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Disneyland Article
Disneyland And Imagineering Part 2
Did you know Walt Disney declared bankruptcy?
It's true.

Pre-Disney: The Roadside Attraction

As I was putting together the material for this article in the series, I wanted to touch on a part of Americana that has significance. I enjoy reading and finding archival film to see how the amusement industry came into being, which was roughly 75 years prior to the opening of Disneyland. The roadside attraction would propel the evolution of storybook concepts combined with simple ride technology. Additionally, the use of transportation systems such as trains, log rides, or simple ride vehicles, along with controlled lighting of different types, particularly ultra-violet black light, reflection, and forced perspective would enhance the ride experience. This in turn would lead the way for the complex effects that would eventually come into being. In spite of these enhancements, it is interesting to note that some of the simplest illusions are permanently established in some of Disneyland's best attractions, to this day. It's not always high-tech that sells the story. That was critical to Disney's philosophy; something that he felt was missing - quality and detail - and most importantly, keeping the story in the forefront, cohesive and easy to follow for the younger audience. After all, that's who they were primarily geared to.

The entertainment era that focused on drawing larger and larger numbers of people really goes back into the 19th century, as families that had to work so hard would desire some respite. In keeping with the American spirit, they wanted to venture out into what was, literally, untouched wilderness, to discover something spectacular beyond their everyday lives.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, of the 2 million miles of roadway in the U.S., less than 200 miles was paved. The rest was either dirt, gravel, or, of all things, crushed glass, or some combination. The automobiles that existed needed constant maintenance; oil had to be added every hundred miles and it was common to suffer blowouts. Nevertheless, progress moved on, and even before the beginning of the 1900's, there had already been one of the first of these attractions. In 1877 an overlook in Hot Springs, Arkansas became a place to visit. An observation tower measuring 165 feet was erected, and one of the first recorded roadside attractions came into being. Interstate roadways like the famous Dixie Highway, stretching from Detroit to Florida, helped facilitate the growth. The range of attractions stretches a broad spectrum, with such favorites as Castle Rock in St. Ignace, Michigan, Tommy Bartlett's Water Show in the Wisconsin Dells, (which is still alive and thriving) and hundreds more, too many to name. It's important to mention an ex-Navy diver, Newton Perry, and his development of an underwater breathing apparatus for his shows in Weeki Wachee, Florida. It was very simple really, running compressed air underwater for the girls to draw air from, well, you get the idea. With the combination of the crystal clear water and adding young girls swimming for long periods of time underwater via way of his breathing system, he had struck on an idea that really sold tickets. In the late 1940's, Perry added more value by not just having girls swim underwater, but by transforming them into mermaids who could eat, drink, and converse underwater with the aid of an audio and mike system. This is another show that still exists today. Definitely someone thinking overtime; sound like anybody we know? People are re-discovering their heritage by seeking out these rarities. There is one other very important concept that I would like to mention before we jump in where we left off: The concept of storytelling while moving through two, and eventually three, dimensional scenarios was an important concept that attracted Disney's attention. This is the core of a great many of the shows and attractions that are in all of the Disney parks. Child-friendly attractions that used fairy tales to capture the imagination and hold their interest were springing up everywhere. Land of MakeBelieve Park in Upstate New York, Storyland in New Hampshire, and one of my personal favorites, Enchanted Forest in the Adirondaks, are just a few. Elaborate set pieces, and vehicles all miniaturized, for children and characters that were either static or eventually utilized simple movements, up or down, back and forth, were incorporated. This is what Disney sought to build on. And build he did.

You say "Tomato," I say "Tomahto."

Last time we left off, Walt had formed WDI in 1952, and plans were underway to build a family oriented theme park. But, before I go any farther, from my research, there seems to be a lot of confusion about whether the company is, or was, known as WDI or WED. I have found several explanations, so as a result of my discovery, the answer is both, or one acronym twice. Here's how the story goes: The company was created in the earlier part of 1952. There was already a corporation, Walt Disney Productions, which was essentially the film division and extremely busy by this time. Roy, being the financial overseer, was concerned that by mixing personal assets and business funding, which at times were one and the same, there would be a "conflict of interest." His concerns were valid; his brother had leveraged personal property at times to move forward. He wanted to make sure that there would not be any suggestion of impropriety. So, toward the latter part of the same year, WDI became WED. It wouldn't be the last time there was a re-organization or name change, but for now, planning was in full swing.

An Orange Grove, transformed into a Land of Imagination.

The corporation was formed; it would be just 30 months before Disneyland's gates would open, but where to build? Burbank was out, not just because of space, but also because the city council disapproved of a "carny" atmosphere. This is ironic because that is exactly what Walt didn't want, so he commissioned Stanford Research Institute to study the area and the demographics. In August of 1953 they told him there was a site 40 miles south of Burbank, in a quiet community of farmers, named Anaheim. It was roughly 160 acres of orange and walnut trees. It adjoined the Santa Ana Freeway, which is a huge plus as far as accessibility, and a now famous Harbor Drive. He bought the entire site for $4,500 per acre which left him with minimal capital. He decided to seek sponsorship from the television networks as they had communicated to him prior that they would like him to develop a television series. However, his pitch to both NBC and CBS was declined. ABC was a new network looking for quality programming and the timing was perfect. Disney films were box-office sellouts with a family theme. Walt and one of his studio artists, Herb Ryman, met on a weekend in September of 1953. Walt articulated his ideas in word pictures while Herb sketched. Roy, who was the lynchpin when it came to securing the loan, took the very large, highly detailed layout of the entire park to ABC. ABC granted an initial $500,000 with a promise in future loans totaling $4,500,000. In turn, they would receive one-third ownership in the park and an agreement that Walt produce a weekly show for the network.

Now came the most important task: Assembling artists, designers, and engineers who could make all of this happen; a place where you could step into and forget about your worries and your strife. I don't believe anyone would argue that Walt Disney was the first Imagineer; that goes without saying. But who were the creators and innovators that helped him realize the herculean task? He would use what he knew best. He drew from the pool of animators, artists, and technicians he used to produce his films. There was a core group of artists: Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Woolie Reitherman, and Frank Thomas. Collectively, they came to be known as the "Nine Old Men." Disney hired Admiral Joe Fowler (ret.) to oversee the entire project for his reputation as a "can-do" man, and on July 16th, 1954, construction officially began. It was almost a year to the day before the park would open. With such a short time for such a large task, crews worked around the clock, clearing the orchard to begin the layout for the park.

The sketched layout was taken and expanded upon dimensionally by Harper Goff, who had been working for Warner Brothers, and had been a long-time friend of Disney, and a fellow train enthusiast. Goff is considered the second Imagineer, so his role cannot be understated. Primarily an art and graphic designer, he had also been in front of the camera in a step-on role in the film that would display some of his most memorable work, the design of the Nautilus for "20.000 Leagues Under the Sea." They had also come from similar backgrounds, that being small-town America. With both of them having a love for trains or, more specifically, steam technology, the pairing was a perfect match. The park project always had a train incorporated into the design from the earliest beginnings. Because they both had a deep love for the history of the country and what it meant to both of them, there was more than one familiar icon that was to appear on the horizon. As the clock ticked closer to the July opening, more and more artists and craftsmen were brought on board to contribute their talents.

In the next article we will meet more of the men and women who worked together as a castle rises from a former orange grove, a carousel is created in painstaking detail, jungle boats risk a perilous journey through deepest Africa, a paddle wheeler sets off on its maiden voyage, the first official mountain appears before the end of the decade (no, not the Matterhorn), and an island gets dry-docked before the park even opens. Was July 17th, 1955 considered opening day? Stay tuned.

In September I met the family of Mary Carter, who, they tell me, is the oldest original surviving female cast-member since Disneyland's opening. They were very pleasant and it was wonderful to hear about the experiences working in the park from the very beginnings. So, thank you to her family for being so gracious.

Attractions Referenced In This Article:
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