Best Rides from Opening Day of Disneyland
Did you know that opening day at Disneyland was a total debacle? It’s true. As I recount in my book, Disney Demystified Volume 1 (sorry for the shameless plug), the plumbing didn’t work, a TV host got busted cheating on his wife on camera, the asphalt melted until women had to remove their high-heeled shoes, and a boat almost capsized. It was a nightmare and the worst case scenario for Walt Disney.
Despite the temporary setback that happened in front of a paltry 90 million television viewers, the park still became the Happiest Place on Earth…and Disney got a lot right on opening day. Here’s a ranking of the best rides from Disneyland’s opening day that are still in operation and beloved today.
7) King Arthur Carrousel
First of all, I’m excluding two attractions from this list. The Mark Twain Riverboat was never much of an attraction inasmuch as it was a way to distract a swath of park guests each day. The biggest historical footnote about it is the aforementioned near-capsizing on opening day. As for Storybook Land Canal Boats, it shouldn’t count due to a significant technicality. The July 17th ride in 1955 was Canal Boats of the World, and it suckdiddlyucked. The attraction that you know today didn’t open until 11 months later. Keeping that in mind, here are the best seven rides…
I was never a huge fan of carousels, but I appreciate the King Arthur Carrousel due to its history. This attraction will celebrate its 150th (!) anniversary in 2025, which means that it’s 80 years older than Disneyland. That also means that until 2037, it will remain more than twice as old as the theme park that hosts it. How did it wind up at Disneyland? Well, Uncle Walt wanted something with a bit of history, and he settled on this carousel that had entertained guests at Sunnyside Beach Park in Toronto, Ontario. He purchased the carousel and transported it to Disney, where it has remained an integral part of park lore ever since. Yes, it’s just a carousel, but it’s an important one.
6) Snow White’s Scary Adventures
In the aftermath of Disneyland’s opening day struggles, Walt Disney quickly righted the ship. He leveraged all the media attention for his new park into several new revenue opportunities. Using that money and strong ticket sales, he corrected all the lingering issues with the park. One of the fixes was something of a surprise.
Snow White’s Scary Adventures intended to tell the story of Snow White by showing her point of view. When guests boarded the attraction, they effectively became Snow White for a time. Living in a fairy tale come true sounds lovely in theory. In execution, it confused many guests and scared countless others, particularly small children.
The Evil Queen terrified them due to her realism. The ones who didn’t mind her still wondered where Snow White was, not understanding that they were looking at the ride through her eyes. I’ve always thought this summarized the attraction well. It’s muddled and kind of off-putting. But it stays in operation because it connects two different integral aspects of Disney history. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first animated movie ever made, while Snow White’s Scary Adventures is one of the original Disneyland attractions.
In 2018, we take driving a car for granted…so much so that we may not even do it for much longer. Self-driving cars already exist and could receive mainstream adoption over the next few years. Back when Disneyland opened, however, cars were still largely a product owned by the elite. These vehicles held a high station in the opinion of the public, and the idea that children could drive one at the Happiest Place on Earth made kids, well, happy.
Autotopia was such a massive success as an attraction that Disneyland operated three different versions of it at various times in addition to the original one. Parents loved the children’s version, as they could entertain their kids while receiving a hard-earned respite. Perhaps this aspect explains why most major theme parks today still offer some variation of the Autopia concept.
4) Mad Tea Party
I always wonder which madman invented this ride. It’s such a strange concept. You sit in a teacup and spin around. That’s the ride. To create the attraction, someone had to think, “What’s the best part of Alice in Wonderland?” And that person’s response was, “Being small enough to fit in a tea cup.” Then, they had to determine the best way to make sitting in a tea cup fun.
The best idea that they had was to spin it in a circle ad nauseam, and I really feel like the word “nauseam” is applicable here. Mad Tea Party is a vomit comet of epic proportions. It’s also extremely fun…as long as your stomach holds. Nobody wants to throw up at Disneyland, although it happens more than you think. Like many people, I have a love/hate with Mad Tea Party, which is why it fits perfectly in fourth place on the list.
3) Peter Pan’s Flight
Did you realize that this attraction is more than 60 years old? The lines it maintains to this day suggest that it’s still a crowd-pleaser. In 1955, however, its ride structure was nothing short of a revelation. Sure, you’re used to the Soarin’ mechanics of getting swept into the air. What you take for granted is a technology that Disney Imagineers literally invented in the mid-1950s.
Walt Disney believed that the best way to experience the fairy tale stories was by living them as the protagonist. With Snow White’s Scary Adventures and Peter Pan’s Flight, he confused guests to a degree by showing these fairy tale worlds from the eyes of the main characters. The Neverland ride worked anyway due to the sublime recreation of the London skyline and the spectacular detail of Peter Pan’s realm. Plus, the instant a cast member sprinkles Pixie Dust on your ride cart, you truly believe that you can fly. Out of all the opening day attractions still in existence, this one was farthest ahead of its time.
2) Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
I understand that Disney theme parks need to update constantly in order to honor Uncle Walt’s wishes. He expected the plussing of the parks that bear his name. Still, few decisions have upset me as much as when Magic Kingdom chose to shutter Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I’m indescribably jealous of Disneyland, which isn’t a park I visit as much, for still having this true classic.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is a glorious exercise in color, a consistent theme for the first generation of Disney attractions. Like Peter Pan’s Flight, its most distinctive trait is the eye-popping illustrations on display. Generations later, guests like me still marvel at the vivid, gripping detail of the imagery.
1) Jungle Cruise
Originally constructed as a serious attraction, Jungle Cruise mimicked one of the most popular movies from the glory days of Hollywood. It was a prolonged tribute to The African Queen, providing riders the opportunity to explore a dangerous part of Asia. And Africa. And South America. Yes, Jungle Cruise takes the best parts of several different rivers and turns them into one fictional but thrilling adventure.
The fascinating historical footnote about Jungle Cruise is that it’s an attraction where the cast members quietly revolted. After reciting the dull travelogue script for a few years, several skippers started to rebel. They punctuated the well-known dialogue with the occasional punchline, enhancing the entertainment. Eventually, Disney ceded to the wisdom of its employees by accepting that Jungle Cruise worked better as a silly attraction.
The core mechanics of Jungle Cruise remain untouched today, though. You still board a boat that transports you past several meticulously crafted set pieces. Each one signifies a different part of mankind’s exploration of nature. Even without all the quips, Jungle Cruise still merits lofty praise for maintaining its ride structure for this long. Plus, it remains one of the greatest attractions ever created.
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