Walt Disney and “California Living”
The Original Second Gate in Anaheim
by Todd James Pierce
One month before his death in 2010, a gaunt, slightly stooped economist named Buzz Price took the stage at the Disney Family Museum for a final public appearance. Buzz talked about studies he wrote that paved the way for Disneyland and later Walt Disney World. He talked about his work on Cal Arts and his close, personal relationship with Walt Disney in the 1950s and 1960s. Toward the end of his presentation, he briefly mentioned the original second gated park that Walt once considered building in Anaheim, a park called California Living. In a single sentence, he described it as a collection of restaurants and stores with a California theme. When asked if Walt walked away from the project because of land considerations, Buzz explained that no, land wasn’t the issue. Walt simply got busy with other things.
Over the previous five years, I’d interviewed Buzz many times. I knew that Buzz, a brilliant man, could oversimplify large concepts. On occasion, the truth needed to be teased out of him with many questions. But on that day, at the Disney Family Museum, the truth wasn’t teased. California Living hovered as a hazy thought, one that Buzz never defined in public, not even in his book. The story of California Living is far more interesting—and more detailed—than the brief description that Buzz offered in his final public appearance. The story of California Living begins a few years after Disneyland opened, in the months after the Matterhorn and the monorail first graced Tomorrowland, when the park finally showed signs of becoming a long-term success.
In the late 1950s, Walt Disney controlled just over 130 acres outside of Disneyland, with individual parcels ranging from 6 acres to 20 acres—land that was either owned outright by Disney or managed by Disney through a long-term lease. At that time, the excess land was largely devoted to agriculture, with some used for trailer manufacturing and parking, and with at least one parcel entirely empty. In terms of location, many parcels were grouped together at the back of the Disneyland parking lot (on both sides of Katella Avenue), with another cluster surrounding the Disneyland Hotel (on West Street and Cerritos Road). As Disneyland grew—and as Walt had more money to develop the park—he wanted to find some way to use these parcels to expand the footprint of the resort area.
With a planning team, the Disney Company first excluded certain types of businesses from being developed on the Disney-controlled land—camping (too low of a financial return), lodging (the Anaheim market was already saturated with hotels), sports fields (outside of the Disney image), and a large arena (local population insufficient to support it). Disney was open to retail stores—but only as part of a larger themed development; Disney was also open to restaurants—especially as Disney executives believed that many locals and Disneyland tourists were driving over to Knott’s Berry Farm to enjoy their famous chicken dinners. (One internal document went so far as to estimate that Disney was losing $1.53m in restaurant sales each year to Knott’s—tourist dollars that, with a little planning, might eventually land in Disney-owned cash registers.)
For a while, Disney explored the possibility of creating convention facilities, but this idea was abandoned for two reasons: (1) Orange County was unwilling to financially support the project and (2) the Disneyland Hotel—then owned by Jack Wrather—was developing its own facilities for small conventions. Disney also explored the possibility of constructing an auditorium—one large enough for dramas, musicals and touring shows—but abandoned this concept when, after field research, the company concluded that Orange County locals wouldn’t adequately support a medium-sized performing arts facility.
From here, the Disney team began to focus on a much larger concept they called “California Living”—an exposition park, directed at both tourists and local residents, that would explore the California Way of Life. To the best of my knowledge, no artwork exists for California Living—at least I’ve never seen it. But the concept was developed through meetings in 1959 and 1960. In the summer of 1960, Buzz Price, with the help of Ed Ettinger, arranged the plans for California Living into a report.
California Living, an exposition area imagined without amusement rides, would be a gated park, with adults paying a $1.50 admission fee. The park would consist of eight to twelve themed areas, each set around a different California location: the beach, the mountains, the city, the desert, etc. Each themed area would have a model residential home (such as a mountain lodge in the mountain setting), along with typical garden and representative landscape features of the region. Each house would represent the lifestyle and leisure activities found in its region, possibly with demonstration talks or filmed presentations: for example, guests visiting the beach house would find skin diving equipment and surfboards; guests visiting the mountain lodge would find skis and snowshoes. Around these “mini-lands” would be themed restaurants, complete with large diorama backdrops, stage lighting, and show effects to create the illusion that guests were dining at Lake Tahoe or on a San Diego pier.
Outside of the “mini-lands,” guests would find three other significant areas in California Living. (1) The park would host a large retail area, offering space for local arts and crafts that contributed to the identity of the state. (2) A multi-purpose auditorium would be situated in one corner of the park. Smaller than the performing arts auditorium once considered as a stand-alone venue, this 1,000-to-1,500 seat building would be large enough for specialty shows that related to the California theme. (3) Lastly, the park would feature exhibition space for California’s international and ethnic communities. During the 1950s and 1960s, Walt repeatedly considered adding international areas to Disneyland—such as the proposed Chinatown restaurant and the “Salute to Mexico” fair that Walt briefly installed on Main Street. The international and ethnic areas inside California Living would bring together these ideas—a miniature Chinatown, a Latino arts festival focused on Hispanic culture, an area devoted to the traditions of coastal Native Americans.
In terms of practical design, the Disney team intended to lease out restaurant space to famous California restaurateurs. Retail and show space, as well, would be leased out to companies that specialized in products geared toward California lifestyles. With this, California Living wouldn’t be an amusement park, per se; it would be a multi-themed outdoor plaza that would incorporate elements of a public garden and a high-end home show. It would, of course, be a smaller park than Disneyland. In 1960, the total accumulated cost to build—and improve—Disneyland hovered around $30m, with estimates to build California Living placed at $7m. Likewise in 1960, Disneyland received roughly 5 million guests and estimated this number would grow to roughly 6 million by 1964; in contrast, Buzz Price estimated that California Living would receive roughly 1.5 million guests.
In terms of economic feasibility—with 1.5 million guests each year and space offered to lessees—this modest park should have proved profitable. At the end of 1960, Disney was advised to better develop the themed areas—with a full site plan and detailed layouts for the show houses and themed restaurants—so construction costs could be better estimated. Why Walt never pursued the California Living project, I don’t know. But, like Buzz said at the Disney Family Museum, in the early 1960s Walt became interested in other things—building Disneyland East in Palm Beach Gardens, pursuing regional amusement attractions in Canada and Missouri, even (briefly) developing a resort area on Catalina Island that would no doubt incorporate many of the concepts presently in play for the California Living park.
From there, California Living simply faded into the world of paper wonderlands, parks that were conceptualized, even designed, but never built.
As an interesting side note, nearly four decades later, the Walt Disney Company, under the direction of Michael Eisner, developed Disney’s California Adventure (DCA) pretty much on the exact same land Walt once considered for California Living. In 1996, the initial plans for DCA, strangely, involved just three lands: a land that celebrated Hollywood and movie culture (which was, in essence, largely based on elements already designed for the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida), a beachside carnival (which was largely based on plans for a state fair carnival area recently designed for the proposed Disney’s America park in Virginia) and one area that was truly unique to DCA, a land that celebrated the California mountains and featured a white-water raft ride. From there, over the coming months, the WDI team under Eisner developed a larger plan for DCA, one that rather oddly incorporated ideas similar to those once considered by Walt.
Like California Living, DCA soon focused its designs on California lifestyles, California architecture and landscapes, as well as regional restaurants and shops. Like California Living, DCA soon incorporated “mini-lands” focused on the various regions of California: the desert, the sierras, the beach, wine country, the Monterey Peninsula, the city of San Francisco, the Redwoods etc. Here’s the interesting thing: I would lay money that the Eisner team—or at least most members on the Eisner team—never knew of Walt’s plans to build California Living as it was never mentioned in any of the press releases, nor in internal publications. Also, the Eisner team never pointed to California Living when the press repeatedly beat up the Disney Company for wandering too far from Walt’s vision with DCA. The California Living concept, designed during Walt’s lifetime, would have been the perfect rejoinder to undercut early critics of DCA. I’m guessing that the similarities between California Living and DCA—or at least most of them—are simply an elaborate coincidence, a path independently explored by two groups of Disney designers, one in the 1960s, the other in the 1990s. But then again, this is only a guess: there’s always the possibility that a portion of DCA can be traced back to designs that originated with Walt.
(Photo Credit: The original, unaltered 1960 Disneyland aerial belongs
to the Orange County Archives and was initially posted by Yesterdayland.
Photo altered by DHI to show land controlled by Disney.)
Photo altered by DHI to show land controlled by Disney.)
If you enjoyed this story, you might click over to these DHI articles:
* Walt Disney and Riverfront Square: the story of the indoor amusement park that Walt designed but never built in St. Louis
* Construction Tales at Disneyland – 1955: trouble at Disneyland as the park struggled to open
* The Past of the Future: Elaborate designs for Tomorrowland (1954-1955) that were never built
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That’s it for this time. Swing back by in a couple weeks. I’m sure I’ll post up a new article—maybe one that outlines Michael Eisner’s original plans for a second gate in Anaheim—a park that was laid out before DCA, before Port Disney, before Westcot, a park that I’ve never seen mentioned in any of the articles and books I’ve read on the Walt Disney Company. Post up comments and questions below. Until then, TJP.