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Under Construction: A look inside Walt Disney’s Disneyland

In the summer of 1951, TV personality Art Linkletter took a trip to Copenhagen with Walt Disney. Walking around the Tivoli Gardens amusement park, he spots Walt, writing. “I asked him what he was doing, and he replied, ‘I’m just making notes about something that I’ve always dreamed of – a great, great playground…’”

Rome was not built in a day. Neither was Disneyland. Opening in July 1955, it took exactly 366 days – just over a year – to bring the "Happiest Place on Earth” to life in Anaheim, California, but the foundations of Disneyland as we know it today were a much lengthier process in the making. For decades, Walt Disney would strive to reimagine the typical amusement park as a theme park, an idealised salute to America’s past and a nod to an experimental vision for its future. From daring dream to fantasy destination, it’s this journey that Taschen looks to document in its newest offering, Walt Disney’s Disneyland.

The book, enthusiastically penned by American writer Chris Nichols, traces the park’s development from its inception right up to the present day. Travelling through the park, Nichols stops off at each of its themed lands – Main Street U.S.A., Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Fantasyland – recounting their individual historical origins, and sharing a wealth of photographs, concept drawings and ephemera, sourced from the company’s own archives and other private collections.


Copyright © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

“Sometimes Disneyland feels like it has always been here, as if it just grew out of the Earth fully formed,” Nichols writes in the opening pages. He’s half-right. On the one hand – and much like animation itself – Disneyland does indeed appear as a finished product, almost seamlessly. Fireworks and all. And yet, it is so transparently manufactured, so believably unreal. Walt would insist that the tops of houses on Main Street be lined with real wrought iron for authenticity, rather than plastic imitation – the same houses that would use forced perspective to appear taller. But this is a dance Disneyland was always designed to perform: “A place of hopes and dreams, facts and fantasy, all in one” as Walt described it to a television audience on ABC in 1954.

Originally built on 160 acres of orange groves in Anaheim, California, Disneyland was the ultimate reflection of midcentury Southern California, where, as Nichols observes, “Space Age architecture and wild natural landscapes […] go hand in hand”. Its optimism characterised much of the 20th century; when Walt’s initial plans for a small park adjacent to the Disney studio in Burbank were rejected, he was adamant the park would still be built somewhere in California. In other words? When life gave Walt Disney oranges, he made Disneyland.

As well as drawing on his own childhood experiences, Disneyland’s design was the result of an exhaustive research mission personally undertaken by Walt himself around the United States and Europe. Placing Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at the centre of the park, the remaining lands were designed to radiate out from its centre, loosely inspired by the radial layout of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. Encompassing separate ideas, but seamlessly integrated, it was a real feat of engineering and imagination; the park captured everything from small-town values on Main Street to the future of space travel in Tomorrowland. Nowhere else could you find audio-animatronic tropical birds, a prefabricated House of the Future complete with Marcel Breuer chairs, flying elephants and a 72 feet tall rocket – fourteen years before actual astronauts had landed on the moon.


Collection of Dave DeCaro

There’s a remarkable photo from 1958 that depicts Snow White, Goofy and an astronaut from Tomorrowland (among other characters) grabbing lunch in the employee cafeteria. A perfect metaphor for Disneyland’s all-encompassing, absorptive quality, it does a better job of demonstrating the park’s urban planning than any map. “When you go to Disneyland, there is no horizon – just Disneyland…the environment is very special because nothing leaks in from the outside,” explained John Bench, one of its designers. Imagineer Herb Ryman reaffirms this, explaining how Walt wanted guests to enter the park through tunnels, as though “under hypnosis”. Walt himself also hired many of the same artists who worked on the animated feature films to design attractions, to make visitors feel like they were stepping straight into the world they had seen on-screen. As one designer recalled, “When we began designing Disneyland, we looked at it just the way we do a motion picture. We had to tell a story, or in this case, a series of stories.”

In Walt Disney’s Disneyland, Nichols draws back the curtain to reveal a messier, less magical affair. Every hurdle is documented – from seeking financial backing and securing an appropriate site, to building the park itself and its historically chaotic opening day. So chaotic, in fact, that at one point it was even dubbed “Black Sunday” by the press. (One story recounts the moment the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride starts to spew foam, swiftly prompting a crew member to crawl inside its mechanical innards to – as described by engineer, Karl Bacon – “milk the elephants.”)

The story Nichols tells is a topsy-turvy one; the stuff of nightmares, less so dreams. But even if this were true, the images don’t let on. Not for a second. No one’s blowing pixie dust off of blueprints, and there aren’t any magical brooms sweeping the floors, a la Fantasia. And yet, the archival material is still every bit as charming and captivating. Deliciously crisp, colour photographs taken from National Geographic and LIFE depict a truly golden era of photojournalism. The likes of Richard Nixon and Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Muhammad Ali are pictured enjoying, performing and signing autographs in the park respectively, while Guy Williams entertains crowds as Zorro on horseback in Frontierland.


© Getty Images/Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection


Courtesy Disney

These accompany hand-drawn maps by Herb Ryman, memorabilia such as the first ever coupon books, posters and shopping bags, meticulous miniature models, and concept art by the inimitable Mary Blair. And where the images momentarily lack, Nichols makes up for in the text, retelling imaginatively rich anecdotes, such as Imagineer Rolly Crump’s learning to sculpt plasticine in the carpark with a plastic fork; the way animatronic elephants were transported to and from the Jungle Cruise ride by helicopter; or the image of Imagineer Bob Gurr lying on his back, underneath the dizzying Mad Tea Party’s spinning tea cups, to look for wear and tear.

It goes without saying that Walt Disney’s Disneyland is dripping with as much nostalgia as it is laden with Southern Californian sunshine. But while much of the story that Nichols tells is of yesteryear; the Disneyland that once was, the story of Disneyland’s past is also that of its ongoing evolution. Today, to visit a Disneyland anywhere in the world is to visit an iteration, a version of Walt’s founding vision. Florida, Japan, France, Hong Kong, China, Hawaii – all currently play host to Disney parks. But California’s Disneyland, the first, is the only park Walt saw to completion before his death in 1966. It’s for this reason that it will perhaps always feel particularly special to fans. Mindful of this, Nichols takes care to paint a sympathetic and endearing picture of Walt himself; his turning up at the Disney studio for a meeting in a bathrobe and pyjamas; or leaving a VIP preview dinner to don a mask and help finish painting a giant squid in the hours before the park’s opening.

When Disneyland opened, its drinking fountains were dry and its asphalt was ‘still a little soft’. But in Walt’s mind, Disneyland would never be completed. As he would famously go on to say, “It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” And it has. While parts of Disneyland (in part for posterity) have remained intact, over the years, its landscape has changed dramatically. New attractions, rides and lands have been added, and others, rebuilt or simply replaced. When Frontierland was first being built in 1954, Westerns were at the height of popularity. In 2019, much of Frontierland looks set to be replaced by the debut of Star Wars Land. It’s reported to be the largest expansion of its kind in the park’s history.


Copyright © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

By now, the story of Disneyland’s origin is, well, a tale as old as time. Walt’s life is so inextricably woven into the Disney brand, and his legacy so carefully protected, that how much is fiction or embellished fact, we’ll perhaps never really know. But its genesis story is often attributed to that which Walt shared with Canadian broadcaster Fletcher Markle; of spending time with his daughters in Griffith Park, Los Angeles: “I’d take [my daughters] to the merry-go-round and as I’d sit…on a bench, you know, eating peanuts – I felt that there should be something built […] where the parents and the children should have fun together.” Maybe it says something of Walt’s character: that he was never content with simply being a spectator, or even just sitting still. Consider that when Disneyland opened, Walt already had 472 short films, 13 feature films and 15 Academy Awards under his belt. Disneyland would prove to be his most ambitious project to date.

But Walt was never just building a ‘playground’. Disneyland came to be a physical manifestation of quintessential American ideals and values – and not just for Americans, but for the world. Since its opening, Disneyland has become a critical reference point; writing from the likes of Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard have cemented its use as a teaching aid when talking about material culture, or semiotics. And as the park evolves, many more will undoubtedly continue to ask the question of what Disneyland means. In Walt Disney’s Disneyland, Nichols is simply telling us what it’s made of – an altogether different kind of material culture reading. What Nichols presents here are the building blocks to unreality; his take is one of concrete and steel, less hyperreality and simulacra.

By the 1950s, even Walt himself would come to recognise how the Disney name had become a social construct, something bigger than himself. As quoted in Neal Gabler’s biography of Disney, Walt would tell an associate, “I’m not Walt Disney anymore. Walt Disney is a thing. Its grown to be a whole different meaning than just one man.” Nichols’ title, Walt Disney’s Disneyland isn’t just apt, nor is it written out of obligation – it’s necessary, intended, purposeful. Because in it, Nichols momentarily points the wand back at its sorcerer to reveal not only a portrait of a park, but more so of the man who magicked it into being.

Writing purely as a Disney fan, I can say only one thing: this book is special. And I have no doubt that other fans will be enthralled by the thought of seeing such a breadth of archival and personal material in print. As for everyone else? Disneyland has a way of converting the critical, perhaps not completely, but certainly temporarily. It is, undoubtedly, a complete fascination, and there will be something in Walt Disney’s Disneyland to capture all attentions.

Taschen’s Walt Disney’s Disneyland is published on 3 September.


© Lawrence Schiller, Polaris Communications Inc., All Rights Reserved.


Walt Disney’s Disneyland, Chris Nichols, TASCHEN