by Jim Denney
Walt Disney broke ground for Disneyland on July 16, 1954, on a tract of former orange and walnut groves. A team of landscapers from WED Enterprises marked hundreds of orange trees for removal, and marked a few others to be retained. Trees tagged with red ribbons were to be bulldozed while trees with green ribbons were to be spared. Unfortunately, the bulldozer operator was colorblind and removed all the trees in that section.
Today, no original orange trees exist in the Park. For many years, one of the surviving orange trees grew near the bungalows of the Disneyland Hotel. The tree died in 1999, around the time the bungalows were demolished to make room for Downtown Disney, the shopping and dining district that opened in 2001.
Today, the entrance to Tomorrowland is marked by a small grove of orange trees. Before Walt bulldozed the Disneyland property, the entire site was shaded by hundreds of orange trees. Now one little patch of Tomorrowland has been restored to its original citrusy purpose.
There is only one living tree that was on the property before Walt acquired the land — a Canary Island date palm. Walt’s horticulturalist, Morgan “Bill” Evans, told the story of that tree:
Planted in 1896 by an early rancher, it was a stalwart and revered resident of his front lawn, admired by three generations of children and adults. One member of the family was married beneath it. When the owner of the land sold his acreage to Walt Disney in 1954, he requested that this venerable palm be preserved. Walt was more than happy to oblige, but since the tree stood in the middle of Section C of the projected parking lot, he ordered that it be carefully “balled,” lifted tenderly from its old home and trundled, all fifteen tons of it, to Adventureland.
Today that ancient palm tree, The Dominguez Tree, stands guard over the Indiana Jones FastPass kiosk. It’s the oldest living thing in Disneyland, and the only living reminder of the hundreds of trees that once shaded the property where Walt’s Disneyland stands today.
In the early 1950s, Anaheim was a tiny community in a lightly populated agricultural region, Orange County, California. The pre-Disneyland economy of the region was based almost entirely on citrus crops, avocados, and crude oil.
While Walt was building Disneyland, the state of California was busily expanding its freeway system. Bill Evans and his crew secured many mature palm trees that had been tagged for destruction by state surveyors. The completion of the Santa Ana Freeway (now Interstate 5) in 1954, and the opening of Disneyland in 1955, dramatically transformed the region.
Even though none of the original orange trees remain alive in the Park, their presence is still felt on the Jungle Cruise attraction in Adventureland. Bill Evans devised creative approaches to building his jungle, using a combination of live exotic plants, artificial plants, and even uprooted orange trees planted upside down. The roots of the bulldozed trees looked a lot like jungle vines and creepers, and those roots are still visible on the Jungle Cruise attraction today.
In 1960, Disney released the motion picture Swiss Family Robinson, based on the 1812 novel by Johann David Wyss. The film depicts members of a shipwrecked family rebuilding their lives on a tropical island. The Swiss Family Treehouse opened two years later in Adventureland. The tree and the Treehouse are constructed of reinforced steel and concrete. The skeleton of the structure stands sixty feet tall and the foliage reaches seventy feet in height. The attraction weighs more than 150 tons. Adorned with more than 150,000 vinyl leaves and more than 50,000 flowers, the tree is the only known specimen of its species, which Disneyland botanists call Disneyodendron semperflorens grandis.
Walt conceived the attraction as a walk-through — or, more precisely, a climb-through. There are sixty-eight steps going up, sixty-nine going down. When Walt pitched his idea to the Imagineers, they predicted failure. No one, they said, would want to climb all the way to the top of the Treehouse, then wend their way back down again. Walt’s reply: Everybody loves a treehouse. And, of course, he was right.
The Treehouse cost a C-ticket when it opened in 1962, was demoted to a B-ticket attraction in 1966, and is now free with admission to the Park. Beginning in February 1999, Disneyland gave the Treehouse a makeover, retheming it as Tarzan’s Treehouse. The Treehouse reopened on June 23, 1999, roughly coinciding with the release of Disney’s animated Tarzan feature. When you look out through the foliage at Frontierland, the Rivers of America, and New Orleans Square, you can still see it all through the eyes of Walt Disney.
As Walt once said, “Disneyland will never be finished. It’s something I can keep developing, keep plussing and adding to. It will be a living, breathing thing that will always keep changing. Not only can I add new things, but even the trees will keep growing. Disneyland will get more beautiful every year.”
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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