I Was There At Disneyland's Opening (And It Was A Nightmare)
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Disneyland: It's the happiest place on earth, as long as you have a hundred bucks and actually want to stay in Anaheim for more than six hours. But it hasn't always been rosy in the Magic Kingdom. On opening day, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Johnathan Carr, who was nine years old at the time, attended Disneyland that fateful morning. And as luck would have it, he kept a journal for his "What I did over my summer vacation" school project. (See, kids? Homework's not entirely useless).
It Was Nightmarishly Hot And Overcrowded
Disneyland opened on July 17th, 1955. It was supposed to be a grand event, and 70 million (out of 165 million Americans at the time) tuned in to watch the TV broadcast.
Today, those numbers would make Game Of Thrones shit Breaking Bad's pants. Opening day was a television sensation, but for the kids who showed up, it was more like Satan's oven than Walt Disney's wonderland.
"I remember it being hot (It was over 100 degrees that day), and only hearing next to a big brick wall. There was a huge line with no shade. I wrote in my diary that I could hear the bands play."
Disney executives later admitted that they put too many people on the TV special and not enough on, you know, entertaining guests. John and his family waited for several hours outside (they'd been told to arrive early) before they could even enter the park. And once inside, the issues were even worse than the horrifying costumes.
"WHY MUST WE BE? IT IS UNJUST."
"I don't know how we were allowed in. My father changed the story how he got each time we asked. My mother has said he knew a Disney employee who couldn't make it and got them from him. I know they were genuine, but that's as much as I know." He specified "genuine" because there were only 15,000 invited guests. Thanks to counterfeiters and fare-dodgers, the numbers in the park wound up being twice that. "Three times in my journal, I wrote down something like 'A Disney employee said they were not expecting this many people.'"
As a result, Jonathan's whole day worked out to two rides. "Both rides I went on, the Jungle Cruise and these boats in a canal, were stuffed with people. The canal boats I remember being crowded. I forgot to write notes there. But on the jungle boat, it was stuffed. We were at double the capacity, and so many people were on they began falling off ..."
And then there was the heat. Triple-digit temperatures are bad enough today, but in 1955, air conditioning technology was primitive. Your best bet was standing downwind of a comparatively cool fart. "There was an area where you were supposed to stand and get cooled off by air coming from a few rides. A Disneyland employee told this to us. But they were telling everyone. A nice breeze should have been coming, but so many people were there that there wasn't a temperature change."
Jonathan's experience was like flashing forward to a future made dystopian by overpopulation. "You couldn't do anything. Anywhere you could sit was taken, rides had long lines, stores were filled. I've been many times since, but what I always remember is the image of all of these families standing, not moving, because there was nowhere else to go. More recent families were moving around, but they didn't know that everywhere was like this. To me, it was like a mall parking lot during Christmas. Every space is filled, and there are endless cars either idling and waiting or circling around and hoping. That was Disneyland on the first day, but with nobody pulling out."
And that's why you always pull out.
Nothing Worked, And Everyone Was Mad About It
Nothing worked that first day. The canal boats didn't run, so employees had to jump in with rubber boots and physically pull them. The Autotopia ride had so many crashes the first day that they had to install guide rails.
"During my ride , I wrote that a man fell overboard, and I remember that now as I read this. I didn't see how he fell over, but everybody on the boat looked back, and there he was paddling to land where an employee ran up to him. The ride didn't even stop ..."
Today when that happens, the ride absolutely stops. But this was the '50s, when human life was worth less than a pair of felt mouse ears. "It seems shocking, but the ride was in a rush. They made sure he was OK, but they also left them behind. His family had to have been worried. I remember smaller children crying, and they could have been his children."
Perhaps the cruelest part of opening day was that many of the park's iconic rides wouldn't open until the next month. Many attendees did not get this information. "All day, people stood in lines for rides that were closed. My father wrote down that some families believed the staff was saying they were closed to get rid of long lines, but these were for rides that were not being mentioned as being opened. I don't know how long they stood in line before giving up, but my father left a note saying '4:15 p.m. Disneyland. Frontierland. There's a Wild West show that the staff informs everyone is not ready today. The line for it stretches for over 100 feet. The people near the front are saying they should be let in since they've been in line since the morning.'"
If you live in the South (or soon, anywhere on Earth), you know that extreme heat can make people extremely unreasonable. That might explain why so many attendees stayed in line even when they were told the ride wouldn't open. "They were being so desperate and stubborn, but it fit the mood that day. Everybody got meaner as the day went on. I'd be mean too if I stood in line for half the day for a ride that was never going to open."
Sounds worse than being a Half-Life fan. Hey-o!
People Were Peeing Just ... Everywhere
"I've told people I was there on the day it opened, and when they asked what it was like, the first thing I bring up is all the children peeing. I wrote down 'I saw 3 boys who were telling every child they could find that they had snuck in taking turns peeing in a bush.' My father wrote down 'Main Street. The restroom lines are so long that there is another line for the new restroom park goers have created behind the official restroom.'
"... my father commented on how many fathers looked like they were protecting something ... and sure enough, a small child would walk out of the alleyway or niche back had been to, and they'd go along. We were waiting in so many places that we made a game of it. My father wrote down a score, but I can't find it here."
This isn't purely anecdotal; there are official reports of kids peeing in the parking lot after being trapped inside their cars or the park all day. And when this continued the next day, Disney unofficially let them do it, because it was simply easier that way. For a while, you could totally pee anywhere in Disneyland, consequence-free. As opposed to today, when you can still pee anywhere you like, but people get all judgy about it.
Even that little freedom was somewhat mitigated by the fact that food and drinks ran out by lunchtime. And because the temperature was hovering around 100, this was a problem. "My mother had a box of crackers. She always brought them and some peanut butter in case we got hungry. When there was no food, we all had some in the park. My father wrote down 'We asked several Disney employees, but they said they had run out.' I remember my father yelling at somebody with a food cart who couldn't have been more than 18, but he didn't write that down. While we were eating crackers on a bench, some parents who had no food offered money to my mother for the remaining crackers. It wasn't a single parent; several asked. I'd say at least six. Even more asked where we found food to buy. They were getting desperate."
Speaking of desperate: "I wrote down 'I saw 2 boys drink sugar syrup. My mother said I couldn't do that.' What I remember is that a store sold flavored syrup, like an old candy store. They ran out of candy, and parents could only buy that for their children. You didn't drink syrup or ingredients like that at that time unless something was wrong. It would be like drinking maple syrup from the bottle. But I saw it happen."
There Were Some Epic Disasters That The Park Tried To Pass As Planned
"We were told to 'expect anything.' It was Walt Disney, so we didn't know what he had up his sleeve. I saw knights fighting, and we thought that looked great. I eventually saw a few movie characters, and we were excited about that."
But not all of the "attractions" Jonathan saw that day were planned. Some of them were small disasters played off as fun events. "There were fires in the castle. I thought it was the show, but it was real. We were walking by when a fire peeked out of the window. It wasn't very big, but it was enough. In Sleeping Beauty there are castles and fire, and we thought it was a show, but a few employees said to go around. It was real."
And then there was the asphalt: "It was spongy, but I thought it was supposed to be like that in case children fell down. I wrote down 'There are black shoe marks all over from the ground. I think this is supposed to make it look like guests making their mark on the park.'" And while that's rather high-concept, the reality is that the asphalt didn't have time to settle. The ground literally wasn't finished. But park employees were happy to pretend anything was an attraction if it stopped people from complaining:
"The more I think about it, a lot of things guests could do sounded like ways to get out of hair. Like that area they had people stand in to get 'cooler.' They said it was an attraction, but it was probably a place to stick guests because of how crowded it was. It wasn't listed on any map. There were also employees asking guests if they wanted to take pictures of the giant parking lot from different places. I wrote that down. They actually tried to make the parking lot as something of a thing to see. And there were families snapping photos in front of it at their direction."
Because even before Instagram, we were still equal parts gullible and camera-happy.
Nobody Thought Disneyland Would Survive
Every theme park disaster movie, from Westworld to Jurassic Park, owes a debt to Disneyland shitting the bed on its first day. But while Disney parks are cultural touchstones now, they almost didn't survive their birth.
"When we left, there were Disney employees asking what we thought. I didn't write down what my father thought, but my brother giggled because 'He said words you weren't supposed to say.' I sold it all on eBay years ago, but my father bought us so much Disneyland stuff because he said they'd be collector's items when the park failed."
He wasn't the only one who thought that. The press, and even Disney employees, started calling the opening "Black Sunday." Not exactly a name meant to inspire hope.
"I used these journal notes to give a huge presentation in class. Don't ask me how it went, because I don't remember. But my teacher wrote on my report that I 'did a good job taking notes' and that 'Disneyland didn't sound like a good place to take a family.'"
Locals didn't think much of it, either. "We lived right by Anaheim, and it wasn't a huge draw ... Our school offered Disneyland tickets for the student who sold the most chocolate bars door to door. There were so few children signing up, they had to make the prize better. I think they added cash. The girl who won refused the tickets. Her parents didn't want to go to a park like that."
Throughout 1955, Disneyland was plagued with problems. A stagecoach ride had to be pulled after it flipped over and hurt some guests. Autotopia kept crashing its cars. A herd of llamas escaped and stampeded through the park, in what must have been one of the cuddliest waves of doom ever. An escaped tiger and panther fought each other right in front of the guests on Main Street, drawing blood. In all honesty, that does sound pretty bitchin'.
But Disneyland did the work. They listened to the guests' complaints and made changes. Within months, they had over a million people visit. John has since had some good trips there, but even on his disastrous first visit, he recalled something special about the place. "It wasn't fun. But I also remember that I wanted to go again. So much had gone wrong, yet there was still something to it. I reread all my journal before the interview, and it's bringing back memories of still being memorable and likable, and I remember not liking it. There was still something right there when everything seemed to go wrong. It's Disney. Maybe you can't explain it. Even with so much going wrong, you wanted to love it."
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, journalist, and interview coordinator for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. Do YOU have an awesome job/experience you'd like to share? If so, hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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