Why I Wrote “Walt’s Disneyland”

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.

Ebook-Cover    Ebook-WaltPlans    Ebook-Trolley

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.

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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 DisneylandLongADreamOfWalt-YellowFinalfar 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.

Ebook-FireHouse     PBFireHouse

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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Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look is NOW AVAILABLE for just:

$15.99 paperback

$5.99 Kindle ebook

After you read it, please do me a favor and write a customer review of the book. And if you have any questions or comments, feel free to write to me. My contact information is in the front of the book.


63 thoughts on “Why I Wrote “Walt’s Disneyland”

  1. I read the book How to be Like Walt as a personal development exercise. He was a great man who struggled his entire life. Being born in 1961 I remember when he would introduce the Walt Disney Show and how sad I was when he died. If someone wants to follow a person who would NOT give up on his dreams, Walt Disney is your man.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Many thanks! I agree. Walt’s life is one of the most inspirational and instructive lives ever lived. Anyone who seeks to overcome obstacles and achieve great things should study the life of Walt Disney. Thanks again for your thoughts. J.D.

      Liked by 6 people

  2. This is so interesting! And funny enough – I’m headed to DisneyWORLD on Friday! Maybe I’ll snag that e-book for the plane ride. 🙂

    Liked by 7 people

  3. I’m one of the few people in this world who doesn’t love Mickey Mouse . I do admire Walt Disneys acute business acumen and would ordinarily have never read this book but now I definitely will … you have made me curious about the man behind the mouse and more so the amusement park industry he spawned .

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Hey, thanks for your thoughts. Walt’s business acumen is, I think, a subset of what you might call his “life acumen” or “success acumen.” One of the wisest success quotes I’ve ever read was this statement by Walt: “A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.” (And, I should add, feel free to substitute “she” for “he.”) I appreciate you sharing your thoughts here. All the best. —J.D.

      Liked by 7 people

  4. I’m an annual pass holder at Disneyland and went nearly 50 times last year. I’m pretty familiar with a lot of the lore surrounding the park but I just ordered your book and am looking forward to some more insight. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t wait to read the book. I love taking my little girls to Disneyland and all the wonderful attractions it brings. I loved reading your blog post because it made me think about how much of a dreamer and visionary Walt Disney was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your note, Jose! Disneyland is a great place to share with your children. The history and lessons of Walt and his Park are so rich and instructive. Walt build it for the child in all of us. Thanks for your kind words about the blog. All the best! —J.D.


  6. Interesting! Never really thought about that, but this approach, thinking how much of a certain thing is still original or follows the original creator’s design, is a fascinating approach to a lot of things!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Robin. Yes, Walt Disney was such a distinctly original, creative, and hands-on leader in the organization he founded, that much of Disneyland can be said to reflect his own personal imprint. Each of the different lands of Disneyland reflects some personal passion or obsession of Walt Disney, his small-town boyhood, the books and stories that captured his youthful imagination, his adventures in South America in 1941, his fascination with humanity’s future in space. I became fascinated with the question: How much of Walt’s original Disneyland remains to be discovered and enjoyed? Thanks again for your note, Robin. All the best. —J.D.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love this!! Just finished a 4-episode long documentary about Walt who has always been one of my heroes – despite not being perfect (but who is, right?!). I love Walt for his imagination, I love him for his inner child that never died. I am so grateful that the world was blessed with someone like Walt to make it more beautiful. And Disneyland surely is part of that.
    Disneyland was the main topic of the last episode of the documentary, but I am always eager to learn more, as I too, watching it, realized that this part of the Walt Disney persona is something I do not know much about and was fascinated even by the little I was able to learn.
    I only ever been to the Paris Disneyland, but the day I will make it to the original one, which definitely is on my list especially for the Walt’s fingerprints as you say, I will for sure be carrying your book around with me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Monika! Where and when can your documentary be viewed? Wishing you great success and influence with that project — and wishing you a little of Walt’s magic every day! —J.D.


      1. I know PBS had a great episode of The American Experience all about Walt. It’s a long one but very worth the viewing.


      2. Thanks, Monika. Yes, I watched the American Experience documentary. I thought some of it was great, especially its coverage of his early years. Its coverage of his studio years seem unfairly and inaccurately disparaging in some ways. But Walt’s innate passion for his work and his desire to make people happy did come through. —J.D.


  8. I am a HUGE classic Disney fan and I go to Disneyland as much as possible. Every time I go, I appreciate the nostalgia of Walt’s original dream, but it’s hard to tell what’s left that’s truly “original.” Thank you for writing this! I look forward reading and getting completely consumed by the true nostalgia of the park!


    1. Thank you, Monica! I know what you mean. I went to Disneyland,, looked around, and wanted to know what was Walt’s original Disneyland — his attractions, his ideas, his inspiration — but there was no book or resource that collected that information in one place. So I decided to write it myself. I’ve written dozens of books, but this book was more fun than all the others put together. I hope you enjoy it, and I would like to hear from you again after you’ve read it. Wishing you all the best! —J.D.


  9. This was a really good read and I’ll definitely pick up the book because of it.
    I had no idea sketches were found from the 1930’s. I agree Walt felt like his childhood was stolen from him. This was his way of correcting that. Just goes to show you it’s never too late, and no if your heart is in your dreams, no request is too extreme!


    1. Thank you so much for those thoughts, Dakota! I agree with you: Walt redeemed the unhappy times of his own childhood by enhancing and enriching the childhoods (and yes, the adulthoods!) of millions of other people, generation after generation. What a gift to the human race! Walt’s heart was truly in his dreams. God bless you, Dakota. All the best. —J.D.


  10. What an amazing premise for a book! I’ll be grabbing this on my kindle tonight. I’ve often thought the same things about where and when the ideas for things at the parks came from and how they were brought to light. I feel like if you’re not looking hard enough some times, it can seem like a lot of Walt’s vision for what he wanted is disappearing, and then at other times it’s like it’s all still right there. Thank you for writing what I’m sure is an amazing read, I can’t wait to get started on it!


    1. Many thanks for those kind words! And for buying the book. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts after you read it. My contact information is in the front of the book, or you can leave a review on the Amazon.com page. I’ve written a lot of books, but none more enjoyable than this one. Now, when I visit Disneyland, I see so much more than the entertainment and the show. I sense the history and remember the various stories of things Walt said and did in various parts of his “kingdom.” Again, thanks for your affirming note. I hope you enjoy the book! —J.D.

      P.S. I just checked out your excellent “Dreaming Place” blog at https://thedreamingplaceblog.wordpress.com/. Beautifully done! I’m looking forward to Part 2 of your “Walking in Walt’s Footsteps” piece. All the best.


    1. Thanks, Mark! It’s amazing to read the story of how Walt persevered through obstacles and opposition to achieve his dream of building Disneyland. So many people, including his wife and his brother/business partner Roy, told him it couldn’t be done, he should stick to movies and cartoons. He was driven by an inner need that went much deeper than the desire to run a successful business. Walt invented the theme park as we know it today, and it never would have happened if he hadn’t been seeking to meet the unmet needs of that little boy from Marceline. Thanks again for your note, Mark. All the best. —J.D.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is so true, J.D. It must have taken so much inner strength and discipline to keep chasing his dreams and not give in to pressure. Thanks again for the good read!


  11. Two of my favorite things to read about are history, and Disney. And you’ve taken the two, and incorporated the ideas in a way that any person could understand, and become entranced by. I love the concept, and the correlation to times in the park with family, and your own thoughts, mixed in with fact and history.


    1. Many thanks for your thoughts! I’m glad you like the book and the blog. When the idea of WALT’S DISNEYLAND occurred to me, I wasn’t sure if anyone else would be interested. Yet I was also amazed that this sort of book had never been written before. I knew I had to write this book. I’m grateful that you and many other people have welcomed a book devoted to Walt’s enduring legacy at Disneyland. Thanks again for your affirming words! —Jim D.


      1. I’d love to learn a little more about the process of writing, and any obstacles you may have come across- as either the author or Disney’s involvement in the book- if you have the time? I recently started working on a bucket list for myself, and I’d like to eventually write and publish, myself.


  12. Such a great article on your reasons for writing about Walt DIsney! I find that Walt’s visions were incredibly innovative and inspiring for anyone who could appreciate his story and life.


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