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Walt Disney Family Museum celebrates Disneyland's 55th anniversary - Part I

Walt Disney Family Museum celebrates Disneyland's 55th anniversary - Part I

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Wow, July 16-18 was quite a weekend for Disney fans marking the 55th anniversary of Disneyland's opening.

In addition to all of the events at the parks in Anaheim and elsewhere, there were special talks Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Walt Disney Family Museum in The Presidio of San Francisco. Tough choices, but I met a couple of people who attended museum events Friday and Sunday, with a quick plane trip down to Anaheim on Saturday to continue their long-standing tradition of being at the park on its birthday.

Retired Imagineer and Disney Legend Marty Sklar was responsible for planting the seeds for the special events at the museum with its co-founder, Walt Disney's daughter Diane Miller, and members of the museum's staff, including executive director Richard Benefield.

(L to R) Diane Miller, co-founder of the Walt Disney Family Museum, Disney Legend Harrison
"Buzz" Price and museum executive director Richard Benefield.
Photo by Joseph
Driste, courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

Marty, well-steeped in a Disney history he helped create, served as emcee on Saturday and Sunday. Benefield, with Disney authors and historians Richard and Katherine Greene as his "co-inquisitors," led the discussion Friday.

The Greenes authored "Inside the Dream: The Personal Story of Walt Disney," wrote the script for the Walt Disney Family Foundation funded biopic "Walt Disney, the Man Behind the Myth" and a subsequent CD-Rom, "Walt Disney: An Intimate History of the Man and his Magic." According to Benefield, the Greenes are currently working on a "fairly extensive searchable new website for the museum called "About Walt Disney."

Highlights over the three days included hearing from Diane, Marty and three other guests who worked directly with Walt: Harrison "Buzz" Price, Dick Nunis and Jack Lindquist. They shared several great stories, which I'll get to later in this post and a couple more to come.

(L to R) Imagineers Bruce Vaughn and Craig Russell. Photo by Joseph Driste,
courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

That's not to say the other guests -- the Greenes, former Disneyland President Matt Ouimet and Imagineering greats Tony Baxter, Bruce Vaughn and Craig Russell -- didn't contribute a great deal to the mix. They were the proverbial plussing that helped make these talks even more special.

The events started Friday evening with a presentation to the museum's founding members, special guests and a few invited journalists, like myself, in the museum's 115-seat theater. It featured Diane and Buzz, Benefield, the Greenes and a couple of great questions and comments from the audience.

Buzz was his witty, wonderful self ... and, at age 89, I think many of those in attendance realized this might be his last appearance in front of a crowd. The audience was friendly, forgiving and thoroughly entertained by his stories. Still, it was a little bittersweet. I remembering seeing Buzz at an NFFC Convention five years ago when he had the physical stamina of Jack LaLanne. But, the memories he shared Friday evening were golden and his sense of humor was as sharp as ever.

A sold-out crowd gathered in the Museum's theater on Friday night. Photo by Joseph Driste,
courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

The Walt Disney Family Museum is one of the few places giving fans a chance to see these Disney Legends while they're still with us.

For those who don't know, Buzz was an independent contractor responsible for studying just about every major project Walt planned. The work followed Buzz from Stanford Research Institute to Economics Research Associates to Planning Research Corporation. Buzz's work helped determine the site for Disneyland; Project X, which would become Walt Disney World and all the holdings in Florida; California Institute for the Arts and the abandoned Mineral King ski village and summer recreation resort. Buzz was put in charge of overseeing CalArts a month before Walt's passing.

Walt also sent him a letter crediting Buzz for coining the word "Imagineer." Buzz admitted in his book, "Walt's Revolution!: By the Numbers," published in 2004, he doesn't recall coming up with "Imagineer," but he certainly wasn't going to argue with the boss.

Copyright 2004 Ripley Entertainment
All rights reserved

The focus Friday was Disneyland's birth and the back story of its creation as well as a few memories of Walt and Lillian Disney's anniversary party held July 13, 1955 at the Golden Horseshoe and the park's opening on July 17.

Diane and the Greenes confirmed that the idea of an amusement park was planted in the fertile mind of Walt Disney as a boy following the family's move from Marceline, Mo., to Kansas City.

Walt and his younger sister, Ruth, would stand outside the fence of Fairmont Park, which Richard Greene said must have seemed "like heaven to Walt." Later, Walt learned to sneak into the park, Diane added. She also recalled reading an interview with Rudy Ising, one of the artists at Laugh O Grams studios. According to that interview, Walt told Ising that one day he'd have an amusement park but that his would be clean. This was years before Lillian and their daughters Diane and Sharon entered Walt's life.

Walt Disney at Tivoli Gardens. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"It was something dad was always talking about doing," Diane said. Walt visited various amusement parks all over, including Oakland's Fairyland, Knott's Berry Farm and New York's Coney Island, a park Richard Greene said Walt didn't particularly like.

The Greenes recalled Art Linkletter, who escorted Walt on one of his many trips to Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, telling them that Walt kept busy jotting down several notes. Walt was "innately curious, always thinking about how to do something better," Richard Greene said. "He learned from negative examples, things he wouldn't want to do."

Walt interviewed the children at the various parks about their experiences, what they liked and what they thought as they rode the rides.

(L to R) Lillian, Walt, Diane and Sharon Disney on one of their many family vacations.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"You have to remember that amusement parks were very different" before the opening of Disneyland, Katherine Greene said. "They were dirty. You needed to sell beer," which is where Coney Island made most of its money. Owners of other parks thought is was "a ridiculous idea to try and keep the bathrooms clean."

But with Walt, the "mantra was if we keep it clean, people will understand it's to be kept clean," Richard Greene said. If there' were no cigarette butts on the ground, people would think twice about tossing theirs to the ground.

Buzz reminded everyone why the census is important. A great deal of the SRI research in determining where to locate Disneyland involved studying 1950 census data, which showed measurable growth from Los Angeles toward Orange County.

Walt points out some concept paintings of his family fun park. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Buzz's working relationship with Walt started in 1953 with a phone call from Nat Winecoff, a movie industry figure who was trying to help Walt get an idea of "what this park idea was going to flesh out to be" and where it should be located.

"Walt wanted this study in a big way and he wanted it in a hurry," Buzz said.

At their first meeting, Buzz asked Walt "if he had any bias" about the location.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"No, I don't have any bias. You tell me where it goes," Walt told Buzz.

Buzz said "The source of my opinions would be determined by a long and thorough study of the census data ... some 40 or 50 major census districts. That would give us direction for what would be the best choice. We had all of Southern California to consider, about 3,000 square miles."

Other things such as the freeway construction schedule and a study of weather data were added into SRI's equation.

Future construction site of Disneyland. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"We even did a job of tracking smog, because this was going to be an outdoor park and we didn't want to choke everybody," Buzz said, getting a good chuckle -- one of several -- from the audience.

Eventually SRI narrowed the search to Orange County, primarily because, according to Buzz, "it was cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, with predictable and fairly light rainfall."

Then SRI identified an "amoeba," a generalized location area that would contain the park somewhere in its many acres. Buzz used his cane to draw this irregular-shaped amoeba in the air.

Walt stands in front of the still-under-construction Sleeping Beauty Castle. Image
courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection. All rights reserved

SRI came up with four preferred sites and a half-dozen "almost sites." Buzz and his boss, CV Wood, presented those to Walt and Roy at SRI's offices in downtown Los Angeles. It was just the four men. "We talked for maybe two hours. Walt picked the site. Roy picked the site and we two consultants thought OK. There was complete agreement to move on Harbor Boulevard site.

The first site was a total of 160 acres from 17 different owners assembled for a possible housing development. At $6,200 an an acre, it wasn't the cheapest, but it's the one everyone agreed to go after.

"You always have an alternative ready because no one assumes you're going to have a clear slide into home plate," Buzz said. "It wasn't a bad solution. It was a first-class property. The land was clearly available. We had a good relationship with the city manager of Anaheim. And, we could afford it -- well, not me."

Walt stands before Peter Ellenshaw's early rendering of Disneyland.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The second site was in Buena Park, the third in Los Alamitos and the fourth was the Willowick Country Club in Santa Ana.

"I've often thought if Walt had bought all that land, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble," Buzz said, "but we would have lost out on a lot of fun."

Of course, Walt was doing everything he could to assemble the money needed to buy the land and build the park, cutting a deal with ABC Television and a few others to raise the funds.

Main Street U.S.A. under construction. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

There's a quote by Walt displayed in the museum -- I think it's from around the time of "Snow White," but it's likely just as apt when it comes to financing Disneyland: "Why should we let a few little dollars jeopardize our chances. I think this is Old Man Opportunity rapping at our door. Let's don't allow the jingle of a few pennies drown out his knock, So slap as big a mortgage on everything we've got and let's go after this thing in the right manner."

Diane remembered how quickly everything was done and seeing Disneyland rise up from a "dust bowl" after many of the orange trees were removed. She fondly recalled her parents' anniversary party thrown July 13, 1955 at the Golden Horseshoe and reminded people she wasn't at Disneyland's grand opening. By July 17, she was back with her husband Ron, who was stationed in Monterey, and their first son, Chris. She recalled how her dad really didn't want his immediate family at the park on opening day because he had enough to worry about and he didn't want to have to worry about them, too.

But the anniversary party was one of the happiest times in Walt's life. Diane remembered her dad up in the balcony going "bang, bang, bang" at Wally Boag and then Walt climbing down to the stage. "He started out doing vaudeville with his buddy Walt Pfeiffer and he wanted to be part of the show," Diane said of her father.

The original cast of the Golden Horseshoe performs for Walt (in box on upper left)
on the night of he & Lillian's 30th anniversary. Copyright Disney Editions.
All rights reserved

Lilly, Sharon and Diane joined Walt on the stage and then Edgar Bergen came up and started everyone dancing. George Montgomery, Dinah Shore's husband, became concerned about who would be driving Walt home. So Diane turned to her dad and asked if she could have his keys. "Sure, kid" was Walt's reply.

When the party broke up, Diane remembers her father crawling into the back seat of the convertible and using a rolled up set of plans as a trumpet. A few minutes later, Walt curled up and fell asleep, still holding on to his rolled up plans. In the morning, he was up and out the door, back to Anaheim to get things ready for July 17th.

"July 17th, I was there. It was a day that will live in infamy," Buzz said, adding that there were a lot of problems when Disneyland first opened. He recalled being in a mass of people near the castle when he heard this string of profanity. He looked over and it was Frank Sinatra. Buzz simply looked at the crooner and said, "Yes, it certainly is hot."

Walt Disney reads the opening day dedication plaque before a national television audience.
"To all who come to this happy place, welcome ... " Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Diane talked about how Walt and Lillian spent a great deal of time in their small apartment above the fire station at Disneyland. "And, every evening as you've heard, Dad did get tears in his eyes when they lowered the flag on Main Street."

After this Benefield opened up the floor to questions. Among the highlights:

Confirmation from Buzz that Walt had considered a second gate in Anaheim called "California Living," which would have added retail, restaurants and entertainment venues not unlike Downtown Disney.

Disneyland's parking lot. Which Walt once considered as the possible construction site of
a "California Living" -themed second gate. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Diane asked Buzz if the project hadn't been scuttled because of land considerations. "Not really," the addition required no major changes to the existing structure or layout of Disneyland, Buzz said. Walt simply got busy with other projects and "California Living" went away.

"One of the most incredible things about Walt was his bulldog determination to do what he wanted to do," Buzz said later, recalling the way Walt "went after the park after we made the brave choice."

Walt sent Buzz, Winecoff, Bill Cottrell and Dick Irvine to the annual amusement park convention and trade show in November 1953 at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. They met with high-powered people in the industry and detailed Walt's plans for Disneyland, the decor, landscaping and cleanliness. The reaction was unanimous. They said Walt's plan was doomed to fail. Buzz shared their reactions with Walt and he simply said, "They don't get it."

Tomorrowland under construction. Among the forward-looking exhibits
that Guests were able to visit back in 1955 was Crane's Bathroom of
Tomorrow. Copyright Disney Enterprises, inc. All rights reserved

Nunis, who was in the audience, recalled a walk-through with Walt as the park was under construction when Walt saw pay toilets and asked why they were were there and was told that pay toilets will be kept cleaner. Walt, a bit irritated, said "All of our restrooms will be clean, now take those damn coin boxes off."

Finally, a woman asked Diane if she was going to write a book about her father's life. And, in my favorite quote of the evening, she said, "This is my book, this museum." It's a place that echoes with the voice of her father telling his story in his own words.

In Part II, I'll look at Saturday's event, which featured Marty as moderator, Imagineer Tony Baxter, and former presidents of Disneyland Matt Ouimet and Jack Lindquist (who Marty called "the best marketer ever in our industry.")


  • Great post, Leon.  

    (BTW, I was a few seats from you on Sunday.)

  • sorry, leo.  I meant to write leo, not lean.  leo n holzer.  fantastic article.

  • Leo,  Your reporting of this special event really made me wish that I could have attended this . That and the very real comment that some of these attentees like Buzz Harrison, who at 89 may never be seen again in a public forum, were just touching and real. Thanks for the coverage of this special event. I can't wait for part 2. Also the pictures complimented the story wonderfully. This was a great posting. Thanks to you and Nancy.

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