The Most Disastrous Incidents from Disneyland’s Opening Day
History remembers July 17th as the anniversary of Disneyland’s opening.
On this date in 1955, the Happiest Place on Earth opened to the public, thereby cementing Walt Disney’s legacy.
While we look back on the date with fondness now, I can assure you that you wouldn’t have enjoyed visiting Disneyland on opening day.
Here are nine of the most disastrous events from Disneyland’s debut.
The Awkward Plumbing Choice
Before 1954, nobody had ever attempted anything as grand in scale as Disneyland.
Walt Disney asked a great deal of everyone involved in the project. And he notoriously also struggled to pay for it all.
A plumber’s strike ensued and stretched out for weeks. During a frenzied pre-opening meeting, Disney executives faced a hard choice.
Disneyland could open with functional bathrooms or water fountains…but not both.
That’s right, folks. At one point, it was a 50/50 proposition whether Disneyland would open with functional bathrooms.
During the park’s debut, frustrated guests vented that Disney wanted to sell Pepsi products so much that they’d disabled the water fountains.
If only those people had realized how close they’d come to a much less comfortable park visit.
The Fake Tickets
MickeyBlog occasionally relays stories of guests attempting to sneak into the theme parks.
Since Disney theme parks have posted security cameras everywhere, nobody will get away with that now.
In 1955, that wasn’t the case at all. Fake tickets abounded, leading to a shockingly high number of park guests.
Walt Disney anticipated maybe 6,000 guests attending. The excitement for the event combined with lax security led to 28,000 people at the park!
As you can imagine, the unexpected number of guests caused ripple effects throughout Disneyland.
None of that should have happened, though. The problem stemmed from the fact that many guests – possibly even MOST guests – passed off fake tickets.
When that didn’t work, some of them even grabbed ladders and climbed over the walls to enter the park.
The Fight between the Tiger and the Panther
This entire article strains credulity, but I swear to you that every word is true.
You may recall that Walt Disney asked for Imagineers to add real animals to Jungle Cruise.
Thankfully, those miracle workers talked their boss out of this transparently terrible idea, but the concession came at a cost.
Disney wanted live animals for his parade down Main Street, U.S.A. And you can guess where this one is going.
People who had no business taking charge of dangerous animals found themselves distracted by the other chaos taking place at the parks.
Also, Disney wasn’t paying any of the workers enough to risk their lives trying to stop a panther or a tiger from escaping.
So, that’s exactly what happened. These two mighty cats “broke through the partition separating them” and proceeded to enter into a blood feud.
I think the applicable term here is “red in tooth and claw.” These cats went to war.
Thankfully, cast members kept the children safe while trying to stop the shockingly bloody fight between the tiger and the panther.
Still, this is a real thing that happened once on Main Street, U.S.A. Two killer cats engaged in a “furious death struggle.”
The Fire That Nearly Claimed Sleeping Beauty Castle
When you visit a Disney theme park today, you’re experiencing something that has operated for years now.
On that fateful opening day, Disney was stress-testing its utilities for the first time with a crowd that was a factor of four larger than expected.
Not coincidentally, some parts failed. The worst of them could have destroyed Sleeping Beauty Castle on its first day.
A gas leak caused flames to approach the castle. Thankfully, cast members extinguished the fire before it could do more damage…but it was close!
The gas leak forced the afternoon closures of Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland.
These shutdowns led to overcrowding issues at the remaining themed lands.
So, Disneyland was four times as crowded as expected while operating only half its themed lands!
Hilariously, Walt Disney didn’t even find out about this disaster until well after the fact.
That’s because the inventor of Disneyland found himself locked in his in-park apartment above the fire station on the day of the event!
The Missing Food and Drinks
Again, Disney planners anticipated 6,000 guests at the park. So, they stocked the cupboards appropriately.
You can guess where I’m going with this.
Sure enough, Disneyland ran out of food and drinks halfway through the day!
The same people complaining that Disney tried to force them to buy a Pepsi changed their tune.
They would have gladly paid during the final few hours of the day. But they couldn’t!
The Parking Lot That Was Actually a Freeway
Even in the 1950s, the traffic in greater Los Angeles was problematic.
Now imagine how well traffic flowed as a disproportionate number of guests flocked to Disneyland!
Traffic reports from that day suggested that Santa Ana Freeway, a road leading to the park, turned into a glorified parking lot.
Cars reportedly lined up for seven miles, with none of them moving more than a few feet per minute.
Nobody could go anywhere until the cars ahead of them exited the freeway and headed to Disneyland.
As you might expect, that off-ramp created a secondary bottleneck as the overwhelming majority of people on that road exited there.
The Cheating Co-Host
ABC televised the live event, which paid massive dividends for everyone involved.
According to reports at the time, as many as 90 million guests watched the triumphant debut of Disneyland.
None of these viewers knew that anything terrible was happening at the park, as the live broadcast didn’t detail any of the catastrophes.
However, the cameras accidentally captured another embarrassment.
One of the television hosts for the event, Bob Cummings, a married man, got caught kissing one of the Disneyland dancers on camera.
You can watch the ridiculousness here:
No, that isn’t the wife of Bob Cummings. Oops.
By the way, you may have watched Cummings uncomfortably switch the broadcast to a different host, “Ronnie Ree-gan.”
While the pronunciation isn’t correct – Cummings had a bad day – yes, that is future President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who co-hosted the event.
Disney didn’t hold these snafus against Cummings. When the park started its 35th-anniversary celebration, Cummings (and “Ree-gan”) returned.
The Sunken Ship and Other Broken Rides
Since so many people were in the parks, all the attractions faced unprecedented stress tests. Several failed.
The most extreme example involved the Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland.
Cast members allowed far too many people to board, which weighed down the vessel. It started to lurch and collapse.
You may not know this, but the Mark Twain Riverboat utilizes ride tracks. Alas, on its first day, the ship went off the rails.
This debacle happened twice. Cast members fixed it the first time but probably should have left it offline for the day.
Instead, when they reopened the Mark Twain Riverboat, it went off the tracks again.
By this point, word had spread that the vessel was experiencing issues.
That’s reason enough to wonder why so many guests boarded the ship after the first incident.
Then, once the riverboat departed its path, people wanted off the ride immediately.
As they approached the landing, they rushed to the exit side of the boat, which – you guessed it – caused the whole thing to tip.
Many of those same guests had to swim away from the sunken boat.
Meanwhile, other rides suffered a similar fate. Autopia proved the most chaotic as guests treated the experience like a demolition derby.
Several of the vehicles didn’t last past day one. According to estimates, 36 Autopia cars had crashed during the first few weeks in operation.
That’s right, folks. During the first few days, Autopia and the Mark Twain Riverboat were the biggest thrill rides at Disneyland!
The Wet Concrete and Wet Paint
This one is fairly self-explanatory. Contractors rushed to complete all their work at Disneyland.
Some of the construction came down to the last minute, with people setting the concrete as recently as that week.
Do you know what happens to newly set concrete and asphalt on a hot July day? That’s right! It sinks.
Similarly, Disney didn’t finish the painting for many of the seating areas until right before opening day.
In some instances, the final coat occurred that morning. And here’s the problem with all these issues.
Many of the people arriving at Disneyland on opening day knew they’d appear on television.
They wanted everyone watching on ABC to see them at their finest. So, they dressed up.
Many of the women wore high heels and fancy dresses. Once they arrived at the park, the wet paint ruined those dresses.
Meanwhile, the sinking asphalt snagged more than a few pairs of fancy shoes. Obviously, the customers were livid over this turn of events.
From their perspective, many guests sat in traffic for hours for rides that broke down and entire themed lands that closed.
Thankfully, all the viewing audience saw was Disney magic on display.
Those 90 million viewers turned Disneyland, which some had derisively called Walt’s Folly, into a pop culture sensation.
The people who visited Disneyland on July 17th, 1955, will always remember it as Black Sunday, though.
Thanks for visiting MickeyBlog.com! Want to go to Disney? For a FREE quote on your next Disney vacation, please fill out the form below, and one of the agents from MickeyTravels, a Diamond Level Authorized Disney Vacation Planner, will be in touch soon!
Feature Photo: Allan Grant / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty