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Want to help JHM find the spots around Southern California where Disneyland was almost built?

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Welcome to the JHM newsletter. This has been a passion project of Nancy and I for the past few months. A way for us to (hopefully) engage JimHillMedia's most dedicated fans and give them access to additional in-depth storytelling.

So to help kick the JHM newsletter, I've really dug down deep in my files and unearthed a document that I'm sure will fascinate all of you theme park history buffs out there. It dates from 1953 and its title page reads:

An Analysis of Location Factors for Disneyland

Prepared for Walt Disney Productions, Burbank, California.

Stanford Research Institute, Stanford, California

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Yep, this is a copy of the research that Walt & Roy used when they were looking for just the right site for the Happiest Place on Earth. Which -- as this report somewhat blandly states -- was supposed to be ...

... an extensive recreational and educational enterprise to be known as Disneyland. It is the desire of Disneyland management to provide a wide variety of entertainment activities and exhibits, designed and constructed to afford maximum pleasure and comfort for the people who use the facility.

Now as I read this document some 60+ years after the fact, what fascinates me is that -- right from the get-go -- Walt & Roy had a very specific piece of property in mind when it came to possible construction sites for Disneyland. First and foremost, this piece of property had to be located ...

... somewhere in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, in the section bounded by Chatsworth and Pomona on the north and Tustin and Balboa to the south.

More to the point, wherever this 100 acre parcel was located, it had to have clear line-of-sight with Mt. Wilson. Why For? Because ...

... Television will play an important part in the promotion and development of Disneyland. Field transmission generally involves remote UHF telecasting to a master station. The field unit shoots the program and beams the picture to the master telecasting station, where it is re-telecast to the viewing public. A direct line of sight is required. Intervening terrain will cause poor signal reception. If the line of sight is obstructed, the only alternative transmission method, at present, is a direct coaxial cable connection involving much greater cost. In the Los Angeles area, master transmitters are located on Mt. Wilson; therefore terrain between Mt. Wilson and any area under consideration was carefully studied.

Mt. Wilson and the beginnings of its now-extensive antenna farm

As a direct result ...

The Orange County and Whittier-Norwalk districts were selected for further research. The preferred area within these districts was a strip on both sides of the Santa Ana Freeway, west of the San Gabriel River.

Once the search had been narrowed to these specific areas, the team from Stanford Research began to seek out parcels that might then meet with Walt & Roy's approval. To find appropriate pieces of land, they did a complete search of the records of Los Angeles and Orange Counties looking for land parcels of adequate acreage. Once that was done, Stanford Research reps used commercial & industrial realtors to identify owners who might be willing to sell. And once they determined which owners might be willing to sell their land to the Disney brothers, the team from Stanford Research first checked each of these pieces of property by walking the land and then by doing fly-overs. They also dug down deep -- checking to see how each piece of property was zone, what sort of utilities were readily available, what the local tax rates were, etc.

The Santa Ana Freeway back in the late 1940s / early 1950s

Thanks to all of their months of hard work, the Stanford Research Institute was able to identify forty possible sites for Disneyland within that narrow strip of land which bordered the Santa Ana Freeway. At subsequent meetings with Walt & Roy, twenty-four of these sites were deemed worthy of further investigation. Each of these possible construction sites were then personally viewed by the Disney brothers. Who reportedly spent one very long weekend driving around Norwalk, Whittier and Orange County. In the end, the choice was narrowed to just four possible construction sites.

Now what's kind of intriguing about the place where Disneyland was ultimately build was that Stanford Research found out that this piece of real estate was actually available for development by accident.

To explain: The Ball Road Subdivision (which was located adjacent to the city of Anaheim) was made up of seventeen different parcels which was owned by seventeen different owners. Given that Walt & Roy didn't want to deal with that many people when it came to putting together the necessary 100 acre parcel for Disneyland, they initially passed on this primo piece of property. It was only after an Anaheim local -- one Mr. Fred R. Wallich -- made Stanford Research aware that several owners were thinking of converting this collection of orange groves & ranch homes into a housing subdivision that Walt & Roy circled back on the Ball Road Subdivision and eventually took an option on the property.

 But in the meantime, the Disney Brothers thought hard & fast about buying the Willowick Country Club. Which is this 18-hole golf course located just beyond the western limits of the City of Santa Ana. There were actually pieces of property available for purchase here: One 98 acre parcel and a second 19 acre parcel. The only problem was that these two pieces of property were separated by the Pacific Electric Railroad.

And then there was the then-unincorporated City of La Mirada, which was made up of 2300 acres just inside of Los Angeles County limits. There were actually five potential construction sites for Disneyland located within this subdivision. And each of them had primo access to then still-under-construction Santa Ana Freeway via Valley View Avenue and Imperial Highway.

And then there was a fourth potential construction site for this theme park which was located at the boundary between Los Angeles & Orange Countries near the intersection of Valley View Avenue and the Santa Ana Freeway. 170 acres lay inside of Los Angeles County while the balance of 480 acres laid inside Orange County.

The owners -- one Leo Harvey -- was willing to release some 160 acres at the most accessible corner of this piece of property. Which was bounded by Valley View Avenue, Orangethorpe Avenue & Hansen Street and was one mile west of Buena Park.

Just think about it. If  Fred R. Wallich hadn't made the Stanford Research reps aware that the owners of the Ball Road Subdivision were thinking of pooling their pieces of property to create a housing subdivision, Disneyland could have been built where the Willowick Country Club is located (It's still in operation, by the way. Just 5 miles west of Disneyland, Willowick is the oldest 18-hole public golf course in Orange County). Or it could of have wound up out in La Miranda on a centrally located piece of property between the Santa Ana Freeway and the Imperial Highway. Or just down the street from Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park.

And given that we're just months away from the start of Disneyland's 60th anniversary celebration ... Well, I'd love to go check out some of these spots where the Happiest Place on Earth was almost built. So do any of your Southern California theme park history buffs have any tips when it comes to where Disneyland was supposed to have been built in the City of La Mirada? Or -- for the matter -- have any clues about where that piece of property that Leo Harvey once owned could be located? Because I'd love to get shots of these places the very next time I'm out in Southern California.

At the very least, does anyone want to join me for a walk around Willowick Country Club and maybe lift a toast at their new 5000 square-foot full-service bar and restaurant to the spot that was almost the Happiest Place on Earth?

Because that's the whole point of the JHM newsletter, folks. Nancy and I are going to go really in-depth with this thing. Give you the opportunity to explore & celebrate some of the lesser known corner of Disney Company history.

So who's up for a little urban exploration in & around Orange County? Any takers?

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  • I can't join in on the fun since I live in Northern California (drats!), but I did want to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the article about potential park locations. I look forward to reading more about it.

  • Sounds just geeky enough to be fun, Jim - I'm in!  

    I don't have any definite info for you, but just from a little poking around on the Web, I can give you a couple of guesses to the La Mirada parcels. I was just watching a YouTube video promoting a book on La Mirada history that showed a historical plaque commemorating Biola University's purchase of 160 acres of land on the area in 1955, which became the Biola campus - it's a safe bet that's at least one of the sites. The La Mirada Community Regional Park was established by the County of Los Angeles in 1956 & is about 76 acres - the property could have been available at the time SRI was doing their research. I was going to suggest the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet location as a potential site - it's right next to I-5 and it was originally known as the La Mirada Drive-In since it was so close to La Mirada, but the drive in was actually established in 1950.

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