Disneyland Hasn’t Always Been the Happiest Place on Earth

Mayhem and Crisis on Fantasyland's Opening Day

Beyond that drawbridge, nobody was having much fun.

Joyce Bellinger, who had been hired ten days earlier to work aboard the Mark Twain, said of opening day, “I always remember that I was out there the night before. It was really a mess, you know. There was paint all over, and tools, and drop cloths. The windows were still covered with paint. Everybody was running around. And there were knives and hammers. The ticket booth for the Mark Twain wasn’t even half finished. And we thought, “My gosh! How are they going to be able to open it for the press and all the celebrities and everybody who’s going to be here the following day?” So we came back the next morning, and it just sparkled. Everything was clean and beautiful, and it looked just simply great.”

But she got there at eight in the morning. Most of the guests that day would have agreed with C. V. Wood: “It was a madhouse!”

The day’s chief problem revealed itself early: the sheer mass of people drawn by Disney’s ten-month advertising campaign.

This was the “Press Preview Day,” by invitation only, and it had been carefully planned. The company issued 11,000 invitations, with staggered entrance times. Each guest was to spend three hours in the park, with the last group arriving at 5:30. Nobody paid the slightest attention to the times. Many of the tickets offered entry to a guest “and party.” A gatekeeper remembered, “One person got off his huge bus with his party. With one ticket.” Moreover, the tickets had been printed long enough in advance to serve as models for a thriving traffic in counterfeits.

Some visitors got in without tickets, fake or real. Wood said, “We even found a guy who had built a ladder and flopped it over the barbed-wire fence back where the stables were. You could just walk up and over real easy. He was letting people in for five damn bucks a head.”

The park’s official tally had attendance at 28,154, but that seems suspiciously precise. Many of the employees believed the number much greater; Ken Anderson put it at 50,000.

A passenger yelled, “The boat is sunk!” The boat was fine, but had jumped its track and was stuck.

One studio man, armed with a perfectly legitimate ticket, summed up the experience of almost everyone on the 17th: “Except for the fact that we can say we were at the opening, it was most disappointing in that neither [our] children nor ourselves could get near any rides, nor places to eat.”

Not that getting to a restaurant would ensure something to eat; some of the concessions ran out of food by noon. Adding to the discomfort, the temperature quickly climbed to over 100 degrees and stayed there. This made the lack of drinking fountains all the more apparent. “Instead,” said Van Arsdale France, “we had young men carrying water on their backs . . . our version of Gunga Din. Along with other bad publicity, we were accused of depriving our guests of water to force them to buy Coca-Cola and Pepsi.”

The toilets that Disney had chosen over the drinking fountains also had problems. “Even with the restrooms,” wrote France, “they were totally inadequate for the needs of the people. The lines were almost as great at these facilities as they were for the attractions. And, since Walt did not want big signs saying ‘men’ and ‘women’ on his theme stages, they were hard to find. As a result, there was confusion in Fantasyland where they were named ‘prince’ and ‘princess.’ Some people thought they were attractions. On Main Street the restrooms are hidden behind our flower display. One guest asked for restroom directions for her child, and was told “behind the flowers” . . .  and took the direction at face value . . . and went . . . behind the flowers.”

Trouble started at the gate. The newly laid asphalt was still so soft that Dick Nunis remembered seeing it suck women’s high-heeled shoes off their feet, with Frank Sinatra’s wife being one of the victims; and many visitors came away with their clothes bearing the indelible imprint of wet paint. Because the park was opening by degrees, one land at a time, crowds built up everywhere. “Christ, we had them packed on Main Street like sardines,” said Wood. “They were bitching. They were mad.” Animators from the studio had been drafted to take part in the ceremonies. “My group,” one of them wrote, “had been assigned to the Mark Twain riverboat. We gaily tripped up the plank and wandered around. It was still hot, and the passengers were all sweating on the crowded boat. There was no bar, fountain, no water aboard, and no way to jump ship after you were on because some so-and-so had removed the gangplank.”

They’d been sweltering there for hours by the time Art Linkletter and Irene Dunne showed up.

Tim O’Brien, the negligent overseer of the holding pen, first knew there was trouble when he heard the boat’s whistle give the two short blasts of the agreed-upon distress signal. The Twain was on the far side of the island, and when a maintenance crew arrived in their motorboat they found her with the list that Irene Dunne had noticed now so pronounced that the lower deck was awash.

A passenger yelled, “The boat is sunk!” The boat was fine, but had jumped its track and was stuck. Scores of people would have to wade ashore before it could be refloated. At first nobody wanted to: the turbid waters looked bottomless. But that effect had been achieved with dye, and the river was only two feet deep where the Twain was stranded. Gradually, holding their shoes aloft, passengers began to make for the bank. It took half an hour to lighten the ship enough for a diver to reset the stern-wheeler.

Passengers also had to be taken off those canal boats that Linkletter had mentioned. This was an attraction that shouldn’t have been running at all. Although it was designed to send guests gliding past the miniature buildings of Storybook Land, the model shop had yet to produce a single one of them. Instead, the boats wound their way through the bare brown gully that operators had named the Mudbank Ride.

This was the only ride Jack Lindquist, his wife, and their five-year-old son got near. Lindquist was there because he had headed his advertising firm’s successful effort to sell Disneyland a Kelvinator promotion (the “Foodarama” refrigerator in Tomorrowland, which, it boasted, could hold 166 pounds of meat), and he wasn’t having a good time. “As we were being pushed along by the crowd, we saw the Canal Boats of the World in Fantasyland. They were barge-like boats piloted by an operator sitting in the back. My son, David, wanted to go on them, and I thought it was a great idea.

Fantasyland was beset with crises.

I watched somewhat nervously as David sailed away with around 40 other kids on board. The boat was supposed to return about five minutes after it took off; but after 15 minutes, David hadn’t returned.” Other boats came in but not his. “Then, half an hour passed. Still no David. I thought I had sent my firstborn on a voyage to hell and that he’d never return.” Forty-five minutes later, “four guys wearing waders slogged through the water pulling David’s boat with ropes. . . . As I stood in this sweaty, sticky mass of humanity, I grew more disenchanted by the minute with the supposed ‘happiest place on earth.’” David got off, “sweat rolling down his face,” and immediately asked, “Can we go home now?” That was enough for Lindquist, too: “We walked around for a few more minutes, and then we got in the car and drove to Knott’s Berry Farm for a chicken dinner.”

Fantasyland was beset with crises. The most dangerous came while Fowler was trapped aboard the riverboat during its derailment. “I was in the cabin of the Mark Twain with Irene Dunne. And we were marooned there for an hour and a half. She was perfectly delightful, but because of the crowds we couldn’t get off. Then I finally got a call when I hit the beach that we had a problem up in Fantasyland, and we did. We had a gas leak. And you could smell gas coming up through the courtyard there somewhere. The question was, “What the hell will we do? Will we close up and get everybody out of the park?” I got hold of the fire chief and we decided we’d rope off the area.”

Fowler and the fire chief found the leak, and got a plumber to fix the broken line. “I don’t think half a dozen people knew it because . . . nobody could get in.”

The day’s only mortal danger had been defused, but one by one the Fantasyland rides began to fail. As Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon of Arrow had already predicted, the Snow White cars were regularly derailed by their half-trained operators. The Dumbo ride was still oozing its “shaving cream,” and to keep its elephants aloft, Morgan and Bacon had to rely on a stalwart colleague. Karl: “We used a fellow by the name of Paul Harvey on-site. We left him there to—” Ed: “—milk the elephants!” Karl: “While they were loading, he’d go out there and drain the system and put in clean oil. We elected him . . .” Ed: “He was a wonderful employee, and we just left him there on opening day. It was a mean thing to do. They were actually operating the ride, and he was in the inner enclosure. He’s draining fluid and putting fluid back in between time of load and unload. Disney was insistent that the ride would run because we had so many problems in the early days.”

He also insisted that Casey Jr. perform. The little circus train would not be fully operational until the end of the month, but Fowler had made some emergency repairs he believed would serve for a couple of circuits of the track. Jerry Colonna didn’t think so. The comedian, who had often loaned his piercing slide-whistle voice to Disney cartoons, stood by dressed as an engineer and scheduled to take the throttle. Morgan and Bacon, who had built the engine, were on hand, and Ed said, “On opening day, the guy with the bulgy eyes, Jerry Colonna, was supposed to drive the train, but he . . . just chickened out. He looked at that hill and said, ‘No!’” The ABC crew, minutes away from having to cover the departure, looked to Morgan, but he was too big for the engineer’s costume. He pointed to his smaller partner. Morgan said, “Karl looked at me, and I said, ‘Yes, you can do it.’” So Bacon suited up, Colonna agreed to ride on the tender, and they made the run without injury.

If Paul Harvey, the elephant milker, had the worst job that day, Bob Gurr’s came close, and got bad early. “About half the Autopia cars were taken from the ride and moved to an offstage area next to the Main Street town square for the opening day parade. The first sign of trouble appeared as I started the cars using a kick starter on the engine while holding the rear engine hood open. The day was getting hotter and hotter and the cars began to vapor lock and stall after idling in the heat for 15 minutes or so. Just as the cars were to join the parade I ran from car to car to restart the stalled engines as the drivers were itching to go.”

At this point Disney added to Bob Gurr’s difficulties. He came by with Gale Storm and introduced her to Gurr, whose pleasure in meeting this “gorgeous red-haired movie star” evaporated when Walt said, “Bobby will mind your boys for the day.”

So, wrote Gurr, “now I’m to babysit two kids in addition to herding 40 sick cars.”

“The drivers moved the cars after the parade to the Autopia ride where we got them all back on the track to await the official Autopia ride opening later in the day. I was delighted to watch the happy faces of the little guests as they finally got to drive a ‘real gasoline car’ at Disneyland. But my delight turned to dismay as car after car suffered a variety of failures.”

Gale Storm’s two sons “clung to me wherever I had to rush to, helping the ride operators to rescue dying cars. Of course we did a lot of driving trips on the ride ourselves—I wasn’t gonna miss out on the fun. The boys pointed out a short black guy with an eye patch and hollered ‘get ’im’ . . . obviously a friend of theirs. We whacked the guy clear off the track and up into the weeds. He gave us a startled look.”

That was Sammy Davis Jr. Gurr “wanted to apologize to him till the day he died, but never caught up with him.”

“As the number of functioning cars dwindled, the guest queue line got longer and longer. Soon, some guests were jumping the fence, running up the track, and commandeering the returning cars. The ride operators were outnumbered to try and stop this Autopia feeding frenzy.”

An employee said “there were so many people that they had to close the carrousel a few times because guests climbed over the chains and we couldn’t control them.”

And there were casualties. “As some cars were suffering faulty speed governors, drivers could go fast enough to jump curbs, spin out, and drive back down the track where head-on collisions took place. The original cars did not have padded steering wheels. I took a couple of kids to first aid, one with his hand full of teeth.”

People were storming other rides, too. In Fantasyland, an employee said “there were so many people that they had to close the carrousel a few times because guests climbed over the chains and we couldn’t control them.” Some passed their children over the heads of the crowd to get them mounted.

Keith Murdoch, the Anaheim city manager who had been aboard from the park’s earliest days, found the opening “such a mess that I went home and watched it on TV.”

In the midst of all this, Dateline: Disneyland soldiered on, the TV monitors shimmering in the white fog lifting from tubs of dry ice that kept them cool enough to function. Although remarkably little of the mayhem is visible in the show, the hosts were well aware of it. Ronald Reagan had to scale an eight-foot fence to reach Frontierland on time, and even Disney had trouble getting around. Linkletter wrote, “On one occasion, Walt was going from one place to another, and he was going up an alley shortcut, and there was a guard there. He said, ‘You can’t go through here.’ And Walt said to him, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And the guard said, ‘Yes, Mr. Disney, I do, but I have my orders—nobody can go through here.’ And Walt said, ‘Well, I’m going to go through here. If you get in the way, you know what’s going to happen to you!’ And he walked right by.”

Davy Crockett, unperturbed by hostile Plains warriors, was shaken by the crowds. As soon as his appearance was over, he found a young publicist whose nametag read Marty Sklar, and begged him, “Marty, help me get out of here before this horse kills somebody!” Sklar said, “I did manage to help Fess Parker (and his horse) reach a backstage area. The rest of the day was a blur.”

Ken Anderson spent it in a daze. The night before, after he’d left Disney to attend to Mr. Toad, “I went on the rides over again more than once, but I spent a good deal of the time walking through the rides and checking out the painting and all the works. I was so damn tired I had been working straight through for two or three days and nights. And I was just asleep on my feet.”

He found a patch of ground, and “was sound asleep for the opening of the park. I must have slept for about an hour because I was woken up again by some of the workmen saying, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ ”

He joined the swelling crowd. “I wandered around and met the people. I was amazed at the number of people. . . . We weren’t prepared for them. We didn’t know anything about lines. We didn’t know anything about anything. We just had these attractions and ‘wouldn’t you like to go?’ And sure, they were piling in like crazy. . . .

The press knew. The park had broken one of the cardinal rules for entertaining reporters: get them drunk.

“It must have been a disaster, but it happened so fast, and there was so much of it, and they were all around you, you didn’t know it was a disaster.”

The press knew. The park had broken one of the cardinal rules for entertaining reporters: get them drunk. Harper Goff, visiting the press room, was set upon by two newspapermen who griped to him about Disney’s stinginess: “Dumb bastard! Where’s the liquor?”

Goff apologized, explaining that Anaheim law said Disney needed a special permit to serve alcohol, but the reporters were welcome to bring their own.

“Where’s the nearest liquor store?” Goff had no idea.

His indignant questioner said, “I’m going to sit down here and say that a father and mother with two kids came and left and it cost them 200 dollars. Everything is so expensive.”

“I’ll make it worse than that,” the other reporter promised. Walt “always thinks he’s had good press, but he’ll learn.”

Just how much Disney was aware of the tumult is unclear. Certainly he was in the middle of it—an employee even saw him running an armload of emergency toilet paper to one of the restrooms—but reports differ, with some having him buoyant and confident, others anxious and downcast. Apparently after the telecast he sought out C. V. Wood and berated him, as if his general manager could have controlled the chaos better.

As the long day began to wane, a guest said, “Everything was broken down.” That was true enough; at one point or another every ride save for the jungle boats had been out of commission. “The place looked like a cyclone had hit it.”

What might have distressed Disney most were the drifts of trash. Chuck Boyajian and his crew had done their best, but the volume was overwhelming. Toward the end, they were simply piling it up behind the Main Street buildings, making heaps of garbage that attracted the harsh attention of the Health Department: “This is either gone, or you’re not open!”

As soon as the throng began to thin, Bob Gurr went looking for Gale Storm, and gave her back her children.

“Returning to the Autopia ride, I found it shut down, the ride operators nursing bloody shins from kick-starting dead cars all day. A few said they had been run down by wild drivers.

“At last I had a chance to survey the mess the Autopia cars were in; distorted bumpers, rear wheel bearings shot, axle and brake damage. . . . Many of the remaining 37 cars were in sad shape—just after only one day???!”

Brooding over the results of “the real testing,” he “had a long, hot, sad drive home that night, only to return to Disneyland the next morning to face the regular public.”

Van Arsdale France, in his role as traffic coordinator, had struggled through an even longer day, albeit one that gave him a privileged aerial view from the Goodyear Blimp, which he shared with Anaheim’s chief of police, who remembered seeing automobiles backed up “halfway to L.A.” in what was the worst traffic jam in Orange County history.

Now, 15 hours or so later, France was back on the ground, trying to disperse all those cars, armed with a useful piece of highway patrol wisdom: “I was taught one thing about directing traffic. When, as was to happen, people were trying to drive home in many directions, and trapped in long lines, they would ask how to get to Los Angeles, San Diego, or any other place. There is, I was taught, only one reply . . .

‘Straight ahead, sir.’ We could only hope they would eventually find their way home.”

Thinking it over, he wrote, “It was total confusion . . . both on camera and behind the scenes. But, it was the celebration of the birth of a dream.”

The shell-shocked Ken Anderson, still on his feet and making his exhausted way through the shambles, also nursed an ember of optimism: “We had a park. It was a start.”

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Disney's Land Richard Snow

Excerpted from Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park that Changed the World. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Snow. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Richard Snow
Richard Snow
Richard Snow spent nearly four decades at American Heritage magazine, serving as editor in chief for 17 years, and has been a consultant on historical motion pictures, among them Glory, and has written for documentaries, including the Burns brothers’ Civil War, and Ric Burns’s award-winning PBS film Coney Island, whose screenplay he wrote. He is the author of multiple books, including, most recently, Disney’s Land.





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