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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Happy Birthday to the Magic Kingdom

“You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity, by legislating the wealth out of prosperity.” — Dr. Adrian Rogers (1931-2005)

Disneyland, Walt Disney's metropolis of nostalgia, fantasy, and futurism, opens on July 17, 1955. The $17 million theme park was built on 160 acres of former orange groves in Anaheim, California, and soon brought in staggering profits. Today, Disneyland hosts more than 14 million visitors a year, who spend close to $3 billion.

Walt Disney, born in Chicago in 1901, worked as a commercial artist before setting up a small studio in Los Angeles to produce animated cartoons. In 1928, his short film Steamboat Willy, starring the character "Mickey Mouse," was a national sensation. It was the first animated film to use sound, and Disney provided the voice for Mickey. From there on, Disney cartoons were in heavy demand, but the company struggled financially because of Disney's insistence on ever-improving artistic and technical quality. His first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), took three years to complete and was a great commercial success.

Snow White was followed by other feature-length classics for children, such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). Fantasia (1940), which coordinated animated segments with famous classical music pieces, was an artistic and technical achievement. In Song of the South (1946), Disney combined live actors with animated figures, and beginning with Treasure Island in 1950 the company added live-action movies to its repertoire. Disney was also one of the first movie studios to produce film directly for television, and its Zorro and Davy Crockett series were very popular with children.

In the early 1950s, Walt Disney began designing a huge amusement park to be built near Los Angeles. He intended Disneyland to have educational as well as amusement value and to entertain adults and their children. Land was bought in the farming community of Anaheim California and construction began in 1954. In the summer of 1955, special invitations were sent out for the opening of Disneyland on July 17. Unfortunately, the pass was counterfeited and thousands of uninvited people were admitted into Disneyland on opening day. The park was not ready for the public: food and drink ran out, a women's high-heel shoe got stuck in the wet asphalt of Main Street USA, and the Mark Twain Steamboat nearly capsized from too many passengers.

Disneyland soon recovered, however, and attractions such as the Castle, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Snow White's Adventures, Space Station X-1, Jungle Cruise, and Stage Coach drew countless children and their parents. Special events and the continual building of new state-of-the-art attractions encouraged them to visit again. In 1965, work began on an even bigger Disney theme park and resort near Orlando, Florida. Walt Disney died in 1966, and Walt Disney World was opened in his honor on October 1, 1971. Epcot Center, Disney-MGM Studios, and Animal Kingdom were later added to Walt Disney World, and it remains Florida's premier tourist attraction. In 1983, Disneyland Tokyo opened in Japan, and in 1992 Disneyland Paris--or "EuroDisney"--opened to a mixed reaction in Marne-la-Vallee. The newest Disneyland, in Hong Kong, opened its doors in September 2005.

My first visit to Disneyland was in November of 1961 when my wife, 12-year old brother and I spent two weeks visiting California. Like millions of Americans we had watched he “Wonderful World of Disney” on TV each week. Walt Disney had a great deal going with ABC as each week he put on a commercial for the park in the guise of a TV show. People didn’t care they enjoyed the show and learned about Disneyland.

Disneyland did come easy for Walt Disney. He had dreamed of this park for84-3392 years. He wanted an amusement park not dominated by rollercoasters and midway games. He wanted to focus on children by presenting a clean and safe environment where they could enjoy his fantasy world.

During the 1970’s my wife worked as the operations officer for the Bank of America on Main Street. Even in the bank the employees had to dress in costumes commensurate with the character of the park. Employees of the park were not considered staff or employees – they were called characters and anyone appearing in public had to dress their part.

I would go to the park on Friday nights and meet up with my wife after work and we would spend the evening eating at one of the many restaurants and walking the park. This was great as it was free and Disneyland is at its best when he sun goes down and the lights come on.

Disneyland did come easy for Walt Disney. When he visited Germany in the early 1950’s with daughter she was awed by the Castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. Disney told his daughter he would build her a similar castle in California, a castle that had stood for years as the symbol of the park.

85-0354_Neuschwanstein_16x20 PosterIt was not an easy task to build the Magic Kingdom. When Walt had developed his first plan he needed financing. There were no government subsidies in those days and the City of Anaheim was not going to kick in any bucks. Disney needed a bank to pony up the dollars for his dream. The problem was that since there were comparable parks in the nation the banks were leery of the project and Disney’s ability to pay back the loan.

Walt took his plans to the convention of amusement park operators in Chicago and presented his concept of the park. Suffice to say they were not impressed. They saw only one entrance and exit. There were no roller-coaster and a midway with vendors. The park would sell no alcoholic beverages. All of these were negatives in the eyes of the experts. This did not bode well for Walt’s plans. Walt was an artist and creator, not a banker of financier.

Fortunately for Walt his brother Roy did have skills and contacts in the financial world. Roy made the rounds of the banks and venture capitalist investors. Finally he convinced the Bank of America to take the risk and he rest is history. This is why for years a Bank of America branch office sat near the entrance on Main Street to serve the visitors and park’s merchants. According to my wife every day they would exchange thousands of dollars in foreign currency for the international visitors.

Walt, Roy and the Bank of America took a tremendous risk to build a park that would attract more than 14 million visitors each year. Yes, the Disney Corporation made money, but wasn’t that the purpose — it certainly was for the bank.

Disneyland put the sleepy town of Anaheim on the map. The city’s coffers were filled with tax dollars collected from the park in the form of property and sales taxes. Thousands of people got jobs at Disneyland, many of them young people who went on to bigger and better careers. It was great place to work. Where else could you rub shoulders Mickey Mouse and Snow White?

The park had a strict dress code. Characters were not allowed to take their costume heads off while they were “on stage” and there was a strict dress code for all employees, including the merchants and those in the bank. The park was clean and spotless. If you dropped something on the ground you as felt guilty as if you had thrown trash on your on floor. Even the parking was well organized with trams taking you from the lot to the park entrance. All buildings on Main Street were at 7/8 scale so as not to overpower the kids. During the construction Walt Disney lived at the park and supervised every bit of the construction.

Today Disney is a giant corporation with world-wide assets employing hundreds of thousands. The city of Anaheim had benefited beyond expectations from Disneyland. Motels, hotels, and restaurants were built that in turn paid taxes to the city and county. Shopping centers and business parks were built. A stadium was built that is home for a major league baseball team and an arena home to a professional hockey team. There was once a professional football team, but they decide to relocate to St. Louis.

My firm provided consulting engineering services to Disney. They were a though client to please. They demanded perfection and held us to impossible schedules, but they paid for what they demanded, albeit slowly.

Disney did not rely on government for their park or its expansion. They paid for the road improvements and utility extensions. They paid to the off-ramp from the I-5 Freeway to the park. They paid for the traffic lights and street lighting. They paid for new sewers and storm drains. I know because we did some of the engineering for these improvements.

As I mentioned above the benefits to the city of Anaheim and Orange County were immense. My daughter live in Anaheim and her cost for city provided electricity is one-third of what I pay to Southern California Edison. The residents, schools, and businesses have benefited from Disneyland and its expansion park California Adventure. And billions of people of all ages, nationalities, and races have enjoyed their time in the Magic Kingdom taking back lasting memories along with a few fuzzy animals, and of course a set of Mickey Mouse ears.

So the question arises as to what Disneyland owes to government. In President Obama’s mind Walt and Roy Disney did not build Disneyland, the government did. What an upside down country we are living in today.

So Happy 57th Birthday to Disneyland.

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