Evolution of the Disney Park Guest – Part 1


Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Things were so much different when Walt first opened Disneyland in 1955. The Disney company was smaller, the fan base was smaller and expectations were smaller. While I’m sure many were very excited st the prospected of a high quality, magical theme park in the fields of Anaheim, there was little in comparison other than county fairs and amusement parks of the mid 50’s and prior. A very far cry 60 years in the future were everybody is trying to make their own Disneyland. It was also a very financially difficult time for The Walt Disney Company. The Disneyland project was coming out of Walt’s own back pocket, at a time when the Studio was usually just one flop away from going under. Extensive resources and manpower was not an arsenal so heavily populated like it is now, all projects and ideas needed to be approached with tactic. Things needed to be done right, but not over-lavishly.

It’s been documented many times that during the creation of Disneyland, Walt turned to those he knew and worked with and created WED; the original Imagineering department. For the most part this was made up of animators, writers and those who up until then had been working on Disney stories for the big screen. It is of my opinion that when these first Imagineers were tasked with creating brand new experiences for a theme park – a medium outside of their comfort zone – they would have been automatically prone to tell new stories rather than revisiting old ones. After all that’s what they’ve been doing for their entire career while working under Walt, when work finished on one movie it was a closed booked. Contracts weren’t signed for trilogy, a spin-off TV series wasn’t penned, the story has been told and it was time to begin work on a new one. This was a philosophy the employees at WED were used to, and old habits die hard. That doesn’t mean we didn’t get movie based attractions in the park back then – we obviously did – but during the first 10 to 20 years of Disneyland the most popular and most imaginative attractions were almost always original conceptions. The very fact an attraction such as Jungle Cruise has stood in Adventureland from day 1 and still brings in E-Ticket success stands for itself. As time went on, more and more original ideas soon spouted from the geniuses’ heads at WED as we saw additions such as the Matterhorn, Pirates of the Caribbean and, of course, The Haunted Mansion. All these attractions soon became true staples of Disneyland and most of Disney parks in general with the majority finding siblings in future parks. This isn’t to shun to adaptation attractions in any way, the likes of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are fantastic attractions and iconic in their own right, but it’s clear to see how much thought, attention to detail and imagination went into these original attractions which  didn’t have an existing narrative to support their immersion to the guest.


“It all looks great, but where’s the section to meet the sentient toy characters that’ll make us millions in 50 years time?”

Accessibility I suspect was a major factor in the spawn of original content for Disneyland too. It’s hard to think now if this age of digital content and streaming, but back in the 1950’s the idea of having a movie playing from a box you could fit in your pocket was reserved only to the pages of science fiction. The only opportunity to see a Disney movie back then was by going to the theatre at the time of its release. If you missed it – and your cinema didn’t rerun it so many years later – that’s it, no movie for you. The film industry also had another competitor in the 1950’s, one which proved to be an invaluable tool in the funding of Disneyland; television. As this new technology began to appear in more US household, less people would venture to the cinema for their entertainment when TV shows were broadcasted right in their very living room. This obviously didn’t mean Disney movies (or movies in general) weren’t popular, people attended movie theatres in drones and inflation statistics back this up. That said I can be sure that many kids and grown ups of the time may only have been able to see a handful of Disney movies if they were lucky, and with no home release in any fashion the stories told would only last as long as their memory let it. Others – particularly in rural areas of America – wouldn’t have been so lucky and may never have gotten to the opportunity to visit a cinema through cost, accessibility or just plain other commitments.

While I’m sure a large number who attending Disneyland in its opening knew what the company was and saw their movies, I can’t see many (if any) being of the level the average Disney geek is today. Chances are the average guest going through the turnstiles in the late 50s would be approaching Main Street with the mindset of “Disneyland eh? They made that movie I liked that time, it was pretty creative. I wonder what so of creative stuff I’ll see in here?” These type of fans were looking for experiences by Disney. After having already seen some of the experiences Disney could offer them on screen, guests were curious to see what else could Disney create before their eyes without the constraints of 2 dimensions and senses.

It should come as no surprise now, but Disneyland was a major success story for Disney. The investment, hard work and imagination ultimately paid off to a point that not only saw expansion to the park, but made possible the concept of a second Happiest Place on Earth on the east coast of America. The foundations of the Disney guest had been set in Anaheim, but as the Disney park phenomenon grew and evolved, so too did it source of revenue.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for the next instalment of this series!




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