Today, the three most visited theme parks on Earth are all “Disneylands.” Almost all parks built “AD” (ie. after disneyland) borrow in one way or another from its model, layout, or attractions. So it’s easy to forget that Disneyland was once a risk…one that industry insiders were certain he was doomed to fail.
Our friends at The Park Database compiled a very interesting list of quotes from Walt’s own competitors in the 1950s shared in a Buzz Price discussion group. In hindsight, obviously, these amusement park operators’ ideas about what would and wouldn’t work at Disneyland are downright amusing… but they’re also very revealing.
It’s important to remember how seriously unusual Disneyland was, and how the designers “wrote the rules” as they went along was a gigantic financial and reputational risk. Each of the quotes below are from actual amusement park operators who went on record before the opening of Disneyland. Obviously, they ended up being wrong. But the point remains that writing new rules is not easy, and when a leader without vision comes to head the parks, they may not have the courage to think outside the box like Walt did…
1. “All proven moneymakers are conspicuously missing…”
“…no roller coasters, no Ferris wheel, no shooting slides […] there are no fairground games like baseball pitching.”
the only entrance door “It will create another terrible bottleneck. Entrances need to be on all sides for closer parking and easier access.”
You have to remember that before Disneyland, amusement parks held a very different place in the public consciousness. From waterfront pleasure piers to lakeside boardwalks; urban “trolley parks” to rural traveling fairs, most amusement parks had developed slowly…from late-19th-century dance halls and sunny pools to turn-of-the-century electrical wonders. But by the 1950s, most amusement parks were associated with trouble. Filled with rides, midway games of cheats, poor maintenance, and ride operators, these parks were often open to the public for walks, attracting troubled teens.
So when Walt told his wife Lillian that he was interested in creating an amusement park himself, she replied, “Why would you want to be involved in an amusement park? They’re really dirty and no fun at all for adults.” Walt replied that that was exactly his point: his park would be different than that. And to Schmidt’s point, it was! Walt purposely looked for places away from the beaches. and the “barefoot crowd”; it charged an entrance fee (in 1955, $1); and instead of being built by “carnies”, its park was designed by filmmakers…no coasters, Ferris wheels, slides for shoot, or carny games needed.
Obviously things have changed. For the most part, imagers have figured out how use those most common tools of the entertainment trade in innovative enough ways. (Few would call Big Thunder Mountain, Expedition Everest, or even TRON Lightcycle Run “just” a roller coaster.) But there are exceptions. For example, the designers must have forgotten that Disneyland was built as a counterpart to carnivals, boardwalks and backlots when they designed Disney California Adventure’s initial Paradise Pier, which featured just about everything on Schmidt’s list.
2. “Without midway barkers to sell out the sideshows, brands won’t pay to get in.”
Two of Walt’s revolutions can be seen in this statement.
First, the way Walt thought about the visitors to his park. Whereas the amusement park vendors and operators of the day literally thought of potential customers as “brands,” as targets to lure and swindle out of money, Walt Disney thought of Disneyland visitors as “guests.” Though the full theatrical terminology (“onstage,” “backstage,” “cast member”) wouldn’t appear online for years, that insight from guests was certainly a relevance…that perhaps the purpose of Disneyland it was No to squeeze every penny out of a visitor, but to make them feel comfortable and at home.
Second, the traditional amusement park model relied on competing vendors to attract those “brands” to its rides, games, and food over anything else; hence the bright lights, large marquees, and carnival tricks that draw the attention of the classic amusement park. But one of the best sales was, of course, the “thief,” an employee who stood in the middle of the road, guiding guests to his company’s offerings. He thinks: “Hurry, hurry, hurry! Get closer! Get active!”
Disneyland made home to lots and lots of vendors during its first few decades, when most of the park’s restaurants and shops were leased to members. But those vendors were integrated into the park as a whole rather than serving as competing parties within it.
Ironically, Disney ended up employing some carnival barkers… but maybe not in the way you’d expect. When the Enchanted Tiki Room opened in 1963, a “barking bird” was placed outside the attraction. After all, nothing else could convey to 1960s audiences what lay within. (The Tiki Birds, remember, were the first Audio-Animatronics.) Of course, the Barker Bird didn’t last long, as audiences stopped to gawk at the fantastical feathered creature barring the entrance to Adventureland. However, a barker returned to Disneyland when Toy Story Midway Mania opened at California Adventure in 2008, bringing an Audio-Animatronic Mr. Potato Head, who challenges guests to “Step right up” from the boardwalk to play a bit of carnival. . games…a historically accurate idea!