You know what they say. It's the happiest place on earth. Maybe you love Disneyland so much that you've amassed a collection of Disney pins so big you need another room to hold them. Or maybe you're one of those people who hate it, and would rather not touch it with a thirty foot pole.
However you feel, Disneyland as we know it today, with its perfectly functioning system and protocols, is nothing like the Disneyland of the past. When it opened on July 17th, 1955, it actually was pretty much the worst place on earth.
This is Walt Disney on that opening day. He looks pretty happy. He probably wasn't very aware of the pandemonium occurring in his park.
First of all, when the park opened, it was not even finished yet. That's right, it was only about 3/4 of the way completed. The construction workers at the time knew that they couldn't get everything done in time, so they were pushing for an extension on the park's opening date. The construction supervisor said nah, that's okay, we'll open it anyway. That meant that Tomorrowland basically was a big pile of dirt when visitors were allowed inside the park.
Jonathan Carr was one of the guests who attended Disneyland on the opening day. He was nine-years-old at the time, and recalls writing a detailed account of the time in his journal for a school project.
"Both rides I went on, the Jungle Cruise and these boats in a canal, were stuffed with people. The canal boats I remember being crowded. I forgot to write notes there. But on the jungle boat, it was stuffed. We were at double the capacity, and so many people were on they began falling off."
That's right, folks, people were literally falling off rides. But this was the '50s. It was a simpler time. They probably just pulled them right out of the water and back onto the ride again.
Or, they just swam to safety, like he said he saw one man do.
"I didn't see how he fell over, but everybody on the boat looked back, and there he was paddling to land where an employee ran up to him. The ride didn't even stop."
You know how we mentioned that the park wasn't finished yet? Yeah, that means a good portion of the rides weren't finished yet, either. They were set to open the next month.
"All day, people stood in lines for rides that were closed. My father wrote down that some families believed the staff was saying they were closed to get rid of long lines, but these were for rides that were not being mentioned as being opened," Carr remembers of his experience.
"I don't know how long they stood in line before giving up, but my father left a note saying '4:15 p.m. Disneyland. Frontierland. There's a Wild West show that the staff informs everyone is not ready today. The line for it stretches for over 100 feet. The people near the front are saying they should be let in since they've been in line since the morning."
So you can feel sort of okay for waiting in line for Space Mountain for 90 minutes now. Sort of.
"I've told people I was there on the day it opened, and when they asked what it was like, the first thing I bring up is all the children peeing. I wrote down 'I saw 3 boys who were telling every child they could find that they had snuck in taking turns peeing in a bush.' My father wrote down 'Main Street. The restroom lines are so long that there is another line for the new restroom park goers have created behind the official restroom," said Carr.
Public restrooms in general are fairly terrifying. This just sounds like a really good reason to go home and spend a nice day inside, not having to avoid people trying to pee. Carr wrote that people were peeing in so many places that him and his father made a game out of it, and kept score each time they saw it happening.
Not only was everyone peeing everywhere, it was also above 100 degrees on that opening day. Which is not unusual for any day in California, or any day at Disneyland, but consider the fact that air conditioning technology hadn't been perfected yet. Or really, installed at Disneyland at all. Then, pack an enormous amount of people all together in the park. Sounds pretty thrilling.
"You couldn't do anything. Anywhere you could sit was taken, rides had long lines, stores were filled. I've been [to Disneyland] many times since, but what I always remember is the image of all of these families standing, not moving, because there was nowhere else to go. More recent families were moving around, but they didn't know that everywhere was like this. To me, it was like a mall parking lot during Christmas. Every space is filled, and there are endless cars either idling and waiting or circling around and hoping," said Carr.
You know what happens when it's really hot? Things melt. One of the things that was melting was the asphalt, which of course, isn't really that important of a thing to have.
"It was spongy, but I thought it was supposed to be like that in case children fell down. I wrote down 'There are black shoe marks all over from the ground. I think this is supposed to make it look like guests making their mark on the park," Carr remembered.
Guests were making their mark on the park, but it was because the asphalt literally had not been allowed enough time to settle, and the heat was definitely not helping.
There were 36 cars in Autopia at the time of opening day. Literally all of them were wrecked by children who didn't know how to drive - if not all of them during opening day, many of them, and then all throughout 1955. This is particularly upsetting, considering Disney's vision was that Autopia would be a utopian little freeway where kids would learn the rules of the road. Apparently, kids should probably wait a little while before being given their license. Who would have thought.
"There were fires in the castle. I thought it was the show, but it was real. We were walking by when a fire peeked out of the window. It wasn't very big, but it was enough. In Sleeping Beauty there are castles and fire, and we thought it was a show, but a few employees said to go around. It was real," said Carr.
Imagine if this was happening at Disneyland today. The entire park would probably be shut down. But back then, they just walked around. Oh, 1950, we might not necessarily want to go back, but you were so much more hardcore.
The food and drinks at the park ran out by noon. People were starving and desperate for food. This, of all things, was one of the travesties that encouraged people to leave the park. Because before that, they were sticking to it.
"I remember my father yelling at somebody with a food cart who couldn't have been more than 18, but he didn't write that down. While we were eating crackers on a bench, some parents who had no food offered money to my mother for the remaining crackers. It wasn't a single parent; several asked. I'd say at least six. Even more asked where we found food to buy. They were getting desperate," said Carr.
All the hustle and bustle at Disneyland created a seven mile backup on the freeway. Even though this doesn't necessarily count as being inside the park, it's still terrible nonetheless. California traffic is bad enough, and back then they probably had not experienced the commutes poor Californians had to deal with today.
All these extra people could sort of explain some of these problems. 5,000 guests were expected to attend the opening. At the end of the day, 28,154 guests were counted. This is in thanks to all the counterfeit tickets that were accepted. Just try to get away with that one now.
On the opening day, the Mark Twain riverboat was packed with people, and filled way over capacity. Surges of water washed over the deck, and it nearly wrecked. "Surely ‘Disneyland’ will be loved by children–and will take years from the shoulders of countless grownups, too," wrote the Times only a week after this disastrous opening. Nothing can phase the magic of Disneyland, not even people peeing all over the place and near shipwrecks.
So, here comes the parade. With characters tracking pee everywhere and Dumbo melting into the asphalt. Although we're not entirely sure that's Dumbo and not an elephant that wandered out of some attraction at Universal Horror Nights from the future. Despite this laughably terrible kickoff, Disneyland has been going strong ever since its fateful opening day.