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Looking Back at Disneyland

Reminiscing during Disneyland's 50th anniversary


Disneyland opening day picture

Bonnie Williams was among the lucky kids to run across the drawbridge on Disneyland's opening day.

Disney. Used with permission.

Dave Smith, Director of the Walt Disney Archives

As the company's official historian, Smith's job is to document and catalog Disneyland and other Disney milestones. He has his own personal anecdotes as well.

Growing up in Southern California, Smith wasn't at Disneyland on opening day, but he was there a year later in 1956. ("My parents wanted to wait for the crowds to subside," he says.) He was fifteen-years-old and had won a Disneyland passport, which gave him free rein of the park, as part of a newspaper delivery contest. At the time, guests had to purchase tickets to board the attractions. "This was before I had my license, so I went straight to the Autopia. In those days, there were no side rails, so it was more like driving a real car," he says.

While walking around, Smith recognized Walt Disney wandering the park. "I wanted an autograph, but realized I didn't have anything to write with, so I went to the Magic Shop and bought a two-foot long gag pencil. Walt politely explained that he couldn't give me an autograph, because everybody would ask for one. He told me to write him at the studio instead," Smith recalls. "I did, and he did send me his autograph. I still have it."

Marty Sklar, Imagineering Vice Chairman and Principal Creative Executive

Sklar oversees theme park attractions and other Disney magic-making at Imagineering. While he wasn't there at the very beginning of Disneyland, he did work alongside Walt in the park's early years.

Sklar says that in Disneyland's early days, he used to enjoy going to the ticket windows to eavesdrop on guests. "They'd say, 'I want to go on the Jungle Cruise, the Mark Twain Riverboat, the Pirates of the Caribbean...but I don't want to go on any of the rides!' I figured out that rides meant the whip or the Ferris wheel at amusement parks. The public recognized these were different. They all had stories."

Speaking of stories, the Haunted Mansion initially lacked one as Walt and his design team struggled to develop the attraction. "There was a sign I created in 1963 that eventually keyed the whole thing," Sklar explains. After Walt came back from a trip to London, Sklar asked him what he was doing overseas. "He said that he was searching old mansions and manor houses for ghosts that didn't want to retire." Even though there was no consensus about the attraction, Walt went ahead and had the exterior of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion built in 1962. Inspired by Walt, Sklar created a large help wanted sign inviting ghosts that wanted to continue practicing their trade in active retirement at the mansion to send their resumes to the "Ghost Relations Dept." The sign hung for many years in front of the empty building. "When (Imagineer) X. Atencio started working on the project," Sklar says, "the sign became the thread of the Haunted Mansion."

Bonnie Williams, Opening Day Guest

Because her church youth group was invited to the opening day ceremonies, Bonnie was among the first children to cross the drawbridge into Fantasyland and ride Disneyland's rides. She was nine-years-old at the time.

"I remember seeing Walt," she says. "He looked like a giant. I told him, 'I saw you on TV!' The whole day was magical. I felt like a real princess." She says that her favorite rides on opening day were Peter Pan and Dumbo. "To this day, I ride them. I continue to love Disneyland. A special piece of my heart is here."

Walt Disney

Excerpted from Walt Disney: Famous Quotes, compiled by Dave Smith. (1994, The Walt Disney Company)

"When I started on Disneyland, my wife used to say, 'But why do you want to build an amusement park? They're so dirty.' I told her that was just the point--mine wouldn't be."

"Disneyland would be a world of Americans, past and present, seen through the eyes of my imagination--a place of warmth and nostalgia, of illusion and color and delight."

"Disneyland is like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass; to step through the portals of Disneyland will be like entering another world."

"I just want to leave you with this thought, that it's just been sort of a dress rehearsal, and we're just getting started. So if any of you start resting on your laurels, I mean just forget it, because...we are just getting started."

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