The History of Disneyland: The Surprising Way the Park Came to Be

Disneyland wasn’t always intended to be what it is today. If Walt Disney were not running the operation, Disneyland could have ended up as just another boring studio tour. Read on for a look at how the park came to be what it is today, including why the park ended up in Anaheim, California (page 7).

1. The demand was there

Mickey Mouse
Mickey Mouse | Marcus Quigmire/Wikimedia Commons

According to Designing Disney, “Due to the popularity of his cartoons, children from every corner of the country wrote to Walt, wanting to come to Hollywood and see the place where Mickey Mouse lived.” He knew he needed to create something that would not only teach kids about how Mickey gets made, but also be a fun experience for the entire family. He also recognized a huge opportunity to expand his business.

Next: How Disneyland could have been a studio tour 

2. He thought about opening up a studio lot tour

Disney Animation Building
Disney Animation Building | Cbl62/Wikimedia Commons

Other studios had begun to open up their backlots to the public to give tours. Walt considered doing the same — it certainly would have been a successful venture because the demand was so high — but he wanted to do something bigger. He also didn’t want to bore the kids with all the nuanced technicalities that go into animation.

Next: How Walt decided to build a park 

3. He came to the decision to build a park

An empty bench in park
Park with bench | kityowong/iStock/Getty Images

What Walt initially thought up was much, much smaller than the Disneyland we know and love today. He simply thought a park would be nice for kids and their families to visit. He imagined a small park “with statues of Mickey and the other characters, with picnic tables, grass and trees,” according to Designing Disney.

Next: The plans for a “small park” didn’t last long. 

4. The project grew

Disneyland opening footage
Disneyland opening day | Inside the Magic via YouTube

Walt was never known for having a small imagination, so naturally, this little park project grew into something much bigger. He wanted something like “an American Tivoli, with strong overtones of Greenfield Village and Colonial Williamsburg,” reports Designing Disney. The original location was going to be the lot across the street from the Burbank Studios on Riverside Drive. Hence, the “Riverside Drive theme park project” came into existence.

Next: Walt’s “magical little park” 

5. Walt wanted to create a magical learning experience

Disneyland opening day 1955 footage
Disneyland opening day 1955 | Inside the Magic via YouTube

Just as significant as the contents of the park, how the park would make people feel was also hugely important to Walt. He wanted to create a “magical little park” for the whole family to enjoy, and he didn’t want it to have the typical Midway feel. He was looking to create an “imaginary, long ago world that would teach the visitor about the development of American ideas of work, comfort, domesticity and urbanism,” reports Designing Disney.

Next: The man behind the planning 

6. Harper Goff

Walt Disney shows Disneyland plans to Orange County officials in December 1954.
Walt Disney shows Disneyland plans to Orange County officials in December 1954. | Orange County Archives/Wikimedia Commons

In the early ’50s, Harper Goff was assigned to work on the Riverside Drive theme park project. His original plans included a railroad depot, a farm, a Native American village, a stagecoach, gingerbread houses, a frontier water tower, and plenty of trees and lakes. “The second plan enlarges the lake end the island, organizes the town around a central hub, inserts a covered bridge and an old mill, and adds an old-fashioned circus at the corner of the lot,” says Designing Disney.

Next: How Disneyland ended up in Anaheim, California

7. Choosing the location of the park

Disneyland aerial view 1962
Disneyland aerial view | Orange County Archives

As we all know, the park didn’t end up getting built in Burbank. The city didn’t want a carnival-like atmosphere in town, so the project moved to a different area. In 1955, Disneyland opened its doors in Anaheim, California. As for what happened to the lot on Riverside Drive, it became the location for the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios and the ABC executive offices.

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