How did Disneyland go from being a pipe dream to the most famous theme park in the world?
Once a sleepy plot of Californian orange groves, now the park receives more than 18 million visitors a year.
Architectural historian and theme park enthusiast Chris Nichols has charted the whirlwind origin story of Disneyland in his new book: “Walt Disney’s Disneyland.”
Nichols had unique access to Disney archives and some of the people who helped shape the Disney story — from celebrated composer Richard Sherman to original “Imagineer” Bob Gurr.
“Mid-century California became this powerhouse of art and science and entertainment,” Nichols tells CNN Travel.
“We had this great confluence of people in the aerospace industry that knew how to build things and people in the movie industry that knew how to tell stories. And so I love that that comes together in this three dimensional storytelling at Disneyland.”
California native Nichols grew up visiting Disneyland and was thrilled when book publisher Taschen approached him about the project.
The Disney company offered Nichols access to the Disney records and he dived head first into six decades of magic moments.
“There are collectors, there are things from auctions,” he says. “There are things from what we’re calling the golden age of photojournalism. Great, beautiful stuff from National Geographic or Look magazine or these old-time publications,” he explains.
“And then all the amazing stuff that Disney is able to pull out from the collections.”
His favorite “artifact” wasn’t a vintage poster or backstage-photo — it was a real life Disney insider: Imagineer Bob Gerr.
“He’s 87 years old and he was totally my secret weapon in this,” says Nichols.
“He was working on [Disneyland] when it was in development … and that’s astounding to have a perspective of someone that saw it go from an idea to a reality.”
Gerr told stories of spending the park’s first year constantly repairing rides — at times he was checking over the spinning tea cups as they twirled above him — and inventing new ones that were the first of their kind, such as audio animatronic experiences.
Nichols says the Disney’s vaults of photographs and artwork offered an endless supply of unexpected delights.
“They have an animation archive, they have an ‘imagineering’ archive, they have a photo archive,” he says.
He sifted through piles of scrapbooks charting everything including the logistics of the queuing system.
Nichols was particularly struck by the illustrations for the “Adventure Thru Inner Space” ride from the 1960s.
“The concept — selling the concept of subatomic physics through art was really gorgeous,” he says.
Behind the scenes
Disney fans and novices alike will be thrilled by the behind-the-scenes images and designs charted in the book.
“We wanted to show the evolution from a film to the attraction,” explains Nichols.
There’s a section about the Indiana Jones ride, examining how iconic scenes and features of the movies were translated into the ride.
It’s fascinating to read about the storytelling behind the ride, whether its the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, an attraction so engaging that it sparked a whole film franchise or the Enchanted Tiki Room, a staple of the park since the 1960s.
“They obsess over every detail to an extraordinary degree,” says Nichols. “And it’s not just paint or finish or architecture. It’s every element of the story from the sounds to the costumes to the music.”
Nichols chatted to Richard Sherman, the musical genius who, along with his brother Robert B. Sherman, soundtracked “Mary Poppins” and other Disney hits. They’re responsible for the tune accompanying the It’s a Small World ride which, once heard, you can never shake from your head.
“He said that Walt took him into an empty sound stage […] with Tiki Rooms set up in the corner and said ‘You’re going help explain this to people.’ It’s such an odd thing — he said the song explains what’s going on.
“You know you go in there and you see this beautiful show, but the song tells tells the story,” says Nichols.
The book ends with a sneak peek into the future of Disneyland — namely the addition of Star Wars: Galaxy Edge, due to open in 2019.
Nichols notes how Disneyland is great at renewing and refreshing its rides, without completely getting rid of the starting point.
“For example there was a building next to the Enchanted Tiki Room that used to be an Aladdin-themed restaurant, and that was an original 1960s Tiki restaurant,” he says. “And so they have sort of peeled off the Aladdin and now they’re going back to the original ’60s Tiki environment. It’s going to be called Tropical Hideaway and that’s going to open later this year.”
Researching and writing the book gave Nichols a new-found appreciation for the artistry and effort behind Disneyland and its spin-off parks. He thinks readers will have the same experience.
“I think anybody that knows about these people, that learns about these people, that hears about the people — that sees the breadth and depth of their creativity will be wowed anew,” he says.
“Even if you’ve rode through Small World innumerable times, seeing some of the art of Mary Blair [animator and imagineer] you’ll have a new found appreciation for it, seeing the art of Roley Crump [another imagineer] you will begin to appreciate in so much more detail […] the colors and the type and the spinning mobiles and the spinning flowers and the facade.”
Researching the park was such a labor of love for Nichols, that it proved hard to stop. His librarian wife Charlene stepped in to help craft the masses of research into an engaging narrative.
“I just wanted to go back again and again, it was like Christmas every day going through these collections and I just loved it. I’m hungry for it again, I want to go, I want to keep digging,” he laughs.