By Jim Tortolano/OC Tribune editor
Few events in Orange County history have had as big an impact as the opening of Disneyland. But fewer events had as unpromising a start as the debut of the Magic Kingdom in the middle of the era of Ike, hula hoops and “I Love Lucy.”
That theme amusement part on Harbor Boulevard is today one of the top attractions in the world, bringing in millions of visitors each year to Southern California, and it helped transform the Walt Disney Co. from one that merely made animated movies and (let’s face it) some fairly cheesy television programs into a media powerhouse that owns multiple studios, TV networks, cruise operations, planned communities and much more.
When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, national attention was focused on this highly speculative venture in the boonies of agricultural Orange County. No one had ever done anything like this before, and many were the voices calling it reckless and a disaster waiting to happen.
A disaster it seemed to be. Six thousand people were invited, but an additional 22,000 showed up brandishing what proved to be counterfeit tickets. It was the hottest day of the year, and women wearing high heels found their footwear sunk into the still-fresh asphalt.
There was a gas leak that required the closure of part of the park, and a strike by plumbers meant that only a few of the water fountains were working and some bathrooms not at all. Old-timers called it “Black Friday,” but Walt was not deterred.
Declaring (somewhat disingenuously) that the “opening” was simply a rehearsal, a second “grand opening” was held the next day to the general public. Such was Walt’s prestige that he was able to carry off that notion despite the fact that the original debut was broadcast live on ABC television.
“Walt” gambled quite a bit on this first-of-its-kind park. He looked at locations all along the Interstate 5 (called by some today California’s “Main Street”) including Burbank, and, of course, Anaheim. He even mortgaged his own home to help pay for the construction.
The American Broadcasting Corporation, a distant third among the national television networks, was gambling quite a bit, too. It hitched its wagon to the Disney star by airing a weekly TV show, “Disneyland,” that was basically a 60-minute ad for this untested, and potentially disastrous project.
The park is today an international landmark in cultural, economic and geographic terms. Few today would call it anything but a roaring success. It created the modern amusement part industry, and transformed Anaheim from a Jack Benny joke (any one remember the “Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga” routine?) into a worldwide destination.
Without Disneyland, there’s no Anaheim Convention Center, no Angel Stadium (and no California-Anaheim-L.A. Angels), no Honda Center, no Ducks, no Disney California Adventure and no string of high-rise hotels stretching from Katella Avenue all the way down into Garden Grove.
One might even go farther (geographically). The rise of Disneyland lifted Anaheim’s ambitions to grow many miles from its origins in the original colony to embrace what’s now called the Anaheim Hills.
(The success of Disneyland gave a big, if temporary, boost to ABC. The network invested money in the amusement park and benefitted from its success. But Disney and ABC had a falling out, leading to the former leaving for NBC in 1961.)
Today, entertainment and tourism represent Orange County’s leading and most visible industry. That its most important keystone nearly sank into a mire of mushy tar should give some encouragement to other county dreamers who aren’t instant hits, either.
Editor’s note: Portions of this article are adapted from an article by the author originally posted at www.epluribusunum.us.com.