven years of his life improving and redesigning and “plussing”? In other words, how much of Walt’s own original Disneyland remained — and how much of it had disappeared since his death in December 1966?
After returning home, I began looking through the literature on Walt and his Park and I realized that no one had ever written a book to answer the questions I had. So I decided to write the book myself.
Cover and interior pages from the ebook edition of Walt’s Disneyland.
Back in 2003 and 2004, when I was co-writing a book called How to Be like Walt with Orlando Magic co-founder Pat Williams, I was talking to our adviser on that project, former Disneyland cast member and all-around Disney expert Peggy Matthews Rose, and she made a statement that has always stuck with me: “Disneyland is the only theme park in the world that has Walt’s fingerprints on it.”
Now, that statement was a thought-stopper. Peggy was right. There are literally places in the Park — probably inside his apartment above the Fire House, or inside the Castle, or in the show buildings of the dark rides — where you could actually find Walt’s fingerprints if you knew where to look. And in a deeper sense, you can find the imprint of Walt’s thoughts and imagination and memories all over the Park.
Yes, Walt’s influence has been erased or overwritten here and there. His successors have added Johnny Depp’s face to Pirates of the Caribbean, torn down Walt’s Fort Wilderness on Tom Sawyer Island, evicted the Swiss Family Robinson from Walt’s Treehouse, and more. But much of Walt’s Disneyland remains, ready to be discovered and explored — if you know where to look. When you know the history of Disneyland, and how Walt viewed it, your experience of the Park will be that much more meaningful. In fact, people tell me they’re reading Walt’s Disneyland before their next Disneyland trip, so that their next Disney vacation will be a richer experience for themselves and their children and grandchildren.
Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look is a guided tour of Walt Disney’s vision of Disneyland from its conception until Walt’s death in 1966. I’ve returned to the Park a number of times since writing the book, and it all means more to me now. I see it as Walt must have seen it. I see the Train Station and think, “That’s where Walt carried a sick little boy in his arms and gave him his dying wish before the Park even opened — a ride with Walt on the Disneyland Railroad.” At the Opera House I stop and think, “Here’s where Walt hosted a group of decorated war heroes on his last day at the Park.” All these stories and more are in the book.
Another goal in writing the book was to separate myth from fact. There are countless false notions and urban myths floating around about Walt and Disneyland. Some of these myths are even reported by “official” biographies and websites — and Walt himself was the source of a myth or two.
Take, for example, the well-known story of how Walt got the idea for Disneyland. In the early 1960s, interviewer Fletcher Markle asked Walt, “Where did you originally get the first notion for Disneyland?”
“Well,” Walt replied, “it came about when my daughters were very young, and Saturday was always Daddy’s day with the two daughters. So we’d start out and try to go someplace, you know, different things, and I’d take them to the merry-go-round and I took them different places and as I’d sit while they rode the merry-go-round and did all these things — sit on a bench, you know, eating peanuts — I felt that there should be something built, some kind of an amusement enterprise where parents and the children could have fun together. So that’s how Disneyland started. Well, it took many years. It was a period of maybe fifteen years developing. I started with many ideas, threw them away, started all over again. And eventually it evolved into what you see today at Disneyland. But it all started from a daddy with two daughters, wondering where he could take them where he could have a little fun with them too.” [From Walt Disney Conversations, compiled by Kathy Merlock Jackson (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), page 94.]
Shortly before Disneyland opened in July 1955, the Long Beach Independent-Press-Telegram carried a story headlined “Disneyland Long a Dream of Walt.” This statement appeared near the end of the article: “Plans for the wonderland began to go on paper as far back as 1932 when Walt’s magnificent dream began to take form. In cleaning out files at the Burbank studio recently, original Disneyland sketches, bearing the 1932 date, were found” (Long Beach Independent-Press-Telegram, July 15, 1955, page 4; see the image, left).
Walt’s elder daughter, Diane Disney Miller, was born in December 1933, at least a year after the date of those early Disneyland sketches. So when Walt was sitting on a bench in Griffith Park, watching his daughters go around and around on the merry-go-round, he had already drawn up plans for his Disney-themed park years earlier. I don’t doubt that Walt really did sit on that bench and dream of an amusement park where parents and kids would have fun together. But that’s not where the idea began. Walt had the idea for Disneyland long before he was a father — and probably long before he got the idea for a mouse named Mickey.
I believe Walt built Disneyland as a gift to his own inner child, to compensate for the childhood he lost when his family moved to Kansas City from a farm in Marceline, Missouri. And Disneyland is also Walt’s gift to the world. The attractions people love most — the Jungle Cruise, the Disneyland Railroad, the Fantasyland dark rides, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, “it’s a small world” — all came from Walt’s own imagination.
Even Space Mountain was Walt’s idea, though it opened long after his death. In 1964, Walt called his Imagineers together and explained his idea for a ride he called “Space Port” — a futuristic roller coaster in the dark. When Walt died in December 1966, the company put Space Mountain on hold and turned its attention to building Walt Disney World in Florida. When Walt Disney World opened in October 1971, Florida’s Magic Kingdom had no thrill rides. The company briefly considered building a Matterhorn in Florida, but decided that the Matterhorn wouldn’t fit physically or aesthetically in the Florida Park. Instead, the company resurrected Walt’s “Space Port” idea and built it at Walt Disney World, naming it “Space Mountain.” It opened in 1975, nine years after Walt’s death — and the popularity of Florida’s Space Mountain persuaded the company to build a second Space Mountain at Disneyland. So yes, it was Walt’s idea all along.
I’ve packed Walt’s Disneyland full of stories like these, so you can appreciate the rich history of the Park during your next visit. Walt’s Disneyland is still there, waiting to be discovered, waiting to be enjoyed. Your experience and your family’s experience of the Park will be enhanced and enriched once you know where to find Walt’s original Disneyland.
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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