Disneyland, a success in intuition and imagination

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Before the Fifties theme parks as we know them today did not really exist. The first park thought and designed as a magic parallel world was merit of Walt Disney’s visionary mind, who could build a reality starting from an imagined idea. Since its opening in California in 1955, Disneyland Park, or more commonly Disneyland, became the benchmark for every theme park from that moment on.

Amusement parks before Disneyland

In 19th century in America Trolley Parks were the only kind of parks existing: this was their name because they were located at the end of railway lines by the companies themselves, with the purpose to entertain passengers on weekends. These recreational areas, at starters, had ballrooms and gazebos, but bit by bit merry-go-rounds, carousels and roller coasters were introduced.

Prima di Disneyland: trolley park

Later, these kind of parks were called luna parks, from the name of the first great park inaugurated in 1903 at Coney Island. These kind of parks began to spread in different parts of cities rather than near stations: still today, luna parks are free-entry areas where people buy the ticket for the single attraction.

At that time, however, parks were known for being dirty and not safe for children, because they were often stormed by criminals.

That was the case until Walt Disney, during the Thirties, had a vision about an amusement park designed and experienced like a fantastic world to explore. He wanted to project a safe place where to bring his daughters to play and learn at the same time, where to meet cartoon characters and to live adventures as protagonists of past, future and fantasy stories. In Walt’s mind there was the thought of an amusement park conceived not only as a container of attractions, but a real imaginary universe transported into reality, where parents and children could an unheard-of experience and have fun together.

From that moment on, Walt Disney started to develop his idea, become in a short time more and more elaborate and magnificent.

From dream…

Walt Disney knew that he needed competent people and advanced technologies in order realize his dream. That is why he founded WED Enterprises (today Imagineering), a team composed by the best operators and creatives from his studio. Walt Disney’s goal was to use the best technology he could to tell compelling stories and make people plunge into an extraordinary but plausible world.

Disney soon realized that he needed an enormous space, which could contain the imagined landscapes, rivers, buildings and attractions. Finally, in 1953 he found the perfect place: a 7.850.000 square feet orangery in Anaheim, next to Los Angeles, a strategic point along Santa Ana highway, easily reachable by car.

Walt Disney also knew that he had to find important financing, which was not easy for such an innovative project, as he stated:

“I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral.”

disneyland_walt disney e progetto

Despite difficulties, Disney turned on television. He proposed his project to all three major networks in USA, and only ABC started a collaboration: Disney would have produced a weekly show and the network would have invested $500.000 for the realization of his amusement park holding about the 34% of the new enterprise.

Disney seized the opportunity to produce a TV show that could entertain viewers on one hand, but could explain his idea of park on the other hand. He took advantage of this television space to tell the progress of his project episode by episode. giving teasers and creating great expectations in the audience. He called this show Disneyland, the name that the park itself would have.

Moreover, Disney turned to the most important consumer goods companies, trying to convince them to sponsor the park, telling them that guests would associate their brands and products with a positive and pleasant experience.

Thanks to his communication skills, Disney was the forerunner to a marketing strategy that revealed itself to be effective, so much that still today some of these companies and brands are still Disney partners, like Coca-Cola, with which it shares values and purposes.

However, Disney always distinguished himself for his ability to anticipate trends in the marketing field, aware of the intangible, yet very high, value of its company and brand. Disney marketing skills were the also the base of the great success of Disney licensed products.

…to reality

After three years of intense work involving more than 3.000 people, among which there was Walt Disney in person, on July 17st in 1955, Disneyland opened its gates.

Despite only 11.000 invitations, 30.000 guests presented and managed to get it with fake tickets. Overcrowding, torrid heat and some technical problems marked the inauguration day as “Black Sunday”.

But these issues never stopped Disneyland, because it was a huge success, attracting guests from all over the world. The original park was arranged in five thematic areas:

  1. Main Street USA: the reconstruction of the homonym street as it was on the Twenties;
  2. Adventureland: an area where to experience adventures in a tropical jungle;
  3. Fantasyland: an imaginary world, based on classic stories;
  4. Frontierland, a tribute to old american West, with cowboys and saloons;
  5. Tomorrowland, a foreshortening on the future, with attractions like space rockets.
disneyland original map

Original Disneyland map. Source: Disney History Institute.

When the gates were opening, Walt Disney was in his private apartment, a place hidden to the public in a park building, together with Mousketeers, the Mickey Mouse Club children. One of them still remembers his reaction:

“On the opening day of Disneyland, we were in Walt Disney’s private apartment above the Main Street Fire Station when the gates of the park opened for the first time. I was standing next to him at the window, watching the guests come pouring through the gates. When I looked up at him, he had his hands behind his back, a grin from ear to ear, I could see a lump in his throat and a tear streaming down his cheek. He had realized his dream.”

Walt Disney managed to transform his little dream in a great dream for all humanity, made of emotions and stories able to resonate with everyone, from 1955 to today.
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