D23 Expo: ‘Disneyland: The Exhibit’ takes a ride through 60 years of history

May 12, 2015 | 4:45 a.m.
The original Abdominal Snowman animatronic created for the Matterhorn Bobsleds, first added to the ride in 1978.  (Disney)

The original Abominable  Snowman animatronic created for the Matterhorn Bobsleds, first added to the ride in 1978. (Disney)

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.”

A now-retired pirate animatronic for Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. (Disneyland)

A now-retired pirate animatronic for Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. (Disneyland)

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.’ ”

Becky Cline, Walt Disney Archives director, sits in an early prototype vehicle for Fantasyland’s ride inspired by Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The wheel-less caterpillar-shaped car is made of plywood.  (Disney)

Becky Cline, Walt Disney Archives director, sits in an early prototype vehicle for Fantasyland’s ride inspired by Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The wheel-less caterpillar-shaped car is made of plywood. (Disney)

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

Never-before-displayed artifacts from the "Mickey Mouse Club" Circus, “Mickey Mouse Club” Circus, which debuted at Disneyland in November of 1955 (Disney)

Never-before-displayed artifacts from the “Mickey Mouse Club” Circus, “Mickey Mouse Club” Circus, which debuted at Disneyland in November 1955. (Disney)

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 first ticket sold on the first day that the park was open to the paying public on July 18, 1955. The ticket was purchased by Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother. (Disney)

The first ticket sold on the first day that the park was open to the paying public on July 18, 1955. The ticket was purchased by Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother. (Disney)

“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.

Info: www.d23expo.com


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Star Wars Celebration complete coverage: Every video, image and story from the fan expo



13 Responses to D23 Expo: ‘Disneyland: The Exhibit’ takes a ride through 60 years of history

  1. abdallasyam87 says:


  2. Ron says:

    Disneyland opened July 17, 1955, not July 18 as mentioned in the above article.

    • toddmartens says:

      Hi Ron,

      Disneyland held a press preview on July 17, 1955, but the park's first official opening day for the general public was July 18, 1955. As stated in the above article, July 18 was the first day paying customers could enter the park.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Here's some more info on July 18:

  3. Ron says:

    As a former Disney cast member, the Walt Disney Company trains all their Disneyland cast members that Disneyland's official opening date is July 17, 1955. While the D23 article states that July 18 is the day the park opens to the public, The Walt Disney Company celebrates the July 17 date.

    • Thor says:

      For at least the first 10 years, Walt Disney Productions trained all their employees that the park opened July 18th.

      Local archived news articles from the LA Times and Santa Ana Register are available online stating the anniversary date as "July 18th" for the 1960 five year anniversary and the 1965 Tencenial anniversary. As Disneyland passed into American legend in the 1970's, the "opening" date of July 17th was adopted because that was the date that all the media material was created; Frank Sinatra riding Autopia, Ronald Reagan broadcasting from the train station, Bob Cummings caught kissing a girl in Fantasyland, etc.

      This LA Times article, and the Imagineer creating this exhibit, are correct. Disneyland opened to the public on July 18th, 1955.

    • Lee Hively says:

      I too am a former Cast Member (which by the way, "Cast Member" needs to always be capitalized), and I am a former Disneyland trainer as well. The reporter is right that July 18, 1955, was the opening day. July 17 is recognized as the official BIRTHDAY for purposes of celebrations. You should be aware that even the company changes its mind on some of these "facts". I have combed through many vintage booklets, brochures, and artifacts (especially the company's annual reports) and I have found not only the company stating that July 18 is the birthday, but I even found a representation of Mickey Mouse's passport showing his birthday to be in May. I don't have the specific volume and page numbers at the ready because it's a waste of time to constantly respond to these pedantic trivia wars. But just know that your training notwithstanding, there may be more gray area to the "truth" than you realize.

  4. Jeffrey says:

    Hi Ron, the park "opened" on July 17, 1955 as a media/VIP preview, so no tickets were sold. The first day the park was open to the general public was July 18, 1955, hence that's the date Roy O. Disney purchased the ticket.

  5. Michael says:

    Just another money grab by the Disney Co. The Disney clones will be there as well as 50% of the people in attendance will be the ebay sellers. I attended the 1st one and it was special now not so much!!

  6. Richard says:

    My Grandmother, Renie Conley, was the Imagineer in charge of creating the "wardrobe" of Cast Members. As I'm sure all of you know, the "credits" for the Imagineers, are in the second story windows on Main Street. My Grandmother's is Renie's Dress Shop.

    Looking forward to seeing this exhibit. Happy Anniversary

  7. Lonnie Burr says:

    As Mouseketeer Lonnie, 1 of 4 boys of 39 original Mouseketeers, along with 5 girls, my girlfriend Annie, the late Annette Funicello, we were in the Downtown parade and then did a dance number in front of The Mickey Mouse Club Theatre* AND the only Roll Call that involved all 24 Mouseketeers. When the series started we were broken down into 3 groups and only 1 groups did the Roll Call. * The theatre was later retitled the Fantasyland Theatre. During the circus we rode camels and elephants, both of whom have long, strong hairs that pierce through costumes – but only "ow" not 'OUCH'! Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr

  8. Dave says:

    Hopefully, the posters here can help me out on something I, as a movie buff, have always been curious about relating to the opening of Disneyland. Thanks!
    Frankly, it seems that the video and/or film and photos of the VIP and the public opening of the Park are kinda lame-o. From the beginning of his career in Silents and throughout his life, Disney was always on the cutting edge of production and presentation of his product, whether we're talking combining live action and animation, an early adapter of technicolor, invention of the multi-plane camera, stereo sound for FANTASIA, and on and on.
    So, why, when it comes to the opening of Disneyland–arguably, the most important achievement of his storied career–are we left with what looks like a sparse amount of degraded, B&W videotape of middle-aged B-level celebrities like Reagan, Cummings and Linkletter squinting in the sun and (not very enthusiastically) exhorting the masses to enjoy this magical land?
    This from Walt Disney? The man who pioneered technicolor and the multi-plane camera. The man who worked tirelessly through WW2 and used all his talents to explain the war effort to the American Public (and the world). Grainy videotape? Where's technicolor? Production values? Mickey, Minnie, A-list Movie Stars?

    Or, am I wrong?

    • Lee Hively says:

      You are wrong, on two aspects.

      First regarding the B&W videotape and lack of color film, the construction costs of Disneyland along with the opening ceremony was underwritten by ABC. In addition, the opening ceremonies were broadcast live… that's LIVE TV in 1955. There were no color TVs in general use, nor were there any color TV cameras (outside of any labs). For the live broadcast, it could not be filmed. They had to use what was available for the immediate transmission out onto the airwaves.

      Second regarding the "B-level celebrities like Reagan, Cummings and Linkletter", these three celebrities were all good friends of Walt so he could press upon them to "help him out". (Finances were notoriously tight.) And keep in mind that not just any celebrity would be capable of performing on a live TV broadcast nor would they want to, nor would they necessarily want to appear on what at that time might have been considered some podunk little amusement park show. Remember, Disneyland had NO reputation yet, only glimpses of its construction and a lot of hopes and dreams. But the three celebrities who did appear did have experience in what might be called unscripted performances. So they were the most qualified for being able to do the job, for wanting to do the job, and for not a lot of money.

      • Dave says:

        OK, maybe finances left Disney stuck with his Bohemian Grove buddies and B&W kinescopes, but he should of CYA'd this one-time opportunity with at least high-quality 16mm color film and documentation of VIP and actual guest reactions. Remember at this time that Disney had an army of 16mm color cameramen shooting his Oscar winning "True Life Adventure" series of documentaries. They could have taken a break from filming lemmings marching off cliffs and shot lots of candy-colored, mouth-watering technicolor footage of kids and their families reveling in the Park. This footage would still be used and talked about today–instead of Reagan, Cummings & Linkletter. I respectfully submit that this was, unfortunately, an easily achievable but missed opportunity by Walt Disney. Though, he obviously had a lot on his mind at the time and had to factor in time management and priorities.

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