Statler: “Boy, he’s really good, that Rudolph whatshisname…you know, I should really learn how to pronounce his name.”
Waldorf: “Don’t bother. After this show, he’ll probably change it.”
Dateline: Disneyland is fondly remembered today as being an unmitigated disaster. One of the most curious happenstances of the show is the fact that, knowing the Orwellian attitude of Disney’s corporate overlords today, the show is even mentioned at all. But it cannot escape the modern geek, with it being available on free media everywhere in all its (lack of) glory.
Pictured: the subsequent line at City Hall
One should not begrudge Disney for such a catastrophe, however. After all, it bears mentioning that live TV had barely been tried at all by this time. TV was such a brand-spanking new medium, the entire industry was still working out the limits of human organizational skills as it discovered the hard way that split-second timing was needed between the cameramen, sound team, and actors for the length of an entire show to pull off a seamless experience. Now, pretend instead of a small enclosed studio, your live broadcast is at a 100-acre public space as busy as Grand Central. As they say, hilarity ensues. But, this is really to be expected, given the novelty of the television medium at the time. And one should at least give Walt his due: when he fails, he fails hard. No focus groups and surveys and “let’s run this by Legal first.” He puts his whole back into it. Like there’s a Walt Disney-sized hole in the wall. And those are the most spectacular of devastations.
It’s no surprise that Walt would eventually run into cultural pothole. Indeed, we forget that Walt had recently taken quite a few high-stakes gambles and won. There was the return of the full-length animated movie (Cinderella, which remember are pretty expensive to make), the creation of his own live action movie studio, starting a series of nature documentaries just for the heck of it with his studio in debt, deciding it would be a great idea to jump headlong into a completely unproven medium (television) that the other movie studios were avoiding like the plague, the continued cost overruns on Sleeping Beauty (the most expensive animated film ever made up to that point), and the re-filming of Lady and the Tramp and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at enormous expense when 99 out of 100 people would say he didn’t have to. So yeah, I’d say he was due.
Having set up the park for 11 straight months in his Disneyland TV show, all Walt had to do was show the world it was actually open. And for Walt Disney, lover of nonsensical parades (we’ll get to that) and movie premieres (see: the Snow White premiere), he would not be satisfied until Barnum and Bailey and their sister Sue knelt down and begged for mercy. This thing is an incredible tour de force that looks at once like the Olympics opening ceremony, Woodstock, a Tokyo subway station, and the Tailgate Lot outside a Packers game. Here are a list of things that went wrong that day (note: outside the broadcast) inside the park, in no particular order: the plumbers went on strike, causing Walt to skimp on drinking fountains (leading to his infamous “people can’t pee in the street” barb); it was over 100 degrees; the concrete was newly poured, causing women to get their high-heels stuck on Main Street; counterfeiters swarmed the park wielding fake invitations; enterprising entrepreneurs hitched ladders up to the berm and charged $10 for people to hop the fence; there was a gas leak in Fantasyland; the Mark Twain was so full it began to sink; James Mason got into a fistfight trying to get his daughter on the carousel; Sammy Davis Jr. rammed Frank Sinatra on the Autopia; and the effects on themed rides from Mr. Toad to Jungle Cruise decided to stop working halfway through the day for no particular reason. But Walt put his best foot forward. Each land would have some sort of celebrity involvement (except Adventureland, screw those guys): Davy Crockett and Annie Oakley in Frontierland, a bunch of (famous?) scientists in Tomorrowland, Disney characters in Fantasyland, and of course Art, Bob, Ronnie, Walt, and the governor of California to host. Each land would be given a thorough examination by the TV cameras, beamed directly into every American family’s living room. And look, there’s Danny Thomas in the parade! And Frank Sinatra driving in the Autopia! Why, there are celebrities everywhere.
It's all just mind-blowing entertainment, like watching a Super Bowl halftime show be interrupted by Wile E. Coyote while narrated by Jesse Ventura and Johnny Carson. And now, Walt Disney Proudly Presents…
Ah Dateline Disneyland, this is a mess as I remember. Walt talks, there are parades, guests, collisions on the Autopia, and other general insanity. I have not seeing Dateline Disneyland in years, so I’m jumping into this a little blind. It’s 7:30pm on a Friday, I got paid, got a raise, have a Mai Tai, and some chips & salsa. LETS DO THIS!
Show: (Joe Jeff)
00:00:00 Coming to you live from the media tent on the side of Interstate 5, it’s the biggest opening media circus of all time! Walt Disney will be here in some fashion! We’ll mercilessly seize the attention of any celebrity we see! PLEASE GOD LET THIS WORK
0:00:08: Ok lets do this!
0:00:27: In the background: this is Disney’s first try at the Costuming department … “Where’s my Tiger Lily Headdress?! I perform for Frank Sinatra in an hour!”
0:00:40: Does anyone actually believe this guy is an actual press agent? This is totally just the animation department with a typewriter in the middle. Good job on trying to sell this special as having more haste and importance than The Disneyland Story
0:00:55: **Back wall falls down, reveals kitchen for Chicken Plantation restaurant**
0:01:05: Bad joke time. Ugh. In all fairness, how do we know it’s a joke? I mean, knowing what we know it’s 50/50 the wrong camera was cued and Art covered.
0:01:23 “I’m here on top of the railroad tracks with helicopters flying overhead, cars parking by the thousands … wait a minute, we’re not supposed to have this many people arriving … why are those people jumping that fence … Oh my God here come the Yippies!!!”
0:01:33: Knowing what a disaster this was and how dangerous live TV was back in the day, it’s amazing how dangerous some of these setups could have been. “And down these tracks in just a couple of seconds will **SPLAT**
0:01:50: I keep forgetting Disneyland cost “only” $17 million in 1955. That’s still sort of insane when you think about it (roughly adjusting for inflation that’d be $156 million in 2017). Also 29 cameras! I think a normal day on Survivor now has more cameras than that. Thanks to Art for setting up how much of a mess this show is going to be.
0:02:15: This was actually brilliant on Linkletter’s part, and probably kept the event from being a literal all-time disaster. By setting up that this is “just an event, not a TV show” (and that Irene Dunne likes to adjust her “bustle” and we just **MIGHT** get a glimpse of it if someone presses the “wrong” button), he sets audience expectations that BIG things might go wrong during the broadcast. Instead of gasping at the horrors to come, audiences could instead expect them as part of the deal.
0:02:30: “The grounds are loaded with 15,000 Guests who are special Guests of Walt Disney.” LOL
0:02:45: Also forgot the marketing machine referred to Disneyland as the Eighth Wonder of the World. I thought that was Irene Dunne’s bustle?
0:03:10: Note she did NOT say “the princess store” or “the glow cart”
0:03:20: In all seriousness, holy crap Art Linkletter has a picture-perfect family.
0:03:45: “Bob’s going to be my bitch for the next hour and isn’t he so happy about it.”
0:03:55: Ronnie Regan before he busted unions and trickled down on the poor! Not before, I think he was at the park that day to bust the plumber’s union strike as it was happening. Did he just admit Ronnie Regan was stationed in the parade barn?
0:04:20: Holy cow! Disneyland before tree growth!
0:04:41: As most know Tomorrowland was a pit of weeds with latin names and A ticket exhibits. Oh how much that land has come and fallen…. That’s what happens when when you make 1986 your utopian future … perhaps a world without plumber’s unions?
0:05:17: Hey I see California Adventure from here (it’s never looked better)! Love the joke about the orange groves especially how notorious the near by areas made Walt buy all that extra land in Orlando.
0:05:45: “They’re going through the magic tunnel on foot because no car can enter here.” Um. Yay? Yeah This made me go “....sooooo?”
0:07:25: “The people on the street are full-sized people and were not made by Walt Disney.” So began the tradition of 1,000 Jungle Cruise duck jokes. And who the hell are those two random people on the roof? What exactly are they doing?
0:07:30: LOL. I wish I lived in the 50s. I need to buy my banjo and mandolin for the Sunday Canoe Ride! WHAT?!
0:08:46: This drive down Main Street is sort of amazing. Not only in how frantic it is and what is/isn’t there but how bored those on the streets look waiting for ANYTHING to happen. Take a shot every time you see a beehive doo. Now we’re talkin’!
0:09:00: “Besides marrying grandpa, buying a Tutti-Fruitti ice cream was the biggest thrill grandma had.” Jeez, things were really rocking in Joplin, Missouri back in the day.
0:09:25: Oh there’s the monkey!
0:10:05: Walt is just adorable.
0:10:30: Did Art just say Walt kidnapped the children of foreign dignitaries?
0:10:50: First mention of “the berm” or “the ramp” as described here. The design philosophy of “once you are inside you do not see the outside world” never fully worked at the Magic Kingdom or Disneyland on opening days, but it’s still a goal to this day at any theme park.
0:11:38: At this point Walt is 54 years old. I’ve always looked at Walt as the grandfather of the group, but seeing his age and position now versus my own and my father’s it rather interesting; my dad retires around the same time Walt died of lung cancer.
0:11:45: Oh God wait the train’s still moving! Walt how do you stop this thing?!?!
0:12:15: Get used to blatantly reading notes and stating the obvious, Ronnie.
0:12:30: No really, there are celebrities here. Let me point out a few of my favorites. *points* There’s one … There’s one ...
0:12:58: One of the most famous pieces of footage around, the dedication of Disneyland. It’s not shot very well, the audio is ok, and everything is terribly set. But this is possibly the most important 30 seconds in Disney history. It’s amazing how little of a deal everyone makes it during the broadcast. It’s literally “well there’s the dedication now let’s go see Davy Crockett!” Also hilarious how the other speeches from the governor, etc. are deemed almost as important yet no one gives a damn now.
0:15:24: Oh boy.
0:17:34: PARADE BITCHES! Get out of the way Art! And yes, this is live people. Art you’re on! You’re on damn it!
0:18:20: Oh there are the planes. Too bad we can’t see them.
0:19:45: Ah yes, the infamous ice skating show character costumes. So little budget was left from Disneyland’s construction they had to borrow these 3rd party costumes for the opening of the park. Don’t forget the paper-mache armor for the knights who look like rejects from Sword in the Stone
0:19:55: Par for the course for a normal Disney parade. Characters just running around with no rhyme or reason. Dumbo walking with Captain Hook I think was my favorite.
0:23:00: Wow look at the sheer amount of NOTHING between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland!
0:23:25: Eerie how true that over-exaggerated statement became.
0:23:47: Really, this is the most fabulous man made (as opposed to the natural parades found in nature) parade ever? They had some costumes, vaguely racist Native Americans, and some autopia cars.
0:23:50: Bob played off stage like Mel Gibson at the Oscars.
0:24:10: Again we’re live people!
0:24:50: Except for, you know, drinking fountains and air-conditioning.
0:25:10: Hey what are you shooting at me for? It was the penguins!
0:25:20: Actual footage of guests getting Mission: Breakout FastPasses.
0:26:05: WAIT, did he say the horses were bred at 5/8th size BY WALT DISNEY. Also another “we’re live people” moment.
0:26:47: WHERE IS DAVY CROCKETT. IS THIS A BIT OR ARE THESE KIDS GENUINELY WORRIED?!??!?
0:27:02: It was a bit, he said somewhat disappointed.
0:27:40: Where is all this land in Disneyland? I assume it’s now taken up by Big Thunder, Rancho, and the future Star Wars land.
0:28:35: Uh, racism?
0:29:00: An entire song and dance extravaganza about some guy’s gun. ‘Merica.
0:31:50 Actual quote: “why don’t we give these kids the time of their lives by putting them on the mule ride?” We’ve come a long way, people.
0:32:35: What the hell does that even mean? The legends are so real they became people? What?
0:33:48: Almost a perfect cut right there. But not perfect enough, amiright????
0:34:01: Sorry zoned out there with that song and such. Golden Horseshoe looks mighty fine. Seriously. Walt loved the hell out of Golden Horshoe.
0:34:31: Yo Art I don’t think that’s OSHA compliant right there. Now we know why it started sinking. Also another “yup we’re live moment!” Take a shot!
0:35:25: It’s Irene Dunne and her infamous bustle ladies and gentlemen!
0:35:58: Ok Ms Dunn I guess you should stop drinking the champagne and hit the bottle onto the ship!
0:37:54: Another “WOW Disneyland has changed a lot” comment. Where is this even, near Fantasmic? Seriously, the River just looks like a big ditch! And a plug for the upcoming New Orleans Square. Opening in just 12 years!
0:38:35: Nobody remembers anymore that a group of Disney animators and film workers was once the famous Dixieland band in the world. For real. This is like the Trash Can Trio suddenly joining Cirque du Soleil.
0:39:30: WHAT IS GOING ON IS THIS A FEVER DREAM.
0:41:20: This is the horniest I’ve ever seen a Disney parks special that’s for sure. #mardigrasforever
0:42:00 Hey something actually happened on cue! Everyone take a shot!
0:42:15: THE FAR FLUNG FUTURE OF 1986. Everything will be powered by nuclear power and made of aluminium! For the far future of 1986, we have envisioned...The Disney Channel!
0:42:36: AND WE’RE LIVE EVERYONE. GiVE HIM THE DAMN SIGNAL
0:43:17: *Cue Flying Monkeys Music*
0:43:54: It’s an accurate view of the future because it’s desolate. The future: where all cultures can tell time.
0:45:30: Nothing is more futuristic than an aluminium telescope. BOB STOP INTERRUPTING THE NERD.
0:46:20: Bob looks like a puppy being given a lecture on astrophysics. He’s completely gone.
0:47:40: Ok everyone pause the special. Take a guess if this experiment will work or not. I’m betting no.
0:47:50: Hell no I’m not starting the chain reaction! Hey kid, come over here…
0:48:20: Remember kids, use the power of the ping-pong balls wisely.
0:48:30: The autopia segment might be the most notorious segment in the whole special.
0:49:25: Sammie Davis Jr getting into a Fender Bender on the Autopia might be my favorite thing ever.
0:50:27: The Phantom Boats in their natural state: not operating. Also a reminder that the Disneyland Hotel was not originally built by Disney AND it cost nearly as much as Disneyland did.
0:51:21: AND it has a pool! Hot dang!
0:52:45: And so begins the tradition of the futuristic pasty white man preshow. Still going strong to this day.
0:52:53: Ah yes, Flight to the Moon. If memory serves me correct didn’t this open later than opening day or was only running at partial capacity?
0:54:00: Actually some pretty damn good special effects for 1955. Remember this is 11 years before the original Star Trek series.
0:56:00: I’ve been silent as there’s not much to add to the attraction video besides we’ve hit another “we’re live everyone!” moment.
0:57:00: The drawbridge is up. Calling all nerds! The drawbridge is up!
0:57:30: For those who believe if you wish upon a star, and pay $50, your daughter can get glitter on her face.
0:58:20: NO. Your Mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!
0:58:24: The second most famous segment from this special is the dedication and opening of Fantasyland. I vividly remember this mostly from the 1980s EPCOT Center souvenir video we nearly wore out when I was a kid.
0:58:45: How many time travelers do you think are in this shot? Wouldn’t you?
0:59:17: Captain Hook losing his hat is me IRL. I’m not sure what’s going on here with all the actors and such.
0:59:20: Actually the immediate castle courtyard is far more built out than I anticipated.
1:01:08: OH GOD OH GOD. Why do none of these characters match the animation design? Walt didn’t have any money left so he just hired the hobos from the Las Vegas strip.
1:02:00: This is a shit show. Attraction starts before ops can even guarantee everyone’s safety and starts with the CM on the ride platform. Yeesh.
1:02:13: They’re literally standing on the ride platform! Somebody hit the E-Stop!!!
1:02:50: Wait, you’re not my kids! Who cares what you think? Do you kids want to go see Captain Crew?!
1:04:05: HE’S STEALING A CHILD. WHEN WILL THIS MADNESS END?!?!
1:04:30: What is even going on here? Are they invading Snow White’s Adventures?
1:05:00: Holy crap that’s the voice of Scrooge McDuck in 30 years!
1:06:00: Is it me or have they not covered Adventureland at all? Or is that last? We’re careening towards the end of this special quickly. Also the shit show continues as kids try to get on Case Jr as it’s departing the station.
1:06:20: ACTORS SHOULD NOT BE OPERATING ATTRACTIONS!!!
1:07:10: Take another shot! Everyone together, “WE’RE LIVE PEOPLE!”
1:08:00: This is the highlight of the whole show! Bob Cummings’s literal play-by-play of the entire show turning into a dumpster fire! “And now he’s waving his arms … and now he takes out his flask…”
1:08:45: Wait Mr. Toad is a monorail?
1:10:03: OH GOD THE NIGHTMARES
1:10:23: Welp that answers that question. Adventureland only gets a few minutes of coverage.
1:12:46: And we close up the special with Walt being super duper awkward and the microphone cord getting caught on something. WOW. Seriously the shot of Walt and Art tripping over a microphone cord as they walk into the sunset sums up the whole show perfectly.
Dateline Disneyland is a near disaster only saved by quick improv, some pre-recorded footage, and well executed dance sequences (not well filmed). Disneyland’s shoestring budget also stretches over to the ABC opening special to the point where Walt seems to call in so many favors he might now owe the mafia some money. Dateline Disneyland still borrows the episodic feel of The Disneyland Story by focusing on the individual shows Disney created for TV. In the future the specials will take a turn to focus more and more on the park as guests become fully aware of what a Tea Cups or Jungle Cruise is. Turning the special into a drinking game was an inspired choice and made this mess seem more… inevitable?
You know what the most amazing thing about Dateline: Disneyland is? Disneyland still survived. I’m serious. Could you imagine this kind of disastrous opening happening today? I will tell you, that enterprise would not be open the next year. Or the next month. With an opening that bad, especially since the park was only half-built, you would not be seeing a Phase II any time soon.
But somehow, Walt managed to turn Disneyland from a laughing stock to one of the greatest American culture institutions. How? He worked hard at it. He invited all of his opening day celebrity and press guests back for free. He instituted rules for attraction capacity. He decreed that more rides be built, despite the lack of money, to accommodate all the guests during the busy times. And he never stopped experimenting. Not when any other sane person on earth wouldn’t have closed up shop the next January. That’s why Disneyland is still here today.
Here's to you Walt. You showed them all.
Thanks for reading and watching with us. Tube in next week as Parkscope YouTube Tuesday continues!
--Jeff (@ParkScopeJeff) and Joe (@parkscopejoe)
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