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Off to a Rough Start: Disneyland's Black Sunday

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According to Disney lore, the story of Disneyland begins in the 1930s, when Walt Disney would spend Saturdays with his young daughters. While sitting on a bench watching his daughters ride the merry-go-round at Griffith Park, Walt thought about a place where parents and children could have fun together.

By 1939, Walt was asking some of his creative team to begin working on a plan for an amusement park. Unfortunately, World War II would delay this project, but by 1948 Walt had begun formally laying out plans for what was then called Mickey Mouse Park. This park was intended to be built on land near his studio in Burbank, and to serve as a more interesting tourist attraction for fans, as Walt felt that the studio did not have a whole lot to offer for visitors.

In 1952, Walt presented a proposal to Burbank officials for what was now a $1.5 million park and was turned down. However, this didn't deter him much, as Walt Disney's ambitions for his theme park had already outgrown his space in Burbank.

Eventually, a 160-acre orange grove in Anaheim would be chosen as the site for the now $17 million theme park, and ground was broken in July 1954. Walt set an ambitious — and some would say impossible — opening date of July 17, 1955, allowing merely a year and a day for the park's completion.

Disneyland would indeed open on July 17 the following year, but the day would be so chaotic that employees would end up nicknaming it "Black Sunday."

Sleeping Beauty's Castle while still under construction.

Sleeping Beauty's Castle while still under construction.

Problems from the Start

Leading up to opening day, there were some signs that Walt's construction timeline might cause some issues. One notable problem was a plumbers strike some weeks before forcing Walt to make a difficult decision — would the park have functioning bathrooms or water fountains? Walt decided his guests were better off being forced to buy drinks rather than not have access to working restrooms, and so the choice was made.

Workers were putting everything in place right up to the final hours, with painting and planting occurring even on opening day itself. The asphalt on Main Street, U.S.A. was not laid until the day before. According to Christopher Klein in an article for History, "So many weeds sprouted along the banks of the Canal Boats of the World ride that Disney ordered workers to place signs with exotic species names in Latin next to them to resemble an arboretum."

Walt himself was so exhausted with all the preparations that in the hours before opening, he had decided to take a nap in his private apartment above the firehouse on Main Street. Upon awaking, he discovered he had somehow been locked in, and had to scream for help to be let out.

The day's issues were just beginning.

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Too Many Crowds and Not Much Control

It probably was not surprising that a lot of people wanted to be present for the opening day of Disneyland. What might have been surprising was that the amount of people who did show up led to a 7-mile long backup on the Santa Ana Freeway. Families were stuck in their cars for so long that there were stories of people urinating on the side of the road and in the Disneyland parking lot.

Numbers seem to vary depending on the source, but the estimated attendance for Disneyland's opening day was somewhere between 11,000 and 15,000 people. Opening day was meant to be invitation-only, with attendees being made up of celebrities, members of the press, and various others who were considered VIPs for one reason or another. However, the tickets proved to be easy to counterfeit, and ticket-takers evidently had no way of knowing the difference, so many who weren't invited managed to secure a spot in the park.

Add to this those who simply snuck in, including some who were assisted by a man who charged $5 a person to use his ladder to climb over a back fence, and somewhere in the vicinity of twice as many people as were expected ended up in the park that day.

Additionally, even if everything had gone as planned attendance-wise, crowds at Disneyland might still have gotten out of hand. The official tickets were divided between morning and afternoon, with the morning group expected to leave by a certain time designated on their tickets. The problem with this system is that the morning ticket holders simply didn't leave, and this system was not at all helpful in mitigating overcrowding.

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Once guests finally made it into the park, there was another issue that became immediately apparent. Due to the last minute laying of asphalt, and combined with the high temperatures — up to 100°F that day, unusual even for July in Anaheim — Main Street, U.S.A. was a sticky mess.

Some guests sank into the asphalt, and more infamously, women who had chosen to wear high heels that day would lose their shoes. Moccasins from Frontierland were provided to those who required new footwear.

Overcrowding caused vendors to run out of food and drink within the first few hours of opening, a situation exacerbated by Walt's decision to choose bathrooms over water fountains. Walt was later accused of trying to make a bigger profit by forcing park guests to purchase drinks.

The Disneyland parking lot on July 17, 1955.

The Disneyland parking lot on July 17, 1955.

The Attractions

Many of the opening day problems could be attributed to Walt's short construction timeline, and the number of attractions that were unfinished or unreliable was no exception.

As part of his quest to secure funding for the park, Walt had begun producing a weekly television show for ABC called Walt Disney's Disneyland, in which he would show teasers for the park and promote planned attractions. Thus, many fans were anticipating specific attractions when they arrived for opening day. Unfortunately, several of these attractions, including Dumbo the Flying Elephant and Rocket to the Moon, were not complete in time.

Tomorrowland as a whole was perhaps the largest disappointment. Construction on this vision of the futuristic world of 1986 had begun later than other lands due to budgetary constraints, and rather than wall off a land that had received promotion on the weekly show, Walt instead opted to showcase an incomplete version.

Opening day Tomorrowland did have some attractions, such as Autopia, but quite a bit of the land was made up of corporate exhibition halls, a picnic area, and a lot of open space.

Some attractions that were open didn't fare too well. Most infamous was an incident that occurred on the Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland. Like everywhere else in the park, the attraction was overcrowded, and at one point 500 people crammed on to the boat and caused the Mark Twain to go off its track and begin sinking into the Rivers of America. It was fixed about half an hour later and was able to make it back to the landing.

Unfortunately, the large crowd was filled with quite a few impatient people who rushed to get off all at once, which caused the Mark Twain to tip over back into the water. This incident resulted in the implementation of a max capacity of 300 guests for the attraction.

Another infamous incident was a gas leak that resulted in the temporary evacuation of Fantasyland, Adventureland, and Frontierland, closing off half the park. The leak caused flames to break out, and they came dangerously close to Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

The Mark Twain Riverboat when it wasn't sinking.

The Mark Twain Riverboat when it wasn't sinking.

The Live Broadcast

Longtime Disney executive Card Walker would later tell the Associated Press that the two major mistakes made in the Disneyland opening were being unprepared for the crowds and trying to do too much with a live broadcast.

This live broadcast, a 90-minute special called Dateline: Disneyland, was certainly one of the more ambitious aspects of opening day. Co-hosted by Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and Ronald Reagan, and featuring appearances from Walt himself, the special was watched by an estimated 70 million people, which was then the largest live broadcast in television history.

Though a history-making television special probably wouldn't have gone smoothly even in ideal conditions, it's completely unsurprising that a number of issues occurred on this particular day. According to Rudie Obias, writing for Mental Floss, among the difficulties were "guests tripping over camera cables all over the park, faulty miscues, on-air flubs, hot mics, and unexpected moments that were caught on camera — namely Bob Cummings caught making out with a dancer just before going on air."

Cables weren't the only inconveniences to guests caused by the broadcast. According to the Associated Press at the time, "Some people, wandering into sections such as Tomorrowland or Fantasyland, often found themselves trapped inside with ropes barring their exit until the telecast was over."

Entrance to the park was also put on hold while the broadcast was ongoing, and all invited guests had been advised to arrive before filming began so that they would be able to enter the park.


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The Aftermath

After opening day, the Associated Press reported, "Probably for the first time in his career, Disney disappointed thousands of youngsters." Other press reviews expressed similar sentiments, with some speculating that Disneyland would not last long.

Walt himself was allegedly not aware of the full extent of issues that occurred that first day until reading about it, and soon invited a number of press to return to the park on a more "normal" day. By his own estimation, Walt figured it would take roughly a month before the park would be running smoothly.

Less than a week after opening, the New York Times optimistically wrote, "Surely 'Disneyland' will be loved by children — and will take years from the shoulders of countless grownups, too."

Over the next few weeks, the issues continued to be worked on, and a mere seven weeks after opening, attendance at Disneyland passed 1 million. Today, rather than foreshadowing a short-lived, disastrous venture, the story of Disneyland's Black Sunday is instead regarded only as an interesting story in Disney and theme park history.

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