EDITOR’S NOTE: We have a special treat today with a meticulously written and researched guest post by Jim Denney, author of Walt’s Disneyland. We’re excited to share this historical look at Walt’s motivations for Disneyland stemming back to not just his well-documented moments at Griffith Park but even decades before that; prior to the creation of Mickey Mouse! ENJOY!
The official Disneyland origin story, as told by Walt himself, goes like this: “Disneyland really began when my two daughters were very young. Saturday was always Daddy’s Day, and I would take them to the merry-go-round and sit on a bench eating peanuts while they rode. And sitting there, alone, I felt there should be something built, some kind of family park where parents and children could have fun together.”1
Is that true? Did Walt first dream of Disneyland while sitting on a bench in Griffith Park in the early 1940s?
Well, Disneyland was certainly on his mind in those days. His daughter, Diane Disney Miller, recalled, “We’d go to Griffith Park and play on the playground equipment and go on the merry-go-round for an hour or two or three. . . . Daddy never got impatient with us. He was just there enjoying us. Yet at the same time, he was analyzing what we were enjoying and why.”2
Walt was thinking about Disneyland on that Griffith Park bench, but that’s not when the Disneyland notion occurred to him. In fact, he was making serious plans for the Park before he was even a father. A news feature in the Long Beach Independent-Press-Telegram, published July 15, 1955 (two days before Disneyland’s opening day) stated that files in Disney’s studio archives contained “original Disneyland sketches, bearing the 1932 date.” That’s a year before Walt’s first daughter, Diane, was born, and five years before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
In fact, Walt’s ambition to build Disneyland goes back even earlier, before the creation of Mickey Mouse.
Walt’s Two Childhoods
Disneyland exists today because Walt had two childhoods — one happy, one miserable. Most fans of Walt are familiar with his happy childhood on the family farm outside of Marceline, Missouri. That’s the childhood Walt always talked about.
The Disney family lived in a white frame farmhouse just outside of town. “It was a beautiful farm,” Walt recalled, “with a wide front lawn. Big weeping willow trees. It had two orchards, one called the old, one called the new. One variety [of apples] was called Wolf River apples, and they were so big that people came from miles around to see them.”3 The years Walt spent on that Missouri farm, from ages five through nine, defined his life.
Walt enshrined those idyllic Marceline years in films about rural and small-town America like So Dear to My Heart, Pollyanna, and Lady and the Tramp.He also evoked those happy years in Disneyland’s Main Street USA (which recalls the year 1910 — the year Walt’s family left Marceline and moved to Kansas City). As Walt told The Marceline News, “More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since — or are likely to in the future.”
Diane Disney Miller once said that until she was an adult, she thought her father had spent his entire boyhood in Marceline, because those were the only childhood memories he ever spoke of.4 But Walt’s happy childhood ended when his father, Elias Disney, took sick and was forced to sell the farm at a loss. One of the most traumatic experiences of Walt’s young life was watching his pet farm animals being auctioned off to strangers. That’s when Walt’s unhappy second childhood began. Yet that’s also where the Disneyland story truly began.
Elias Disney moved his family to Kansas City, purchased a newspaper distributorship, and put Walt and his brother Roy to work delivering papers without pay. Walt and Roy arose at 3:30 every morning, seven days a week, and in the winter time they braved waist-high snowdrifts to complete their routes. Walt would be exhausted by the time he arrived at school, and often slept in class. In his adult years, he had nightmares about delivering newspapers in the snow.
The bright spot in Walt’s Kansas City years was a place called Electric Park, located at 46th Street and the Paseo, about a fifteen-minute streetcar ride from Walt’s home. The park featured band concerts, a carousel, boat rides on a lagoon, a roller coaster, a log flume, and other thrill rides. A steam train chugged around the park, and a fireworks display lit up the summer nights. Electric Park operated until 1925, when it was destroyed by fire.
Walt couldn’t afford the ten cent admission, because his father didn’t pay him and didn’t believe children should spend money on frivolous entertainment. But Walt still managed to get in, and those stolen moments at Electric Park impacted his life forever. Walt had Electric Park in mind when he said that Disneyland “has that thing — the imagination and the feeling of happy excitement — I knew when I was a kid.”
“I’m Going to Do This Someday”
Keith Gluck of The Disney Project once interviewed Diane Disney Miller. “I asked her what she knew about Walt and Electric Park,” he wrote. “She informed me that either Herb (Walt’s older brother) or Herb’s girlfriend had shown Walt how to sneak in (Walt’s father Elias would never allow for such an extravagance as an amusement park visit), and that he was fascinated with the place. Walt even told his sister Ruth, ‘I’m going to have one of these someday, but mine’s going to be clean.’”5 There are at least two interesting facets to Walt’s statement to his sister Ruth.
First: It’s amazing that Walt didn’t think Electric Park was “clean.” Photos of Electric Park show that the grounds were beautifully landscaped and the buildings, gazebos, boats, and fountains were well-maintained. Electric Park was, to all appearances, one of the cleanest amusement facilities of its era. It may be, however, that there were not enough trash receptacles in Electric Park for Walt’s taste. We know he wanted Disneyland to be immaculately clean at all times, which meant there were trash receptacles everywhere, frequent street sweeping, and no bubble gum or peanuts-in-the-shell sold in the Park.
Second: Walt probably made that statement to Ruth when he was twelve or thirteen years old. That’s about the age Walt was when he and Ruth sneaked into Electric Park. Sometime during Walt’s thirteenth year, his father Elias sold the newspaper distributorship. Walt and Roy stayed in Kansas City while their father, mother, and sister Ruth moved to Chicago.
Walt’s announcement to his sister Ruth at age twelve or thirteen would explain an intriguing statement made by Disney historian Jim Korkis in The Unofficial Disneyland 1955 Companion: “As a teenager, Walt first announced his interest in building a different kind of amusement park. It was a dream that he kept coming back to several times during his life.”6 Korkis didn’t elaborate on who Walt made that statement to, but it dovetails with Walt’s ambitious remark to his sister Ruth, as reported by Keith Gluck.
A year before her death, Diane Disney Miller gave an interview to film historian Reza Lackey. Diane told Lackey, “From the time I was a young child he [Walt] talked about an amusement park and what he would like to do, so it was something we kind of grew up with, the thought of ‘I’m going to do this someday.’ And then I learned that even back in Kansas City when he was in his early twenties, he had said to one of the guys he had at his company, Rudy Ising, . . . ‘I’m going to have an amusement park someday, but mine’s going to be clean.’ So it went way back, you know?”7
Rudolph Ising worked for Walt’s Laugh-O-gram studio in Kansas City from 1921 to 1923, and later joined Walt in California, working for the Disney studio from 1924 to 1928, when Walt lost ownership of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Walt and Rudy reportedly visited Electric Park together when they both lived in Kansas City, and that is probably when Walt told Rudy about his theme park ambitions — sometime between 1921 and 1923. It’s interesting that Walt made the same remark to Rudy that he had made to his sister Ruth — his park would be clean.
Walt’s Life Teaches Us
Walt first announced his Disneyland dream when he was twelve or thirteen. On July 17, 1955, more than four decades later, Walt achieved that dream. On that day, Walt stood at the window of his apartment over the Fire Station, watching as his first guests streamed into the park. With him were the Mouseketeers, whose Mickey Mouse Club series would soon premiere on ABC.
Mouseketeer Sharon Baird, who was twelve at the time, later described that moment: “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.”8
One of Walt’s success quotes takes on new depths of meaning when we understand that the Disneyland dream possessed Walt’s imagination for more than forty years, from conception to completion. He once said, “A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.”9
Imagine how incredibly alive Walt must have felt as he watched his boyhood dream come true. Or as he strode through the gates of his Castle, king of all he surveyed. Or as he sounded the steam whistle of Disneyland locomotive No. 1. Or as a fireworks spectacle lit up the night sky over Fantasyland.
Walt’s life teaches us: Life is short. Set your goals early. Focus all your energy and talent. Live your dreams and you’ll know you were fully alive.
About Jim Denney
Jim Denney is a writer with more than 120 books to his credit, including the Timebenders science-fantasy series for young readers and a 2004 Disney biography, How to Be Like Walt, co-written with Orlando Magic founder Pat Williams. Jim has also written books with supermodel Kim Alexis, Star Trek actress Grace Lee Whitney, and Super Bowl legends Bob Griese and Reggie White. He’s a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).
Randy Bright, Disneyland: Inside Story (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 33.
Pat Williams, How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life (Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 2004), 335.
Bob Thomas, The Walt Disney Biography (New York: New English Library/Times Mirror, 1977), 18.
Brian Burnes, Dan Viets, and Robert W. Butler, Walt Disney’s Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 2002), 34.
Keith Gluck, “Walt’s Main Street — Part One: Inspirations,” The Disney Project, February 5, 2013, http://disneyproject.com/2013/02/walts-main-street-part-one-inspirations.html.
Jim Korkis, The Unofficial Disneyland 1955 Companion: The Anecdotal Story of the Birth of the Happiest Place on Earth (n.p.: Theme Park Press, 2016), Kindle edition.
Peter Sciretta, “Interview: Diane Disney Miller Talks About Growing Up As Walt Disney’s Daughter, Inside Walt’s Disneyland Apartment and the Walt Disney Family Museum,” Slash Film, February 7, 2012, http://www.slashfilm.com/interview-diane-disney-miller-talks-growing-walt-disneys-daughter-disneyland-walt-disney-family-museum/.
Pat Williams, How to Be Like Walt, 209.
Bob Thomas, Walt Disney, Magician of the Movies (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1966), 176.