Insight to a Dream: How it all Began. Walt Disney’s unique vision finds a home in France with Disneyland Paris
Today, Disney theme parks are among the biggest tourist attractions on the globe and have taken root in France, Japan and Hong Kong, as well as in the United States. And yet, more than 50 years ago Walt Disney was advised by every amusement park, carnival and funfair operator in the world that the “theme park” he envisioned would fail.
In fact, following the madhouse opening of the original Disneyland theme park in California, most media commentators declared the park overpriced, badly managed and a likely candidate for a quick and early demise. Similar predictions have followed the openings of other Disney theme parks.
Walt Disney ignored the bad press when the first Disneyland opened in 1955, and immediately began thinking about how to improve and enlarge his vision. The idea of a park unlike any other had been in the back of his mind for at least 20 years before it was actually born.
“It started,” Disney said later, “with me taking my two kids around to zoos and parks. While they were on the merry-go-round riding 40 times or something, I’d be sitting there trying to figure out what you could do that would be more imaginative. I got the idea for a three-dimensional thing that people could actually come and visit. I felt that there should be something built where the parents and the children could have fun together.”
Disneyland would become a mirror of Walt Disney’s interests: his sense of nostalgia for his formative years in the American Midwest, his fascination with the future, and his vision for family entertainment.
For all of his early planning, his business partner and older brother Roy didn’t take it very seriously. To one correspondent in 1951 he wrote: “Walt does a lot of talking about an amusement park, but really, I don’t know how deep his interest really is. I think he’s more interested in ideas that would be good in an amusement park than in actually running one himself.”
Yet Walt Disney persevered, selling his house in Palm Springs and borrowing on his life insurance to finance his dream. “My wife complained that if anything happened to me, I would have spent all the family money,” he said. By late 1953 he had stretched his personal resources to the limit. At that point, television came to the rescue. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) had been after Disney to produce a weekly show for their struggling network. Disney agreed – in exchange for partial financing of his amusement park – and entered television with his weekly “Disneyland” program.
Studio employees, taken out of their old jobs of cartooning and set to work as “Imagineers” on their boss’s latest endeavour, responded to the challenges of the unique project. Architects, engineers and designers were hired, and when technical problems arose to block an effect Disney wanted, he had a serene faith in his staff’s abilities to overcome them. “It’s kind of fun doing the impossible,” he said.
Disneyland’s Opening Day was July 17, 1955. Ever afterward, Walt Disney would refer to that day as “Black Sunday”. The buildings might have looked finished, but the street asphalt was still soft, and only a handful of bathrooms were operational. Rides broke down under the stress of opening day crowds. Fantasyland had to be temporarily closed due to a gas leak. (One Disney veteran recalls, “There were little blue gas flames burning all around Sleeping Beauty Castle. Fortunately, we were able to get it fixed”.) The next day, headlines across the nation declared “Walt’s Dream a Nightmare”, “Disneyland Opens Amid Traffic Jams, Confusion” etc.
Disney immediately summoned his staff, and together they began working on the challenges of the new park: low ride capacity, congested walkways, traffic jams and slow food service. Walt spent his days and nights in Disneyland (he had a private apartment above the Fire House on Main Street), observing guests, ride operators, food servers, merchandise and custodial staff. After a shaky start, public and media enthusiasm grew steadily as “Walt’s new toy” entertained millions, while becoming one of the world’s premiere tourist attractions.
It wasn’t long before a multitude of inexpensive hotels, restaurants and “tourist trap” shops sprang up next to the relatively small piece of property Disney had been able to afford for his California dream park. Frustrated by the chaotic, often garish appearance of the Disneyland “neighbourhood” in Anaheim, California, and bolstered by the success and profitability of the park, he began to look for a place where he could acquire more land on which to build a new, larger Disney Resort. He found it in Florida, where planning began for Walt Disney World.
Although Walt Disney passed away in 1966, his legacy carried on with the opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida in October 1971.
With the success of Disneyland in California and the Magic Kingdom in Florida, the Walt Disney Company began consideration of a European theme park as early as 1972. Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983, was an immediate success and boosted enthusiasm for building a park in Europe. More than 1,200 potential locations throughout the continent were considered before the Walt Disney Company settled on Marne-la-Vallee, chosen in part for its proximity to Paris and its central location in Western Europe.
Like the original Disneyland and its sister Resorts in Florida and Japan, Disneyland Paris inspired the Imagineers to new heights of inventiveness and attention to detail, all the more because this park would be located where the tales and legends that had inspired such classic Disney movies as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White had their birth.
As with the original Disneyland, the new Resort presented some surprising challenges to the new generation of Imagineers, which included literally thousands of craftspeople from France, Italy, Germany, Holland, U.K., Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, the Far East and the United States. They had to deal with rain, freezing weather and the ubiquitous Marne-la-Vallee mud. At one point, excavation uncovered a First World War artillery shell!
Also like the original Disneyland, Disneyland Paris experienced controversy and criticism. Nevertheless, since opening its gates on April 12, 1992, Disneyland Paris has become Europe’s leading tourist destination, with more than 275 million visits since its opening day.
Disneyland Paris was not to be the last Disney theme park. Since 1992, new parks have opened at Disneyland Resort in California, Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and Tokyo Disney Resort. In September 2005, Hong Kong Disneyland Resort opened and in April 2011, the groundbreaking event took place for Shanghai Disneyland Resort, scheduled to open in 2016.
France, Japan, Hong Kong and the U.S.A. – throughout the world, Walt Disney’s original dream of a place “where the parents and the children could have fun together” continues to flourish.