Disneyland Voce 1955
by Todd James Pierce
<<<< Note: More Disneyland 1955 photos on our Facebook Group Page. >>>
This is a video I’ve wanted to dish for years–a video that contextualizes Disneyland within the political and cultural events of the early 1950s. “Disneyland Voce” is distilled down from a dozen home movies, all shot in 1955, during the first five months that Disneyland was open to the public. Here’s one reason I love home movies: they reveal the vacation experience as taken by the average guest. Disney has produced reels of film documenting the park during its early years (most notably “Disneyland U.S.A.” in 1956 and “Gala Day at Disneyland” in 1959), but professional footage presents the park under ideal conditions. Home movies lay down the scenery as a typical guest would have experienced it. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to visit Disneyland when it first opened, buckle into your DeLorean and hit the play button on YouTube. I’ll point out 14 things you might’ve overlooked on your first viewing.
(1) So where are all the costumed Disney characters?
In the 1950s, Mickey and Minnie didn’t roam the streets of Disneyland. On opening day, Disneyland borrowed character costumes from the Ice Capades—which produced a Disney on Ice show—for the televised festivities. Those costumes, however, were owned by the Ice Capades and were used in a touring show for most of the year. From time-to-time, the Ice Capades would loan the costumes to Disneyland—particularly in the summers of 1957 and 1958—but aside from that, in the 1950s, Disneyland was primarily an atmospheric park, without walk-around characters.
(2) Minute Marker 0:32 – The Parking Lot
If you are under the age of 20, you probably don’t remember the original Disneyland parking lot. The original parking lot was on the land now occupied by Disney’s California Adventure. In 1955, the parking lot extended from the Disneyland ticket booths back to roughly where the Tower of Terror now stands. It was only in later years that the parking lot was paved out to West Katella Avenue.
(3) Minute Marker 0:38 – Closed Mondays
In the 1950s, only during the summer and school holidays was Disneyland open seven days a week. During 1955, the park was closed on Mondays. In later years, the park was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
(4) Minute Marker 1:20 – Intimate Apparel
Hollywood Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel shop lasted exactly six months. In my years and years of collecting old film of the park, I’ve found only three images of this shop. The clip here is a beauty. The shop featured two rooms: The first room offered a visual history of women’s under things—such as the brassiere—with miniature displays arranged in small shadow boxes. In the center of the first room was your host, a wizardly mannequin done up in a turban and sporting a magic wand, who offered a tape-recorded presentation explaining the restrictive Victorian approach to undergarments and extolling the virtues of modern bras. The second room, of course, offered these modern bras and other undergarments for sale. And no, I’m not making any of this up.
(5) Minute Marker 1:29 – The Monkey
I have images of this organ grinder and his monkey performing in Disneyland from 1955 (when I believe he worked most every day) all the way up through the late 1950s (when his appearances were far less common). Instead of costumed characters, Main Street presented entertainment that would have existed on an actual city street around the 1900s—such as the organ grinder featured here.
(6) Minute Marker 1:43 – The Bandstand
For its first year of operation, Disneyland did not have the elaborate stage and dance floor of Carnation Gardens. Instead, the park had a simple bandstand in roughly the same location.
(7) Minute Marker 2:01 – Casey Jr.
One of the most famous stories about the construction of Disneyland concerns funding—specifically in the final weeks, the park (then an independent company, Disneyland Inc.) was so broke that landscapers couldn’t afford plants to finish the grounds. The park featured lovely plants in Main Street, Adventureland and parts of Frontierland, but the park featured very little landscaping in Fantasyland and the back sections of Tomorrowland. (Another story, not so well known: the park was so broke that it never even asked its landscape architect to create plans for those areas of the park.) Here—around the Casey Jr. Train—the absence of landscaping is readily apparent. In the days leading up to opening, groundskeepers watered the hills to encourage weed growth simply so dirt hills would not erode.
(8) Minute Marker 2:08 – Canal Boats of the World
Before Storybook Land (built in 1956), on roughly the same waterway, Disneyland featured a short-lived ride called Canal Boats of the World, in which guests floated past dirt. Specifically these mounds are the dirt left over from digging the canal. The ride was so unpopular—and often closed—that I have only one clip of it in operation, as well as a few photos and slides. But in 1955, if you were to venture onto the Canal Boats, you’d see no miniature houses or gardens. (Those would be built the following year.) You’d see, simply, dirt—also a few international flags around the entrance to give the canal boats that “of the world” flavor.
(9) Minute Marker 2:12 – The Unfinished Pirate Ship
When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, sections of the park were unfinished. The most obvious example was the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship. Before the grand opening festivities, crews were able to paint half the ship—the half that would face the TV cameras. For the opening festivities, the work scaffolding was removed and a few celebrities were allowed on the ship deck (then unpainted) for the benefit of home viewers. The following day, the crews put back the scaffolding and continued to paint—an effort that took about three weeks. In these clips—which are from July and August of 1955—a paint crew works alongside guests.
(10) Minute Marker 2:27 – Safety First pt. 1
So as you blaze back to 1955 in your DeLorean, make sure to leave all Disney lawyers in Burbank otherwise they’d quickly put an end to this practice. I love this clip. Here, a park employee balances on a wheel while a guest exits the top of the stagecoach with a portable ladder. But wait: it’s not just any ladder: this ladder is handmade in the fashion of ladders that existed in the 1800s. Let’s see: an old-fashioned ladder, no hand rails, no seatbelts for passengers on top of the stagecoach, no seat backs either, no blocks to stop the ladder in case its feet were to slip. Lastly that girl wants nothing to do with the boy when he tries to help her find firm footing on one of the ladder’s upper rungs.
(11) Minute Marker 3:05 – Safety First pt. 2
Oh those wacky Autopia cars. In the early years, the Autopia freeway had no center guide rails. Kids could drive on the road as though it were an actual freeway: they could drive into repair areas, even bypass the load ramp. How better to fix these problems than with a bunch of OSHA-approved plywood and storage boxes to direct guests into the proper lanes? I’m sure there’s no danger of that wood ever injuring a guest, especially when hit by a small car.
(12) Minute Marker 3:14 – Test and Adjust
When Disney opens a new amusement ride today, engineers operate the ride for a few months without guests to fine-tune its mechanics—a period that is commonly known as test-and-adjust. In 1955, engineers rushed to finish rides by opening day. Young guests were so rough on the early Autopia cars that the vehicles were often out for repair. In this clip, you can see a half-dozen cars in the repair bay, most covered with tarps.
(13) Minute Marker 3:21 – Phantom Boats
These are the fabled Phantom Boats—the shortest-lived attraction at Disneyland. Yes, even shorter-lived than the disastrous Rocket Rods. The Phantom Boats lasted just over 13 months before being pulled from the lagoon. What was the problem? They were slow. The motors overheated. They were a money-loser—note that each boat (with one to four guests) needed to be operated by an employee. Initially, they were pulled out in 1956 to make way for an airboat ride (like those operating in the Florida Everglades), but the airboat ride was never built. Instead the park built a u-drive-em boat attraction called Motor Boat Cruise, with the boats on a track (no employee necessary to steer).
(14) The Indian Village
The one area obviously absent from “Disneyland Voce 1955” is the original Indian Village. In 1955, the original Indian Village existed beside the Mark Twain loading dock—before being relocated (in 1956) to a larger area further down river. It’s not that I’ve forgotten the original village. Rather, I have so much footage of the old village, I want to post up a short video on the subject later this year.
I’m sure there are other interesting items to note. Do me a favor. Post up your favorites below. You don’t need a “Google account” or a “Blogger account” to post comments to our blog; you can simply select “anonymous.” Also, for the next two or three months, I’m going to be posting up unique, never-before-published photos of Disneyland during its first year over on our Facebook group page. Our Facebook group page has some of the liveliest discussion on Disney history anywhere on the web. For the last month, my partner-in-crime, Paul F. Anderson has been posting up 1950s and 1960s Disneyland construction shots. So if you want to get in on the conversation—and see some amazing snaps—join our Facebook group page. It’s free.
UPDATE (2016): If you’re interested in learning more about how Disneyland was designed and built in 1955, I’ve recently published the full history of Disneyland’s early years: all the struggles, challenges, in-fighting and success. THREE YEARS IN WONDERLAND – available now at Amazon and other fine bookstores.
See you in a few weeks,
—– —– —– —– —–
If you enjoyed this story, you might click over to these DHI videos and articles:
* Disneyland Canon 1957: a video tour of Disneyland in 1957, two years after the park opened
* Walt Disney and Riverfront Square: the story of the indoor amusement park that Walt designed but never built in St. Louis
* The Cartography of Disneyland Maps: the story of Disneyland art director, Sam McKim
* The Cartography of Disneyland Maps: the story of Disneyland art director, Sam McKim
* 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