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Disneyland at 60: Behind the Opening of the First Theme Park

July 17 marks the 60th birthday of Southern California’s Disneyland, and while fans were very excited about the opening, business people were worried that it was a high-risk venture.

In a July 13, 1955, story four days before the opening, Variety raved that it was “of staggering imaginative concept … one of the true wonders of modern entertainment.” Still, Variety said it was a $17 million, 160-acre gamble.

The doubts seemed confirmed when the park opened to the press on July 17, 1955, causing a PR fiasco: Counterfeit tickets led to overcrowding, vendors ran out of food and some of the 18 attractions were still not ready.

Variety acknowledged that curiosity was high, but wondered if the place could it sustain interest, especially since it was so expensive. For one thing, the construction cost had soared above the original $10 million. And for consumers, it was pricey: Variety estimated a typical family would spend $10 a day there. That prediction was pretty accurate: Disneyland officials eventually acknowledged that in its first year, average expenditure was $2.37 per person. This sounds like a bargain by 2015 standards, when a one-day ticket costs $99. But in 1955, the minimum wage was 75 cents an hour. Disneyland’s 500 employees had 30 different job classifications, and many were low-paid; the highest earners were the horseshoe-ers, at a whopping $2.82 an hour.

Despite the snafus, many in the media were enthused, and when the park opened to the public on July 18, it was an immediate hit. The Anaheim site virtually invented the idea of the theme park, where every detail was connected and carefully thought out. (There was a Santa Claus-themed park that debuted in Indiana in the 1940s, but Disneyland quickly became known worldwide, and people began to understand the concept of a theme park.)

Walt Disney himself wanted to avoid the term “amusement park,” because of their reputation, since those places were often seedy and run-down. In the buildup to the opening, Disney commissioned a Stanford study of Worlds Fairs, not amusement parks, to estimate guest spending and attendance. And he oversaw every detail, from the architecture to the Jungle Boat foliage to a ban on chewing gum (he didn’t want guests to accidentally step in something that might mar their visit).

The success was yet another example of Disney defying expectations. His “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” had been considered a major risk: Would audiences sit still for 90 minutes to watch one cartoon character trying to kill another? Similarly, there was industry skepticism when Disney became the first big film producer to sign a long-term contract with a TV network.

But, no surprise, Disney knew exactly what he was doing. ABC debuted a weekly series in 1954 called “Disneyland,” which aired every Wednesday night, and the anthology show offered free promotion for the upcoming theme park and other Disney projects.

The “Disneyland” anthology series rotated its fare, with each episode pegged to an area of the theme park: An intro said “Tonight from Fantasyland,” with the hour featuring classic Mickey, Minnie and Donald cartoons; the following week, Frontierland offered nature films, and so on. By the time Disneyland opened, a generation of kids had the park memorized. And the ABC series offered other plugs: In the first year, there were no less than two documentary hours about the making of the movie “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” which just happened to be in theaters at the time. Walt Disney invented “synergy” before most people in Hollywood knew what that word meant. For further promotion, props from “20,000 Leagues” were exhibited at Disneyland for the next 11 years. When the prop exhibit was disassembled, the pipe organ became part of the Haunted Mansion.

The TV show was a big hit, and so was the park. A year after its opening, Variety on July 20, 1956, reported that Disneyland was officially a success, with 3,642,597 tickets sold in its first year. And, as a reward: The employees got a new contract, with wages increased anywhere from 13 cents to 16.5 cents an hour.

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