The word debacle gets thrown around a lot. When you hear it, you think about New Coke, the Ford Edsel, Enron, the Zune, Bear Stearns, and Pee Wee Herman at the wrong movie. Debacle and Disney aren’t oftentimes linked. It’s a company with a market cap of $165 billion, and they’ve attained dominance through decades of shrewd sales tactics and marketing. They’ve also established themselves as one of the greatest customer service organizations in the world.
Disney doesn’t make many mistakes, and on the rare occasions when they do, their employees do everything within their power to fix the problem. Your cable company never did that, which is why you may not have cable any longer. Disney has honed their corporate philosophy around joy, whether they disseminate it via ESPN sports, Pixar movies, or Disney theme park vacations. The idea is all the same. They want to train their fans to associate the Disney brand with happiness and pleasure. This is one of the original instructions handed down by the founder of what we now know as The Walt Disney Company.
One of the unfortunate realities of life is that even the finest employees can control only so much, though. Disney himself learned this the hard way during the 1950s. He spent a great deal of his life imagining a combination playground, county fair, amusement park, and circus. When his finances finally afforded him the opportunity to turn this dream into a reality, Uncle Walt dotted all the appropriate I’s and crossed all the needed T’s, yet his $17 million investment nearly fell apart as soon as it started.
That’s why the word debacle is relevant here. Disneyland was the precursor for the entire theme park industry as we know it. The entire world knows it as the Happiest Place on Earth. On the day that Disney introduced his vision to the public, however, it was better described as a catastrophic failure. Thousands of uninvited guests showed up, the ground under them literally melted, and a co-host of the ABC broadcast, one 70 million people were watching, may have enjoyed a different kind of happiness onsite.
While Disneyland has stood the test of time as one of the three most popular amusement parks in the world, its shaky first day caused people to wonder whether Walt Disney and ABC had thrown away the equivalent of $150 million today on a preposterous idea, one that may have seemed wonderful in theory but failed completely in execution.
What follows is a description of the opening day of Disneyland. This article will chronicle all the madcap misadventures and broken promises that occurred. In the entire history of Disney theme parks, it remains one of the worst days ever, which is why people still get nostalgic about it 60 years later. Truly, the debut of the Happiest Place on Earth was a debacle. Here’s why.
Disney: The man and his dream
Walt Disney instinctively understood that failing to give the people what they want was an innately flawed business strategy. You might not realize this, but the man from Marceline, Missouri, was an original outsider prior to starting a business that would become the Disney establishment. His failed business ventures such as Laugh-O-Gram led to his signing a contract with Universal Pictures for one of his creations. Had a shady movie producer at Universal not betrayed Disney, the world might associate Oswald the Lucky Rabbit with Uncle Walt instead of Mickey Mouse.
What the eventual founder of the Disney brand learned from his failed company and his strained relationship with Universal Pictures was that he wanted to run a company. And he prioritized personal satisfaction after recent events. Those closest to him wound up forced to pick sides when the Universal/Disney schism transpired. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to argue that the logical choice was betting on Walt Disney. That’s not how the business world works, though.
Illustrators who worked with Disney for years enjoy gainful employment thanks to the Universal agreement. They knew that they had steady work creating projects beloved by the new market of movie-going audiences. The paychecks didn’t bounce, and the personal satisfaction was immense.
Disney, on the other hand, was only a few years removed from operating a company that went bankrupt. Also, he’d just lost his iconic property. Why would anyone choose him? You’d have to ask fellow Missouri native Ub Iwerks, who gave up surefire popularity to continue working with a friend. That’s the magic of Walt Disney in isolation. He didn’t simply develop friendships. He recruited loyal disciples.
People like Iwerks understood that they were in the presence of greatness when they worked with their boss. For his part, Disney treated all his employees as equals. Over the years, he developed an almost mythical reputation for getting the most out of talented people. Countless Imagineers have relayed stories of Disney handing them new job assignments that were for tasks they’d never tried before. He had the ability to test people, challenging them in a way that forced them to maximize their potential. His workers adored him not just for the way he interacted with them but also for how his choices helped them feel better about themselves.
From the early days, employees of Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio and later Walt Disney Productions and WED Enterprises felt like kindred spirits with their iconic boss. By the time the company released the film that elevated their work into historic territory, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Uncle Walt’s co-workers would have followed him in any venture. They were loyal to a fault. In the 17 years that followed the release of the most seminal animated movie ever made to that point, Disney himself kept busy with new projects and new inspirations. A lingering one continued to prove the most tantalizing, though.
The truth behind a famous quote
Walt Disney once said the following about his vision for a theme park. "I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral." That’s a melancholy way of saying that the man who founded Walt Disney Productions couldn’t persuade the members of the board of the company bearing his name to move forward on his project. Similarly, many potential financiers balked at the idea of turning orchard groves into a massive playground for children and their parents.
A lesser man never could have created Disneyland.
That’s why Disney’s stubbornness, his practicality, and his financial prowess were all tested during the construction of the Happiest Place on Earth. When Disney pitched his vision to his co-workers, they embraced the challenge of a new avenue to display their skills and artistry. That’s where his ability to stimulate the faith of his employees was so critical to his ultimate success. People like Iwerks already had all the critical and commercial success they needed by 1954. The co-creator of Mickey Mouse was already worth a lot of money by that point. He easily could have rested on his laurels.
While the same wasn’t quite true of other Imagineers, they still had that lofty title on their resumes. Being one of the loyal soldiers of Uncle Walt afforded a great deal of acclimation in the early 1950s. In simpler terms, in 1954, Disney as a company was exactly where Apple was in early 2007, the year they released the first iPhone. They had so much success and such strong name brand recognition that they had no need for daring new business ventures. Still, savvy entrepreneurs like Walt Disney and Steve Jobs understand that people who don’t innovate are doomed to fail in time. Creativity is the life’s blood of business development.
Walt’s idea was a special kind of crazy. He wanted to chop down an entire orchard grove in Anaheim, California. In its place, he wanted to craft a series of themed lands that would join together to form a novel kind of amusement park. In order to achieve his dream, he’d need to call on all his resources. Financially, he leveraged every company asset available. Personally, he wound up selling all of his vacation homes to pay for 160 acres of orchard groves. The most impressive asset he exploited, however, was a working relationship.
Disney’s first network
The Walt Disney Company owns the American Broadcasting Company today. They acquired ABC in 1995, but their relationship stretches back much farther than the mid-1990s. ABC’s roots were in broadcast radio before augmenting their programming with television in 1948. Their first forays into the new medium were unproductive. ABC execs at the time understood that their programming lacked a hook. In order to gain more new viewers, the network needed star power. They turned to one of the most trusted brands in the entertainment industry.
In 1950, Walt Disney agreed to air a Christmas special broadcast on ABC. The program, entitled One Hour in Wonderland, proved instantly popular, even if it was a shameless marketing campaign for Disney films and Coke. You can watch all the awkwardness on this person's television (YouTube is AMAZING), or you can buy your own copy. It’s one of the extra features on the Alice in Wonderland Blu-Ray. Even if you’re not interested in the history of Disney broadcasting, what’s important here is that ABC learned that Walt Disney’s name recognition led to lots of television viewers.
The network channel and Disney’s entertainment corporation worked together on several more projects prior to the opening of Disneyland. The most significant of these was not coincidentally also named Disneyland. Always the sage marketer, Uncle Walt deduced that programming for ABC was the equivalent of double-dipping financially. He’d earn income for the programs, and his company would enjoy free advertising on television, which was exploding in popularity during the 1950s.
For its part, ABC was thrilled with the agreement. After their early struggles, they finally broke into the top 20 network ratings thanks to Disneyland. That was the first bona fide hit in the history of the network channel, which makes Disney’s later acquisition of ABC all the more fitting. As part of the 1950s deal, however, the economics worked the other way. ABC invested in Disneyland as part of the agreement to receive Disney programming on their network. Due to this arrangement, it was in the best interest of both parties that Disneyland, Uncle Walt’s “Magic Kingdom,” become internationally renowned. The parties hatched a plan to hype the new theme park in an unprecedented fashion.