Four Amazing Facts About the Disneyland Hotel
Quick, name the person who built the Disneyland Hotel! Nope, it wasn’t Walt Disney. Or anyone else affiliated with Disney, for that matter. The first theme park resort was a construction project started by an oil baron and movie producer. Your mind is blown, right? The most famous Disney resort has several fascinating trivia details along these lines. Here are four amazing facts about the Disneyland Hotel.
Art Linkletter Almost Built the Hotel
One of the recurring themes of Disney theme parks is that The Walt Disney Company goes broke building them. In the 21st century, that’s an exaggeration, but it still has a basis in fact. Corporate executives famously tightened up their budgets in the year leading up to Shanghai Disneyland Resort. And their net income was $8.4 billion in 2015. Building a full theme park is a staggeringly expensive proposition, even for the most financially stable businesses in the world.
In the earliest days of Disneyland, Walt Disney himself had to invest virtually all of his fortune into park construction. He even sold what he’d previously described as his dream house to build the Happiest Place on Earth. When he conceptualized a way to enhance the park experience in a new and profound way, he didn’t even have the cash to bring his idea to life.
Yes, Walt Disney envisioned an accompanying hotel for his fledgling theme park. He simply didn’t have the money to build it. Frustrated, the powerful Hollywood icon flipped through his rolodex of famous friends until he found someone he felt had the resources and respect to construct Disneyland Hotel.
That man was Art Linkletter. One of the most popular television hosts of all-time, Linkletter was an integral part of the Golden Age of Television. Due to his resounding popularity and longstanding career as host of People Are Funny, a radio program that became one of the first to transition to television, Linkletter was famously wealthy. He was also friends with Uncle Walt, as the latter man chose Linkletter to host a live broadcast of Disneyland’s opening day.
Art Linkletter Had Some Regrets
Why isn’t Art Linkletter famously linked to the Disneyland Hotel? He didn’t build it. He felt that Disneyland was a shaky business proposition on its own. He certainly didn’t want to gamble any of his personal fortune on an accompanying hotel. I sometimes wonder how Linkletter felt in the days after Disneyland’s opening when television ratings were published for the event.
As many as 90 million people watched the event at a time when the country claimed a population of 165.9 million. Yes, more than half of all Americans watched the opening of Disneyland. All of them had at least some interest in the world’s first theme park. Linkletter could have made another fortune by investing in an adjoining hotel if only he had a bit more faith in his friend, Walt Disney.
There’s a hilarious anecdote about this turn of events. An old Disney publication called The “E” Ticket chronicled a later visit that Linkletter made to Disneyland Hotel. As he walked across the property, he would say, “And that’s another million I missed out on.”
An Oil Baron and Hollywood Mogul Built Disneyland Hotel
His name was Jack Wrather, and he was one of those men who seem impossible in hindsight. During a full early life, he became president of an oil company, a United States Marine during World War II, and an entertainment producer. By his 31st birthday, he had already done all of those things, including his most recent personal triumph. Wrather started a television show known as The Lone Ranger. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Yes, it was the basis for the Disney movie reboot that starred Johnny Depp.
Wrather had the well-deserved reputation as a man of action and a person who could make things happen. While Walt Disney and he weren’t the best of friends or anything, they did run in the same Hollywood circles. And I should be honest about something here. Walt Disney was DESPERATE.
Uncle Walt famously ran through his full credit line during the construction of Disneyland. He knew that an accompanying hotel represented the perfect companion site, one that would maximize profit. Tourists would stay at a Disney resort while visiting a Disney park. If they also ate Disney food, the company would gain the entirety of a family’s vacation budget. It was the perfect business model, an original kind of vertical integration.
Disney pitched this concept to several parties after Linkletter rejected him. He targeted major hotel chains like Hilton and Sheraton, both of which were already titans in the industry. They rejected him out of hand for a reason that’s hysterical in hindsight. Neither corporation believed that Anaheim could become a tourist mecca. It was just a sleepy little town filled with orange groves.
Frustrated, Uncle Walt finally went to Wrather, who was confused more than anything. The oil baron instantly recognized the financial opportunity here. He just didn’t understand why Disney had come to him, someone with no experience in the hotel industry. And the answer provided was equally funny. Wrather had grown up in the area and was familiar with Anaheim.
According to Wrather, he was the only person Walt Disney knew who had even a passing familiarity with Disneyland. If you ever want to explain the cultural impact of Disneyland, that statement is your winning option. Before the Happiest Place on Earth, major hoteliers wouldn’t even think about building a property in the city. Disneyland changed everything for Anaheim.
Wrather was the beneficiary of this change, although he deserves a great deal of credit for instinctively understanding the drawing power of the Disney brand. He built a resort capable of hosting 1,250 guests in 1955, and he did it despite a series of worker strikes in the area that impacted much of Disneyland’s construction. In the Souvenir Edition of Disneyland’s grand opening, you can read the initial details about the hotel that you love. The three restaurants onsite were a particularly clever inclusion, one that’s had dramatic repercussions on the entire theme park industry.
Disney Didn’t Own Disneyland Hotel Until 1988…and There’s More to the Story
Yes, The Walt Disney Company had to wait more than three decades to purchase the hotel sibling to Disneyland. Even then, the transaction was complex. Wrather famously refused to sell the hotel as long as he was alive. He was justifiably proud of what he’d achieved and deemed it an integral part of his legacy. You can read this interview to appreciate his self-satisfaction regarding the Disneyland Hotel.
After Wrather’s death in 1984, then-CEO Michael Eisner made it his mission to gain control of the resort with the Disney name that Disney didn’t own. To acquire the rights, he had to buy a boat. And a plane. I’m not just talking about your average boat or plane, either.
As part of the acquisition of Disneyland Hotel, The Walt Disney Company purchased the entirety of Wrather Corp., which was basically the entirety of Jack Wrather’s life’s work. During his later years, the Hollywood producer had toyed with a couple of pet projects: the RMS Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose.
If you’re not current on your history, you can read up on the RMS Queen Mary here. It’s basically the Titanic that never sank. The Spruce Goose was ostensibly a military vessel that many people associate with the madness of Howard Hughes. He was obsessed with constructing the world’s largest airplane. These are two of the most iconic vessels ever built, and Disney didn’t even want them. They were merely the cost of doing business to buy the Disneyland Hotel.
In January of 1988, Disney paid $152.3 million for Wrather Corp. It’s the equivalent of $331.7 million today, a hefty price tag for a single hotel. Disney offset the expense by selling several of Wrather Corp.’s assets, which is to say that they no longer own the RMS Queen Mary or Spruce Goose. You can read the difficult decision Disney faced with the latter vessel here.
To a larger point, can you believe that Disney had to pay for one of the most famous ships AND one of the most famous planes ever built simply to take ownership of the Disneyland Hotel? None of this would have happened if some clever banker had better anticipated the financial potential of the Happiest Place on Earth. Instead, a tight credit line forced Walt Disney to offload one of his best theme park ideas, giving another entrepreneur the business opportunity of a lifetime.
The history of the Disneyland Hotel is utterly remarkable. And any self-respecting Disney fan should aspire to stay here at some point. You’ll feel the history of Uncle Walt’s dream come into reality as you walk the halls to your hotel room. Book a room with MickeyTravels for your next Disneyland visit and ask the people in the Disneyland Hotel lobby if they can fill in some of the details on the resort’s history that you learned today.