Here’s a challenge: Try to condense 60 years of Disneyland history into a single museum-like exhibit.
That’s the test facing Becky Cline, Walt Disney Archives director. She’s putting the finishing touches on “Walt Disney Archives Presents — Disneyland: The Exhibit,” which in August will attempt to encompass the theme park’s past six decades for D23 Expo, Disney’s biennial fan event.
Now factor in that for many of the Disney fans attending D23 Expo, there is more than one Disneyland.
There’s the Disneyland that opened to the paying public July 18, 1955, on a plot of land in Anaheim about 27 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
This is the Disneyland that contains American cultural landmarks such as Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and the Mad Hatter’s spinning teacups. It’s the Disneyland that Walt Disney himself set foot in, and, as this very newspaper described two months before the park’s opening, would ultimately threaten “Santa Claus as a ranking childhood favorite.”
Then there are the Disneylands that exist as personal places in the minds of nearly everyone who visited the park at a young age.
Maybe it’s the Disneyland in which the Jungle Cruise must be ridden at least twice on any single visit because someone’s father always laughed at the skipper’s joke involving the “backside of water.” Or the Disneyland in which the Enchanted Tiki Room is to be avoided because someone’s mother has a paralyzing fear of birds.
Facts don’t matter so much at this Disneyland. Maybe, for instance, you remember seeing real-life mermaids — or rather, real-life women in mermaid costumes — in the submarine lagoon. Or maybe you just saw a picture of them when you were 5 years old and that was real enough.
Finally, there is the Disneyland that no longer exists. This is the Disneyland in which a ride like Adventure Thru Inner Space was a Tomorrowland centerpiece, at least until Star Tours moved into town. It’s the Disneyland in which Main Street U.S.A once had a lingerie shop, and Frontierland once had a calm train rather than a runaway one. This, of course, is the Disneyland forever lost to technological progress — or branding acquisitions.
Cline is hip to all these Disneylands. As the principal architect of “Disneyland: The Exhibit,” Cline has been taking an experiential rather than purely sequential point of view.
For Disneyland is no longer just Walt Disney’s story or the narrative of a company. A certain ownership is placed on anything that touched us at a young age, and only a few escaped into adulthood without being touched by Disneyland, the kingdom of all escapism. Disneyland belongs to all of those who value a playground dedicated to the mind’s eye, where the surreal, the haunted, the childish and the prehistoric can transport each of us to somewhere unique within our own imaginations.
To this day I can’t ride Pirates of the Caribbean without hearing the voice of my late cousin, insisting that the Anaheim edition is far superior to the one at Florida’s Walt Disney World. In that moment, cousin Steve and his stories and exaggerations are as real as they’ve ever been.
So to tell the story of Disneyland at the D23 Expo, which runs Aug. 14-16 at the Anaheim Convention Center, Cline opted not for a point-by-point retelling of how Walt Disney built the park.
“How do I tell this humongous story?” she asked. “I thought, ‘I don’t really want to tell this story in a linear fashion.’ I don’t want to do a chronology, like ‘Walt figured it out here. He built it and designed it and then this happened and this happened.’ ”
Instead, “Disneyland: The Exhibit” will be laid out much like the park — by theme, from the orange groves that once sat on the plot to Main Street U.S.A. and beyond, even touching on aspects of the park typically off limits to us commoners such as the members-only Club 33. Opening the presentation will be some recently acquired surveying equipment used in Disneyland’s construction. Like anything associated with a Disney park, the construction tools are, if not a collectible, priceless to someone.
“The equipment was discovered and turned over to the archives a couple years ago. We haven’t shared it with anybody yet. There’s brass survey markers and 1950s surveying equipment. It’s vintage looking,” Cline said.
To be spread across 12,000 square feet on the Anaheim Convention Center floor, the archival piece isn’t lacking in artifacts that are “vintage looking” — or items that some thought were long lost to history. At least one age-old window decoration at Main Street U.S.A shop the Emporium, for instance, will once again be on display.
“The Emporium would have these very special windows that were created to highlight an anniversary of a film, for example,” Cline said. “Then those window displays actually become historic later on.”
There will be a retired animatronic from Pirates of the Caribbean, costumes worn by “Mickey Mouse Club” cast
members when they visited the park, the first-ever ticket sold, which was purchased by Walt Disney’s brother, Roy O. Disney, and a deconstruction of a ride that aims to show the Imagineering process.
“We’re trying to give you a feel of what it would be like to spend a day at Disneyland over the different decades,” Cline said.
Disneyland to this day remains in a constant state of flux. If you’re really young, you may associate the park with “Frozen.” Children of the ’70s may swear by America Sings. Those who grew up going to Walt Disney World across the country may be obsessed with all things related to Epcot’s purple dragon Figment (hand raised), while West Coasters may swear by the Abominable Snowman.
With the reopening on May 22 of the Matterhorn Bobsleds with new animatronics, the original Abominable Snowman will be retired to the Disney archives and shown at D23 Expo. By the time the exhibit is finalized, Cline expects around 300 pieces in total. One of the more detailed displays will be dedicated to Fantasyland ride Alice in Wonderland, which opened in 1958 and will aim to show how a ride is made from the ground-up.
Among the pieces on display will be a wheel-less prototype of the caterpillar-shaped Alice ride vehicles. The plywood mock-up was used to gauge whether a caterpillar-shaped vehicle could be practical, in terms of housing multiple guests.
“We’re calling it ‘Alice in Wonderland: The Anatomy of an Attraction.’ It tells the story of how an attraction comes to be,” Cline said. “It goes from the original inspiration, which is, of course, the animated film that came out in 1951, and takes that and shows how some of the artwork from the film inspired the ride and how the ride was developed. There are some pieces from the final attraction that are now assets in the archives. It’s a vignette that’s not just show and tell.”
Some of the artifacts, including relics from the six-week run of the “Mickey Mouse Club” Circus, are so rare, Cline said, Disney has never shown them publicly before. Just before the circus was introduced in November 1955, Walt Disney touted to The Times that the park was averaging attendance of 50,000 per week and that guests were spending about $2 per person. They weren’t, however, taken with the circus, despite the fact that it featured the “Mickey Mouse Club” cast.
“The Mouseketeers would perform a musical variety act within the circus itself. It was a fascinating experiment,” Cline said, adding that a “two-hour circus kind of took” a little too much of the guest’s time.
Cline was hesitant to say whether “Disneyland: The Exhibit” would have a life outside of the D23 Expo, but with Disneyland’s 60th anniversary festivities launching on May 22, she wouldn’t rule out part of the presentation making its way to the resort.
“Once our exhibit is over we may find other ways to share these assets,” she said. “Time will tell.”
— Todd Martens
Walt Disney Archives Presents — Disneyland: The Exhibit
Where: D23 Expo 2015 at the Anaheim Convention Center, 800 W Katella Ave, Anaheim
When: Aug. 14-16
Tickets: Single-day passes for adults start at $67 (cheaper for D23 members); a three-day pass currently runs $196 for adults, with prices set to rise after June 30.