Home » 5 Theme Parks that Forever Changed Walt’s Disneyland

    5 Theme Parks that Forever Changed Walt’s Disneyland

    Knott's Berry Farm entrance

    It’s a familiar story, one that starts with Walt Disney sitting on a painted green bench on the perimeter of Griffith Park Carousel in Los Angeles, California. He’s there most Sundays, watching his two daughters, Sharon and Diane, spin around the horses. There should be a place, Walt thinks, where the parents and children could have fun together.

    That’s where the story appears to end. Some stuff happens in the middle—Walt dreams up a clean, safe, streamlined park full of attractions the likes of which had never been seen—and presto! Disneyland is born.

    But Griffith Park alone wasn’t enough to set the gears in motion. In the decades leading up to Disneyland’s auspicious opening, Walt dug into the theme park industry with the kind of meticulous attention to detail that he had so often applied to his animated features, the kind of detail that was missing from many traditional amusement parks littered throughout the country. He assembled a team of artists, engineers, architects—even other theme park owners—and together they traversed multiple states and countries on a quest to glean everything from crowd patterns to ride prices and the habits of guests who had been pegged as petty thieves among unguarded pockets and gift shops. Whenever he could, Walt made personal visits to the parks himself, and spent hours observing the ebb and flow of the parkgoers and picking the brains of his industry peers.

    Of the myriad gardens, railroads, amusement parks, and state fairs that piqued Walt’s curiosity, five places stood out as clear inspiration for the expanse of Anaheim-grown orange groves that would later be transformed into the sprawling landscape of Disneyland itself…

    1. Knott’s Berry Farm

    Knott's Berry Farm entrance

    Image: METRO96, Wiki Commons (license)

    Before Walt established his park as one of Knott’s Berry Farm’s fiercest local competitors, he was drawn to it for inspiration. Entrepreneur and berry farmer Walter Knott began setting up informal attractions on his property in 1940—15 years before the advent of Disneyland—and developed his own personal “county fairgrounds” in the decade that followed.

    Following Walt’s first visit to the Buena Park amusement area in the mid-1940s, he shared his initial vision for Disneyland (then referred to as “Mickey Mouse Park”) with some of his trusted employees. He pictured an old-fashioned town square for adults to relax while their kids ran around, the precursor to today’s Town Square and Main Street, U.S.A. It would feature a drugstore, fire station, opera house, movie theatre, and steam train… a perfect replica of a turn-of-the-century Midwest town, the likes of which Walt himself had experienced as a child. He even had the idea to populate the town with “characters,” which was in part inspired by a similar feature over at Knott’s Berry Farm. Unlike Knott’s, though, Walt stressed that he wanted to offer guests more than just swings, slides, and pony rides. His theme park would remind people of their American heritage and the events and peoples that shaped the country’s history.

    In 1997, long after Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm had established themselves as premier tourist locations in Southern California, the Knott family started hunting around for a buyer to take the amusement park off their hands. One option? The Walt Disney Company, who could have converted the park to their second California-based location as Disney’s California Adventure was still under construction.

    Had the sale gone through, Knott’s Berry Farm would have undergone a full-scale makeover as Disney’s America, a historical theme park designed to illuminate different eras of American history. Proposed plans for the re-theming included nine lands called Native America (1600-1810), Presidents’ Square (1750-1800), Crossroads U.S.A. (1800-1850), Enterprise (1870-1930), We The People (1870-1930), Civil War Fort (1850-1870), Family Farm (1930-1945), State Fair (1930-1945), and Victory Field (1930-1945), with attractions spanning the Audio Animatronic-heavy Hall of Presidents to a river rafting attraction called The Lewis and Clark Expedition and a scaled-down replica of the Ellis Island immigration station. Plans for the park eventually fell through, however, as the Knott family raised strong objections to the retheming of the existing park and transportation options connecting Disneyland to Knott’s proved too expensive.

    2. Electric Park

    Electric Park

    Image: Yaxy2011, Wiki Commons (license)

    Walt couldn’t help but glean ideas and inspiration from his nearest competitors, but Knott’s Berry Farm was far from the only theme park to influence Disneyland’s creation and design. In fact, the earliest amusement park to inspire Walt was the very one that he had experienced as a child: Electric Park in Kansas City, Mo. The 1907 trolley park was patterned after the World’s Columbian Exposition fairgrounds that were constructed in Chicago in 1893, and was conveniently situated just 15 blocks from the Disney family’s home. Its Greyhound Racer roller coaster, Ferris wheel, theatre, alligator farm, shooting gallery, and aquarium were flanked by meticulously landscaped grounds and over 100,000 light bulbs sparkling along the outlines of its many attractions and buildings. At night, a fireworks display lit up the park just before it closed its gates.

    Most enthralling to the young Walt Disney was the train that ran around the perimeter of the park. Walt’s fascination with trains would extend well into adulthood, and when it came time to add a stable of steam engines to Disneyland, he already had a perfect model to draw from. Like Electric Park’s iconic railway, Disneyland would also feature a train that ran along the border of the California theme park, and one that seamlessly integrated into the landscaping as well. It would become one of the hallmarks of Walt’s creation, and a lasting symbol of his vision for a bigger and better American amusement park.

    3. Children’s Fairyland

    Children's Fairyland entrance

    Image: Wiki Commons (license)

    A 10-acre children’s-only park nestled on the curve of Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., Children’s Fairyland preceded Disneyland by a full five years. It opened its gates to pint-sized visitors in 1950 and later played host to Walt himself as he scoured the state for the best-themed parks to help inspire and shape the amusement park he already had in mind.

    Fairyland was, and still is, one of the few remaining amusement parks that refuses to admit children without adults, and adults without children. Walt, however, had a different vision. He wanted Disneyland to be a refuge for families, certainly, but he also recognized the importance of indulging every adult’s “inner child.” The Disneyland Walt envisioned would cater to adults as much as it did to their offspring, if not more so.

    Amid the fairy tale trappings of Fairyland, Walt was struck not only by the clever design and whimsical feel of the park, but by the cleanliness of the play areas and the friendliness and approachability of the staff as well—all aspects that would be played up in his own park when it opened in 1955. By the time he took his leave of Fairyland, he was so inspired by it that he poached two of their top employees, too: director Dorothy Manes, who later took a gig as Disney’s Special Events Administrator, and pioneer puppeteer Bob Mills, who was placed in charge of the now-defunct Tinker Bell Toy Shoppe (the Fantasyland-area gift shop that now houses Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique).

    4. Beverly Park

    Beverly HillsImage: Prayitno, Flickr (license)

    Like Fairyland, Beverly Park Children’s Amusement Center provided a small, safe theme park for L.A. parents to escort their children year-round. Established in the heart of Beverly Grove in 1945, the three-quarter-acre fairground was acquired and operated by former music manager and businessman David Bradley. The park’s young guests were treated to kid-sized attractions, including some refurbished equipment from an abandoned traveling carnival: a portable Little Dipper roller coaster, Ferris wheel, carrousel, electric trolley, Tilt-A-Whirl, Road Runner (an Autopia-like attraction), Dodgem bumper cars, pony rides, and all the popcorn, peanuts, and cotton candy they could get their hands on.

    Beverly Park was more than your run-of-the-mill fair, however. It was a place designed to make children feel important. Bradley designed every aspect of the park to enchant and delight his visitors and built out many of his attractions with special murals, flowers, and tunnels so that guests would always have something interesting to look at and explore.

    Walt was one of a long list of celebrity parents to bring their kids to Beverly Park on the weekends. More than that, he spent hours sitting on the benches of the park and asking his daughters (and the other children roaming the grounds) to describe what they loved about the rides. He picked Bradley’s brain on everything from attraction operations and dining options to the length of the queues. Bradley left Beverly Park to work on Walt’s Disneyland in 1950 and eventually returned to his own amusement park operations in 1955—but not before he made his imprint on Anaheim’s newest recreation area. Thanks to the innovative ideas of his fellow theme park creator, Walt was inspired to create themed areas of his park where families could take photos together. He was also convinced to scale down the buildings along Main Street, U.S.A. so visitors would feel taller and more important, and the littlest guests wouldn’t be too intimidated by the size and scope of the park. And, as Bradley had done throughout his stamp-sized plot of land, Walt would pay special attention to the theming and cleanliness of his theme park as he sought to make every square inch of Disneyland beautiful and interesting to discover.

    5. Tivoli Gardens

    Tivoli Gardens

    Image: Malte Hübner, Wiki Commons

    The crème de la crème of European amusement parks, there was no way Walt could in good conscience construct his own Magic Kingdom without first paying a visit to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark. Constructed in 1843, Tivoli is among the oldest theme parks still in existence and famed for its Rutschebanen roller coaster, bumper cars, roundabout boats, carousel, Glass Hall Theater, and self-piloted Dragon Boats.

    More than a captivating sprawl of amusement rides and entertainment, it had a reputation for being clean, beautiful, and restful, a place that appealed to both kids and adults, and one that refused to serve alcohol to its guests. As Walt toured the grounds in the early 1950s, taking notes, discussing the park’s many attractions with television celebrity Art Linkletter, and developing his own ideas for what a theme park should look and feel like, he exclaimed to his wife, Lillian, “Now, this is what an amusement park should be.”

    Tivoli was regarded as one of the best parks in the world, and in time, Disneyland would share its highly-coveted status as a top-tier destination for families and visitors of all kinds. Because of Tivoli, Walt was able to create a park that made children feel like the heroes of their own stories, made adults feel like children, and made everyone feel comfortable, safe, and relaxed as they enjoyed a day of breathtaking attractions and integrated entertainment. More important still—and more crucial to the survival of a park like Disneyland—was the philosophy espoused by army officer and theme park developer Georg Carstensen in 1844, well over 100 years prior to Disneyland’s creation.

    “Tivoli will never, so to speak, be finished,” Carstensen was quoted. And he was right: the park continued to morph into something new and wonderful with every decade that passed, from the development of the vintage cars track in 1959 to the addition of the Golden Tower turbo drop ride in 1999. To anyone familiar with Tivoli’s world-class grounds, it must have felt like déjà vu when they heard Walt’s reply to a skeptical reporter at the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955:

    “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world. It is something that will never be finished.”