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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Disney's Greatest Masterpiece

Walt Disney proudly displays for TV Peter Ellenshaw's 1954 concept map of Disneyland.
A couple years ago about this time I wrote a piece on "The Most Successful Artist of All Time" (07-26-11). I discussed the man, his career, his cartoons, his movies and a few months later, his groundbreaking 1940-41 Fantasia (10-14-11). What I failed to mention was Walter Elias Disney's greatest masterpiece. If someone asked you, "How would you like to be in a movie?" Your reaction might be, "what do I have to do, look up in the sky at an NSA spy satellite and wave?" Flippancy aside, beginning in 1955, all you had to do was visit Disneyland. Long before Universal Studios turned their back lot into an amusement park, Walt Disney and his moviemaking geniuses created a huge movie set where all you needed was an 8mm Kodak "Brownie" movie camera and the one-dollar price of admission to, in effect, star in your own Hollywood (Anaheim, actually) production. (No, that's not a typo, the original Disneyland admission price really was one dollar bill, though each of Disney's other four "lands" was a separate one-dollar ticket.)

Disneyland literally had its roots in Walt's backyard (and his wife's flowerbeds). A friend's miniature locomotive (above) spawned a Disney-built 1/2 scale model for his own backyard amusement in 1950. He spent $50,000, for what was to be the
forerunner to that which, even today, encircles Disney parks.
As with virtually every artistic masterpiece, this one grew and evolved. Disney's greatest achievement started with an idea for an eight-acre recreation area for company employees and their families across the street from Disney Studios in Burbank. Disney's greatest talent was that of dreamer. When you have a good idea you run with it. The company recreation area grew into Mickey Mouse Park, and then gradually, over a period of ten years following WW II, into 160 acres of "fun and games" for children and adults alike--the first modern day amusement park. This long gestation period, along with the budding era of television, and Disney's own showmanship and enthusiasm, were the critical ingredients in the park's immediate success.
How Disneyland grew, this map dates from the late 1940s--16 acres on the
banks of the Los Angeles River. The project got strangled in red tape.
Disneyland did not pop out of its creator's head in a "eureka" moment of visual clarity. Disney recalled his father having worked at the Great Chicago World's Fair in 1893, his visits with his daughters to Griffith Park in Los Angeles, Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, as well as similar sites in the Netherlands, and the United States. His own small-town memories became Main Street, USA. His boyhood fascination with the frontier West, and an optimistic outlook on the future contributed to two of the "little" amusement parks within the BIG amusement park. His company's ventures into wildlife films and, of course, their mainstay, wholesome children's cartoons, rounded out the four Disney themed neighborhoods.
There were still a lot of orange groves and farmhouses as late as May, 1955 as Disney rushed his brainchild toward an opening date of July 17th.
As important as the inspiration for his masterpiece may have been, it was Disney's (along with brother, Roy's) mastery of corporate management and finance, which made it happen. Disney Studios was, by the early 1950s, no fly-by-night animation sweatshop, but neither was it a major Hollywood player with untold millions to cast about. Snow White, their first feature film, had nearly bankrupted the company, an experience Disney did not soon forget. Though heavily invested, (both personally and through the studio) Disney did not "bet the ranch" in bringing his artistic masterpiece to life. As with every great entrepreneur, he used OPM (other people's money). He and Roy had to sell the idea to Western Publishing and other media firms. It was a "hard sell, for Disney had neither a track record nor a bevy of other wealthy investors beating down the door to Sleeping Beauty's (proposed) castle. What he did have was a contract with the ABC TV network for a weekly, hour-long, showcase of old and new film footage. This quickly became a sparkling stage for each new bright idea as Disneyland came closer and closer to reality.
The Disneyland centerpiece, opening day--101 in the shade and no drinking water.
What was more than 100 acres of orange and walnut trees in early 1954, became the Magic Kingdom just over a year later. Disney unveiled his masterpiece on Sunday, July 17th, 1955, exactly one year after construction had begun. The day was a disaster. The drinking fountains didn't work. The temperature was a balmy 101 degrees, TV technical snafus mounted into a comedy of errors, traffic jams delayed guest celebrities, while newly laid asphalt (from the day before) made walking in 1950s era high heels an experience akin to leaving ones footprints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater (a nice Hollywood touch unless you were a mother herding a 1950s era family of 3.5 baby booming kids).
Moving mountains (note the Matterhorn in the background),
not to mention thousands of orange trees.
Perhaps the truest mark of a creative masterpiece lies in the works of those it influences. Following Disney's lead, other movie companies jumped in. Universal's studio tours grew to encompass back lot thrill rides, while MGM moved to Las Vegas and set up an adult version of Disneyland with its Grand hotel and casino. Sea World, Anheuser Busch, and Six Flags copied and adapted the Disney model in their own ways. And of course, in the grand Hollywood tradition, Disney itself created a huge, blockbusting sequel among the orange groves of central Florida. In more recent years, the Disney sequels have been translated into foreign languages, French, Japanese, and Hong Kong Chinese, with more sure to come as the spirit of Walt Disney ventures into its real life corporate Tomorrowland.

Disneyland Hong Kong suggests a Disney Tomorrowland filled with parks, hotels, monorails, space travel, as well as floating versions featuring all of the above.

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