Disneyland began construction in 1954, building the theme park on 180 acres in a south Anaheim orange grove. This may come as a surprise to some readers out there, but Disneyland was a mess on opening day. Only 18 attractions were open at the time, with many of the lands (namely Tomorrowland) being void of many rides. Because of this, there were a great many milestones during the first year and beyond. From the first Christmas Parade to the introduction of Grad Nite, here are 10 big events in Disneyland’s first ten years!
The idea to make a theme park “the happiest place on Earth” came to Walt Disney as he sat on a bench and watched his daughter’s play at a destitute Griffith Park in California. While the park served its purpose with its fantastical merry-go-round and playground amenities, it was lacking in spirit and imagination. Disney wanted more, and the idea to build Disneyland soon came to fruition and his dream would become a reality as the park opened on July 17, 1955.
For Walt Disney, that first year was filled with a lot of big events and time stamps to develop Disneyland into the park he envisioned. It was during this time that Walt Disney paved the way for new ideas and innovations to make the theme park what it is today.
1. July 13th, 1955 -Walt and Lillian’s 30th Anniversary
The very first event to take place within the walls of Disneyland was a romantic one. Four days before the park was the set to open, Walt and Lillian Disney celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary at the park. Their “Tempus Fugit Celebration” invited their closest friends and family to a night out on Mark Twain’s maiden voyage, followed by dinner at Slue-Foot Sue’s Golden Horseshoe.
The night was celebrated by taking guests for an exclusive sneak peek at the wonders of the new park. They saw Frontierland before taking a cruise along the Rivers of America while enjoying fresh Mint Juleps. During the show at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon, Walt Disney himself got up onstage alongside comedians Wally Boag and Donald Novis to entertain his guests.
Walt’s daughter, Diana, later recalled the night for Bob Thomas’ Walt Disney: An American Original. Lillian also got up on stage to get her husband to come back down, but the crowd encouraged the couple to stay on stage. Lillian then brought up her daughters while the band played and guests began to dance. Diana remembers her father grinning from ear-to-ear. Within minutes of getting in their car to head back home, she recalls her father quietly fell asleep. After months working alongside tired designers and imagineers on his soon-to-debut theme park, the 30th wedding anniversary was a special event and well-deserved night off.
2. July 17th, 1955 – The Grand Opening
Almost a decade after Disney sent his initial ideas for the “Mickey Mouse Park” to his studio production designer Dick Kelsey, Disneyland hosts its spectacular Grand Opening Event in Anaheim, California. Only 11,000 people were sent special invitations to the “International Press Preview”. However, nearly 28,000 guests showed up at the park that day due to purchases of faux tickets.
The park was opened in a rush, so that only the Jungle Cruise, Autopia, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, among a few other attractions were ready for the guests. The mass amount of over-surge led to kitchens running out of food and drinks, with one person even going as far as setting up a ladder over a fence in the back to let people in. Many of the attractions broke down and women’s heels were getting stuck in the freshly laid-out asphalt.
In short, the Grand Opening of Disneyland could have gone better.
But as these LIFE Magazine photos capture, there was still plenty of excitement and enthusiasm around opening day from those lucky guests.
The Disneyland Railroad runs by the parking lot before any was built around the park.
Main Street, U.S.A. on opening day.
The Mad Tea Party ride on opening day — well before an awning was built above it.
Casey Jr and Storybook Land. You can see an ABC camera man filming on the lower left side of the photo.
3. October 5, 1955- The Disneyland Hotel Opens – 10 Big Events in Disneyland’s First Ten Years
Part of Disney’s plan in building his theme park was to include a hotel so that people from around the world could come to visit. The official Disneyland hotel opened less than three months after the park’s opening. It was officially owned by Robert Wrather (a Texas oil millionaire) but bore the Disney name as a part of the agreement. Disney wouldn’t fully own the rights to the hotel until 1988.
The hotel was initially set to debut in August of 1955, but various strikes delayed the project.
The Disneyland Hotel had 100 rooms that rented for $15 per night. The hotel’s “official” grand opening didn’t happen until August 25, 1956, with many A-list celebrities in attendance to the event. By this time, the hotel had added shopping stores, barber shops, dining, excursions, and even a doctor and dentist on site for the guests to enjoy. Another 100 rooms were added to the hotel due to its growing popularity as the hotel reached capacity almost every night.
Early guest room at the Disneyland Hotel. Each room at that time featured either a patio on the first floor or a balcony for higher floors. Each room also featured air conditioning and a TV set which was not typical for hotels at the time.
4. 1956 – 13 New Attractions Added
Disney’s ideas for this grand-scale park were limitless. By 1956, thirteen new rides and attractions were added in various lands throughout the park. This included The Keller’s Jungle Killers in Fantasyland, Our Future in Colors exhibit in Tomorrowland, The Storybook Canal Boats, The Junior Autopia, among a slew of others.
The Skyway attraction became one of the more celebrated rides brought into the park. The brand-new concept allowed guests to ride in vessels above the park by operation of a ropeway pulley system. Guests could get on in either Fantasyland or Tomorrowland and bring the them to the reverse respective lands.
The Astro Jets became one of the first ever rides added to the previously barren Tomorrowland. Continuing the “futuristic” land layout, the Astro Jets took riders in small space vessels above Tomorrowland. The ride moved around a central pole and created the illusion of a high-riding trip to space.
Another well-known attraction introduced the year after Disneyland’s opened was Tom Sawyer Island. The island was created in the center of the Rivers of America. It had structures built on it in reference to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer novel. Guests could find their way onto Tom Sawyer’s Island through a motorized boat.
5. December 31, 1957 – 10 Million Visitors
Disneyland is known to go above and beyond with their guests. They have a tradition of honoring certain guests who enter Disneyland at certain milestones. By October 1955, Disneyland had already invited in over one million guests. Elsa Marquez was the one-millionth guest to enter Disneyland in September 1955. At just four years old, Elsa was terrified when a storm of balloons descended on her as she walked through the turnstiles. Elsa was (ironically) named an official Disney Princess and was invited to lead Disneyland band and ride the Disneyland Railroad alongside the conductor.
The tenth millionth guest was Leigh Woolfenden who entered the park on December 31, 1957. Woolfenden of Phoenix, Arizona was also met with a celebration for being the 10th millionth visitor to the park. And every year since that first landmark, Disneyland takes note of who enters the park on these notorious milestones.
25 Millionth Guest: Dr. Glenn C. Franklin April 19, 1961
50 Millionth Guest: Mary Adams August 12, 1965
100 Millionth Guest: Valerie Suldo June 17, 1971
200 Millionth Guest: Gert Schelvis January 8, 1981
250 Millionth Guest: Brook Charles Arthur Burr August 24, 1985
300 Millionth Guest: Claudine Masson September 1, 1989
400 Millionth Guest: Minnie Pepito July 5, 1997
450 Millionth Guest: Mark Ramirez March 15, 2001
6. 1958 – The First Christmas Parade – 10 Big Events in Disneyland’s First Ten Years
Today the Disney Parks Christmas Parade is a national televised event that runs from November all the way until the first week of each New Year. The first ever Christmas parade was called the “Christmas in Many Lands Parade” and was led by Walt Disney himself. The name was eventually changed to “Fantasy on Parade” until the 1980s when it was renamed as “A Very Merry Christmas Parade.” This name stuck for a while before the 1990s when the name of the fantastical parade was finally changed to what we know it today as “A Christmas Fantasy Parade.”
This parade is nothing like the parade we see today. Its inauguration introduced the Mickey Mouse Club Circus, so the parade was a lineup of live animals, clowns, and Mouseketeers. Today, this spirited parade is laden with twinkling lights, festive Disney characters, winter wonderland floats, and finishes off with a brilliant Castle lights and fireworks show.
7. June 12, 1959- The E-Ticket
The idea for ticket books wasn’t introduced to the park until October of 1955. Originally, general admission into Disneyland was only $1, with separate ticket books being sold inside. These books held coupons for designated rides. A-Tickets were good for attractions in Main Street, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. Certain rides in Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland could only be ridden with the purchase of a B-Ticket, while the C-Tickets were sold for a higher price in order to ride explicit rides in all of Disneyland’s themed destinations.
The highly sought E-Ticket (as it became known) was finally introduced in June of 1959. This time was known as the second opening of Disneyland with the implication of its more impressive rides such as the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Submarine Voyage. E-Tickets were announced to include these new rides, marking them the most prestigious ticket to behold. If you ever hear of a ride referred to as an “E-Ticket” ride, then you know that the ride is one of the more thrilling and popular attractions in Disneyland.
8. June 14, 1959 – The Monorail Starts Its Engines
The Monorail system was finally introduced as a means of transportation for Disneyland guests in 1959 after years in the works. Walt Disney handed the job over to his Disney designer, Bob Gurr, in late 1958 in hopes that he would make some headway on the project. Gurr and his team designed the cars, chassis, suspension, and propulsion systems that would become the Disneyland ALWEG Monorail. Alongside the new E-Ticket attractions, the Monorail opened as a sightseeing ride in Tomorrowland.
The first three monorail cars (Mark I) were red and blue. When the transportation system became complete in 1961, it consisted of four cars and a two and a half mile longer track. It also included a new platform at the Disneyland Hotel so that guests were able to travel directly to the parks using the new Monorail system.
9. June 15, 1961 – First Grad Nite – 10 Big Events in Disneyland’s First Ten Years
Grad Nite today is well-known event that is hosted by Disneyland for teens about to depart from high school. The fun-filled night starts late in the evening and extends to the early hours of the morning, giving select high school students the unique opportunity to have full rein of the parks for one last hoorah. The very first of this type of event was held on June 15, 1961.
Three schools initially proposed the idea to Disney, inciting that over 800 students would come to the parks. Disney was on board, however, they needed strict guidelines. They proposed that at least six or seven thousand students needed to attend the Grad Nite event in order to justify fully operating the park after hours. There was a strict dress code wherein students had to wear their “Sunday best.” Boys were expected to wear coats and ties while women were instructed to wear dresses. Purses and coats were checked at the gates to make sure no alcohol was entering the parks, and there had to be one chaperone per 20 students.
The final Grad Nite hosted eight different schools, with a total of ten thousand students and chaperones paying $6 per ticket. The event lasted until five in the morning and Benny Goodman performed for the students.
10. January 3rd, 1965 – 10th Anniversary Celebration
To celebrate Disneyland’s ten-year anniversary, a televised episode called Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color was launched. The show began with Walt Disney introducing Disneyland ambassador Julie Reihm.
Disney gives a brief history of the park, from construction to completion. They are then taken directly into the park by way of Tinkerbell anther fairy dust, to watch a live show full of Disney characters in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle.
A parade was then put on by a high school band and cheerleaders throughout Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A.
They then go on to explain the plans to expand Disneyland with new rides such as It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
Other introductions to the park, were made such as the Tiki Room which showed the first ever animatronics in the park. The show ended with a nighttime celebration of fireworks and people on the Mark Twain steamship singing “When the Saints come Marching In.”