One of Walt Disney’s greatest accomplishments is in the creation of Disneyland. The park, once considered “Disney’s Folly” and expected to fail, has now reached its 60th anniversary. Over the past year, there have been a variety of celebrations inside the park and out. Just this past weekend, a much anticipated commemorative special aired on ABC under the banner of The Wonderful World of Disney. Appropriate, since The Wonderful World of Disney series once had a different name: Walt Disney’s Disneyland.
Of course, over the last six decades more than just the name of Disney’s flagship show has changed. The celebration of Disneyland’s anniversary ended up having more in common with a modern Radio Disney special than the show that first introduced us to the park. So, today, we’re going to go back in time and look at the very first Disneyland special, airing nearly 9 months before the park gates opened. Courtesy of the limited edition Walt Disney Treasures set.
The Disneyland Story
Throughout Walt Disney’s career, he was constantly attempting to find the financial backing for his biggest dreams. In his attempt to secure funding for the Disneyland project, Walt entered into a medium he had previously tried to avoid: television. In a deal with ABC, the studio would become a large stakeholder in Disneyland in exchange for Disney Studios producing a weekly program.
Walt had worried about lowering production standards to meet the demands of a weekly program and had avoided television for just that reason. But Walt was a trailblazer and in the end he made a show that would not only fulfill his agreement but also fuel interest in the upcoming park.
Walt Disney’s Disneyland opened with “When You Wish Upon A Star” and our announcer (with a little help from Tinkerbell) launched into the world’s first descriptions of the four main lands that would make up Disneyland and the themes of the show that would promote it:
Frontierland – Tall tales and true from the legendary past.
Tomorrowland – Promise of things to come.
Adventureland – The wonderworld of nature’s own realm/
Fantasyland – The happiest kingdom of them all.
And from there we launch into “The Disneyland Story” which begins with a montage of the Walt Disney Studio. We get glimpses of various productions underway at the time such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and even an early look at Sleeping Beauty which would not release for nearly 5 more years. However, the real key to the program is inside the room we find titled “Disneyland Plans Room.”
Here is where Walt himself takes over as our guide. Here he begins to show us models and drawings of the upcoming Disneyland park. As he delivers a more detailed explanation of each land, we also get glimpses of how he intended to transport us there every week.
For Frontierland, dedicated to the folk tales of America’s past, we’re gifted a small, behind the scenes look at the Davy Crockett stories as the series’ star sings us the ballad that would become a hit in its own right. Adventureland would focus on the exotic world that we live in and we’re treated to snippets of the True-Life Adventures documentaries to show us a variety of world cultures and the lives of some of Earth’s majestic creatures.
Entering the world of Tomorrowland, we see that Disney filmmakers have been working directly with scientists to envision the near future. Though there were some aesthetic changes by the time they became a reality, you can see that Disney had a pretty good idea of how human space travel would actually become a reality. In this brief overview of the land, we also see Disney was already looking towards reaching Mars almost fifty years before Mission: SPACE would open in Epcot.
But the show stealer is, of course, Fantasyland. With fantasy being the primary focus of Disney animation since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it easily has the deepest library. Walt names off a series of iconic films that inform the land to this day. It’s main entrance from the Disneyland hub being the iconic Sleeping Beauty castle (itself drawn from a yet to be released film in 1954) heralds the importance for this part of Disney’s vision. Then we’re given our first true look at what to expect in Disneyland the show. Representing Fantasyland is an animated short taken from Song of the South where Brer Rabbit introduces us to the “Laughing Place.”
After introducing us to Disneyland, Walt takes some time to remind us of who made it all happen: Mickey Mouse. With a little guidance from Walt, we look back at the very first Mickey short ever animated, Plane Crazy. This is followed by some of Mickey’s best hits, finishing with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice short from Fantasia. As the special concludes, Walt informs us of all the characters that reached us because of Mickey.
This was, of course, Walt’s tribute to the mouse that helped him build his studio and eventual theme park. Walt never forgot what the mouse meant to him and this partnership is immortalized both in this special and the Partners statues around the world.
Today, a statue of Walt and Mickey holding hands is hardly all we have from this landmark endeavor. Eventually, Disneyland would be opened to raving fanfare (despite a few hiccups on that first day) and the lands depicted in this early special would be recreated throughout the world. To this day, every main Disney park, whether it be in Florida, France, or Japan, features some version of these four main lands.
As this Walt Disney’s Disneyland started to run regularly, many of its stories would find popularity. Davy Crockett would become one of the biggest hits but it also brought new success for some of the Disney films that struggled in their original theatrical releases. New audiences would be introduced to some of Disney’s films between the show and the park.
The program would also bring Walt Disney into the homes of millions during a time when television entertainment was far more limited than today. Each week, “Uncle Walt” would take us on a little journey that would eventually bring him as much fame as some of his characters.
After a few years, the Disneyland name would drop and the show would become Walt Disney Presents. Then it would take on a variety of other names, most common being the Wonderful World of Disney. Even after Walt’s passing the show continued on, though his warm demeanor was never replaced. Today, the show stands as the second longest running television series of all time at 53 seasons. Not bad for something that was expected to fail.