Disneyland: The First Christmas
by Todd James Pierce
Christmas at Disneyland is now big business, with special parades, shows and rich theming throughout the park. A massive live Christmas tree occupies Town Square, and the castle has a flashy overlay of electronic icicles and cottony snow. But back in 1955, the Christmas decorations were far less elaborate. Though the park enjoyed a few prosperous weeks during its opening summer–that is, when the heat was below 85 degrees–attendance during the fall was a bust. On some days park attendance was only a few hundred people. One first-year employee, Ron Dominguez used to joke that, on most days “you could shoot a cannon through most areas and not hit anybody.” In 1955, Disneyland Inc. was a company separate from Walt Disney Productions and couldn’t easily draw on studio assets to shore up its operational budgets. So with limited revenue, the park simply could not afford a large Christmas celebration.
Decorations throughout the park were sparse. In 1955, the Hub–not Town Square–received the first tree. A few wreaths were hung on and around the castle, with a strand or two of garland completing the scene. On the entrance drawbridge, the summer two-tone banners were swapped out for darker ones that better paired with the winter season. The entrance to Frontierland was also festooned with a little Christmas greenery.
The largest holiday area that Disneyland Inc. itself arranged was the Christmas Bowl, which was a simple re-theming of its outdoor stage. Surrounded by a few artificial trees, the Bowl featured choirs singing Christmas carols, an event that was the precursor to the modern Candlelight Ceremony and Processional.
The most famous event during that first holiday season, however, was the Christmas Circus. The Disneyland Circus combined traditional animal and high-wire acts with a Christmas show performed by the Mouseketeers. But Disneyland Inc., itself, was too poor to afford to stage the show. The battle over the Christmas Circus was what the first General Manager of Disneyland, C.V. Wood would later claim was the focal point of the “biggest fight [Walt and I] ever had.” The fight lasted for weeks, with Walt Disney Productions rather absurdly renting back a portion of Disneyland from Disneyland Inc to arrange a Christmas Circus that it would financially underwrite to limit the park’s financial exposure to the holiday extravaganza and also to overcome C.V. Wood’s insistence that the circus would be a failure.
Up on the blog today are a series of photos taken during December 1955, back when the park was empty, pristine, and elegantly ornamented with a few tasteful decorations.
If you’re interested in the full story of the Disneyland Circus–the blow-by-blow battle between C.V. Wood and the Disney Brothers–it’s included in THREE YEARS IN WONDERLAND, coming out in March. Now that the book is edited, laid out, and set for printing, I have a little more time to devote to the blog and podcast. So between now and April, you’ll find a new series of stories and photo essays up on the DHI site. I’ll post up the next one in two days. And remember, even when things are slow on the blog, the DHI Facebook Group is always active –tjp