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Ultimate Rollercoaster > Roller Coasters > History > Walt Disney

Ride Designers


"To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past...and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America...with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world."

- Walt Disney
Dedication of Disneyland Park, July 17, 1955

Walt Disney
Walter Elias Disney – Photo © Walt Disney Company.

No history of the roller coaster can be done without invoking the story of Walt Disney and his contribution to the amusement park industry. His park, Disneyland, broke all of the rules for an amusement park and gave a new life to the industry. One ride that debuted there changed the development of roller coasters forever. There is some debate over whether or not Disneyland was the first theme park, an argument I will examine later in this section.

Disneyland Sleeping Castle
Fantasy in the Sky fireworks explode in the night sky high above Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. Enlarge Photo © Disney

Legend has it that Disney first came up with the idea of Disneyland while visiting an amusement park during the thirties and was dismayed by the rusty rides and filthy midway. Through all of my research I found this epiphany several times, but not account could provide a primary source. Until new sources can be found, this will have to go down as another rumor about the creation of Disneyland.

Whatever the inspiration, Walt did not have an easy time finding support for his dreamland. His brother, Roy, refused to have the studio fund any part of Walt's park, so Walt found the funding himself. He cashed in on an insurance policy and created WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises in 1952. He dubbed his new staff Imagineers and commissioned the Stanford Research Institute to conduct a land survey of the areas around Los Angeles. They concluded that a spot out in the middle of orange groves would be the most cost-efficient place to erect Disneyland, because it would be a half-hour from the city proper once the new Santa Ana Freeway was built.

Magic Kingdom Orlando
Cinderella's Castle at Magic Kingdom, one of four Disney Theme Parks inside Walt Disney World. Enlarge Photo © Disney

Walt signed long-term contracts with many major conglomerates in order to get the funding needed and struck a television deal with the newly formed American Broadcasting Company. In 1954 Walt began his media assault. He took the Disneyland television show to the air and began construction on a new style of park. This was the first time a park owner fully realized the power that television could have in promoting an amusement/theme park to the viewing audience.

Media day was one of the worst park openings in modern times. From the moment the gates opened almost everything that could have gone wrong did. The asphalt for much of the park was laid at 6:30 in the morning and worked with the hot weather to steal women's high heels. The park handed out 11,000 personal invitations, but over 28,000 people showed up- many with forged invites. Almost every ride broke down because of the large crowds or the heat. The Mark Twain riverboats overflowed because there was no safety limit, the crowds just kept piling on until the ship took on water. A plumbers strike made Walt choose between getting bathrooms or drinking fountains (he chose restrooms, saying people could not buy a place to use the bathroom), bulky television equipment required many areas be roped off, stands ran out of food and drink and the mayor of Anaheim went home to watch the event unfold on television because of the chaos at the park.

Epcot Future World
Future World at Epcot in Orlando, the second Disney theme park and largest to date. Enlarge Photo © Disney

Disneyland was revolutionary because it featured a park with extremely detailed areas all built around a central theme. It opened with five sections: Main Street U.S.A., Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland and Fantasyland. This was different from most American parks because everything, from the rides to the trash cans to the food served, was themed according to the area they were in. Also, most of the rides were family-oriented flat & dark rides and traditional favorites like the ferris wheel and roller coaster weren't in sight.

With all of the problems the park had, it is a small miracle that Disneyland made it through the first month of operation. One thing that helped bring people back was the unique rides, many of which were created by an unknown company from California. Ed Morgan, Karl Bacon and Walter Schulze had built a carousel for the city of San Jose. Disney was impressed by the quality of the ride and asked the men, who had formed Arrow Development Company (later Arrow Dynamics) to create some ride transportation systems for his new park. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, Dumbo and Peter Pan's Flight were all attractions created by a collaboration between Arrow and Disney.

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse
Dedication of a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse at the Magic Kingdom. Enlarge Photo © Disney

Disney wanted a roller coaster for his park, but he wanted one that was both a family ride and heavily themed like the rest of the attractions. Because of this, the coasters built by firms like the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and National Amusement Devices did not fit with the Disney vision. Arrow decided to use tubular track and nylon wheels and produced what was the first of many steel tracked coasters in its career – The Matterhorn. The coaster ran around and through a man-made replica of the famous Swiss mountain and reached 80 feet at its highest point. The ride, built in 1959, was what Walt was looking for and gave a smooth, tepid ride the whole family could enjoy.

Holiday World
Was Disneyland really the first theme park or was it Santa Claus Land in Indiana? Enlarge Photo © Holiday World

There is a camp of people who say Disney did not create the first theme park. If you're a roller coaster fan there is a good chance you have heard of the legendary Raven roller coaster at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, but you may not have known that the park has been around since 1946. That year Louis Koch, a retired Evansville businessman, opened a small park named Santa Claus Land. It was a children's park, but did carry the constant theme of Santa Claus and Christmas throughout the park. Even though this park was not on the same scale as Disneyland, should we consider it the first theme park? It fits the generally accepted definition of a theme park today, so should we re-write the history books for Holiday World?

Santa Claus at Santa Claus Land
Two kids meet with Santa Claus during their visit to Santa Claus Land. Enlarge Photo
© Holiday World

Another park that lays claim to the title of the first theme park is Great Escape in Lake George, New York. It opened in 1954 as Storytown U.S.A. and its owner, Charles Wood, turned the small park into a modern theme park. He created a storybook area for children, an International Village that brought vast shopping opportunities to park visitors and a Ghost Town.

As the park grew Wood changed the name to Great Escape and added rides like the Steamin' Demon (the relocated Ragin' Cajun Arrow loop and screw from Pontchartrain Beach), a Huss Condor, a rainbow, a trabant (along with many other flat rides) and added the Splashwater Kingdom waterpark in 1995.

This may be one debate that will never be solved, but Walt Disney must be thanked for creating a new style of park that allowed amusement and theme parks to re-emerge in the public consciousness. The theme park is everywhere today and it is hard to believe it is an American institution that is less than a century old.

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