Explore Vintage Disneyland In 55 Magical Photos

Published August 9, 2017
Updated February 26, 2021

From its grand opening in 1955 to the original "It’s A Small World" ride, these photos of Disneyland's early days prove that it has always been "the happiest place on Earth."

Disneyland Entrance Sign
Tomorrowland Astronaut
Walt Grandson
Disney Tomorrowland 1968
Explore Vintage Disneyland In 55 Magical Photos
View Gallery

Since it first opened its gates on July 17, 1955, Disneyland has become one of the most iconic amusement parks on the planet. Dubbed "the happiest place on Earth," over 750 million people have visited Disneyland since its opening day.

The brainchild of Walt Disney himself, the park came to be after Disney spent an afternoon with his two daughters at Los Angeles' Griffith Park in the early 1930s. While watching his girls enjoy the park's carousel, Disney had the idea of creating a park full of rides that an entire family could enjoy.

It took two decades of planning. Disney borrowed against his own life insurance and sold off some property, even as others marked his project as a premature failure. Some in Hollywood dubbed the park "Walt's folly."

Since his reputation was on the line and his finances at stake, Disney set the lofty goal of opening Disneyland a year after construction on it started. It's likely he knew this would be a stretch, but he wished upon a star — and his wish came true.

Many Thought The Ambitious Park Would Fail

Jungle Cruise Schweitzer Falls

The construction of Schweitzer Falls, in vintage Disneyland, 1955.

The original park was much smaller than modern-day Disneyland and was therefore constructed rather quickly.

Disney had shared his first ideas for what the park might look like with production designer Dick Kelsey on Aug. 31, 1948. These were based on concepts that Disney had for a park then-known as "Mickey Mouse Park."

Over the next several years, and with the help of artist Herb Ryman, the concept slowly materialized. On July 16, 1954, construction began.

Disney also managed to secure a partnership with the television network ABC, which aired the progress of his park in a bid to drum up attention over it. Tropical jungles emerged, a frontier fort went up, and Sleeping Beauty's ornate castle, which was modeled on Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle began to replace the orange groves on the Anaheim lot.

But progress was sporadic, and it soon became apparent that the one-year construction timeline was a little too ambitious for such a monumental project — and issues kept cropping up.

"A few weeks before the opening, there was a major meeting," chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, Dick Nunis, explained. "There was a plumbing strike. I'll never forget this. I happened to be in the meeting. So the contractor was telling Walt, 'Walt, there aren't enough hours in the day to finish the restrooms and to finish all the drinking fountains.' And this is classic Walt. He said, 'Well, you know they could drink Coke and Pepsi, but they can't pee in the streets. Finish the restrooms.'"

True to Disney's plan, the park opened just one year and one day after work began. It wasn't quite finished, but according to Disney, it may never be truly finished.

Indeed, Disney noted, "Disneyland will never be completed, as long as there is imagination left in the world".

Problems Abounded At Disneyland's Opening Day

ABC's complete footage of opening day at Disneyland, 1955.

Opening day was initially intended to be a smaller event — tickets were sold by "invite-only" and not available to the general public — but bootleg tickets circulated widely. The planned-for 6,000 guests transformed into over 28,000.

In addition to the counterfeit tickets, people clambered over Disneyland's fences thanks to a wily entrepreneur charging $5 for the use of his ladder.

Many other things went wrong on Disneyland's first day of operation. The water fountains didn't work, and the overflow of people wiped out concession stands within hours. The weather was so hot that day that newly poured asphalt softened, trapping many a high-heel in black goo.

Some rides and attractions weren't completed, others suffered breakdowns, and the overcrowded Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland sank in the mud.

"It took about 20 to 30 minutes to get it fixed and back on the rail and it came chugging in," Terry O'Brien, the opening day ride operator for the Mark Twain Riverboat recalled. "As soon as it pulled up to the landing, all the people rushed to the side to get off, and the boat tipped into the water again, so they all had to wade off through the water, and some of them were pretty mad."

Yet, people didn't leave. Despite all these catastrophes, morning ticketholders remained through the afternoon, making the park even more crowded as the day went on.

The Park Quickly Became 'The Happiest Place On Earth'

House Of The Future

Monsanto's "House of the Future" in the futuristic Tomorrowland section of Disneyland. The house was supposedly supposed to demonstrate the many uses of plastic.

Meanwhile, ABC broadcast the park's grand opening live. An estimated 70 million people (the country had a population of 165 million at the time) tuned in to watch.

Walt Disney presided over opening ceremonies and gave a speech. One of his co-hosts was none other than the actor (and future president), Ronald Reagan.

The fanfare also included a benediction by a Protestant minister and the playing of the national anthem. There was even a flyover by the Air National Guard of California.

Special guests included friends and family of employees and the press, as well as some celebrities. The likes of Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, and others appeared on the guest list.

The original park featured themed sections, including Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Main Street U.S.A., which was modeled after Disney's hometown in Missouri. The park has since added Critterland, Mickey's Toontown, New Orleans Square, and Star Wars: Galaxy Edge's.

Once the dust of opening day settled, Disneyland stole people's hearts. The park was indeed one of the happiest places on Earth. These vintage Disneyland photos serve as a reminder of just how iconic the park has been in American culture.

If you care to see the creepier side of theme parks, check out these eerie abandoned amusement parks that time forgot. And if looking into the history of iconic locations is up your alley, then you'll enjoy these photos of famous landmarks before they were completed.

Joel Stice
Joel Stice holds a Bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with more than 10 years of experience in writing and editing, during which time his work has appeared on Heavy, Uproxx, and Buzzworthy.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
Citation copied
Cite This Article
Stice, Joel. "Explore Vintage Disneyland In 55 Magical Photos." AllThatsInteresting.com, August 9, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/vintage-disneyland-photos. Accessed June 24, 2024.