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Disneyland Article
Disastrous Debut The Inside Story Of The 1955 Opening Day Fiasco

Main Street Fire House
ID:
TMS-5413
Source:
parksavers.com
Author:
Steve G
Dateline:
December 30, 2023
Posted:
January 10, 2024
Status:
Current
Disneyland’s opening day on July 17, 1955, was intended to be a major media event, televised nationally with Hollywood stars and dignitaries in attendance. However, problems, mishaps, and disasters turned it into a day forever known as “Black Sunday.”

Background and Lead Up

The concept for Disneyland began when Walt Disney was spending time with his daughters at parks and carnivals in the 1940s and 1950s. He imagined a family park where parents and children could have fun together, sparking the idea for a new kind of amusement park. After years of planning, Walt Disney Productions broke ground on Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1954. Walt closely oversaw the planning and construction, aiming to finish within one year.

With only 12 months until opening, the pressure was intense to finish building and preparing the park. As opening day approached, the park was clearly still a work in progress. Paths were still being paved, buildings were still unfinished, and attractions were still being tested. However, with the July 17th grand opening and national TV special fast approaching, there was no more time.

Opening Day Expectations

The July 17th event was planned as an International Press Preview, with about 15,000 special guests invited including press, celebrities, dignitaries, and company sponsors. It would give Walt a chance to showcase his nearly-finished park, building excitement before a public opening the following day on July 18th. The 3-hour Opening Day Celebration TV special hosted by Ronald Reagan, Art Linkletter, and Bob Cummings would give viewers across the country a first look at Disneyland and its themed lands: Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. Despite construction running behind schedule, Walt & Roy Disney were confident that opening day would delight their guests and launch their new park successfully. However, difficulties were already emerging behind the scenes…

Crowd Control Crisis

Unexpectedly, in the days leading up to July 17th, numerous counterfeit tickets were circulating, especially among those with ties to people working at Disneyland. As opening day arrived, the invited guest list of 15,000 swelled to over 28,000 ticket holders all trying to enter the park at once. The single Disneyland entrance and Main Street USA instantly jammed beyond capacity. With overcrowding and counterfeits out of control, additional guests continued finding ways into the park by climbing over fences and sneaking past security.

Counterfeit Tickets

The counterfeiting debacle on opening day caused massive problems, no one was able to identify who was behind making and distributing the fake tickets. It seems to have been an opportunistic situation taken advantage of by multiple parties rather than one single counterfeiting operation.

The tickets were invitation-only for the July 17th International Press Preview event, reserved for VIPs, press, employees etc. However, counterfeits spread rapidly.

It’s not clear who printed the fake tickets. The sources mention they were being sold at places like the Long Beach Pike amusement zone to those with Disney connections.

There was likely more than one source, as thousands of counterfeits flooded the park, far exceeding expected attendance. Security was unprepared to spot the sophisticated fakes or stem the influx.

In the years after, new ticket designs made replication more difficult. But the incident showed Disney’s vulnerability.

Unfortunately, there are still some unknowns about the origins of this little-discussed scheme that overwhelmed Disneyland’s first day. This issue highlighted a major area needing improvement for better capacity and access management.

Counterfeit Tickets After Opening Day

In the aftermath, Disneyland implemented several key measures aimed at preventing another counterfeit ticket crisis.

New ticket designs were created that were more difficult to replicate. The tickets started using special backgrounds and patterns to make counterfeiting harder.

Tickets were only sold directly through Disneyland and authorized sellers/travel agents.

Policies were added restricting ticket transfers and rentals. Disneyland cracked down, making tickets non-transferrable from the original buyer.

Security was increased to better verify valid tickets. With the opening day issues, Disneyland had learned tickets needed proper activation and security checks before allowing entrance with them.

The main measures were designing better tickets, restricting sales channels, adding transfer policies, and improving entrance security. These changes over time aimed to prevent a repeat of the counterfeit debacle that had contributed to the massive crowds and dangers on opening day in 1955.

Traffic and Parking Nightmares

The massive influx of unexpected visitors caused a traffic crisis on city roads and freeways leading to Disneyland. Traffic was backed up for seven miles on the Santa Ana Freeway, with travel times exceeding seven hours. Faced with gridlock, many families walked miles from the freeway to Disneyland’s entrance. Once arriving, Disneyland’s limited parking lot filled instantly. As cars overflowed into unofficial grass lots, vehicles were soon stranded bumper-to-bumper in thick mud from the previous night’s rain.

Breakdowns, Closures, and Accidents

Inside Disneyland, the vast crowds and strained systems led to accidents and breakdowns across the park on opening day.

Within hours, restaurants ran completely out of food. Lines exceeded 2 hours long.

Fantasyland suffered a major gas leak, forcing an emergency evacuation and closure of the land.

The narrow passageways jammed dangerously as guests moved between lands. Strollers tipped over and children were separated from parents.

Due to plumbers’ strikes, few drinking fountains were working on the hottest day of the year. Guests resorted to drinking water from decorative fountains.

Rides including the Jungle Cruise, Rocket to the Moon, and Dumbo broke down from the strain of excessive use and unfinished maintenance.

The Mark Twain Riverboat was overloaded with so many guests that its deck nearly dipped into the water.

The chaos disappointed families that had traveled cross-country after seeing Disneyland’s national TV promotion. The park was simply not ready for opening day, with some journalists calling the park a “fiasco.”

Aftermath

In the following days, Walt Disney personally apologized. He invited guests and press to return to properly experience Disneyland once repairs were finished and operations improved. Within just weeks, adjustments were made all across the park based on opening day feedback regarding crowd flow, ride capacity, staff communication, and traffic management. These lessons helped Disneyland quickly boost efficiency and guest satisfaction after the rocky debut. Soon the magic of Disneyland shone through. Just seven weeks after opening day, Disneyland had already welcomed its one millionth visitor.

Within a year, over 5 million people visited, cementing Disneyland’s status as a beloved California landmark that still thrives today. So while Black Sunday created headaches and heartaches initially, it provided crucial insights to strengthen Disneyland for the long run. The disastrous first impression ultimately faded into history as Disneyland became “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Walt and Roy learned on July 17th what worked and what needed fixing – and the Park has continued evolving ever since opening day.

Wild Mishaps

Here are some interesting lesser-known things that happened on Disneyland’s opening day on July 17, 1955:

Walt Disney himself got accidentally locked in the apartment above the Main Street firehouse on opening morning. He had to yell for help to get freed.

A window pane fell off the Mark Twain Riverboat ride and crashed onto the head of an invited state senator.

Women wearing high heels on Main Street got their shoes stuck in the newly-paved asphalt that had melted in the heat.

Fantasyland suffered a major gas leak, forcing an emergency evacuation and temporary land closure on opening day.

Actress Irene Dunne’s limousine got stuck in wet cement outside Disneyland’s gates while bringing her to perform in the opening event.

With only a few working drinking fountains, guests desperately drank out of decorative fountains as temperatures exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Celebrity guests like Frank Sinatra who were scheduled to arrive every two hours instead all arrived at Disneyland at once, surprising organizers.

The Opening That Shaped the Future

Disneyland’s opening day on July 17, 1955 was intended to be a magical debut, but instead became an infamous disaster known as “Black Sunday.” The park simply was not ready to handle the vast crowds and slew of mishaps that overwhelmed operations from start to finish. However, Walt Disney himself saw opportunity amidst the chaos. He invited guests to return once repairs and improvements were finished, determined to live up to families’ expectations. The lessons learned from opening day missteps became the foundation for Disneyland’s eventual excellence.

Within weeks, changes were made across the park – from capacity limits to security procedures to infrastructure upgrades. Crowd flow, staff communication, ride functionality, and traffic management all improved dramatically based on opening day feedback. Soon the magic shone through, cementing Disneyland as “The Happiest Place On Earth.” In just over 60 years, over 800 million guests have visited.

And that special Disney magic has now expanded across 5 resorts worldwide thanks to a foundation built on July 17th, 1955. So while Black Sunday was a nightmare for all involved, it provided invaluable insights. It pushed Disneyland to quickly overcome early stumbles, set higher standards, and learn from mistakes. That turbulent opening day ended up shaping the successful, beloved theme park still enjoyed by families today.



















 
Attractions Referenced

Dumbo The Flying Elephant

Jungle Cruise

Main Street Fire House

Mark Twain Riverboat

Rocket To The Moon

Walt Disney's Apartment

 
Lands Referenced

Adventureland

Frontierland

Main Street U.S.A.

Tomorrowland

 
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