by Jim Denney, author of Walt’s Disneyland
Above: Sleeping Beauty Castle at night with King Arthur’s Carrousel visible through the Castle archway, 2005. Photo by FA Jon, released to public domain.
UPDATE — January 27. 2019: After I posted the following piece, a friend on Twitter informed me that the July 16, 1954 date for the beginning of construction is in question. An article posted on the D23 Official Disney Fan Site states that “workers began construction” of Disneyland on July 21, 1954, which would mean that Disneyland was built in less than a year, not a year and a day as I have stated below. That article does not define what “workers began construction” means. Is that the day of groundbreaking, or clearing the orange groves, or pouring concrete foundations? The D23 piece doesn’t say.
When I checked other sources, the question grew murkier. On page 524 of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler writes, “They broke ground on July 12, 1954, which meant that they had to finish within a year to meet Walt’s self-imposed deadline.” Not only is this a different date altogether, but Gabler’s sentence makes no sense; July 12, 1954 to July 17, 1955 is a year and five days, not “within a year.” Perhaps he meant July 21, but transposed the digits.
Bob Thomas, in both Walt Disney: An American Original (page 253) and Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire (page 189), states that construction began with “the removal of the first orange tree in August 1954, eleven months before the promised opening” (the quote is from Building a Company). I have to believe that Thomas is mistaken.
An article on the ABC7 website offers the same date I used in this article: “Construction on Disneyland began on July 16, 1954 and was [completed] just one year and one day later on July 17, 1955.”
Finally, here’s a timeline that may explain why there is confusion about the dates, courtesy of JansWorld.Net:
Friday, July 16, 1954: Work begins on clearing and surveying the 180 acres of Disneyland property. Wednesday, July 21, 1954: Ground is unofficially broken to begin construction at the site. Friday, August 13, 1954: Excavation of ground and removal of nearly twenty old structures begins. A formal and official groundbreaking for Disneyland was planned for Wednesday, August 25, 1954 but the ceremony is cancelled in order to keep the work on schedule. I don’t know what the source for this timeline is, but it seems to make sense of the seeming contradictions.
For now, I’m inclined to stand by the July 16, 1954 date as the beginning of construction, and stick with my “year and a day” theory. However, I have altered the opening paragraph to fit this new information. Now, with this lengthy update concluded, here’s the post:
Walt Disney began clearing and surveying his Disneyland site on July 16, 1954. He had already set July 17, 1955 as Disneyland’s opening day, so he gave himself a year and a day to build his Magic Kingdom. I’ve often wondered why Walt set such a tight (and somewhat odd) deadline for himself. Why a year and a day?
It took Walt more than four years to build New Orleans Square, which is a mere three acres in size. And The Walt Disney Company is spending almost three and a half years building the fourteen-acre Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge section of Disneyland. So the fact that Walt built the entire Disneyland theme park in a year and a day seems all the more amazing.
Only recently did it occur to me that the timeframe Walt chose — a year and a day — might be especially significant and symbolic to him. We know that symbols were important to Walt, not because he was superstitious but because they had sentimental meaning to him. For example, he went to the City of Anaheim and specifically requested the street address 1313 S. Harbor Boulevard for Disneyland because the thirteenth letter of the alphabet is M. Whose initials are MM or “13-13”? That’s right. As Walt said, “It all started with a mouse.”
So what is the symbolic significance of a year and a day? Well, we know that Walt was fascinated by Arthurian legend ever since he was a boy. His love of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is on full display in Fantasyland. Not only is the merry-go-round in Fantasyland called King Arthur’s Carrousel, but Walt had originally planned that the Disneyland castle would be King Arthur’s Castle or the Medieval Castle. The decision to theme the castle as a tie-in to the motion picture Sleeping Beauty came after construction of the castle had begun. Walt also produced an animated film based on Arthurian legend, The Sword in the Stone (1963).
Walt knew that the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table often revolved around a specific timeframe of “a year and a day.” In the fourteenth century Middle English tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight challenges Gawain to strike him with an axe on one condition: they would meet again in “a year and a day” and the Green Knight could strike Gawain with an axe in return. And in Thomas Malory’s fifteenth century novel Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain swears an oath to go in quest of the Holy Grail and not return to Camelot for “a year and a day.”
Disneyland was Walt Disney’s Holy Grail. It was a dream he had carried deep within his soul since his boyhood. Like Sir Gawain, Walt set out on a quest to attain his Holy Grail — that is, to build his Magic Kingdom in the classic Arthurian timeframe of “a year and a day.”
It was a bold and audacious deadline, but symbols mattered deeply to Walt Disney. I can’t prove it, of course, but I believe Walt used this Arthurian deadline as a motivator, to keep his eyes focused on his Grail, his Kingdom, his Disneyland.
What do you think?
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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