“Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional,” is perhaps Walt Disney’s most well-known adage. It certainly applies to his most celebrated creation, Disneyland. The park is turning 66 years old this month — it remains a gleaming testament to the wonder of youth just as it did on opening day in Anaheim, California, July 17, 1955.
Disneyland is the place that opted not to grow up. Thank goodness.
The other Walt Disney quote the park brings to mind is: “Of all of the things I have done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.”
The dream of building a family park began marinating in Disney’s imagination around 1930; it took more than 20 years and the work of a core group of fellow imagineers (those who blended imagination and engineering) to bring that dream to a splendid reality.
As Neal Gabler ably pointed out in Walt Disney, The Triumph Of The American Imagination, the animator-turned-entrepreneur had a knack for inspiring his employees to “come up with things you didn’t know were in you and that you’d sworn you couldn’t possibly do.”
Gabler wrote: “Almost everyone at the studio admired how Walt, in either conducting them or flitting among them, forged them into a unit. ‘He could disarm people by using the word we instead of I,’ Ben Sharpsteen (studio artist) said. ‘Obviously everything was based on what Walt Disney did, what he expected to do, but he would invariably say we.’ Bob Broughton, who worked in the camera department said, ‘That was what Walt’s main talent was, I think…he made you feel part of the family.’ ”
The project, initially called “Mickey Mouse Park,” was a classic example of the way Disney employed his family/employees and his own creativity to establish a practical, highly successful enterprise.
In December 1952, he set up a new division to launch a theme park. Now called Walt Disney Imagineering, this unit spurred artists to turn creative ideas into actual physical form.
Because the studio was located in Burbank, Disney first presented his park plan to city officials there. They turned him down flat, indicating a “carny” atmosphere or a “kiddieland” was inappropriate for the area.
Disney was not dismayed. “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world,” he said many times. Moving forward, he was able to acquire 160 acres near Anaheim, a city not so averse to Disney’s novel proposition.
Construction broke ground on July 21, 1954.
Disney’s genius for spotting and nurturing talent immediately came to the forefront. The imagineers he recruited to implement his very specific ideas produced spectacular results.
A case in point was the Main Street, USA design. Meant to reflect the carefree time Disney remembered from his youth in Marceline, Missouri, it set a singular tone for the park. Disney turned the project over to Harper Goff, an artist later dubbed the “Second Imagineer,” in line behind you-know-who.
Goff’s relationship with Disney had a coincidental, stardust quality to it. The two met in 1951 in a London toy store, Bassett -Lowke, a shop which specialized in high quality steam and electric trains.
“I was always a miniature train fan,” Goff, a commercial artist, recalled. “I was trying to find something I could bring back as an antique.” Goff found a perfect engine, but it was on hold for another customer.
The next day, Goff returned to the shop and met the other customer, Walt Disney. The two hit it off instantly. Disney had seen Goff’s illustrations in Esquire Magazine and liked them — this led to a later meeting in the California studio, and, in short order, Goff became part of the team.
In preparation for work on Disneyland, Goff was dispatched on a 12-week tour of amusement parks across the United States. He found them to be, in the main, dirty, staffed by indifferent help.
Goff and Disney vowed to make their Magic Kingdom just the opposite – immaculate, uncluttered spaces with energetic and well-mannered employees.
As for designing Main Street, Goff recognized he had a Gordian Knot on his hands. The feel had to be nostalgic without saccharin, sentimental but not maple syrup.
Inspired by Disney’s Missouri hometown, as well as Goff’s own birthplace, Fort Collins, Colorado, he hit a homerun. The final version of Main Street, USA became a perfectly realized expression of love for the past.
Goff had a substantial influence over the design of the park — as did countless others, all of whom had their own special relationships with the Head Imagineer.
Ever mindful of the contributions of these collaborators, Disney honored them by using their names on the windows of various structures in the park to advertise humorous imaginary businesses housed within. Harper Goff’s window: “Prof. Harper Goff…Tattooing and Banjo Lessons.”
The final pieces of the puzzle fell into place when the ABC television network guaranteed almost $5 million in loans to complete the park’s construction.
As part of the deal, the network gave Disney his own weekly Sunday night series, the ideal vehicle for “the ultimate salesman” to update viewers on the progress of the Disneyland building project. It created a groundswell of interest which is still paying off — over $3.8 billion gross revenue in the most recent, non-pandemic year.
On December 15, 1966, Disney passed away due to complications of lung cancer. A wild rumor about his death circulated: it was said that he had been cryogenically preserved, frozen to be unthawed when his physical ailments could be effectively treated.
Not so. Disney was cremated and interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
The New York Times best summarized his legacy: “Everything Walt Disney put his hand to conjures up a sense of innocent … childlike curiosity; his achievements epitomize what is called ‘good, clean American fun’ that need be neither dull nor dour.”
Walt Disney, RIP.