Disneyland from Black Sunday to World Entertainment

On this day in 1955, Disneyland, Walt Disney’s metropolis of nostalgia, fantasy, and futurism, opens in grand and comic style. The $17 million theme park was built on 160 acres of former orange groves in Anaheim, California, and soon brought in staggering profits. Today, Disneyland hosts more than 14 million visitors a year, who spend close to $3 billion. Harper’s Index estimates that 70% of all Americans have visited Disneyland or Disney World.

Walt Disney conceived of Disneyland after visiting various amusement parks with his daughters in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He initially envisioned building a tourist attraction adjacent to his studios in Burbank to entertain fans who wished to visit, but as this site was too restrictive, he purchased the 160 acres of orange grove in Anaheim. Disney was influenced by an outing to Griffith Park with his daughters in the early 1940’s, and may have also been inspired by his father’s memories of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, where the elder Disney had worked. Coincidentally this was the hunting ground to the first known American serial Killer, HH Holmes, as presented in “The Devil in White City.”

The Midway Plaisance in Chicago included a set of attractions representing various countries from around the world and others representing various periods of man; it also included many rides including the first Ferris Wheel, a “sky” ride, a passenger train that circled the perimeter, and a Wild West Show. Another likely influence was Benton Harbor, Michigan’s nationally famous House of David’s Eden Springs Park.

Eden Springs was developed in turn by cult patriarch Benjamin Purnell, who was accused of inappropriate relations by 13 young women all confessing, under oaths to the courts, sexual relations while still minors. As soon as this became public knowledge, the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers ran rather critical articles about Purnell; he died in 1927.

Back to a clean story, construction began at Disneyland on July 16, 1954 and cost the mere $17 million to complete. The park was opened one year and one day later to great fanfare, with The Special Sunday, including a dedication televised nationwide and anchored by three of Walt Disney’s friends from Hollywood: Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and Ronald Reagan. ABC broadcast the event live, during which many guests tripped over the television camera cables. Although 28,000 people attended the event, only about half of those were actual invitees, with the rest sporting counterfeit tickets, or hopping the fence.

Due to one absurd production wipe-out after another, and premature construction woes, the premier came to be known as “Black Sunday.” Traffic was delayed on the two-lane Harbor Boulevard. Famous figures who were scheduled to show up every two hours showed up all at once. The temperature was an unusually high 101 °F, and due to a local plumbers’ strike, Disney was given a choice of having working drinking fountains or running toilets; he chose the latter, leaving many drinking fountains dry, and generated negative publicity since Pepsi sponsored the park’s opening and disappointed guests believed the inoperable fountains were a cynical way to sell soda. Meanwhile other vendors ran out of food, and the asphalt that had been poured that morning was soft enough to cause women’s high-heeled shoes sink into it.

Undaunted, the Disney “magic” enchanted the park(s), a function of brilliance, imagination, planning, research and shit-tons of money. With the addition of new attractions, new related themed parks and the entire wrap-around concept, the name Disney is likely as recognizable as Lincoln. Disneyland alone has a larger cumulative attendance than any other theme park in the world, with over 708 million guests since it opened.

In 2017, the park hosted approximately 18.3 million guests, making it the second most visited amusement park in the world that calendar year, behind sister-park Magic Kingdom in Orlando. According to a March 2005 Disney report, 65,700 jobs are supported by the Disneyland Resort, including about 20,000 direct Disney employees and 3,800 third-party employees.

Worldwide, the global park segment of Disney, including parks in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai, employed over 130,000 people, pre-Covid. Inclusive of its intellectual/production holdings, which include Marvel, Star Wars, and 21st Century Fox (Homer Simpson, et al), 2019 Revenue of the entire Walt Disney Company, across all concerns and sectors, was nearly $60 billion.

It’s a small world, indeed.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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