Gridlock and Grisly Death: The Complete History of Disneyland

Walt Disney statue

(Travis Gergen/Unsplash)

People say Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, but those people have clearly never been to a Target during an after-Christmas sale. They probably also haven’t looked too deeply into the history of the cursed murine state. Disneyland has been a magnet for chaos since day one, and while there probably aren’t any actual skeletons hanging around the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (anymore), that place is definitely haunted.

The Birth of Disneyland

Griffith Park

(Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons)

The idea for Disneyland came to Walt Disney during a visit to Griffith Park, where he watched his children ride a carousel and got sad that he couldn’t do the same, though it’s unclear who exactly was stopping him. He envisioned a place where children and parents could both have fun because he’d apparently never been to a Dave & Buster’s.

Opening Day Traffic

Santa Ana Freeway

(Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons)

Disneyland’s opening day on July 17, 1955 was a shit show from the get go, starting with the traffic. Cars full of people waiting to get in stretched for seven miles down the Santa Ana Freeway, and by the time they reached their destination, so many children were so bladderfull that many of them resorted to peeing in the parking lot. Unbeknownst to Walt, the happiest place on earth also briefly became the pissiest.

Counterfeit Tickets

Part of the reason for that was the counterfeit tickets that made their way into the hands of so many customers that Disneyland ended up welcoming more than twice as many guests -- a total of about 28,000 -- as they were expecting. Disney soon implemented anti-counterfeiting measures, so if you try that today, you probably get taken to an underground torture facility until you agree to operate It’s a Small World for the rest of your life.

Reagan Was There

Disneyland opening day footage

(Loren Javier/Flickr)

Considering everything that went wrong -- in addition to all those people, rides weren’t ready, wet asphalt and paint was everywhere, utility systems failed -- Disney assuredly regretted agreeing to broadcast the event on ABC in a special co-hosted by Ronald Reagan back when he was just a moderately famous actor. This also went badly, with numerous technical glitches, guests tripping over cables, and one of the hosts caught on camera making out with a dancer.

It Wasn’t That Big

Disneyland aerial view, 1963

(Robert J. Boser/Wikimedia Commons)

When Disneyland opened, it only had 33 different attractions. For comparison, that’s about how many they have just in Fantasyland today, and some of it was bullshit like the Clock of the World, which displayed the time everywhere in the world, just like that device in your pocket now.

There Was a Lingerie Store

One of those attractions was the Hollywood-Maxwell Brassiere Co. of Los Angeles, in case anyone wanted to make boob-holster shopping part of their family excursion. The store closed after six months despite such intriguing features as the Wizard of Bras, a mechanical figure that disappointingly only recited the history of underwear and didn’t magically discern your perfect bra size.

Doritos Were Invented There


(Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia Commons)

One of Disneyland’s first restaurants was the Casa de Fritos -- yes, like those Fritos -- who started turning their leftover scraps of tortillas into chips they called “Doritos” in the early ‘60s. Of course, you know the rest of that story. These original Doritos don’t appear to have been flavored, so really, it was more like Frito thought they invented tortilla chips.

The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean

(Cbusram/Wikimedia Commons)

When Pirates of the Caribbean became part of the new New Orleans Square in 1967, the Imagineers weren’t satisfied with their attempts at creating realistic fake skeletons, so they picked up some real ones from the nearby UCLA. That’s not the only place you can (maybe still) find dead bodies: People love scattering ashes at Disneyland, even though the park forbids it, especially in the Haunted Mansion.

The Yippie Invasion

Yippie button

(victorgrigas/Wikimedia Commons)

On August 6, 1970, 300 members of the Youth International Party, or “Yippies” -- you know, the guys who tried to levitate the Pentagon -- stormed Disneyland to protest the Vietnam War and Disneyland’s complicated role in it, smoke weed on Tom Sawyer Island, and demand “the ‘liberation’ of Minnie Mouse, a wage hike for Frontierland’s Native American dancers, and the conversion of Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen into a Black Panthers-themed breakfast joint,” all of which would honestly be pretty rad.

Indian Land

Speaking of those Native American dancers, what is now Critter Country used to be the “Indian Village,” where real indigenous people were hired to perform and tell stories right alongside the actual cartoon characters. It was closed down in 1971 to make way for still more racism.

Splash Mountain Opened Way Too Late to Be So Racist

Splash Mountain

(Michael Gray/Wikimedia Commons)

Critter Country is known today as the place to take pictures with a bear with no panties, but its name was inspired by Song of the South, which as we all now know also inspired the park’s biggest attraction, Splash Mountain. None of that happened until 1989, though, before which it was known as Bear Country. That’s long past when Song of the South was memory-holed and Disney should have known better.

Those Aren’t the Only Deaths

It’s honestly surprising that only 13 people have died at Disneyland, but that doesn’t mean those deaths were any less grisly. They include an employee who was crushed by a revolving wall in America Sings, a man who was riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad when it went off the rails, and a woman who was freaking decapitated on the Matterhorn.

Disney Ghosts

There are tons of ghosts that people believed haunt Disneyland, though most of them don’t connect to any known incidents, including a woman in white who guides lost children to the baby care center and a guy who accompanies single riders on Space Mountain and then disappears at the end of the ride, so if some random red-haired man tries to sit next to you, don’t let him. He’s probably just a real guy who is gonna try to feel you up.

There’s an Army of Cats

Cat on Jungle Cruise

(Steven Miller/Flickr)

In the ‘50s, Disneyland workers discovered dozens of feral cats living in Sleeping Beauty’s castle and decided to weaponize them against their rodent problem. Today, as many as 200 cats roam the parks, eating dropped food, entertaining guests, and telling each other stories about the time they almost caught Mickey. Almost.

Top image: Travis Gergen/Unsplash

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