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Disneyland’s Disastrous Opening Day (2015) (history.com)
66 points by spking 47 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

People forget that Disney made up the whole idea of a theme park (as opposed to something more like a carnival) and built it in basically a year. Anytime you are the first to do something, it's really hard to know how to do it right the first time. Having been a programmer in the 1980's, a lot of what we did was making it up as we went along since there were no precedents (and no easy communications like the internet today to know if someone else did it before). In 1955 Disney had no computers or cell phones or CAD or anything we take for granted. Despite the opening day disasters, today it's a huge business. DisneyWorld in Orlando by itself as a separate company would be in the middle of the Fortune 500.

It wasn't the first theme park. What it was was the first theme part based on a particular set of core values. Disney did not like what he saw in other parks and so decided to build a more perfect world. His park would not serve alcohol. His park would be immaculate. The people at his park would be young and attractive, the embodiment of what was portrayed in the Disney cannon. He succeeded.

Disney then stood at the gates of Disneyland and looked at the string of shoddy hotels that sprung up beside his creation. Disney should be an all-day experience. A Disney World was necessary.

> What it was was the first theme part based on a particular set of core values.

That's what makes it a 'theme park'. Previous large-scale amusement parks didn't have central defining themes, though there were older examples of small-scale theme parks.

By modern standards, 'old timey carnival' might be a theme, but obviously it wasn't at the time.

Ya, 'core values' isn't a theme. I'm talking about family/american/christian values. Disney had Regan and a Protestant minister open the park. This was a park backed by the american political and religious establishment. It wasn't a religious theme park, nor a political one, but an idealized image of how the two could/should/would get along.

Fairyland is a theme park that did and does have all those core values. Walt Disney cited it as his inspiration for creating Disneyland.

That's a valid point, but it's not entirely true. Walt Disney was not the first to make a theme park. He was inspired by Fairy Land in Oakland, CA. He even graffitied Mickey Mouse around the park in his early days. Walt has explicitly cited Fairy Land as his inspiration for Disney Land.

Fairyland is magical in a specific sort of way Walt tried to capture. Many parts of the park are designed for young kids to go that are too small for parents to easily follow. Imagine being a kid and going through a tunnel coming out to a secret world with just other kids your age who are playing and inviting you to join, similar to Peter Pan. That's what it is like. Walt tried to capture this magic with Disneyland and has captured some of it, but it falls short in some ways. In other ways Disneyland is better, as it is enjoyable for all ages. Fairyland is designed for kids under the age of 13.

>People forget that Disney made up the whole idea of a theme park (as opposed to something more like a carnival)

Ummm...not sure if this is really true or a myth propagated by Disney; Storytown USA (now Six Flags Great Escape) predates Disneyland by a year.

As the name suggests Storytown was similar to Disney in that is was story-themed: Mother Goose, Humpty Dumpty, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, etc. Definitely not like a carnival at all.

EDIT: Also nearby was a Western themed amusement park called Frontier Town, which according to this source [of questionable reliability] http://vermonter.com/frontier-town/ was conceived 3 years before Disneyland opened.

DOUBLE EDIT: I just thought of an even older one, Santa's Workshop in Wilmington, New York (near Lake Placid) which is Christmas themed and opened in 1949. It already had its own post office by the time Disneyland opened.

Knoebels Amusement Resort [0] in Elysburg, Pennsylvania has been there since 1926. I'm sure there are many other examples of pre-1950s amusement parks.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knoebels_Amusement_Resort

The article mentions the lack of drinking fountains due to the plumbers' strike, but not the fact that they only had the capacity to hook up either the bathrooms or the water fountains and Disney picked the bathrooms [1].

It's also pretty remarkable that they finished the entire thing in a single year. For a modern comparison the new Star Wars expansion took 3 years to complete with just one working ride (the second ride will be open in December, so 3.5 years from construction start). I wonder if that's due to more relaxed laws surrounding construction back then or another factor.

[1] https://mentalfloss.com/article/541360/disneyland-disastrous...

> I wonder if that's due to more relaxed laws surrounding construction back then or another factor.

Relaxed regulations back then will be a factor, both externally enforced and internal rules designed to stop past mistakes repeating.

Another significant consideration is the growing complexity of each individual installation. Also the higher expectations and attention to detail of the modern customer: you don't have the luxury of hiding a few flaws behind the spectacle of novelty, now such theme parks are no longer that novel.

Something I think about a lot is how the base quality and complexity of things is improving but we still still consider it the same thing in many respects.

I think what you're describing is a great example, checkout one of the classic rides, It's a Small World:


vs the new Smuggler's Run


An astounding leap forward in environmental storytelling, attention to detail, technology, etc.

> I wonder if that's due to more relaxed laws surrounding construction back then or another factor.

Might be relaxed laws but not because we were cooler back then,more likely because we didn't know yet that some practices were dangerous.

I'm sure part of it is that they weren't doing their construction inside of a hugely popular active themepark, too.

This article is all too short, but it left me wanting to know more about this opening day where so many things went wrong.

My favorite bit: "Nearly all of the 36 cars on the Autopia, which Disney envisioned as a utopian miniature freeway on which children would learn respectful rules of the road, were wrecked by aggressive drivers who crashed into other vehicles."

We've never seen this happen anywhere else, have we?

Bob Gurr was the Disney engineer responsible for Autopia. He chronicled a bunch of amazing stories about the history of his work on an old Disney blog, but it looks like it was collected into a book and the blog articles were pulled down.


> "The stagecoach ride in Frontierland was discontinued after it proved too top-heavy and prone to flipping over."

This one caught my fancy. Did they discover the behavior by trial and error?

Scaling. Classic stagecoach designs are extremely stable; I've seen someone drift them at a rodeo. Disney's original stagecoaches were undersized and with full sized people the center of gravity was too high. There's a mention of this in "The Hollywood Posse", by Diana Serra Cary, which is about cowboy stunt riders.

Visiting there recently I was in awe of what it must take to run and maintain that place. Every single day... it’s more or less spotless at any given moment you have attractions shows security vegetatation water systems etc. it’s incredible any amount of staff can keep that place running.

I’ve been to a corporate training session at Disneyland where they talked about keeping the park clean. Broken Window theory is part of it, so they take active steps to keep the park clean. For example, they studied how far people were willing to walk before they would just drop their trash on the ground and then put trash cans within that distance of each other. They have employees whose job it is to sweep constantly, but every single employee takes pride in the park and picks up trash lying around. If one lightbulb is out they replace all the lightbulbs to reduce the broken window effect and keep the appearance that they aren’t constantly fixing things.

No city that I know of takes this approach. I’ve heard anecdotally of some cities striving for it. But I can’t imagine it being at the same level as the Disney culture

Former sweeper here (years and years ago). We were also responsible for restrooms, which I still find are generally a pleasant experience relative to other public restrooms. When sweeping, you had an assigned area that you were expected to circuit every 15 minutes. Emptying trash cans was its own special assignment. Restrooms was an hour-long cycle covering a designated set of restrooms that varied according to park crowd/staffing.

My first job out of high school was a summer cleaning restrooms at Disneyland. One important lesson I was taught then that I still apply as a software developer today: Don't just deodorize (i.e. mask the smell). Eliminate smells at their source.

I've heard this sentiment a lot, but honestly didn't notice it when I was there. Generally I found the US to be much dirtier than a lot of other countries I've visited. I wonder if there is a bit of "broken windows theory" helping out - people won't litter or break things because it's Disneyland.

I noticed that Disneyland was a lot cleaner than the rest of the normal USA. But the USA in general is a very dirty place. Trash piles up everywhere in larger cities and towns, roads are poorly kept, and in many places there's just this overall feeling of "dirty" and constant "mess" that I've only seen in third world countries and in Paris.

The most striking place you can notice this is at Niagara Falls in NY. The US side is dirty and tired. Walk across the footbridge to the Canadian side and its like walking into a sci-fi utopia of cleanliness.

Although, being a US citizen, I'll say that what I notice most when visiting Europe is that the graffiti seems 100x worse to my eyes in most European cities than in US cities. Italy seemed especially bad to me. It's like some child has drawn on the walls of Europe with crayons.

Another interesting point to me is Sydney, Australia. I had visited it as a child in the 80's and remembered a very grubby, dirty city. I visited again a couple years ago and found a beautiful, clean, enjoyable city.

Niagara Falls, NY is dumpy because is a typical Rust Belt city that experienced significant industrial and manufacturing decline in the late 70s-80s coupled with failed "urban renewal" projects. The population went from 102,394 in 1960 to ~48,144 in 2018. It's not exactly easy to maintain a tax base in that situation.

You can tell Americans don't like paying taxes just by this, chronic under funding of public services. That and just a general disregard for public places, unless that neighborhood "belongs" to you and other like-minded and well financed individuals.

I have a feeling most of these sentiments are coming from a European point of view . Continents like South America, Asia, and Africa all have many places dirtier than the US. Don't get me wrong, I hate how dirty our cities are in the US and wish people actually cared enough to take care of their waste, but what I've seen in developing countries makes the US look like Disneyland.

Indeed. I live in Mexico and the feeling of going to the US from here is that everything is so clean, the roads are way nicer, basically the reverse perception of everything GP said

There is some of the "broken windows theory", but it's mostly the staff. There are lots of people who want to work there (my wife worked there in her teens) so they are able to pick good people and they staff the place. There are enough workers on the grounds and in restaurants to keep things clean. The staff is trained to be diligent, go the extra mile, and always be friendly! When I go to other amusement parks I see areas understaffed or staff standing around chatting and ignoring the trash laying around.

Coming from Europe I was amazed when I first visited the US. It was that much dirtier.

"if Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists" - Ian Malcolm

Very entertaining presentation, not about opening day, but about operations at Disney parks in general: https://resources.qt.io/videos/qtws18-keynote-beyond-the-ux-...

Spoiler: ... ah, watch it yourself

I will only spoil a little bit, because I only got 10 minutes into the presentation and will have to watch the rest later.

But apparently in the late 1990s, Disney's website was so bad that they routinely had customers show up at one of their hotels at Disneyland (California) or Disney World (Florida) with paid reservations for the wrong hotel. And not just a different hotel at the same resort, but a hotel 3000 miles away!

Fixing the website would be much too expensive. Instead they kept a set of rooms free at each hotel for guests who were on the wrong side of the country, so they wouldn't ruin their vacation.

Here’s the ABC broadcast of opening day. Pretty interesting and definitely different than it is today:


I guess we should have given fyre festival a chance?

We can expect having posts with funny trivia about Amazon and Disneland around 1 jul, 15 jul, 1 aug, 15 aug, 1 sept...

The always predictable marketing stunts to introduce the brand name in our brains in strategic days with any minor excuse (outrage in twitter, historical trivia...)

Everyone's downvoting you but your hypothesis, but I think it seems easily falsifiable and would be fun to investigate. It might be worthwhile to do a simple data analysis of submissions mentioning such companies around those dates to see if the correlation exists, then do a bit more to see if how attributable it is to marketing ploys from the companies themselves.

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