Disneyland opened to the public on July 17, 1955. If you could go back in time and visit Disneyland during the 50s, you would be transported into a vastly different experience than what you would encounter today. Disneyland during the 50s, you could say was a simpler, more innocent time but the park was anything but simple. At a cost of $4.5 million to open, Disneyland was state of the art for the time and geared toward providing families with an experience unlike any other as you’ll see from these vintage Disneyland photos from the 50s.
It didn’t take long for Disneyland to become a hit. Seven weeks after opening, Disneyland logged its 1 millionth guest. Not bad for a park that was originally pitched to Burbank but was rejected over the fear it would become permanent carnival. Burbank’s decision would be Anaheim’s dream as it became a modern-day boom town.
During the 50s, there wasn’t a Space Mountain, there wasn’t a Splash Mountain, Star Wars, Indiana Jones or any of that. The number of attractions was much smaller. There was Main Street, U.S.A. but with only about half of the venues. Fantasyland was the main hub with many of the original attractions still present. There was also Tomorrowland with rides like Astro Jets and Rocket to the Moon. You could also make your way to Frontierland for a Stagecoach or Pack Mule ride or Adventureland for the Jungle Cruise. There was also Holidayland which was replaced by New Orleans Square. The parades were still there as well as fireworks.
This was a time before season passes, crushing crowds and the need for a FASTPASS. Regardless of when your first or last visit was to the Happiest Place on Earth, we invite you to take a trip back in time down Harbor Boulevard and into another era as you begin your walk down Main Street U.S.A. and experience the wonder and excitement of Disneyland from the 50s.
Harbor Boulevard – Vintage Disneyland Photos from the 50s
After Walt Disney’s vision of Mickey Mouse Park was rejected by Burbank, he took a drive down the new two-lane Santa Ana freeway to Anahiem. Orange County was vastly different during that time. The location reminded Walt of his boyhood home in Missouri. With the location settled, Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim would become the main entrance to the happiest place on Earth.
Pictured above is Harbor Boulevard during the 50s as you entered the park. The original parking fee was just 25 cents. Today, parking is $20 for a car or motorcycle and $25 for an oversized vehicle such as a motor home. “Preferred parking,” closer proximity to elevators and escalators at the Mickey & Friends Parking Structure, is $35. Adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of $2.35 in 2018. It was just 50 cents in the 1970s and $2.00 in the early 80s until the rapid price increases began.
Drive down Harbor Boulevard, pass the Disneyland sign, try to score a parking space in Bambi, or pop on the tram to make it to the front of the ticket booths. This was the typical routine for guests arriving for a magical day at Disneyland. However, back in 1955 when the park first opened, things did not run as smoothly.
Christmas At Disneyland
Although Christmas at Disneyland is now incredibly popular, it hasn’t always been that way. The first Christmas in 1955 was considerably more modest. Decorations around the park were sparse and the tree that normally resides in the Town Square was located at the Hub instead.
The reality was, there wasn’t a lot of extra money to spend on Christmas that opening year due to the lack of attendance in the fall after the park’s opening. Some days only saw a few hundred visitors at a time in the winter months. In those early days, it was typical to see red and green garland draped over Main Street storefronts and maybe a few red bows here and there. The giant Christmas tree that adorns MainStreet USA was a real, natural tree that took a lot of upkeep.
Christmas decorations nowadays are a point of pride with Disneyland. Not only are there more elaborate decorations, but they are generally themed to match the land they are in. For example, garland is now fashioned with pinecones in Critter Country while green and purple decorations adorn most of architecture in New Orleans Square. And it wasn’t until 2008 that Disneyland installed its fist artificial tree. With 62,000 LED lights, this tree became an energy efficient source that lasts for days on end.
Main Street, U.S.A
Disney has done a ton to update and spruce up its park in Anaheim, California. However, Main Street, U.S.A. is the only original land not significantly altered since the park’s opening. Back in the day, guests would emerge from the Main Street Station tunnels to be welcomed by the plaque that reads, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” This is the landmark that marks the barrier between “reality” and “fantasy”. Once inside the gates of Disneyland, guests would be fully immersed in Town Square which sets the stage for new, magical atmosphere. Disney has done little to change this area because it works perfectly to welcome guests new and old into the completely immersive park.
Here are a few small changes that have happened in Town Square over the years:
- More flower beds and bigger trees
- Railings around the landscaping beds to discourage guests from walking through them
- Pavers instead of concrete sidewalks
- Addition of multiple refuse containers
The Main Street Opera House served as the Park’s lumber mill until about 1961. City Hall, The Emporium, Penny Arcade, Main Street Cinema and the Fire Department have all been at Disneyland since opening day.
Walt Disney modeled Main Street, U.S.A. after a small town in northern Missouri, called Marceline. Walt spent just a few formative years in Marceline. His family moved there when he was five but moved on to Kansas City when he was nine in 1910. However, this area meant so much to Disney that when he built his amusement park, he had his own apartment built directly above the Fire House Station. After his passing, Disneyland employees always took to keep a lamp shining to represent that Disney is always there in spirit.
There is also a bench that sits on Main Street that has a personal connection to Disney himself. Disney used to take his daughters to Griffith Park in the early 1930s. He would sit on a bench and watch his daughters as they enjoyed the merry-go-round. It was on this bench that Disney conjured up the idea to build his own amusement park— a better one. The exact park bench that Walt Disney sat on while he imagined what would become Disneyland, is currently on display in the Opera House lobby.
Another Main Street Fun Fact: The cannons that are displayed in the center of the square on Main Street were used by the French army in the 1800s although they were never fired in battle.
Fantasyland – Vintage Disneyland Photos from the 50s
When the castle first opened, the second floor of the castle was completely empty. The interior of the castle wasn’t available to view until 1957. Since then visitors have been able to walk through the castle and experience a retelling of Sleeping Beauty’s story. This feature was never intended, but Walt Disney despised unimagined and empty spaces. He instructed is Imagineers to come up with creative concepts to fill these voids, and in 1957 (after some incidents with cats and fleas living in the castle) the Sleeping Beauty exhibit was opened to the public.
Eyvind Earle, the Production Designer of Walt Disney’s 1959 feature Sleeping Beauty, worked hands-on for the Sleeping Beauty walk-through. The interior was refurbished in 1977 to reflect more vibrant and modern dioramas. However, after 2001 when the parks attendance leveled plummeted, this exhibit was closed for refurbishments. And ultimately this closed period lasted for more than seven years while Imagineers tried to find a way to bring back the design of Earle to reflect modern day Disney creations and designs. It wasn’t until November of 2008 that the Sleeping Beauty Walthrough finally reopened. Eyvind Earle’s original artwork was put back on display after having been locked behind closed doors for nearly three decades.
In addition, the drawbridge to the castle has only been lowered twice: once on opening day in 1955 and again 1983 when Fantasyland was rededicated after an overhaul.
Fantasyland is an original segment in the parks. It thrives off a renaissance vibe, with Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at the forefront, and King Arthur’s carousal prominently displayed in the courtyard. Originally it housed a theater titles Mickey Mouse Theater, which was later renamed Fantasyland Theatre in 1964. This arena played several shows including It’s Tough to Be a Bird (1969) and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1969). Today the theatre is now Pinocchio’s Daring Journey.
Fantasyland is home to Disney’s classic characters. From Snow White and Alice in Wonderland to Peter Pan, this area is aptly named to bring guests to an enchanted reality. As you can see from this aerial shot from the Matterhorn, Fantasyland has always been equipped with vibrant colors and endless possibilities.
The Matterhorn in particular is a spectacular adventure. It was modeled and named after a mountain in the Alps. The first ever steel continuous track roller coaster was debuted in 1959. Walt had seen the real Matterhorn range on a trip to Switzerland while filming Third Man on the Mountain. He was so inspired that he grabbed a postcard from a local shop with the snow-capped mountain range on top and mailed it to Vic Greene. Green, an Imagineer and architect received the postcard with this message:
“Vic. Build This.”
A picture of one of the first conceptual drawing of this ride can now be seen in The Disney Gallery. The ride was initially part of Tomorrowland. It consisted of a wood and steel infrastructure surrounded by man-made rock. It wasn’t until the 1970s that The Matterhorn officially became a part of Fantasyland. Since then, the ride has been refurbished numerous times with the latest installments completed in November of 2018 with the addition of immersive queue lines.
FantasyLand to Tomorrowland
Opened in 1955, Autopia is a race car track in Disneyland. It is one of the few attractions that remains on property since the park’s grand opening. At the time, it was a futuristic concept that would reflect today’s multi-lane highway system. At the time, President Eisenhower had yet to sign the Interstate Highway legislation.
Drivers on Autopia could steer and use the gas pedals, but the cars were guided on a predestined track. The addition of the large bumpers was added after several test drives resulted in complete devastation to the cars. And though the cars were fitted with spring loaded bumpers, the initial wave of cars (dubbed “Mark I”) suffered a lot of abuse. The ride eventually closed in 1966 to make room for it’s a small world. The ride was then donated to the city of Marceline, Missouri, Walt Disney’s hometown. The renamed Walt Disney Municipal Park housed the attraction for 11 years until parts were no longer available for the cars.
A number of versions of Autopia were distributed throughout the park in different lands. Each has seen numerous upgrades and renovations, but guests can still enjoy the thrill of this ride today. Autopia continues to sport new cars and continuously tries to keep their fleet looking modern.
Never one to pass on a creative opportunity, Walt Disney helped implement the Motor Boat Cruise in 1957, two years after Disneyland opened. The ride provided a genuine opportunity to glide through in a motorboat with two or three people. A steering wheel is hoisted in the center of the boat in front of a long bench. However, the steering wheel is only for decoration as the boats were guided along a track underneath the water. There weren’t any extravagant sites to see along this cruise, but the ride gave guests a unique perspective of the park. There was plenty of lush landscaping to behold, along with glimpses of rides at a unique vantage point.
This ride started at the border of Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. In one section of the ride, guests passed underneath the old Viewliner train and intersected beneath riders on the Junior Autopia. However, by 1959, many of these attractions were dismantled. Disneyland went under many renovations throughout its first few years due to trial and error with some of the attractions. But the Motor Boat Cruise survived, and guests would be able to enjoy the smooth sailing ride for many years to come.
There was one more renovation in 1991 when the attraction collided with The Disney Afternoon LIVE! and was renamed to The Motor Boat Cruise to Gummi Glenn. But when the demand for Mickey’s Toon Town outweighed those of the cruise, it was eventually shut down in 1993.
The Skyway became the first ever aerial ropeway in the United States when it became a unique transport at Disneyland. Opened in 1957, the Skyway acted as a vessel between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. The metal buckets could carry two passengers above the park with a central pole available to hang on to in case you were to get too scared. A support cable was constructed for each direction, moving at a constant speed. The mechanism was invented by the Von Roll Company based in Switzerland.
From the Skyway, guests could see all the best attractions. Storybook Land could be seen with amazing clarity and finding new details on Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship was always a fun game to play. The ride was meant to be a short, relaxing adventure from one land to another, but some guests found the ride to be quite scary! Especially since the carriages would rock from side to side after passing through the support beams.
The Skyway actually closed for a while right after it was built to make way for the Matterhorn attraction. It was opened two years later in the Tomorrowland Complex and remained a stead and reliable system until its closure in 1994. The Fantasyland Skyway station remained on Disneyland property (with a chain to discourage guests from unguided tours) until 2016. It was replaced by the recent build of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
In its early days, Tomorrowland was known to be bare and uneventful. It was the last land to be finished and suffered the most due to budget cuts. However, Disneyland made up for the lack of attractions by utilizing the empty space for corporate showcasing. In its first few years, Monsanto Company, American Motors, Richfield Oil, and Dutch Boy Paint primarily used this space. However, Disney was not a fan of this, and eventually the area began to cultivate more attractions.
Tomorrowland – Vintage Disneyland Photos from the 50s
Tomorrowland was initially set to represent the futuristic land of 1986. The showpiece in Tomorrowland is the TWA Moonliner, based on Disney’ “Man In Space” 1950’s TV episodes. Here you can see an appropriately themed cast member with a spacey uniform to fit in with the galactic vibe. Tomorrowland also displayed current technical advancements such as Autopia, which represented the newly formed Interstate system. Monsanto Hall of Chemistry was a walk-through tour about chemistry and The World Beneath Us showed the Earth’s geology. Disney had hoped that Disneyland could act as a place for not only entertainment, but education. In the years that followed, Tomorrowland would continue to grow with its futuristic prospects and rides based on forward thinking notions.
The Peoplemover track was located on the second level just below the Rocket Jets tower. The 16-minute ride was initially sponsored by Goodyear back when Tomorrowland saw mostly corporate events. The Peoplemover train never stops and the doors close automatically. The train itself isn’t motorized either, believe it or not. About every nine feet, the train would pass over an electric motor that would turn the Goodyear tire and propel the vehicle forward. Back in the 1950s, you couldn’t get more futuristic than that!
The train itself would only run 1 to 7 mph. However, as many as 5,000 guests could enjoy this ride in a single hour! It would pass through the Adventure Thru Inner Space, Presented by Monsanto, the Mighty Microscope, and the Character Shop. Guests would also get a great view of the Tomorrowland Stage, Autopia, Submarine Voyage, and the Rocket Jets.
Opened in 1955, Rocket To The Moon was one of the centerpieces to Tomorrowland, featuring a rocket ship where the audience would sit around a central viewing screen and watch as they departed Earth.
Weeks before the opening of the Submarine attraction in 1959, hundreds of local girls auditioned for the unique summer jobs at the Disneyland Hotel pool. The ad in the paper specifically requested good swimmers between 5-foot-4 and 5-foot-7 with long hair. These want to be mermaids had a chance to earn $45 per week.
The rock in the middle of the lagoon was the only practical way for the Mermaids to warm up from the frigid waters between dives.
Imagine seeing a real live mermaid out your porthole during the Submarine Voyage adventure.
Originally envisioned as a true-life adventure park, Adventureland was based on the Disney documentaries of Asia and Africa. Walt Disney originally wanted to use live animals for the Jungle Cruise ride but after zoologists voiced their opinion that it wouldn’t be a good idea, the imagineers developed mechanical animals.
The Jungle Cruise opened as the star attraction of Adventurland along with the Swiss Family Treehouse and the Enchanted Tiki Room, which featured some incredible audo animatronics that was truly ground breaking at the time.
The original Frontierland was an open area experience, allowing guest to either walk through the wilderness area or take a pack mule, stagecoach or Conestoga wagon ride. Also included in Frontierland was Mark Twain’s Riverboat, which on opening day almost overturned, Tom Sawyer’s Island, Indian War Canoes, an Indian Village, the Mineral Hall, Mike Fink Keel Boats, Davy Crockett Museum, The Golden Horseshoe Review and the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train.
Frontierland has been re-imagined several times with its current star attraction, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opening in 1979, replacing the Mine Train.