I'm going to build a park - and it's going to be clean!
The conception of Disneyland
Disney, that is the company, has long told people that Disney, the man, first thought of Disneyland when he was sat on a park bench watching his daughters ride a Merry-Go-Round. Except Diane, one of his two daughters who were on the carousel that day has said that he was thinking about it for much longer.
Walt’s eldest notes how her father, even while working in Kansas City, would go to national parks and state fairs. He had a hobby of collecting and indeed making miniatures. Growing up in Kansas City, Walt often went to his local amusement park, Electric Park. Even during the Laugh-O-Gram days, he’d visit with staff. His biggest gripe with the park was its cleanliness. One of his most famous outbursts was when he visited the park with Rudy Ising in 1920, where he said: “One of these days I’m going to build an amusement park - and it’s going to be clean!” But the hobby that would eventually kick his amusement idea into full speed was his fascination with Steam Trains.
Diane Disney-Miller at the Walt Disney Family Museum, San Fransisco
As a child, Walt wanted to be a train engineer, much like his Uncle. Elias, Walt’s father, worked on the installation of the Union Pacific track. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t until Walt worked in the Red Cross in the first World War that he wanted to be a cartoonist. It was after that epiphany that trains became a hobby.
In the studio in the late 1940s, Walt discovered that two of his most senior animators, Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston, shared the hobby. Kimball having a full-size railroad at his home, and Johnston who was building a 1/12 scale locomotive at the time. Walt went to see both projects and when looking at Kimball’s train he exclaimed, in typical Walt Disney fashion, that he wanted one for himself.
Frank Thomas (top), Ollie Johnston (bottom)
Disney and Kimball went to the 1948 Railroad Fair in Chicago, where they saw full sized steam trains and spent their time talking to former engineers, Walt said it was the most fun he’s ever had.
Walt was looking to buy a plot of land for a new home for his wife, Lillian and their children. But now Walt had a new hobby, he insisted that the plot would need to be big enough for the railroad that he was planning, much to the apprehension of Lillian.
They found suitable land in Holmby Hills, on Carolwood Drive. So, Walt began work on the Carolwood-Pacific Railroad.
Walt planned a half-mile run, and he paid extra attention to sightlines, and he even paid for powerlines to be relocated so they would not distract passengers. Some would view it as overkill, Walt saw it as a necessity.
In 1951, Walt travelled Europe with Lilian. They stopped off at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. This park is widely considered as the park that caused Walt to take the amusement park idea seriously. The staff were happy, the area was well maintained but most important – the park was clean. He exclaimed to his wife “This is what a park should be.” The trip, his new train hobby combined with Walt’s weekly trips to amusement parks with his daughter caused Walt to think about the amusement park idea he had long been dwelling over.
Roy Disney, on the other hand, wasn’t so optimistic. The slump on the studio was intense. Disney had signed over his staff to create propaganda films for the US Army, partially due to Walt’s own disdain for the threat of communism, and his deep patriotism. RKO, their film distributors, were going through hardships of their own. On top of that, Walt Disney Productions had a hefty loan standing with Bank of America. So Roy warned his brother against it. But in typical Walt fashion, he went to the banks himself.
Walt’s first idea was ‘Mickey Mouse Park’. It would be built on a 12-acre triangle on the Disney lot, it was far less ambitious and was more of a response to the other studios in Hollywood offering tours. Burbank council rejected the idea and the park was shelved.
Concept art for Mickey Mouse Park, read more at D23.com
Walt Disney Productions was only really invested in cinematic content around that time. Even if their distributor was in a slump, Disney’s films were financially lucrative. But it wasn’t enough to fund an amusement park in the long term, and certainly not enough to break ground on land. The biggest hurdle for Walt wasn’t just Roy’s approval, but it was the board of directors and the shareholders.
Walt formed a new company, Retlaw (Walter backwards). This company was for Walt’s other ventures outside of Walt Disney Productions. By not having directors and shareholders to report to, Walt could do whatever he wanted. Walt started by using the company to operate the Carolwood Specific. But Walt knew that there were bigger things to come.
Television was growing in popularity. To Walt, it was an opportunity. What better way to keep the public informed on an amusement park that a TV show that explores the design, construction and stories that inhabited that park. It was a bold strategy and in typical Walt Disney fashion…
Walt called Herb Ryman to his office one weekend. He revealed that he had purchased 200 acres of land in Anaheim and asked him if he could draw a master plan for a ‘Disneyland’ by Monday when Roy would fly out to New York in an attempt to get funds from ABC by offering a weekly TV show created by Walt himself. Ryman agreed and produced a large poster. A theme park, with 5 themed lands: but what really sold it, was Walt’s vision:
ABC agreed to an unprecedented deal. They’d finance the park. Wanting only 35% ownership and Walt Disney’s creative prowess for a weekly TV show. Construction could begin, and Walt’s life-long dream was coming true.
To be continued.