On Sunday, July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened to a star-studded, nationally-televised press event full of celebrities and dignitaries. These days, the Walt Disney Company celebrates this day as "Disneyland's Birthday." But was that always the case? What happened on the day that launched The Happiest Place On Earth? Think you know the whole story?
Hold on to your Mickey ears, as we take a closer look at that monumental day.
(Image of Walt Disney and his team looking over Disneyland plans, 1954. Courtesy Orange County Archives - http://www.flickr.com/photos/ocarchives/3952964087/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14189331)
That's right. During the lifetimes of Walt and his brother Roy, they maintained that Disneyland's true Opening Day was Monday, July 18. After all, that was the planned public opening, the event on July 17 was for press and invitees only. It began in the afternoon, at 2pm, so it wasn't even a "full day" from a scheduling perspective. However, over the years, interest in the stories surrounding July 17 and nostalgia for the ABC television broadcast caused the Disney Company to change the official date to July 17, which it now recognizes as "Disneyland's Birthday."
The July 17 "Press Preview" was intended to be for around 10,000 ticketed guests. But, thanks to enterprising counterfeiters and fence hoppers, the total number of people in the Park that day swelled to an estimated 28,000, something Disney was in no way prepared for.
Due to a local plumbers' strike, Walt had to choose: he could have the plumbing in the restrooms completed, and working toilets, or he could have all the water fountains that had been installed hooked up to running potable water. But he couldn't have both. Wisely, Walt chose to have the restrooms finished and not the water fountains. The problem, however, was that July 17 turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer that year, topping out at 101 degrees. People believed the lack of working water fountains was a cynical way to push more Pepsi-Cola, as Pepsi was a visible sponsor of the Park.
The asphalt for Main Street, USA, was completed the morning of the event. Between the freshness of the pour, and the incredible summer heat, the heels of women's shoes reportedly sunk into the street. No word if anyone had to pull a Cinderella and leave her shoes behind.
As stated above, the "official" Opening Day was intended to be Monday, July 18. That's the date that Disney advertised on television and in the papers, so it's no surprise to learn that people were excited. As it turns out, very excited, as they began lining up at the ticket booths at 2am that morning!
These days, there is a walk-through exhibit that runs through Sleeping Beauty Castle, telling the story of the castle's namesake film. Not so in 1955, the castle was a huge shell. A shell that someone forgot to lock up properly. Curious-- or perhaps just very, very sunburned-- guests discovered this, and took it upon themselves to explore inside the castle, out of the summer heat.
At least one enterprising gentleman brought his ladder from home, propped it up against the fence that surrounded the Magic Kingdom, and charged folks five bucks to climb on over. So Walt wasn't the only one creating a new business that day!
Walt had, on several occasions prior to July 17, invited sometimes rather large groups into Disneyland to take a look, and sample some attractions. As early as July 3, Walt hosted upwards of 90 people, employees and their families. An even larger group, as many as 300 or so, enjoyed parts of Disneyland on July 13, as Walt threw a 30th wedding anniversary party for himself and his wife Lillian.
July 17 has become popularly referred to as "Black Sunday" by many due to the numerous things that went wrong. Surprisingly, that name was not borne of criticism, by the press or by jealous rivals. No, it was Walt and his executive team who first started referring to the day with that nickname.
None whatsoever. He thought everything was going swimmingly. He was being whisked from place to place for the ABC broadcast, and was blissfully unaware of the chaos going on throughout the park. He had to read about it in the paper the next morning. No wonder he never accepted July 17 as "Disneyland's Birthday!"
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