Behind the Attraction: Disneyland Hotel
The remaining three episodes of Behind the Attraction’s first season don’t focus on attractions.
Instead, they highlight more eclectic subject matter, iconic parts of the Disney theme park experience that aren’t theme park rides.
One of them wasn’t even a Disney property for many years! Let’s recap Behind the Attraction: Disneyland Hotel to learn about its quirky history.
Not a Walt Disney Production
Imagineers speak fondly of the Disneyland Hotel throughout the episode. However, they all acknowledge a fascinating piece of trivia.
The Walt Disney Company didn’t own this resort for its first 33 (!) years in operation.
Instead, Walt Disney leaned on a neighbor of his to pony up the dough for this hotel.
Uncle Walt had spent all his cash in building Disneyland itself. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough capital to build the nearby hotel as well.
Remarkably, many businesses turned down this strange but eventually lucrative offer.
Thankfully, an oil baron and Hollywood mogul named Jack Wrather loved the idea.
Wrather, who had experienced television success with Lassie and The Lone Ranger, had money to burn. He also believed in the concept of Disneyland.
The Dirt of Disneyland Hotel
Disney had given his potential business ally the tour of the place. But, of course, it was all dirt that had very recently been orange groves.
Where others might have noticed a distinct lack of industry, Wrather recognized a business opportunity.
One of the vital aspects they agreed on was that both men viewed the Disneyland Hotel as an extension of Disneyland rather than a generic hotel.
Both men agreed that the Disneyland experience should continue into the hotel, making it a de facto part of the park.
Wrather returned home and spoke with his wife, actress Bonita Granville.
She agreed that they should enter the hotel business in the unlikely town of Anaheim, California.
The episode doesn’t delve into the story as much as I would like (i.e., any), but Wrather had a partner in this deal, Maria Alvarez.
Please read her Wikipedia entry. She’s one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century.
Anyway, Disney, Wrather, and Alvarez signed an agreement that gave the Disneyland Hotel a lease for 99 (!) years. It was a deal through 2054!
The Early Days of the Disneyland Hotel
Walt Disney brokered a unique deal with Wrather, the kind no sane person would make today.
Wrather owned the rights to build a Disneyland Hotel anywhere he wanted. A Disney theme park didn’t need to be in the area.
Walt Disney effectively signed away his own name to bring this resort to life. Thankfully, Wrather behaved above approach in respecting this agreement.
The Disneyland Hotel featured high-end amenities of the era like safe electrical outlets, air conditioning, and conference rooms.
This hotel could host families AND a board of directors! The Mad Men episode, Tomorrowland, leans into this fact.
A perfectionist by nature, Wrather took great pride in maintaining the high standards of Disneyland Hotel. In fact, this statement still applied in the 1980s!
However, the early days of Disneyland Hotel came with their own pitfalls. The property wouldn’t open until several months after Disneyland.
On opening night, 400 people wanted a hotel room. They were seven (!) available. It’s like trying to get a PS5 today.
The explanation is understandable, though. Walt Disney wanted the best workers for himself.
Wrather wouldn’t get his turn until Disneyland was open and cleaned up. You may recall opening day was a debacle.
So, the staff wouldn’t transition fully to hotel construction until the following month.
Still, those seven lucky guests couldn’t complain. They only paid $9 a night for their rooms! That’s the equivalent of $92 a night today!
Folks, you CANNOT stay at a hotel anywhere near Disneyland for $92 a night, much less a deluxe one on its opening night.
Those seven families had a story to tell for the rest of their lives.
Within a few days, the rest of the hotel’s rooms opened. The Disneyland Hotel has dominated the Anaheim tourism landscape ever since.
Disneyland Hotel Expansions
Many of the features you’d expect at Disneyland Hotel weren’t ready during those early days.
You wouldn’t find an operational pool, no open restaurants, or anything else. For this reason, Wrather wouldn’t even throw a Grand Opening party until 1956.
Within a year, Wrather, Alvarez, and Granville appreciated that supply VASTLY outweighed demand.
So, Disneyland Hotel quickly expanded from 100 to 300 rooms AND increased rates slightly.
Guests were now paying $10 per night for single occupancy, $13 per night for double occupancy, and $16-$19 per night for families.
During this timeframe, an Olympic-sized swimming pool opened, and guests had their choice of restaurants. The entire Disneyland Hotel scaled up quickly.
Disney also wanted to test its monorail system transportation idea. Uncle Walt saw an opportunity to use Disneyland Hotel for this purpose.
In an unlikely turn of events, circumstances dictated that Disneyland Hotel guests receive the greatest theme park amenity ever.
They could ride a monorail, something unprecedented in the United States. Also, they could enter Disneyland in the middle of the park when it opened!
This was a form of Rope Drop that defies description as a competitive advantage. Those early Disneyland Hotel guests were like Disney royalty.
Expansion continued over the next several years. In 1961, the first Disneyland Hotel tower added 150 more hotel rooms.
The End of a Story That Never Ends
Meanwhile, Disney executives started thinking, “Uh, we’re not getting any of that money.”
Then again, Disneyland Hotel had an exclusive contract through 2054. So, the company looked east to The Florida Project to build its own hotels.
Meanwhile, Jack Wrather lived until 1984. He’d suffered through an acrimonious split with Alvarez, his business partner.
Ergo, the controlling interest of Disneyland Hotel went to his widow, Bonita Granville. As a grieving widow, she had no interest in this job.
After all, Wrather and Granville had built the hotel together. Reminders of their relationship were everywhere.
Their son, Christopher, could have run Disneyland Hotel, but he didn’t want to do it.
Conversely, Disney’s new CEO, Michael Eisner, had gained power and influence in Hollywood. As a result, he fully understood the value of the Disneyland Hotel.
In 1987, Granville contracted cancer. One of her final wishes was to show gratitude to Disney as a company for what it’d meant to her.
With her blessing, Christopher Wrather sold Disneyland Hotel and its 40 acres of land for $152.3 million, the equivalent of $360 million today.
Humorously, Disney also acquired the rights to Howard Hughes’ Spruce Moose in the deal, but that’s a story for another day.
The main point is that an agreement between the Wrather family and Walt Disney in 1954 led to the creation of one of the most iconic hotels in the world.
When the time came, Granville sold the rights to Disney and thereby brought the story full circle.
More than 30 years later, management at Disneyland Hotel still swears by the mantra that it’ll never be finished, though. Disney will just keep plussing it.