Home » It Was the Worst Day Ever at Disneyland…and 90 Million Americans Watched it Live

It Was the Worst Day Ever at Disneyland…and 90 Million Americans Watched it Live

Disneyland dedication

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

Disneyland dedication

Image: Disney

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

Image: Disney

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

Disneyland TV show

Image: Disney

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.

The telecast, aka “better than 10 Super Bowls!”

Disneyland car

Image: Disney

The population of the United States in 1955 was 165.9 million. Today, that total is 322.8 million. The most recent Super Bowl drew 111.9 million viewers, which means that 34.7 percent of the population watched the game. It was the third most watched program in the history of American television. I say all of this as a precursor to an amazing stat about the opening day broadcast of Disneyland.

Ninety million viewers watched the live telecast.

In other words, over half the American population tuned to ABC on July 17, 1955. Whereas the most recent Super Bowl attracted slightly more than a third of the population, Disneyland’s debut attracted 54.2 percent of the country. To put that in perspective, the most popular television program of all-time is the finale of M*A*S*H. 105.9 million tuned to see the resolution of Hawkeye Pierce’s journey. That was 45.3 percent of the country. A larger percentage of Americans watched the opening day of Disneyland than the conclusion to M*A*S*H or any Super Bowl ever.

That sounds great in theory. As long as everything ran smoothly, Disneyland would captivate the unprecedented television audience watching at home. Well, have you ever heard the maxim that any publicity is good publicity?

A future President, a famous addict, and Art Linkletter

Art Linklater

Image: Disney

While even the most optimistic people involved with the Disneyland broadcast couldn’t have predicted its level of popularity, ABC still rolled out the red carpet for the entire event. They lured legendary entertainer Art Linkletter away from NBC to host the festivities. Linkletter stood apart as one of the most famous entertainers of the early days of television, so his appearance was quite a coup.

Disney and ABC readily agreed to all of his demands about hosting the broadcast. The most obvious one is that his wife and children would get to attend. Disney not only agreed but also worked them into the broadcast. You can watch video of it here. At the end of the clip, Linkletter’s oldest son performs an awkward bridge to one of the co-hosts, and that’s where the situation grows uncomfortable.

One of Linkletter’s seemingly reasonable requests was that his friend, Robert Cummings, participate.  Disney had no reason to deny this petition. After all, Cummings was only four months removed from an Emmy victory for his performance as Juror #8 in the Studio One presentation of Twelve Angry Men. Two years later, Henry Fonda would play the same role in the most famous film version of the same story. Cummings was also a star of multiple Alfred Hitchcock films. He was a bona fide celebrity, one whose career was on a par with the other movie star co-hosting that day, future President of the United States Ronald Reagan.

In hindsight, the agreement to allow Cummings to co-host proved regrettable. After peaking as Juror #8, the actor quickly headed into a downward spiral. The rest of his life devolved into a tragic tale of drug abuse. He was one of the most famous recipients of treatment from Max Jacobson aka Dr. Feelgood.  

One of the first signs of the impending meltdown occurred during the live broadcast of Disneyland’s opening. A notorious playboy, Cummings was already on his third bride by the time 1955 rolled around. He was 45-years-old at the time, and his current wife, actress Mary Elliott, had scandalously seduced him away from his second bride, Broadway performer Vivian Janis. Elliott received the short end of the stick there, as Cummings and fidelity went together like peanut butter and gravel.

During one of the cutaways from a Disney scene to a co-host, the camera went to the wrong person. Cummings had signed off for a dance number, and he thought he had a few minutes of free time. The actor did what any famous celebrity did in a region full of thousands of adoring fans. He picked up a dancer.  This sounds ridiculous, but it’s absolutely true. You can watch the video for yourself here.  

Is it cruel to point out that Elliott, who famously gave up her film career to marry Cummings, was in attendance at Disneyland that day? How about that their two children were also there? The only real shock out of this entire scandal is that Elliott remained married to him for another 15 years. What’s clear is that she never once referred to Disneyland as the Happiest Place on Earth.

Jokes aside, only 35 minutes after introducing his family to 90 million people, Robert Cummings groped a dancer. He did this on a live broadcast of the opening of a family theme park. To his credit, he recovered like a pro, quickly reciting his dialogue. His only snafu was when he directed the viewers to another co-host, “Ronnie REEgan.” He was too stoned at the time to realize what he had done, too. He actually laughed about it as the camera cut away, failing to realize that his career as he knew it had just ended in disrepute. The coda to this is that Cummings wound up performing dinner theater by the 1970s.

Live from Anaheim, California…

Disneyland car

Image: Disney

The entire production proved chaotic and mercurial. Linkletter acknowledged the possibility of this in his introductory comments. The trial run was by all accounts a fiasco, and ABC execs realized in the days leading up to the broadcast that tens of millions of people were planning to watch. So, they had little margin for error during live programming and no test results indicating that a seamless show was in the offing.

Linkletter, basically the Johnny Carson of the 1950s, assured his unprecedented live viewing audience that any mistakes they noticed were perfectly normal for such a program. He said this knowing full well that a decent chance existed that he’d wind up forever linked to one of the most disastrous live broadcasts in the history of television. The fact that we’re still discussing it 60 years later indicates that his instincts were correct.

Still, a lot of the worst events that transpired were barely even noticed during the live airing of Disneyland. Sure, Walt Disney flubbed his lines and had to start over again during a Tomorrowland dedication. Yes, some of the dance routines didn’t end at the right time, and the cameras occasionally missed the start of the program. And yes, a co-host did get to second base on live television in an era when the FCC didn’t let performers say the word “breast” on air. All of this was a drop in the bucket compared to what was transpiring behind the scenes.

By invitation only…

Walt Disney

Image: Disney

What happens when you throw a party and uninvited guests arrive? That depends on the scale of your affair, doesn’t it? Say, for example, that you invite six guests into your home for the evening. How many more surprise arrivals could you accommodate? Four? Six? How about 22? What would happen if more than four times as many people show up at your home than you’d anticipated?

Think about the situation from all the important perspectives. Would you have enough food and drinks to entertain the extra 22 visitors? Do you have the available bathroom space and reliable plumbing needed to satisfy their needs? If not, you understand that you’re in a for a messy night with a lot of grumpy guests, right?

Let’s take the same situation out to a larger scale. Walt Disney scheduled a soft opening for his new theme park, and it operated similarly to how the system works today. For example, I was one of the guests lucky enough to enjoy a ride on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train prior to its official opening. I happened to walk past the new Fantasyland attraction at a moment when Disney cast members were testing it. They let a handful of fortunate guests past the roped-off area, and we took our turns on the ride. Once a couple of hundred visitors had followed suit, Disney shut down the ride to research its performance. A handful of the riders also took surveys to discuss their satisfaction about its speed, comfort, and entertainment level.

Ten days after we left, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train officially opened to the public. On that date, it had no limitations on its usage. Everyone who wanted to take a spin on the ride did so. A soft opening is a controlled experiment while an actual debut means that the attraction has become a permanent part of the park. It’ll only shut down if it malfunctions or needs renovations.

That was the plan for the soft opening of Disneyland. Several thousand invited guests would enter the park, thereby becoming the first non-Disney employees in the world to spend time at the Happiest Place on Earth. You can already see the problem with this line of thinking. Who wouldn’t want to say that they visited Disneyland on the day it opened to the public for the first time? It’s the same as the upcoming openings of the Star Wars expansion at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Some Disney fanatics would do anything to attend either (or both) of these events on opening day.

Davy Crockett and George Russel: the Anna and Elsa of 1954

Davy Crockett

Image: Disney

Even in 1955, a large number of Disney zealots existed. Mickey Mouse was an international icon, and the company was enjoying a renaissance in popularity due to the Davy Crockett television mini-series. The news that a Frontierland featuring exclusive Davy Crockett merchandise was reason enough for some kids to pressure their parents to arrive for opening day.

This phenomenon is one of the parts of the story that oftentimes gets lost in the shuffle. Disney sold half a billion dollars of Davy Crockett merchandise during the mid-1950s. In a three-year span, this intellectual property earned the equivalent of $4.4 billion. It was the Frozen/Star Wars/Cars of its generation. Everybody wanted the toys, and many children wanted to live out the frontier experience. Initially, Disney even offered a Davy Crockett museum in Frontierland, the equivalent of Star Wars Launch Bay today. After only three months, they modified the area to become the Davy Crockett Arcade, which kids loved even more.

The best laid plans…

Sleeping Beauty Castle

Image: Disney

What’s the logical conclusion to a scenario where lots of people want to attend a limited engagement? You’ve seen videos of parents fighting to get their kids the IT toy of the holiday season, right? Normal, otherwise calm folks get stabby when a Tickle Me Elmo is up for grabs. They don’t want to dash the hopes and dreams of their kids, at least until puberty. This drive causes them to stand in line for hours on end, desperately hoping to dash to the delivery truck before the competition can reach this destination.

Disneyland was like that, only to the nth degree. Seriously, I’m writing this in a light-hearted fashion, but the only water in constant supply that day came from the river of tears cried by parents and children alike. Walt Disney, in his infinite wisdom, selected a controlled crowd dispersal process. He authorized the dissemination of 6,000 RSVP tickets to the soft opening of his new Anaheim venture. Each ticket included a visitor window. The lucky recipients of the golden ticket of the 1950s could stay for three hours each. Then, they’d leave and let other folks replace them in the park.

Absolutely no part of the plan worked.

How did the whole stratagem fall asunder? Where should I begin? For starters, none of the ticket-holding guests wanted to leave Disneyland after a mere three hours. Even if they did, the lines at so many attractions were so long that they’d run late anyway. Disney park planners sorely miscalculated the wait time for each of their new rides. The fiasco was hardly their fault, though. Events transpired that were impossible to forecast.

The History Channel indicates that “28,154 passed through Disneyland’s gates thanks to counterfeit tickets.” Remember the party example above? It’s the same calculation, only on a larger scale. Disney planned for 6,000 people, but they braced for twice that many. They understood that all the ticket holders would have friends who begged to come. Still, their plan would hold as long as nobody abused the privilege of day one admission to Disneyland.

Breaking the law, breaking the law

Casey Train

Image: Disney

Suffice to say that tens of thousands of people abused the privilege. Word leaked that counterfeit tickets were available for a modest fee. Admission was only a dollar for adults and 50 cents for children, the equivalent of $9 and $4.50 today. If you could walk into Disneyland for that price right now, everyone reading this would do so. Of course, you had to pay per ride, but it’s still a ridiculous bargain compared to current pricing for a day at Disney theme park. Still, people willingly paid the scammers to purchase fake tickets. In fact, some people did so unknowingly. Many of the counterfeit tickets were so similar in style that Disney quickly modified the ticket printing process to prevent further issues.

Of course, some opening day gate crashers at Disneyland didn’t even need tickets. A clever swindler deduced that he could make a quick buck doing something so obvious it is amazing Disney employees didn’t protect against such an eventuality. He grabbed a ladder and built a makeshift backdoor entrance to the park. Then, he sold “admission” for five dollars. That bit of improvisation made him one of the most impressive ticket scalpers of the 1950s. He sold park entrance for five times the actual admission price, and people had to perform a clearly illegal and potentially dangerous maneuver to cross over into Disneyland. Depending on which story we should believe, he either had dozens or hundreds of customers.

That leads us to the final point about all the illegal admissions. While the counterfeit tickets were good, they lacked a key component. None of them displayed the admission window. And the people hurdling the gates to get in certainly weren’t about to leave after only a few hours. That left only the people actually invited as the ones who would even consider exiting the park at the appropriate time. The failure of Disney’s park admission plan was total. They expected a few thousand guests at carefully planned intervals. Instead, they had a factor of four times as many people all at once. I presume the gate entry process looked something like this.

Hot dogs come in packages of 12, buns come in packages of 10. Why is that?


Image: Disney

Let’s again circle back to the party analogy above. What happens when you prepare for six people but 28 arrive instead? Multiply that process by one thousand. Literally.  The logistics of running a Disney theme park are an amazing series of steps taken by disciplined employees. The company has streamlined and improved all of them over decades of operation. On their first day in 1955, they were completely flying blind. They had estimates, of course, but the park reached the expected level of traffic within the first two hours of opening. Put yourselves in the shoes of the employees working that morning. Your day would be an awkward combination of primal fear and flop sweat.

Early on, Disney’s staff recognized a disaster was in the offing. Their supply of food wasn’t going to last long. First, they ran out of hot dog buns and then they ran out of wieners. I’d love to hear the explanation about why they didn’t purchase a symmetrical amount of wieners and buns, but that’s small fry relative to the other issues popping up across the park. As fate would have it, Disney was facing a second crisis. The local plumber’s union was on strike. Now, Walt Disney proudly proclaimed that he interacted well with every union claiming Disney employees. Since none of the union people was famous enough at the time to countermand this assertion, we’ll assume it’s true. Whether through bad luck or bad negotiations, however, plumbers were on strike on July 17, 1955. So, that’s 6,000 tickets, 28,154 guests and a shaky water supply.

Main Street wouldn’t have been clean that day

Disneyland entrance

Image: Disney

One of the logical outcomes of living in a civilized society is that we take things like a ready supply of clean water for granted. Nobody at Disneyland on opening day did that. That’s because they couldn’t. Walt Disney himself faced a difficult issue in the days leading up to the debut of his dream park. He was offered the Sophie’s Choice of plumbing. His employees could guarantee him that either the water fountains would work or the toilets would. He chose…wisely. As he joked in later years, people could always buy a Pepsi, the official soft drink of Disneyland, but they couldn’t take a whiz out in the open on Main Street. Please don’t try to prove him wrong on the latter point.

Disgruntled opening day guests ranted that Disney intentionally shut down the water fountains in order to push sales of Pepsi products. I love a good urban legend as much as the next guy, but I have to call bunk on that one. Those who complained have no idea how close they came to standing in a theme park with 28,150 of their closest strangers, none of whom had access to a public bathroom. While Disneyland did leave Uncle Walt strapped for cash when it opened, a few thousand dollars in Pepsi sales weren’t worth the danger of a negative perception of the park. Many of the invited guests worked in the media, and he wanted everything to go smoothly so that they would print only the kindest things about his dream park. Oops.

And you get mad when Space Mountain is closed

Main Street USA

Image: Disney

Amazingly, the plumbing wasn’t even the only utility fight waged behind the scenes by Disney employees. A gas leak occurred in Fantasyland, and that led to the shutdown of Adventureland, Frontierland, and Fantasyland for the afternoon. As a reminder, Disneyland offered five themed lands when it opened. The gas leak shut down 60 percent of the park. And that had the carryover effect of cramming all the park guests even closer together in the remaining two themed lands. So, they had 22,000 more people than expected, and they could host them in only 40 percent of the expected space. I get claustrophobic just thinking about it.

Arguably, that wasn’t even the worst thing to happen at Frontierland. As a proud Missourian, Disney wanted to hearken back to his roots with a steamboat ride. You know it as the Mark Twain Riverboat attraction, and it remains open to this day. The first ship, however, almost took a page from the Titanic. The park planners never stopped to wonder about the maximum capacity of the ship. While that would never happen today, it was understandable in the 1950s. After all, Imagineers had no reason to believe that enough people would ever simultaneously get on the boat for capacity to be an issue.

Within hours of opening day, capacity was a terrifying issue. In the months afterward, park planners calculated that the Mark Twain could hold about 300 people safely. On opening day, more than 500 people were riding the riverboat when the situation took a turn. The crewmen received training to highlight the best views of the river. Excited day one guests would run from side to side of the boat in order to enjoy the scenery. The boat started rocking.

The situation grew out of control so quickly that some of the display items on the boat fell. One of them struck a journalist squarely on the head, and he presumably did not leave a glowing review of the attraction after the fact. Panicked ride operators begged people to stand in the middle of the boat, which is the only reason the Mark Twain didn’t sink in the man-made rivers of Frontierland. As big a debacle as the Black Sunday debut was for Disneyland, at least there wasn’t a body count. We can joke about it now, but the situation was a lot closer than people realize.

High heels and a sour disposition

Disneyland Hotel

Image: Disney

What could make the temperament of the crowd even worse? Oh right. It was one of the hottest days on record for Anaheim during the 1950s. Temperatures soared above 100 degrees. This seems like an excellent time to mention that Disney ran behind on some of its last minute preparations. One of the most notable of these was the pouring of the asphalt flooring for the walkways. There were two reasons for this. The first is that it made sense that Disney wait until the other construction was completed to pave the ground.

The second and more impacting one is that the shoestring budget didn’t allow them much leeway on the subject. In fact, Disney was so broke that they couldn’t afford to add vegetation to several key parts of the park. Uncle Walt instructed his employees to provide Latin-sounding names to the local vegetation, by which I mean weeds, in a vain attempt to trick visitors into believing they were expensive exotic plants. Yes, they were that desperate.

The delay in the paving of Main Street until the day prior to opening led to an unforeseen outcome. The asphalt hadn’t completely set overnight when guests arrived. And it was scorching hot. Also, there’s a reason why pavers place signs warning that asphalt isn’t dry yet. After the substance hardens, it’s an optimal flooring solution. Before it sets, however, it’s soft.

What do many women like do for big events? They dress up, wanting to wear their Sunday best. What’s a key component in dressing up? High heels. Oh yes, it’s exactly what you think. Hundreds of women started suffering a certain sinking feeling. That’s because they were tangibly sinking. The very ground beneath them gave way, causing them to bury their shoes into the asphalt. For anyone in high heels, walking down Main Street on the opening day of Disneyland was a virtual impossibility. That led to many women removing their shoes, and even that was only a lateral move. They were now barefoot, walking on blistering pavement.

Summarizing to this point, many uninvited guests had no food and no free water on a scalding hot day, and only two available themed lands were open for business. A surprising number of them were also barefoot, walking on volcanic pavement. Then again, most of them weren’t supposed to be there, so they shouldn’t have been complaining.

And tomorrow, we’ll do the same thing all over again

Disneyland castle

Image: Disney

To their credit, most Disney employees showed up for work the next day. That’s not to say that they were happy to be there, but at least they didn’t have the worst job at the park. That honor was reserved for the poor soul who had to inform Walt Disney of what had transpired on opening day. Uncle Walt was so focused on the live television broadcast that he remained oblivious to all the catastrophic events unfolding around him. He only learned of them in the aftermath of the debacle the press was already calling Black Sunday. That couldn’t have been a fun conversation for anybody.

Then again, the sheer volume of kids watching the opening day festivities went a long way in assuring the long term success of the theme park. They saw Davy Crockett talking to Walt Disney, which is like seeing Santa Claus hanging out with the Easter Bunny (and the polar opposite of Robert Cummings kissing a random dancer). At that point, they were hooked and it didn’t matter how much they had to nag their parents. They were going to Disneyland. The park witnessed its 10 millionth visit by New Year’s Eve of 1957, less than two and a half years after Black Sunday. So, none of the nonsense that occurred on Disneyland’s opening day did any significant damage to the brand.

To a larger point, everyone has a disastrous Disney theme park story, but if you weren’t there for Disneyland’s opening day in 1955, your tale of woe doesn’t make the cut. At least the bathrooms and drinking fountains worked at the same time when you were there. Also, Disney had enough food to feed you and your family. And nobody’s shoes melted into the ground. Sure, we can all laugh about Black Sunday now, but visiting on opening day must have been one of the most disappointing theme park experiences ever.