opening day at disneyland -- 12/26/19

Today's encore selection -- from Three Years in Wonderland by Todd James Pierce. Opening day at Disneyland, July 1955:

"Much to the credit of ABC -- and despite ongoing tensions among the production crew -- Disneyland's grand opening appeared as one continuous dream to roughly 70 million viewers across the country: dressed in his buckskin jacket Fess Parker (appear­ing as Davy Crockett) rode his horse into the western village of Frontierland; Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. motored Autopia cars down the open road of Tomorrowland; Alan Young happily flew a pirate ship with Peter Pan above London; the Disneyland Railroad steamed into a Midwestern, turn-of-the­ century depot; and Art Linkletter ad-libbed his way through various miscues and unplanned cutaways. 'I was on the balcony of one of the shops,' Linkletter later revealed. 'I was watching a T.V. monitor and describing what I saw there. All of a sud­den the sun came out and was shining right on my monitor and I couldn't see what shot was being shown, so I just started to describe what I saw in front of me in the street. I figured that if the director was smart he would have the cameraman follow whatever part of the parade I was talking about.' ...

"One of the most memorable scenes from the telecast was the opening of Fantasyland: hundreds of young children running hand-in-hand with Disney characters across the drawbridge and into Sleeping Beauty's castle. But unbeknownst to home viewers, the parade of children was a carefully choreographed event intended to appeal to viewers' emotions. Earlier that day, fourteen school busses had collected 500 children from local churches and brought them to Disneyland. To ensure a festive atmosphere, hundreds of happy children were positioned in various areas of the park. Robb Fischle, who was seven years old in 1955, remembers that Disney officials 'herded us into position and we made our "mad dash" across the drawbridge, through the Castle, and into Fantasyland. Once inside, we were divided into groups to be filmed boarding the different attractions .... I went on Mr. Toad. I remember being really impressed when Art Linkletter slapped me on the back as I passed him. He was big stuff in those days. After our ride, we were given a box lunch then it was back on the bus.'

"Likewise, the park was also stocked with studio employees masquerading as guests. Along with complimentary tickets, studio employees also received a typed memo requesting them to 'report to the New Orleans section of Frontierland at 4:00 p.m.' From there, attendants would guide them to key sec­tions of the park showcased in the telecast, a strategy that, the memo claimed, would 'aid greatly in the success of the show.'

Children run through the gate of Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland, Walt Disney's theme park, in July 1955.
The park opened to the public the week of July 17, 1955.

"'My group was assigned to the Mark Twain riverboat,' ani­mator Jack Kinney remembers. 'We were ready to mutiny when at last Art Linkletter and Walt came aboard. The television cameras and crew moved in, and we were all on live televi­sion, waving happily at the cameras.'

"At the front of the boat stood Linkletter, who introduced Irene Dunne, an actress who had once starred in the film Show Boat. She appeared in a white dress, holding a bottle to chris­ten the ship, but before dousing the deck, she offered a line that would prove nearly prophetic. 'My, it's listing,' she said, referring to the way the ship tipped slightly toward the dock.

"Garrulous and happy, Linkletter placed his hand on Dunne's arm. 'It's listing a little because it will be shoving off in a moment.'

"Another group of studio employees waited on the train, exposed to the summer sun, for the cameras to finally pull into place. 'My assistant was stuck on that freight train for two hours,' studio artist, Blaine Gibson recalls. One of the WED designers, also stuck on the train, remembers: 'We were sweat­ing it out, literally, standing in the cattle cars.' ...

"Elsewhere in the park, wet paint ended up on guests' clothes, and women's high-heel shoes got stuck in the fresh asphalt­ including those worn by Frank Sinatra's wife as she ventured toward the castle. 'When I looked down Main Street,' one employee remembers, 'I saw nothing but high heels being stuck in that new asphalt,' though this memory might have overstated the actual problem. Rocket to the Moon, expected to be operational, experienced problems with the electrical control system, so ABC showed clips from the rocket's theatri­cal film, suggesting the attraction was open to the public. Like­wise, the Dumbo attraction was simply parked in a stationary position, with each of the elephants slightly elevated to cre­ate the illusion of flight. Individual cars derailed in the Snow White ride, slowing its operation, while other rides shut down completely. One guest recalls seeing his five-year-old son leave on the canal boat ride, and forty-five minutes later, long after the ride should've concluded, watching as 'four guys with hip boots on came trudging through the water, pulling the broken boat' back to the dock.

"But far more troubling, workmen discovered that guests were climbing up into the castle.

"In Fantasyland, the construction crew had forgotten to lock the side doors to Sleeping Beauty's Castle, and guests, believ­ing it an attraction, surged into its interior where they found an empty shell along with ladders that led to a second story. The second story was no more than a false floor made of ply­wood set across ceiling joists. After learning of the problem, C. V. Wood sent his friend, Van Arsdale France, to manage the sit­uation. 'There are people up in that castle,' Wood yelled. 'Get them out before they kill themselves.' Upon arriving, France found the work doors open and park guests standing on unse­cured construction platforms 'at the top of the castle enjoying the show.'

"In Tomorrowland, the heat caused the Autopia cars to lock up, and when the cars were working, kids gleefully crashed them together, further denting their aluminum bumpers. Min­utes after Sammy Davis Jr. was filmed riding an Autopia car for the ABC telecast, he was forced off the road, his car bounc­ing over a short curb, as a pair of teenage drivers sped past him. Some cars possessed faulty fuel governors, allowing them to spin out at high speeds. The cars also contained only two foot-pedals -- one accelerator positioned for adults, one for children, but no manual brake. Brakes were applied whenever a driver released the accelerator, a design flaw that contributed to many rear-end collisions. As cars broke down, the line for the ride increased, causing some guests to jump the perimeter fence and commandeer moving vehicles. 'Several super head ­on collisions took place while the ride operators were trying to hold back the crowd at the gate,' recalls Bob Gurr, who oversaw the attraction on opening day. 'I took a couple of kids to first aid, one with his hand full of teeth!'"



Todd James Pierce


Three Years in Wonderland


The University Press Mississippi


Copyright 2016 by Todd James Pierce


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