It’s commonly accepted that Disneyland was the first “true” theme park. But it wasn’t, in fact, the first such park to have been dreamed up by its founder.
The idea of building an amusement park-style attraction where families could enjoy themselves together had been interesting Walt Disney for decades before Disneyland finally opened its gates in 1955. And prior to opting to build his first park in Anaheim, Walt had been looking very seriously at a smaller, more intimate park to be based at Disney’s Burbank animation studios.
Although it was ultimately never built, Mickey Mouse Park still exerted a huge influence on the design of Disneyland, and on the many theme parks that have since tried to emulate its success.
This is the story of the lost theme park designed by Walt Disney himself…
In the doldrums
1946 was a good year to be in the business of making movies.
It was a golden period for the motion picture industry. The Second World War had brought hardship, suffering and death to millions of people across the globe, but it was now in the past. Seeking a break from the horrors of war, the distressed public on the home front in America and Britain had flocked to theaters in droves, enjoying a heady mix of propaganda and escapism. Now that the war was over, the boom in cinema attendance showed no sign of abating. In 1946, 19 pictures made $4 million or more at the US box office. Prior to that, only 25 pictures in Hollywood history had achieved that milestone.
Unfortunately for Walt Disney, it seemed that he hadn’t been invited to the party.
The pre-war years had seen him at the height of his creative powers. The studio that Walt had founded with his brother Roy had produced the first animated short to boast synchronized sound, as well as the first to benefit from the use of the innovative Technicolor process. In 1937, it released its first feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Despite running massively over-budget, the film raked in a then-enormous $7.8 million worldwide during its initial theatrical run. It also received a rapturous critical reception, and it seemed that Disney could do no wrong.
Then came the war. The luxurious studio complex that Disney had opened in Burbank, California in 1940 was partially occupied by the military. The company’s animators – those that had not left to fight America’s enemies – were put to work on producing training and propaganda films for the US government. Overseas markets, which generated a large portion of Disney’s profits, were suddenly out of reach. The money that the studio received from the government barely covered its costs, and there was no Snow White in the pipeline to act as a financial saviour.
The end of the war brought no respite. The public seemed to have fallen out of love with Disney’s product, and competitors such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. had successfully moved into the animation field that it had dominated for decades. By the end of 1946, the company owed $4.3 million to the Bank of America. To save it from complete collapse, it secured a $1 million loan from distributor RKO and announced plans to lay off 400 of its 1,000 employees. Later, Roy would recall: “After the war was over, we were like a bear coming out of hibernation. We were skinny and gaunt and we had no fat on our bones. Those were lost years for us.”
The perilous financial situation placed a huge strain on Walt. Even worse than this, though, was the lack of a great creative challenge. For a man who thrived on “one-upping” himself, being forced to churn out one cartoon short after another simply to survive was torturous. Movies such as Song of the South, which combined live action with animation in order to reduce costs, did not provide the same outlet for his imagination as earlier classics such as Bambi and Fantasia.
At the time, few could have predicted the path that Walt would take to revive both his company and his own flagging spirits. In hindsight, it seems an obvious route for him to have taken. Disney’s movies had always been about wish fulfilment – presenting an illusion of a world that was devoid of the problems that plague people in everyday life. The logical next step was to take that concept and translate it into physical reality. At the cinema, children and adults alike could gaze upon the enchanted forest of Snow White or the fantasy circus of Dumbo. Why, then, shouldn’t Walt build a version that they could step into for real?
A new challenge
Pinpointing exactly when Walt Disney decided to build an amusement park is an impossible task. Indeed, there does not seem to have been a single, isolated epiphany that led to his foray into an industry that, at the time, was largely unrelated to Hollywood. Instead, it appears to have been the result of his interest in three separate (but loosely intertwined) hobbies outside of his “day job” as the head of an animation studio. Over a period of more than a decade, these gradually coalesced into one of the most ambitious and risky projects that Walt tackled during a lifetime filled with such undertakings.
The first of these interests was a fascination with trains that stemmed from Walt’s childhood. In 1906, at the age of five, he had moved with his family from the bustling city of Chicago to tiny Marceline in Missouri. Close to the family farm ran the tracks of the Santa Fe railroad, and Walt would put his ear to the rail to listen out for approaching trains. Often, the engineer on these trains would be his uncle, Mike Martin, who would bring a bag of striped candy with him for the Disney children.
With the farm struggling, the family remained in Marceline for only a few years, moving to Kansas City in 1910. Walt’s father, Elias, bought a newspaper distributorship and Walt was kept busy as a delivery boy. His love of trains remained, however, and in 1917 his older brother Roy lent him the $15 bond that he required to take a job as a news butcher for the Santa Fe. He lost Roy’s money, but enjoyed the romance of travelling along sprawling lines to cities in a half-dozen states.
In 1931, the pressures of running the studio led to Walt having a nervous breakdown. He returned to work after a vacation, but was ordered by doctors to take up a hobby and get some exercise. He settled on the dangerous sport of polo, roping in others from the studio to join him. However, he suffered a serious injury to his back following a fall in 1938, forcing him to give up the sport. Walt needed a new hobby to distract him from his day-to-day stresses. Once again, trains would become a focus in his life.
In 1945, Ward Kimball – one of Disney’s most valued animators and directors – invited his boss to a party at his house in San Gabriel, a suburb of Los Angeles. To Walt’s astonishment, he found that Kimball had a narrow-gauge railway running around his backyard, which he had dubbed the Grizzly Flats Railroad. It was equipped with its own steam locomotive, the Emma Nevada, and Kimball persuaded Walt to take a turn at running it. The experience made a huge impression on him.
Two years later, Walt purchased an electric train set for himself and set it up a room adjoining his office. With the help of Roger Broggie from the studio’s machine shop, he soon expanded the layout to one that was big enough to “fill half a two car-garage”, according to Neil Gabler’s outstanding biography. Ever the entertainer, Walt would often insist on demonstrating the train set to visitors to his office.
Walt received treatment for his polo injury from Hazel George, the studio nurse. To help him relax, she suggested in 1948 that Walt should take a trip to the Chicago Railroad Fair. Bringing Ward Kimball with him, Walt attended the event with more than 100,000 other railway fanatics. The pair explored a series of themed villages, each representing a different tourist destination. They were even able to run some of the steam locomotives themselves. On his return home, Walt declared to his wife Lillian, “That was the most fun I ever had in my life.”
Jealous of his friend’s backyard railroad, Walt was determined to build one of his own. Having convinced Lillian to move home in 1949, he acquired a 5-acre plot on Carolwood Drive in Holmby Hills, a residential neighbourhood close to Beverly Hills. Work soon began on the Carolwood-Pacific Railroad, which ran for a half-mile around the property. Walt named the engine the Lilly Belle to help placate his wife, who was less than enthusiastic about the project.