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We begin our anthology of Parkscope YouTube Tuesday with the special that started the Disneyland anthology: Walt Disney’s presentation of “The Disneyland Story.” This pilot episode of the Disneyland TV series literally was the one that started it all. Without the success of the TV show, who knows if Walt would have been able to build so many of the dreams of Disneyland.
This TV special was Walt’s big reveal of Disneyland to the general public. Before this show aired in 1954, nobody knew what Disneyland was (and for the most part, as we’ll get into later, after the show was over they still didn’t know). But it was Walt’s marketing brilliance that allowed the general public to embrace him, Disneyland, television, Mickey Mouse, Peter Pan, Alice, 20k, Sleeping Beauty, the Tru-Life Adventures, and Davy Crockett all in one show.
Walt’s marketing brilliance came strictly from the spot-on execution of his plans, as if he were the Mozart of family entertainment. To wit: the Disneyland TV debuted a whole 11 months before its namesake park’s opening day.
Let that sink in for a minute. The public was pounded with the message of Disneyland almost a full year before anyone would be able to see it! The fact that Walt held everyone’s attention for so long , like an expert ringmaster tantalizing the audience for the grand finale, is a testament to his underrated and sublime showmanship.
“The Disneyland Story” is at once a TV special and a series pilot episode. It was a TV special in that it was hyped as an event in itself. Though Disney had contracted with ABC for several episodes (which turned out to be much, much, much, much more), “The Disneyland Story” is an introduction of sorts, a thesis statement to what Disney’s TV presence was going to be. Walt made it very clear that TV was, as he put it, “my way of going directly to the public.” And as he did, the public would be privy to every shot in the Disney arsenal. Walt would advertise everything from his earliest successes with Mickey Mouse to his upcoming animated movies, covering within the show’s short span of time a chronology ranging from 1927 to the future of 1959. In essence, it was Walt’s first controlled introduction to the world.
Let’s walk through the video, as Walt would if he were here watching with us.
...and look who made it back with you!
Disneyland begins with as simple a thesis as can be: “Each week as you enter this timeless land, each of these areas will open to you…” How coyly Walt integrated his patented storybook opening into television format! Make no mistake, that is exactly what we’re witnessing. Walt very cleverly devised his Disney anthology around the lands of Disneyland. Coincidentally, Disneyland’s lands just happened to be connected with Disney’s biggest themed projects at the time. One wonders if Holidayland and Lilliputian Land bit the dust for just this reason; since money was so tight during construction, perhaps Walt triaged the situation and jettisoned the lands that did not tie thematically into major Disney projects that American audiences would recognize? It would certainly make sense from a business perspective, though I’m sure that wasn’t the only reason. But the Big Four Disney Lands, Walt is careful to point out later, all can be tied to major Disney projects: Tru-Life Adventures for Adventureland, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan (and Pecos Bill, etc.) for Frontierland, Peter Pan and Alice and Dumbo and Snow White for Fantasyland, and Walt’s upcoming space documentaries for Tomorrowland. The man certainly knew how to sell a franchise!
As you watch the special unfold, you’ll realize that not only does the audience not know what a Disneyland is, from the looks of things even Walt barely knew! Of course he had it all bouncing around in his head, but think about how little of the park he actually shows! Besides the Peter Ellenshaw-lit wall map and a Main Street scale model, all we the audience are privy to by way of attractions are an African Queen-style tugboat for Adventureland, a steamboat for Frontierland, a castle for Fantasyland, and a hanging monorail and spaceship for Tomorrowland. That’s it! That’s literally all we see. In fact, we don’t even see any concepts for Fantasyland whatsoever! Just a nice few dozen shots of the front of the castle. And yet, had it not been pointed out, I’m sure we would have barely noticed. Walt is genuinely excited about the place, and sells it beautifully, despite the lack of many specific details. But boy, we sure want to drive to California to see the place!
One other small thing to note: in the introduction, Frontierland is mentioned first. This could be for several reasons, and since the wall map over Walt’s shoulder suggests the Jungle Cruise is still looking to be in the southwest zone we see today, it wasn’t for a clockwise tour around the park. Most likely the intro of Frontierland first was a combination of the booming popularity of Westerns at the time, as well as Walt’s own desire to get into the television western scene by introducing Davy Crockett as the first recurring character on the Disneyland show.
I also love that the narrator refers to Fantasyland as being “the happiest (land) of them all.” Brings back memories of “The Happiest Place on Earth” and “The Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed,” doesn’t it? Boy, those were the days, huh?
The special goes into full documentary mode as we take a visit to the Disney Studios in Burbank, and get a CircleVision view of Mickey Avenue. As we Disney nuts know, this version of the Disney Studio was Walt’s first real Disneyland: the first pedestrian space where he could control the facets of its design, layout, and aesthetic. Walt very much wanted the Disney studio to be for his artists and workers. The animators’ windows face just the right direction to achieve maximum sunlight throughout the day. The back areas were complete with softball fields, which many employees played during lunch. The studio was Walt’s first “Happiest Place on Earth.”
The narrator (note we haven’t even been introduced to Walt yet!) dives right into the “goings on” at the studio, which coincidentally happen to fill the audience in on the biggest “coming attractions” Disney would be releasing soon. We visit the set of Disney’s biggest live action movie of the decade, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And look at how succinct yet complete the introductions are: we see two famous actors (Douglas and Lorre), the comedy sidekick (Esmerelda the Seal) and the big special effects extravaganza (James Mason vs. The Squid) all within a few seconds. That’s all we need to know about the movie to make us want to run to see it now! And we follow it up with Disney’s big blowout animated movie of the 1950s: Sleeping Beauty. We here the lovely Aurora singing her signature song (random aside: the version sung in the show is the exact same way it sounds when the movie was released four years later! Was the soundtrack really dubbed that early?). We also get a glimpse of Marc Davis and Milt Kahl modeling a dancing Aurora. Disney nerdgeek heaven!
As Walt is never one to let five minutes go without a silly joke of some kind, we’re next taken to the “Music Department” where the Firehouse Five Plus Two somehow stepped into a crossover universe with Jimmy Macdonald and the sound effects team to play the weirdest assortment of junk instruments. Oh fine, let’s all have fun at the musicians’ expense. I’m sure the trombone player is being paid enough for it.
We’re finally introduced to Walt a full 3 ½ minutes into the show (again, the master storyteller can really turn up the suspense). What follows is pure Disney and theme park geek bliss. Supported by a great script from master writer Bill Walsh (who wrote the scripts for many of Walt Disney hosted segments, as well as the shooting script for Mary Poppins and many other classic Disney movies), Walt gives one of his all-time best hosted segments, despite the fact he looks terrified to be in front of the camera. But, as we know, that was all part of his Midwest charm. And boy, does it work.
Note how John Hench’s legendary portrait of Mickey is shot first, before Walt makes his appearance. Walt had the shot in mind the whole time: Mickey is the star, and the main connection between Walt Disney and his audience. And, since Walt would later utter his famous line that “it was all started by a mouse,” there is no question that Mickey would appear first.
And there’s Walt, with his signature lean. The “I’m not used to speaking in public and have no idea what to do with my hands” lean. But by golly, he still pulls it off, because he’s so damn sure of what he’s saying he would have to stand on his head for anyone to notice his posture. He notes (again, before the park is introduced) that he and Mickey have “an old partnership.” And then, he says, “we (note the “we,” meaning he and Mickey and the entire Disney Company) would like to share with you our latest and greatest dream.” What a setup!
He then shows the famous wall map and notes to the audience that “Disneyland the place and Disneyland the TV show is one and the same,” answering the potential “when is the three o’clock parade” question in the audience’s mind. Next, he proudly announces that Disney has a whole 230 acres to play with, and shows the world exactly where Anaheim is on the SoCal map. Presumably, so people can buy up the surrounding real estate and make a fortune on tiki motels and pirate buffets.
One of my favorite moments is when Walt spells out what he wants Disneyland to be, which at this point is still in a state of flux: Disneyland would be “Unlike anything else on earth…a fair, an amusement park, an exhibition, a city from the Arabian Nights, a metropolis of the future…a place of hopes and dreams, facts and fancy, all in one.” You’d have to say it was beautifully phrased, ladies and gentlemen. Yet this was not quite the final vision. After all, the city from the Arabian Nights would turn into a city from French Polynesia and the metropolis of the future would be the plastic rocket and balloon stand of the future until 1959.
Though, the phrase certainly filled its purpose. For one, Walt of course wanted to get his audience excited for the exotic places Disneyland would take them to, places where until then they could only see in the movies. I think he also stated Disneyland in this way to pull the audience off the scent that Disneyland was an amusement park. To be fair, it was really a combination of an amusement park and an historical exhibition, combining standard amusement park staples like carousels and dark rides with pack mule trips and the like. But remember, at this time the amusement park had become a bad word in the American zeitgeist. So Walt wanted to pre-empt any thoughts of the amusement park his audience might get once they finally see Dumbo and the Tea Cups by tantalizing them with visions of exotic and exciting locales.
Another example of his genius: note how Walt points out that the TV show WOULD BE BROADCASTING FROM DISNEYLAND upon its opening “in 10 months’ time.” And then, he says, he would like to show you “how we’re getting ready.” Holy cow, what a setup! TEN WHOLE MONTHS of waiting and anticipation. A promise of what would surely be one of the biggest broadcasts of television history up to that time! And now here’s a glimpse of what we’ll see! Modern producers literally couldn’t do it any better.
Thus begins the tour of Disneyland that isn’t. Of course, still completely on course, Walt leads with the land that has the most substance in its Disneyland park presentation: Main Street. It’s the only land where we get to see a scale model. And because of this scale model, boy, color our appetites whetted. Walt’s description of Main Street is succinct yet complete. As we saunter through the Main Street proper, Walt points out the train station and the plaza (complete with a band concert park, no less) before telling us that “straight ahead lies the heartline of America,” and that Main Street is “Hometown USA” just after the turn of the century, when electricity was replacing the gas lamp. It will have the “color of the frontier days, combined with the excitement of the upcoming 20th century.” He ends the camera tour by saying it is “the most important spot in the nation.” Do you think he’s fond of his Marceline hometown or what? Walt loved Main Street down to the core. And that leads to the set up of the most famous shot of the show, at 5:30 where we look right at Walt above the castle from a train station view. The pitch for the shot is literally perfect.
Walt explains that the Hub is “the heart of Disneyland,” and like “the four cardinal points on the compass, Disneyland has four cardinal realms…four different worlds where our TV show will originate.” Again, Walt has an uncanny ability of teaching us these concepts in the simplest language so that everyone can remember, and not only remember but become excited for them!
This segway gives Walt a chance to explore the shows that will be upcoming based on the four cardinal lands of Disneyland. Each segment is cleverly introduced with an artist rendering of the land it represents, to give an audience a feel into the theme of the area.
Frontierland is first (starting at 6:15), where Walt will be introducing tales of frontier folklore (Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett). He sets up his Davy Crockett series by retelling the Davy Crockett folk story, and then having Fess Parker sing George Bruns’s legendary ballad for the very first time. As everyone knows, Davy Crockett turned into the first smash hit for Disney on television (to be followed by Zorro and others). Synergy never sleeps at Disney.
The Adventureland segment is by far the strangest (starting at 9:30). Ostensibly an introduction to the Tru-Life Adventures, the audience is subjected to scenes around the world of “interesting people,” which somehow includes both native dancing in Africa and bull-riding in Spain. Sure. And of course let’s not forget the futility of the cameraman to film the penguins, who were too interested in him to actually do anything entertaining (so of course they go with the obvious solution and throw a mirror into the middle of everything to “distract” them, which just led to them wandering up to the mirror and wondering what the hell it was).
16:00 starts the Tomorrowland segment, where Ward Kimball makes his debut to talk about the upcoming series of space-related documentaries that would be shown on Disneyland. Tomorrowland, is about “understanding what lies before us,” which is hilarious to us because this is 1955 we’re talking about. However, once we regain our perspective, think about how scarily accurate some of Disney’s future predictions are when you realize people did not make it to space until 1961. And not only that, but Ward and his team provide descriptions of atomic-powered space stations and trips to Mars. No seriously, they talk about Mars like it’s going to be a walk in the park after we get to the moon. And we have an appearance by the Ward Kimball Common Man! Always a treat.
The Fantasyland segment starts at 20:00 and it’s practically nothing unless you really like Song of the South. There’s no view of Fantasyland besides the castle, and Walt just shows us a glimpse of a few animated movies before strangely diving into the Laughing Place scene from Song of the South. Talk about random. And I think Parkscope is now on some FBI watch list for playing a segment from Song of the South. Though, Walt does make a lovely portrayal of Fantasyland when he says it’s a place where “hopes and dreams are all that matter.” We love you, Walt.
"You're welcome, Parkscope!"
Thus begins the meatiest part of the show, which is the Mickey Mouse segment. And by golly, Walt will not go away before you know Mickey’s entire life history. We learn about his, shall we say, “rambunctious” years of the late 20s (when he had quite the teenage hellion streak about him), his time with Pluto, his teaming up with Donald and Goofy in Lonesome Ghosts, and his solo piece de resistance effort in Fantasia. Of note, this was before the Mickey Mouse Club debuted, which means that Mickey was not doing well in popularity. In fact, at the time Donald was far more popular than Mickey. Walt used this segment to remind audiences how great Mickey was, and was an opening salvo for the full-throated attack that would come later starring Annette and the Big Mooseketeer. Walt would never give up on the ol’ Mouse, that’s for sure.
We end the show with a glimpse into the next Disneyland episode, where Walt featured the TV debut of Alice in Wonderland. One can assume Walt chose this particular movie because of all the animated movies released during the 1950s, Alice was the least popular. I’m sure Walt felt this was a way to try to re-ignite Alice in the minds of the American audience.
As we end the show, “When You Wish Upon a Star” plays through the end credits, forever connecting the Disney castle park with that timeless Disney anthem. Amazing how so many of these tropes were set up from day one.
And so ends a milestone event in both television and theme park history. The most significant point I got from re-watching this classic is the fact that Walt Disney is such a bloody good storyteller and salesman. The man literally is selling a flea circus at this point in Disneyland’s conception, and yet here he is trotting out phrases like “The Heartline of America” and “a place of hopes and dreams.” He connects all of Disney’s history so well in just one episode of television, providing a thesis statement for the entire country as to who Walt Disney is and what he stands for. I honestly can’t think of a better introduction to Walt’s brilliance.
It would be a lie to say the Disney company has always been profitable, stable, and independent. Constantly over the years various projects have been sold to others, outside work contracted, sponsorships signed, and internal projects promoted. It wasn't till the Eisner/Wells duo in the 80s and 90s that made the Walt Disney Company a powerful standalone entity.
The Disneyland Story pulls double duty as not only a theme park promotion item (for a park opening over a year away) but as a sort of media perpetual motion machine. New TV shows and specials would be developed under the Disneyland brand, and as such, would end up in the theme park. The theme park would then inspire developments on the TV show. And to boot it was all sponsored and funded by someone else's money. Brilliant!
While The Disneyland Special features specials guests and what TV shows you can expect, the park is hardly covered. While discussing Adventureland (nee True Life Adventure Land) such things as the Jungle Cruise is still a nebulous concept. And it's not just that, Frontierland doesn't mention mule rides, Fantasyland doesn't talk about flying elephants or tea cups, and Tomorrowland was barely finished by the time the park opened! The only land that seems to get any attention was Main Street USA (Hometown USA) with a sweeping shot of the model somewhere in Glendale. This is probably because Walt didn't have any movies or plans for shows based around the turn of the century.
The framework for future specials could be seen though. Special guests were present in some form, there was singing (oh the future specials will get to singing), pan media coverage, executives, and Mickey. The focus is never on the individual rides or singular experiences as much as it is about the concept, the feeling of Disneyland. Viewers get the vibe of Disneyland more than a travelogue, which is what the next Disneyland special turns into (with spectacular results...)
Thanks for reading and watching with us. Tube in next week for Parkscope YouTube Tuesday #2!
--Jeff (@ParkScopeJeff) and Joe (@parkscopejoe)