The Construction of Disneyland

In 1932, Walt Disney considered building a family park on a vacant 16 acre plot directly across the street from his studios. Unfortunately the idea was turned down by the City of Burbank. That, however, didn’t discourage him to further elaborate his ideas over the next decades. By the late forties, the concept of what would later become Disneyland began to take shape.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Walt about the project. Bankers, investors and lot of people within the company strongly opposed to it. His brother Roy thought that a "fanciful, expensive amusement park would lead to financial ruin." After all, Walt Disney lacked the real estate and commercial construction experience to bring this kind of adventure to a good end.

But Walt was confident of his vision and started to gather the necessary funds all by himself. He sold vacation property and borrowed on his life insurance. He assembled a team of the Studio's most talented and inventive staff members and gave them the task to develop his broad ideas and create, with the help of commercial contractors, a rough construction timetable.

The creative team operated out of a small building on the Disney studios lot and its members were the first employees of the newly formed WED Enterprises (from the initials Walter Elias Disney). This design and development organization, founded by Walt in December 1952, was the precursor of today's Walt Disney Imagineering.

In July 1953, Walt hired the Stanford Research Institute to examine the economic prospects of developing Disneyland and to scout a Southern California location (providing information on such topics as demographic statistics, urban growth trends, population concentrations, traffic patterns, freeway construction, availability of experienced commercial contractors and weather conditions).

By August the site had been found - 38 miles south of Burbank in a city called Anaheim. Disney acquired 160 acres of orange groves and walnut trees alongside the new Santa Ana freeway and Harbor Boulevard. Its proximity to a major freeway meant the park was a less than 30 minute drive away from downtown Los Angeles.

Now time had also come to pitch prospective backers on the idea of Disneyland in order to secure funding for the project. Since network executives had approached him in the past about doing a television series, Walt Disney felt that his greatest hope for funding lay within the television industry.

But when he tied Disneyland to his proposed television series, he was turned down by both NBC and CBS. Roy then scheduled a meeting with executives at ABC, a fledgling network that was desperate for quality programming.

On a September Saturday, Walt had tracked down Herb Ryman, an artist friend, to help him draw a detailed rendering of what Disneyland would look like. Over the weekend, which came to be known as the 'lost weekend', Walt talked about his vision for Disneyland while Herb drew.

Roy took the detailed drawing with him to ABC and managed to turn the tide. ABC agreed to loan Disney $500.000 and guarantee $4,5 million in loans in return for a one-third ownership in Disneyland and a promise of a weekly Disney television show for the network.

In April of 1954, just 90 days before construction was to begin on Disneyland, Walt brought retired Admiral Joe Fowler on board to supervise the project. To Fowler, Disneyland looked like a lot of what he called 'blue sky plans' but the man known as 'Admiral Can Do', who once ran the busy San Francisco Navy Yard, was perfect for the job.

Construction began on July 16, 1954.

Crews worked around the clock to meet the tight schedule.

Tomorrowland.

Main Street USA.

Overview.

Walt visited the site several times a week to keep an eye on the construction works.

Progress went sporadically despite numerous obstacles. As the months passed, tropical jungles, a rustic frontier fort and a charming, ornate castle started to take place of what was once Anaheim orange groves.

On October 27, Disneyland the television series debuted on ABC.

Each week, the show was hosted by Walt and featured programs from the realms of Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland.

Viewers were also treated to frequent 'progress reports' in which actual Disneyland construction footage was shown to pique the interest of would-be guests.

After one full year of rigorous construction demands and a total investment of $ 17 million, the gates of Disneyland would be opened for its first guests on Sunday, July 17, 1955.

Photos:

Tom Simpson
The Orange County Archives
Vintage Disneyland Tickets Blog

Shared Knowledge

Submitted by Bruce L. McNeil on May 31, 2013 - 19:56 #

How about including the name of the contractor who built Disneyland, Bruce W. McNeil and the McNEIL CONSTRUCTION CO., as depicted in your photo above. Specifically, the photo with earth moving equipment in the background. My grandfather, Bruce W. McNeil is the gentleman on the right.

Comments

Submitted by Emily on January 29, 2014 - 17:55 #

Loved this article. Used it for an informative speech and found it very helpful! Thank you!

Submitted by Jim W. on January 24, 2014 - 01:31 #

My grandfather was a contractor involved in the construction (Johnston Stainless Welding Rods) and received an autographed drawing (after his work had been completed at Disneyland) signed by Walt Disney.

That drawing hung in my grandparents home for many decades, and I would always gawk at it, until one day my grandmother told me to take it off the wall and bring it to her. Well, I took it to her, and she then promptly put it back in my hands and told me that since I loved it and appreciated it so much that I could have it. And I still do have it and enjoy it.

Submitted by Kent W. Henderson on December 5, 2013 - 02:18 #

Just a few days prior to the opening of Disneyland, a well dressed man entered the Headquarters and Service Battalion at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Sand Diego. He spoke to my First Sergeant and handed him two envelopes. He indicated that Disneyland would soon be opening, and offered the packets to him to give to the Commanding General.

As soon as the man left, the Sergeant turned to me and asked me if I wanted to go to some new 'carnival'. He assured me that General McQueen wouldn't be interested.

I gratefully accepted the packets and asked one of my closest friends, Carl W. Patterson if he would like to go with me.

On July 17, 1955, Carl and I entered the gates of Disneyland. The place was full of dignitaries and us. I am now 78 years of age, but over the years have taken each of my children, grand-children, and great-grand-children back to that most marvelous place.

I have watched the trees grow, old attractions disappear and new one replace, but I will never forget that first day when the large palms were tethered and the small trees were not more than a foot tall.

Thanks for the memories Walt and Roy. America and the World is a better place because of you!

Submitted by Cerise on November 26, 2013 - 05:22 #

Wonderful article! Amazing to see the pictures of the construction site. When I visit Disneyland I can never help but notice how-it-all-works, attractions and activities, seeing how it came together, is even more fun. Thank you.

Submitted by Bryttani on November 7, 2013 - 19:24 #

This website has extremely accurate information! Very helpful!

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