Walt Disney Reveals Just How Disneyland Was Created in Rare Interview
Back in the 1960s, Reader's Digest contributor Ira Wolfert got the chance to tour Disneyland, then just five years old, with Walt Disney himself. This is his first-person account.
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This article was written by Ira Wolfert and originally appeared in the April 1966 issue of Reader’s Digest.
“Twenty years ago,” Walt said as we drove toward Disneyland, some 25 miles southeast of central Los Angeles, “I was always trying to think of a place to take my two small daughters on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon—a place where I could have fun, too.
“At an amusement park, the only fun provided for a father, besides having his bottom dropped out from under him on the roller coaster, was the same he enjoyed all week: Buying the tickets.”
Now Walt has created his own park, to satisfy—in parents as in children—the profound human hunger to wonder, be amazed, and make believe. With that incomparable Disney sorcery, he has combined fantasy and history, adventure and learning in a way that sets every tendril of the imagination to tingling. Get a behind-the-scenes look at the first map Walt ever made of Disneyland.
From the beginning, Disney decided to lay out this 31-million-dollar playground like a gigantic theater. You’re in the lobby the moment you hand in your ticket: It’s Main Street, U.S.A., as it looked 50 years ago, when Walt was growing up. To the left and the right and straight ahead are the entrances to four “stages”—Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. On these stages are set 45 different attractions, irresistible toys more costly than an emperor could buy.
Main Street has gaslights, handcranked telephones, a penny candy store with jelly beans and orange slices, and a bank where bankers (real ones) wear high stiff collars and massive watch chains and work at roll-top desks. An apothecary shop offers herb remedies and real live leeches in bottles of water. At the “Main Str. Cinema,” real (1914) Thomas A. Edison and Pearl White movies play. Only the ceilings and lighting inside the stores are modern. “I’m sorry you noticed that,” said Walt disconsolately. “We had to change the gaslights here—people complained that they made the merchandise look too gloomy.”
At the far end of Main Street stands Fantasyland, the entrance guarded by moat-encircled Sleeping Beauty Castle. “It’s not far away,” said Walt, “but let’s have some fun getting there.” He led me to a quaint old horsecar pulled by a gleaming, burly Percheron. The driver snapped the air between his tongue and his teeth, said, “Giddyyap,” and clanged a bell. We clipclopped down Main Street.
The ride over, Walt explained why it had been shorter than it looked. “It’s not apparent at a casual glance,” he said, “but this street is only a scale model. We had every brick and shingle and gas lamp made five-eighths [of] true size. This cost more, but it made the street a toy, and the imagination can play more freely with a toy. Besides, people like to think that their world is somehow more grown-up than Papa’s was.”
That’s how you make people feel taller and confirm their belief in progress—if you have the genius of a Walt Disney.
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Fantasyland, “the happiest kingdom of them all,” is a place where childhood dreams come true. Here you can go to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in a whirling cup and saucer; ride Dumbo, the Flying Elephant; fall down the rabbit hole with Alice in Wonderland. When you take the Peter Pan ride, sitting in a pirate galleon, you make lovely, airy swoops over rooftops that seem to lie far below. You feel the speed and the wind of your passage as, through the masterly use of tricks of perspective, you soar through the inky night toward the stars.
This sort of thing could be scary for some people, but whenever it seems necessary Walt interrupts reality with a wink to let you know it isn’t really real. On this ride the wink comes in advance. The galleon is lifted onto its rails outside the Peter Pan building, before you go into the darkness, so you can see for yourself that it’s all going to happen only three feet off the ground.
“When you go to Frontierland, make sure that Walt takes you to Tom Sawyer’s Island,” said Dick Irvine, head designer at the Disney Studios. “Walt was brought up in Missouri—Mark Twain country—and that island is all his. He didn’t let anybody help him design it.” Check out some more secrets Disney employees wish they could tell you.
You get to the island on a spittin’ image of the raft Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer built. All around you zip authentic keel-boats, Indian canoes paddled by real Indians, and a grand gold-and-white stem-wheel steamboat, the Mark Twain. The swift-flowing waterway is kept warm and brown, like the Mississippi River itself.
Everything on the island is free; you need a ticket only to get there. “I put in all the things I wanted to do as a kid—and couldn’t,” Walt explained. “Including getting into something without a ticket.”
So there’s a tree house to climb into and a pontoon bridge to cross, like those built in frontier days—planks laid on empty barrels that bob up and down when you walk on them. From the top of a log fort you can sight in with guns on a forest in which Indians lurk. The guns don’t fire bullets—they’re hydraulically operated—but the recoil is so realistic that you’d never guess they aren’t the genuine article. You can fish in the water around the landing, and your chances of catching something are good. A net has been hidden there, and it is kept stocked with catfish. Fishing tackle? You borrow a bamboo pole and worms from an overalled, straw-chewing lad so freckled and friendly he looks as if Mark Twain created him.
We went into Injun Joe’s Cave. This is just a rock tunnel with a hill heaped over it, but it has been tricked out with dripping caverns and a bottomless pit (three feet deep) from which ghostly roaring emerges to curdle the blood. Here Walt has added something to the pages of Mark Twain: A series of little passageways, looping off from the main tunnel, that are just large enough for children only. The kids scoot for them like chickens for feed. There is nothing to see in them and nothing to do, but the dimensions are what count. There is joy and nourishment for the spirit in being alone from time to time in a space adults can’t enter—that’s what the children’s hoots and hollers proclaim.
From Frontierland we moved on to Adventureland. “Everyone dreams of traveling to mysterious far-off places or exotic tropical regions,” Walt said to me. “Let’s go.” We climbed aboard a powered launch. The cruise took us down the misty Amazon, up the murky Mekong, and through the hippopotamus-filled Congo, with tropical rain forests and bright orchids all around us. Adventure lurked at every bend; crocodiles snapped at us; bull elephants trumpeted; lions, tigers and headhunters eyed us suspiciously through the jungle growth.
From this primitive world it was quite a jump—mentally—to Tomorrowland. Suddenly I found myself in the interior of a space ship, and Walt and I were about to take a ride to the moon. Actually we were in a theater. Around a giant viewing screen in the floor, the seats rose in circular tiers; in the ceiling hung another great screen. The voice of our pilot sounded over an intercom, matter-of-factly warning us to prepare for take-off. The lights went out. A view of the earth as seen from a launching pad appeared on the lower screen, and overhead was a full moon as seen from the earth.
Now a great shuddering and jarring began. Our seats and the walls and floor of the theater shook. Rockets gushed in deep-throated tones. There was a sudden, uncanny clattering—cosmic rays pelting like bullets as we passed through the radiation belt beyond the atmosphere. We saw the earth drop away and become round, the moon come close enough to touch, the stars and planets as they look when there’s no atmosphere to dim them. All this is authentic, made of motion-picture film taken from missiles and satellites, from planetariums and observatories. The effects were so carefully worked out that the sensation of drifting in the stillness of gravity-free space became real, too astounding and blissful.
“Two of the leading figures in the space field, Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley, helped us with the engineering of this ride,” Walt told me. But the biggest help was the father who, 20 years ago, longed to sit with his children and enjoy not just a thrill ride but also a genuine sense of wonder.
In Tomorrowland, too, is the Submarine Voyage, one of the most elaborate illusions ever created. You have the sensation of being completely submerged. Actually, the craft rides on rails and only the part of the hull where you sit facing a porthole is beneath the surface.
The sub starts out under a waterfall, with water foaming and splashing over the portholes as over a submerging conning tower. The commands “Dive! Dive!” coming over the squawk-box are the real thing: They were tape-recorded on submarines in actual ocean dives. Ballast tanks are blown, and bubbles stream past the portholes at a 45-degree angle, to give you the feeling you’re at the angle of descent. When the uproar stops and the bubbles clear, not even a veteran submariner could resist the illusion that he had leveled off after a dive.
Now you are cruising in the deep. Monsters of the underwater world peer at you curiously through the portholes. Giant squid that spread out 26 feet loom up, and clams huge enough to trap a man. But—the Disney wink—when the huge clams open their jaws, you see they’re holding pearls. It reassures the children and makes their elders smile.
Suddenly you are under the North Polar ice cap, pale cold sunlight filtering eerily down. Overhead, icebergs grind and scrape, and the conning tower bumps as it glides under the floes. None of this is exaggerated. The sounds were recorded by U.S. Navy subs in the Arctic.
Now you slide into another ocean, one peopled by snow-white mermaids with flowing purple and silver tresses. “Listen,” Walt cries, as the submarine’s “sonar” tunes in to the silliest symphony ever recorded: The gruntings, whistlings, and shriekings of fish and shrimp. These sounds, too, are genuine, brought back on tape from the wild world of deep waters. Take another look back in time with a boy who met Walt during his first trip to Disneyland.
For our last ride in Tomorrowland, Walt and I boarded the Monorail, a train that runs on rubber tires on a single elevated concrete beam. No toy, this $1,300,000 installation is a seriously proposed commuter-transportation system. It occupies only a narrow strip of ground, which doesn’t have to be graded; the piers supporting the beam just have to be built to different heights. Since the Monorail can cope with difficult topographical conditions—rounding sharp curves at high speed, and climbing steep grades—the track could be erected on the dividing strip of existing highways. It is being considered as one solution to the traffic problems of congested metropolitan areas.
Where is the roller coaster? In Disneyland you don’t just zip up and down hills that stand on stilts. Between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland is a $1,500.000 model of the Matterhorn, “snow-capped” and breath-taking, every feature reproduced meticulously at 1/100 of actual size—which makes the mountain as high as a 14-story building. (Even the evergreens, edelweiss, and other plants growing up to the timber line are in scale; when they grow larger they’re replaced.) You swoop down the slopes on a bobsled, hearing the roar of mountain winds. You pass behind real waterfalls, through icicle-hung caverns and a glacial grotto. And at the bottom you glide to a halt on a glacier lake.
In Walt Disney’s magic kingdom there is nothing to convey the feeling you get at most amusement parks—that you’re watching a nervous breakdown and being invited to share it. There are no barkers selling tickets, no “Hurry! Hurry! HURRY!” Thoughtful cards on the display tables of the Main Street gift shop say: “Relax. We do not charge for accidental breakage.” In place of a neon nightmare to lure customers all night, tiny lights resembling fireflies have been set to twinkling in the trees. Adults whose children have strayed are soothed by a sign that reads: “Lost parents, please wait here for your children to find you.”
More than 19 million people, from all 50 states and 70 foreign countries, have visited Disneyland in the five years of its existence. Among them are King Baudouin I of Belgium, King Hussein of Jordan, Princess Sophia of Greece, and President Sukarno of Indonesia. King Mohammed V of Morocco, after his official tour of the park, sneaked back to pay his way in and enjoy it incognito.
The success of the venture has put a ferment into the amusement-park business everywhere. Denver’s Magic Mountain; New York’s Freedomland; La Montaña Mágica in Caracas, Venezuela all follow the basic Disney idea of stretching the imagination while providing fun. At Pleasure Island near Boston last summer, youngsters were piling into whaleboats to take off after a 50-foot replica of Moby-Dick—a far and noble cry from the underprivileged kind of fantasy such parks used to offer.
But the others will find it hard to imitate Disneyland. For something unique and intangible is expressed here—the creative personality of a master of the fairy tale. Next, check out some more fascinating facts about Disneyland that even Disney fanatics don’t know.