Walt Disney and the Circarama Preview - 1955
by Todd James Pierce
One month before Disneyland opened, none of the rides were complete. The “Jungle River” was still a dirt canal surrounded by newly-planted trees. Autopia was an empty freeway. Even the Mark Twain steamboat was not ready to churn its wheel down the muddy river. To help members of the press understand the technological inventiveness of Disneyland, on June 27, 1955, Walt invited a group of reporters over to the studio to watch a rough cut of the Circarama film that would soon be featured in Tomorrowand. Like the name suggested, Circarama was a “circular” film presentation that took an audience on a “car” tour of the west. The studio preview would enclose an audience inside of 11 curved screens, creating the world’s first sound presentation of a 360-degree film experience.
Members of the press arrived in the afternoon. The “preview screening” likely took place on Sound Stage 1, as Stage 2 was still filled with railroad cars that had yet to be shipped to Disneyland. Reporters would’ve seen the 11 raised screens paired with 11 projectors. Also they would’ve seen the endless cables and equipment that synced the films, frame-by-frame, into an interlocked presentation. A PR person directed them to “an island” inside the enormous hoop of slightly curved screens. Once there, the press learned about the Circarama process: 11 cameras, fitted on a ring, capture scenic footage of the western United States, footage that would eventually be edited into a 20-minute film. Though many sequences were not yet finished, the rough cut was arranged to give reporters an idea as to what Disneyland would actually offer—a filmic experience available nowhere else in the world.
When the overhead lights dimmed, reporters heard the sound of 11 projectors sputtering into motions then saw the Grand Canyon blossom onto the screen. The rough cut also featured “Monument Valley, Las Vegas, Balboa Bay, and even the heavily traveled streets of Los Angeles.” The most notable sequence missing from the rough cut was the high-speed chase at the end of the film.
In reviews the following day, members of the press called the 360-degree presentation “the ultimate” film experience (LA Times). Another reporter (writing for the NY Times) praised the experience as immersive: “Thus engulfed, the spectator is overwhelmed and involuntarily experiences the sensations of moving with the picture.”
The preview produced the intended results—positive reviews in major newspapers that not only described the Circarama presentation in glowing terms but also elevated the coming Disneyland experience as superior to standard fun spot fare.
But for me, the most interesting aspect of this press preview was not the reviews nor the energy building toward the park’s opening, it was a question one reporter asked. He wanted to know if Walt was thinking about adapting this 11-screen, circular experience for two-hour dramatic pictures—such as cowboy-and-Indian westerns or comedies. Walt considered the question then explained that he did “not rule out its potential adaptation to a highly specialized form of dramatic motion picture presentation,” which suggested he had given this matter some thought.
I’m interested in this comment for two reasons. First, the Circarama experience is a logical extension of Cinerama, a widescreen presentation once popular at many specialty theaters. It’s interesting to contemplate how movies-in-the-round might have changed the cinematic experience in the late 1950s—more specifically, how a panoptic presentation might’ve altered the way stories were arranged on film. Second, the idea of establishing a small chain of Disney-sponsored circular theaters was an idea that Walt would return to in a few years, permanent Circarama exhibition centers built in both the US and select foreign cities. In coming years Walt would also have specific plans as to what he would screen at these theaters. But right now, we are reveling in the wonders of Old Tomorrowland—11 raised screens mocked up at the studio that would soon be shipped over to the park. The story of those other (never-built) circular theaters is a topic I’ll save for another day.