Disneyland Opening Day(s)

BACKSTORY: On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened its gates to the public with an invitation only event; unfortunately, counterfeit tickets bumped up the numbers to an unwieldy amount, and the day has gone down in history as being filled with goofs. Televised by ABC, it was the biggest live telecast in history. Viewers at home did not witness very much of the chaos; instead, they saw only what they were intended to see. As Imagineer Bob Gurr recalled, "I was just trying to keep all the Autopia cars running, on the attraction and in the parade! We had 20 cars running, but the carburetors kept locking up. I was constantly kick-starting the cars; once they were running, they were okay, but waiting for the go-ahead to be in the live, televised parade was the hardest part." Art Linkletter was the host of the day, with a number of other celebrities covering the different lands through the eyes of more than 20 cameras. Walt’s nephew, the Reverend Glenn D. Puder, acted as minister for the dedication ceremony and recited a prayer before Walt spoke.

Dubbed "Black Sunday" by Walt Disney, the day was filled with a number of goofs:
• 27,000 extra uninvited guests showed up courtesy of counterfeiters who printed up fake tickets for the invitation only grand opening.
• A local strike created delays in laying asphalt, which caused high-heeled women to sink into the pavement.
• A plumbing strike forced Walt to choose between drinking fountains or toilets. He picked toilets.
• The high temperatures of 7/17/1955 (and lack of fountains) caused a clamor for liquid refreshment, causing restaurants to run out early on both food AND drink. The media picked up on the lack of fountains, negatively saying that Walt was forcing the public to buy his refreshments.
• A reported gas leak in Tomorrowland caused the area to be closed completely by the fire chief.
• Fantasyland was anonymously sabotaged with the cutting of electrical cables, stranding guests in some of the attractions.
• Water flooded the Mark Twain Riverboat when too many guests were crowded to one side of the vessel.
• Actor Bob Cummings was caught on camera kissing a Frontierland dancer during the dedication ceremony. Fess Parker was also mistakenly introduced as Cinderella by the emcee.
• A lack of alcoholic beverages was listed as one of the major reasons that the Park wouldn't survive.

Todd Pierce from the fantastic site Disney History Institute submitted this cool little anecdote:

The park did re-do some of the press preview day festivities the next day (July 18, 1955). This included the "re-lowering" of the Castle bridge for the opening of Fantasyland. About one hour before the bridge was to be lowered, a natural gas line broke under the recently pored asphalt in the castle courtyard. A construction worker threw down a cigarette and ignited ground. Workers dug up the asphalt, capped the pipe. But right up until the scheduled opening, park officials were debating if they should open Fantasyland at all because they were unsure if there were other leaks in the area.


This Sunday, July 17, we at Disneyland will celebrate the anniversary marking our 22nd year of operation. An actuality since 1955, the Park was a dream of Walt's for many years prior to that big Opening Day. Back when we were still just a gleam in his eye and a smile on his lips, he began gathering to him the vital team of people who would make this dream a reality...People like artist Harper Goff. In this recent interview conducted at WED Enterprises in Glendale, Harper recalls those early days...

When Harper Goff walked into the Basset-Lowke model railroad shop in London in 1951 he was simply pursuing a long-time interest in miniature life steam trains. But coincidentally what he had in mind buying had caught the eye of another customer, Walt Disney, and that meeting was soon to become far more important than the train. Harper was working for Warner Brothers at the time, and after the shop owner introduced them, Walt commented, "I've heard of you, but I can't recall where..." Harper was a member of the already well-known Firehouse 5 Plus 2 which was composed of Disney animators, but Walt called him at this hotel that evening with the answer. "I've figured it out," he said, "I've seen your illustrations in Esquire magazine and always admired them, call me when you get back to the States."

HARPER: I liked the idea of working with Walt Disney, and when I called him he began to explain his idea for kiddieland near the Studio--perhaps with a steam train connected to Traveland across the L.A. River. He wanted to build something adults could enjoy along with their children.

So he went to work for Walt Disney on some of these very first concepts which were to grow into Disneyland. Walt himself built a miniature log house which he called "Grannie's Cabin" from "So Dear To My Heart." Inside was a slowly swaying rocking chair and a voice over of Beaulah Bondi describing her life as a young pioneer. They took the model to the Pan Pacific Auditorium Home Show where Harper's job was to overhear comments from spectators who he found received the little show very well. Walt then sent him on a 3 month information gathering visit to amusement parks around the country.

HARPER: They were dirty places and it was hard to imagine what Walt had in mind creating. I said to him when I got back, 'Walt, I don't think this type of environment is what you want,' and he replied, 'mine will be immaculate and the staff will be young and polite,' then I realized he could do it.

Anaheim was chosen as the site for Disneyland and Harper contributed the first sketches envisioning the look of the place. When construction began the problems had no precedents and dealing with them required ingenuity.

HARPER: I was young and awed by Walt, he had given me more responsibility than I had ever had and I worked harder than I ever had because he was a hero to me and I was afraid of not living up to his expectations. he seemed to give me free reign, but he expected a lot at the same time.

For example, the caterpillar drivers continually backed over our surveyor's stakes, making them worthless. It got too expensive in time and money to have the surveyors keep coming out to replace them, so Walt said 'Harper just eyeball it.' So I would have to spend time on the site with a scale model and signal to the cat driver to pile a little more dirt up there and level it here until it looked right to me.

We learned and made decisions as we went along. Walt wanted to use the squid from the movie "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" in some sort of boat ride but it was in bad condition and the wires that pulled the tentacles would have been hard to hide. But we had both seen "The African Queen" and we began to think of hippos and other animals which could be operated without wires and still have animated elements. We brought in Bob Matte, who later created the shark for "Jaws," to engineer the original animals. The first ones that we tried were alligators and hippos which worked on simple animation--no kicking or swimming.

I also worked with Bill and Jack Evans on buying expeditions for the landscaping. We would call cities to see if they were tearing out trees for improvements and go and buy them--we got many that way.

The Evans and Reeves Nursery was in West L.A. and as we made trips back and forth we would pass a house in Beverly Hills which had a wonderful tree in the front yard that we would have loved to have had. In fact, each time we passe it we talked about getting it and it got to be kind of a joke. Finally I though what have we got to lose, and had Jack Evans stop while I went in to ask the people if they could consider selling it. I told the owner we would replace it with a flower bed or anything they wanted and surprisingly enough the owner told me yes--it was blocking the sunlight and view coming through his front windows and we could just come and take it away. The trouble was, it took me a week to convince Jack that the owner had actually told me that I could have it...it was the tree that went around the original Burmese Temple, and we got it for nothing.

We found quite a few resources right on the property. When we began cleaning the site for Disneyland, we saved all the orange and walnut trees and I got the idea of turning the walnut trees upside down to make the original jungle roots, which we did...as for wildlife, Walt had asked me to line up a source of wild birds--crown herons, waterfowl--but when we filled the river with water all kinds of wild birds found it by themselves. We cancelled all our orders for the exotic ones...

We finished laying out the Jungle Cruise river with all its twists and turns and made a mock-up of the Cruise Boat and mounted it on a jeep so that we could fit around the course of the river and under the waterfall. I was anxious about it and looked forward to making the first run with "no one looking" in case there were problems. But before I could start, Walt came roaring up, he had heard I was going to make a test run and wanted to come along. Luckily it went very well.

Harper went on to freelance from 1955 to 1975 working on World's Fair designs and in the motion picture industry where he was associate producer of the film "The Vikings" which starred Kirk Douglas, and Art Director for "Pete Kelley's Blues" and "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

Today he is back at WED working on the German and Iranian Pavilions for EPCOT World Showcase.

HARPER: I have a lot of old friends here and it's great to be back with them. In those days there was no WED, we just had a little machine shop, about 16'x50', and a tiny model shop. We worked without knowing what people would think of our efforts and when our work was well received we had the excitement of having done it right. Today we are larger, we have many more creative people and we've already earned pride and conviction in what we're doing. But I never become blase because I continue to have the feeling that Walt is looking over my shoulder.


Many of the character costumes used in the opening day parade were borrowed from the Ice Capades, which is why they look so different from the animated characters that they are supposed to represent.


Opening day for the general public was July 18, 1955. Michael Black was kind enough to share his family photos from that historic day.

While looking through a set of photos from the 1950s that once belonged to my grandmother, Dorothy (McMurry) Black, I found a fun surprise—thirteen photos of my father and his family visiting Disneyland just one day after its grand opening day. Disneyland had its grand opening on July 17, 1955, but only press and invited guests were allowed in the park on that day. The next day—July 18, 1955, was the first day that the public was allowed into Disneyland, and these three photos were taken on that day. My grandparents, Vernon and Dorothy (McMurry) Black took four very lucky children to Disneyland that day: their two children (Keith and Gary), their foster son (Richard Bearden), and their nephew (Jude Laspa). Richard, the oldest, was 14 years old. Keith was 12, Jude was 11, and Gary was 6. Vernon and Dorothy were both 38, but children for the day, I’m sure!

The first image shows (left to right) Keith, Jude, Richard, and Gary standing in front of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship restaurant (which was once docked in Fantasyland, approximately where the Dumbo ride is now—see map below). Note the scaffolding still in place against the ship; the park staff was not able to get the ship completely painted by opening day, so they would have been putting the finishing touches on the hull when this photo was taken. The (rear) staircase from the dock also hadn’t yet been built.

Note that they are standing in sand, not the ubiquitous concrete of today. They would have been standing on the north side of the ship, looking towards the Casey Jr. train ride behind the photographer. The second image below is of the four boys and Vernon standing on the bridge leading to the entrance to Frontierland. The third photo is my father’s foster brother, Richard, realizing too late that he’s in my grandmother’s shot of the entrance to Frontierland. The sixth photo shows Vernon, Richard, Gary, Keith, and Jude standing on the top deck of the stern of the Mark Twain river boat. The flagpole is clearly visible, as is a bit of red, white, and blue bunting at the base of the flagpole. Vernon is holding a large roll of papers (Disney posters, or shooting targets from the Main Street Shooting Gallery?), a Disneyland map, and perhaps a pamphlet. Keith has a Disneyland map and a boxlike item of some sort. Jude also has a boxlike item, perhaps the same as Keith’s.

The brochure map below (which came from http://andeverythingelsetoo.blogspot.com/2010/07/disneyland-55.html) dates to the opening day of the park, so it shows the layout of the park as my dad and his family would have seen it on that day.

To see more from Michael's collection, be sure to visit his blog.


The following photos are from the digital archives of USC: digitallibrary.usc.edu.

JULY 18, 1955

The following photos date to July 18, 1955, which was the Opening Day for the general public.