Here's the deal with Disneyland. The two women ahead of me in line were Elizabeth and Lexi, twins from Winnetka, Ill. Elizabeth is a communications...
“Think of the happiest things,
it’s the same as having wings … “
— from “Peter Pan”
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Here’s the deal with Disneyland.
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The two women ahead of me in line were Elizabeth and Lexi, twins from Winnetka, Ill. Elizabeth is a communications and political science major at the University of Southern California. Lexi is a philosophy major at Yale.
They knew the words to “We Can Fly,” a song from Walt Disney’s “Peter Pan.” It’s the song the chorus sings when Wendy, John and Michael, powered by pixie dust, fly with Peter from London — pausing at Big Ben — and off to Never Land.
I knew the words, too.
I am much, much older than Elizabeth and Lexi, and it didn’t matter.
In that line for Peter Pan’s Flight, a ride at Disneyland, we sang the song together without any sense of embarrassment.
“When there’s a smile in your heart … ”
Says it all.
It was 1955 — two years after Peter and Wendy and Hook and that very silly ticking crocodile hit the big screen — that Walt Disney gave the world Disneyland.
Anaheim, and a sizable chunk of the world, are better for it.
Naturally, the Disney folk are planning a 50th Anniversary Celebration this year. The party officially begins May 5 (That’s 05/05/05. Get it? The Mad Hatter would.), even though the actual anniversary is July 17.
What was it like here on July 17, 1955? Well, it certainly wasn’t your average zip-a-dee-doo-dah day.
Statement, in a news release, attributed to Disney CEO Michael Eisner:
“The dawn of the theme-park industry rose from one man’s dream as he walked Anaheim orange groves more than 50 years ago, and today, the sun never sets on Disney’s global theme-park landscape.”
That’s nice. Here’s a 1955 eyewitness account of the dawning, by the Associated Press:
“An estimated 30,000 persons visited Disneyland today as the $17 million amusement park was opened to the public. … A gas leak that forced officials to close part of Fantasyland Castle (sic) for an hour and 40 minutes was repaired.”
Which pretty much coincides with this retrospective:
“Opening Day was generally regarded as a disaster.”
That last quote is courtesy of John McClintock, a spokesman for what’s now Disneyland Resort (Disneyland, Disney’s California Adventure and related Anaheim properties) and a truth-teller from whom we will hear again.
Undeniable fact: Disneyland always has been as much about selling stuff as it’s been about expressing the founder’s fixation on trains, Victorian main streets, dwarfs and a certain rodent.
And yet …
On this latest visit, there was a moment. It came at the end of a performance of “Snow White — An Enchanting New Musical.” This one little girl was standing on a chair, her stance steadied by her mother’s hands, and excitedly clapping.
Prince Charming, from the stage, spotted her in the crowd. He waved. The little girl waved back, and turned to her mother, absolutely beaming.
So if you want to tell kids waiting in an autograph line that inside the Goofy suit is some out-of-work dishwasher, go ahead.
I, for one, choose to believe — for hours at a time, at least — that elephants can fly without a magic feather, pirates are very cool, that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true — and if you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.
On the other hand: Opening Day in 1955 was a disaster.
Asphalt was still soft, trapping high heels. Rides broke down. Gate-crashers with phony tickets overwhelmed the place. Tomorrowland almost didn’t open until … well … sometime beyond tomorrow.
All this, of course, was nationally televised (with a succession of technical glitches) on ABC, co-hosted by, among others, General Electric pitchman Ronald Reagan.
“Not much was here in 1955,” McClintock said, standing in today’s Tomorrowland near the place where a rocket (brought to you by TWA) once waited eternally for liftoff. “It was very, very much a rush job.”
Over in Fantasyland …
“There was a boat ride here, which was pretty much a boat ride through nothing,” McClintock said. “It was just a river and, as I’ve heard it described, piles of mud.”
In short, Disneyland on July 17, 1955, was Adventureland. (Which, by the way, had only one working ride.)
“There are,” wrote Time film critic Richard Schickel in “The Disney Version,” an ungushing corporate bio unsurprisingly not for sale in Disneyland, “many humorous stories about the opening of Disneyland … ”
What’s interesting, given the shaky beginning, is how much of the original 1955 Disneyland is still here, in good working order, nearly half a century later.
The life-size Mark Twain Riverboat — the most popular ride in the park’s early days — still paddles its way along the Rivers of America. The Hatter’s cups still spin madly at the Mad Tea Party. Dumbos (which debuted a month late) still carry passengers, unlike TWA.
“I think some of the elephants are the original elephants,” said McClintock, others having flown to Paris in 1990, “and I’m virtually certain some of the teacups are originals.”
The Frontierland Shootin’ Exposition — a shooting gallery — continues to draw markspeople, even though rifles that once shot actual pellets now fire only laser beams. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventures and, yes, Peter Pan’s Flight — all there in 1955 — are all there today. Sort of.
“It’s not the same ride,” McClintock said of, for example, Peter Pan’s Flight. “It’s obviously the same concept — but, for example, the stars on the ride now are fiber-optics. In the early days, the stars were Ping-Pong balls painted with fluorescent paint.”
But if Walt Disney suddenly showed up to check things out, he’d no doubt be most delighted to find that the miniature trains still run on time, and Main Street U.S.A. hasn’t changed much at all.
“The Opera House, which now has Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, was the first building built at Disneyland,” McClintock said. Only the signs are post-1955.
Upstairs at the Fire House, right off the town square, was Disney’s private apartment. It isn’t a living quarters today; a small light, always on, glows from a front window in tribute to Disney, who died in 1966.
“He would spend nights there frequently,” McClintock said. “When I came to work here [in 1987], there were still some old-timers who had stories. They’d come in to work at 6 a.m., and Walt would be taking a walk through the park, to see what he wanted to change.
“What he supposedly said was that he was frustrated with filmmaking because when you finished a film, that was it. Whereas the park — it constantly evolves. He could add new things; he could close down things he didn’t like; he could change things.”