Thirty years ago today, on the broad oval of Southern California farm land that his bulldozers had cleared from the orange groves, Walter Elias Disney stepped up to a microphone to inaugurate an amusement park quite unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. Children would fly in this place, and cruise jungle rivers, and touch beaming cartoon creatures who had walked off the movie screens; winged galleons would sail them over London at midnight, thundering rockets would carry them to the moon, and whole freeways would fill with honking traffic scaled precisely to their size. The streets would shine like polished nickels. Everyone in uniform would smile. "To all who come to this happy place," Disney said, gazing around him at the 30,000 people who had stormed Orange County to open his celebrated new park, "welcome."
They had a terrible time.
The water fountains weren't working, half the rides broke down, and Fantasyland sprang a gas leak. The lines were an hour long. The food stands couldn't handle the crowds. The asphalt on Main Street softened and sagged in the midday sun, and women in spike heels sank in as they stood there. "Neat little shops with all the drab bric-a-brac of the day on them," one newspaperman sneered in print the next day. "Frontierland, complete with a very inadequate American village . . . Tomorrowland, which looks like the Chicago World's Fair of, what was it, 1932? Which makes Mr. Disney look very bad, or the World's Fair architects look very good."
That was not the nastiest review. "It felt like a giant cash register," another newsman fired off, "clicking and clanging, as creatures of Disney magic came tumbling down from their lofty places in my daydreams to peddle and perish their charms with the aggressiveness of so many curbside barkers."
Black Sunday, they call it here.
"It was awful," said Milton Albright, who went to work for Disney in 1947, and was there. "It's a wonder, really, that it survived."
Walt Disney, so the corporate legend goes, ordered a massive earth rim dug around the borders of Disneyland to spare his guests any distracting glimpses of suburban reality. The rim is scarcely visible now through the tortured air of Southern California summer, but behind it the city of Anaheim has spread like a great ragged growth, its rows of motels and bargain coffee shops feeding nearly without interruption into the hundred acres of parking lot that lead the way to Disneyland. Down the lot the masses come, clambering from motor homes and rental cars and tour buses, shoving each other into camera position as they pose before the turnstiles that front the main gate.
247,398,442. A large clock mechanism notes each new revolution of the turnstiles, the numbers over Mickey Mouse's upraised ears anticipating the entrance this summer of the 250 millionth person to walk into Disneyland. 247,398,445. No. 250 million gets a Cadillac and a lot of free airplane and hotel vouchers, but the park is also giving cars to every 30,000th visitor this year; already the cars are turning up in Scandinavia and Singapore and Indonesia, as though Disney had not claimed quite enough of the world already. Kings of Morocco and Belgium, princesses of Greece and Thailand, prime ministers of Iceland and Afghanistan -- everyone who can manage the transport fare makes the pilgrimage to Anaheim. Here in the photo albums is Jawaharlal Nehru, his hands on a jungle boat steering wheel and his face creasing into the beginnings of a smile; here is Anwar Sadat shaking hands with Goofy; here is Harry Truman, who is reported to have gone on nearly every ride except the excessively Republican-looking Dumbo the Flying Elephant. The 1959 cry of Nikita Khrushchev is still enshrined in the Disney histories: denied entrance to the park in a fit of Cold War excess, the premier of the United Soviet Socialist Republics demanded before the American press, "Is this a nation of gangsters? Why can't we go to Disneyland?"
247,398,673. It is spreading, east and west. Young Japanese ticket takers now say "Have a nice day" in English at Tokyo Disneyland. Preliminary negotiations are under way for a EuroDisneyland in France or Spain, and the company just announced plans for a new motion picture facility and studio tour at the aleady massive Disney World in Florida.
But Anaheim's was the park that Walt Disney made, and so pervasive is its Mother Church hold that Tony Baxter, the current Disneyland design chief who was only 19 when Disney died in 1966, can speak quite seriously of the great weight he felt when a renovation project forced him to supervise the temporary dismantling of Fantasyland. "All those pitiful Tivoli lights that were lying on the ground like Christmas lights stripped off somebody's house -- all the Mickey Mouse curtains in tatters . . ."
It was dusk, he says, and an automatic circuit had lit the tangled strands even as they lay there. He uses the words "hallowed ground" more than once. "I thought," Tony Baxter says, " 'We're really messing with some profound dreams.' "
Disneyland is supposed to suggest the grand design of a movie theater, guiding patrons into a tunnel that is to shadow them in theater-like darkness as they leave what Disney vocabulary refers to as the "outside world." There is a lot of this sort of terminology at Disneyland, all of it advancing the notion that the park will suspend reality as surely as a well-made motion picture: new employes are instructed to think of themselves as "cast members," uniforms are referred to as "costumes," and the young men and women who work there are given firm instructions about the behavior they must maintain while "on stage." (One may swear or smoke "backstage," but never on stage.) The Japanese tourists and midwestern teen-agers who arrive by the busful may have their hearts set on boating among motorized hippos or roaring down elaborate landscaped roller coasters, but they cannot get in without passing through a small plaza that the movie metaphor would presumably call the first pool of light from the great screen up ahead.
It is a plaza of some practical purpose -- the bank is here, lost children are cared for there -- but it's real function, with its Stars and Stripes fluttering in the center-pedestal spot generally reserved for commemorative statues, is to engulf the visitor in the curious invented American nostalgia Walt Disney manipulated with such skill. "It's Walt's and anyone else's home town -- the way it should have been," a published Disneyland history says firmly. So this, one gathers, settling on a bench with one's own ancestral history of potato famine or the Warsaw ghetto, is how it should have been: the striped awnings on the Victorian hotel, the wrought-iron balcony over the Town Square cafe', a rosy-cheeked beauty in ankle-length skirt selling popcorn in the shade, and pavement so flawlessly clean that maintenance people on hands and knees scrape away bubble gum that the nightly steam-cleaning machine has overlooked.
A man approaches with video camera upraised, his clothes suggesting the frontier hominess of the plaza itself; he wears blue jeans and pointed boots and a good western hat. When he lowers the camera, though, his face is pure Mexican. The dissonance proceeds the full length of Main Street, these black families and women in saris and small groups of curious Asians all wandering in and out of Disney's reconstruction of the small Missouri town where he lived as a boy. He did not actually live there very long, which is a savory kind of American irony in itself; Disney's parents, according to the company histories, moved the family down to Missouri from Chicago after the big city, no doubt a-teem with the immigrant ethnics and colored persons so thoroughly absent from the home-town vision re-created here, began to look insufficiently "wholesome."
Disney spent only four years in the town of Marceline -- the rest of his youth and young adulthood was divided among Kansas City, Kan., farm country, the World War I American ambulance corps in France, and the Hollywood studios where he first courted work as a professional animator -- but it was Marceline, or some antiseptic version of it, that he settled on as the America he wished to sculpt. A lot of the official Disneyland talk seems to revolve around dreams, lands of dreams, dreams coming true; and in fact the whole place does take on the quality of dream after a while, with its revisionist American memory and its strange, brightly colored animated creatures that compel not because they sing and dance but because they are fake. Eighteen years after Disney's death, young and earnest corporate voices finally managed to get some mention of slavery and the Civil War into the Abraham Lincoln exhibit, so that today one sits through what by Disneyland standards is a rather harrowing presentation on the turbulence of war. The precisely animated Lincoln figure stands and gives what is meant to be a stirring set of observations on the nature of free people battling tyranny, and when the show is over, a woman rising from the audience turns to her companion and cries with real enthusiasm, "Did you see how his eyes blinked?"
This fascination with artifice, with technological invention that animates the stuff of dream, is of course what Walt Disney seems to have understood better than anyone. The roller coaster-ish "thrill rides" are great successes at Disneyland, but after 30 years, some of the longest lines still form for slow boats and trains that carry the guest through lush pageants of brilliantly engineered movement and sound. Great dinosaurs lunge at each other beside steaming lava pits. Sword-brandishing pirates clump around after shrieking ladies, the heads wagging and the arms outstretched, while crackling sounds and flickering light suggest the burning of the buildings around them. A white-jacketed space technician, his head and hands angling back and forth with just the stiffness one might want in the unnerving androids of science fiction imagination, converses with a woman about the mechanics of sending a rocket to Mars. The woman is young and blond and quite pretty, but made infinitely less interesting, here in the Magic Kingdom, by virtue of being alive.
Park Defects Reports, issued daily for overnight repair work, July 4 and 7, partial list:
Cigar store Indian needs touch up.
Gate that leads to Mad Hatter does not swing back to close after opening.
Thatching coming off roof of Mad Hatter above east door.
All brass 'Watch Your Step' signs need polished.
Water buffalo python scene sensor not triggering -- currently on override.
When Tony Baxter was asked in 1973 to design the new Frontierland "thrill ride," he could see right away, he says, that the original idea was not quite going to work. The original idea was to give Disneyland the runaway train ride once intended for Disney World, but the Disney World train was supposed to haul passengers through a mock-up of Arizona's Monument Valley, which to Baxter seemed all wrong for Disneyland. Monument Valley was too fearsome, too grand in dimensions for Disneyland, which is tucked into a far smaller space than the Florida park.
"I always think of Disneyland as charming," Baxter says. "I always think of Disney World as spectacular." His mission was somehow to set his runaway train in a place simultaneously charming and western and suitably evocative of myth, and his southwestern scouting trips settled him finally on Utah's Bryce Canyon. "The rocks have a fairy tale-like quality," he says. "You walk through and you see the 'queen's throne.' You see the 'tree,' and the 'wise men,' all these formations that appear to be different fanciful forms."
Besides, a National Geographic article described the place as looking like something created by Walt Disney. Baxter wanted formations like Bryce Canyon's; he wanted the juniper and pine and aspen trees. He wanted his towering red rocks to be shaped just the way wind and geology might have formed them, so that the striations must look consistent all the way across the ride, even to people who would pass them while screaming and plunging straight down.
He wanted precision also in his "mine train," the designated disguise for the roller coaster cars. The cars would not make the proper sound by themselves, so runaway train noises had to be recorded and broadcast from strategically placed speakers. The bolts had to have large, rough-looking, hexagonal heads, since that was what 19th-century mine operators would have used, and when Baxter's people couldn't round up enough originals, they covered new bolt heads with plastic hexagonal tops, each one molded from a resin made with iron dust that was mixed in to produce real rust.
There was also the matter of the line. The Disney people are famous for the ride lines, which snake through ornate patterns that produce a comforting illusion of constant movement, and Baxter wanted this one to do in miniature what the park did on grander scale: He wanted people sucked slowly away from reality and into his canyon setting so that the ride began for them even before they boarded the train. They would descend between the rocks, the noise and sights of the park giving way to sounds of waterfalls and dance hall music. Passing trains would dampen them with a computer-timed artificial splash -- it would not do to have the intricate roller coaster machinery actually splashing through water -- and they would hear, as the train roared toward a broken bridge, the recorded crash and splinter of the bridge giving way.
The attention to detail is a subject of fierce pride here; there is a story about Disney, whose hands-on persistence reportedly used to drive people to despair, sitting down one day under the big artificial tree in the Tahitian Terrace. The tree, Disney decided, obscured the view of the waterfall. He wanted it made taller, which required inserting a complicated four-foot extension into the tree trunk. When the tree was tall enough, Disney decided it was out of proportion; now he wanted the branches and foliage extended. The word Disney people like to use is "experience." People "experience" the park. They do not simply race down a roller coaster; they undergo, as Baxter puts it, the "lift experience."
It was Disney's wish that the park never be completed -- this is an officially ordained element of the "experience" -- and Baxter, who is only eight years older than Disneyland, is now trying to attend to an entire generation of children who may walk through Fantasyland with no idea who Snow White was. "Disneyland in the '50s was a repository for all the mythology the '50s generation was growing up with," he says. "You knew you could find Davy Crockett. You knew you could take a True Life Adventure through the rivers and forests of America."
There is a faint longing in Baxter's voice for a simpler time, when the Disney empire kept so firm a grasp on children's fantasies that movie theaters and Sunday television could fix in them the very images that enthralled them by leaping into three dimensions in Disneyland. "Now, in the '80s, kids today are really in need of the same kind of reinforcement of their mythology," he says. "And if you look at where the hero worship and all that is today, it's R2D2, and C3PO, and Han Solo, and all those guys. Today, if we really want to make sure we're in touch here, and that Disneyland is the repository for American mythology, . . . we get in where that mythology is going."
If that sounds like a warm-up for collaboration between Disneyland and George Lucas, it is. Details are under discussion, but Baxter says it has been decided that the "Star Wars" characters will help revamp Tomorrowland, which has flagged recently in its effort to outpace the surge of technological wonders. The once scarcely fathomable "Trip to the Moon" had to be upgraded to "Rocket to Mars," and even now the hostesses' sleek 21st-century jump suits look rather like baggy aerobics outfits.
Besides, Baxter observes gamely, this is a collection of world-weary little kids. It was not enough, by the early 1980s, to guide them into a Masonite castle and send them, on the once-beloved Peter Pan ride, in flying galleons over the darkened streets of London. The castle had to be rebuilt, the ride made more lavish, new room scenes and animated figures added, a cloud layer built around the night scene to obscure the edges of the darkened walls. Even the London night was redone, with blinking lights and moving cars and some geographical correction to make sure landmarks were in the right place and the Thames was flowing in the proper direction.
"We had to move it up to an era that was competing in a movie theater with 'E.T.' and 'Star Wars,' " he says. "These kids want -- every three minutes another major event has to occur, or it's boring."
But they still rush from their parents to touch the hand of Mickey Mouse. You can stand in the shadow of a Town Square tree and hear again and again, as though the mouse and the duck were making their first appearance on the public streets, the breathless cry of "There he is!"
And that is what most astonishes about Walt Disney's vast invention: 24 years after a childhood trip to Disneyland, the memory of the flight over London is as rich and as heavy with wonder as if the galleons had lifted off only last week. It is still almost palpable, the night breezes, the long dark drop to the lighted city, the wild freedom of sudden flight. Disney made that. "Daddy," a boy says softly in the summer of 1985, his small voice sweetly audible among the retreating evening crowds, "this is the best thing I have ever did in my whole life." Disney makes it, still.