Walt Disney hocked his life insurance, sold his summer home, and borrowed every dollar he could to build what was a three-dimensional tribute not so much to himself as to how he would like to see the world and persuade others to see it.
It doesn’t need a spoiler alert to reveal that Walt Disney ultimately and successfully defied his detractors – not least wife Lillian and elder brother Roy – who both failed to understand why he wanted to build an amusement park in the first place.
Like the bankers, they feared the end of the ride would be financial ruin, with such attractions generally despised as sordid remnants of a bygone age. But Walt doggedly stuck out in order to create his dream of what he hoped would become ‘the happiest place on earth.’
Yet, as this witty and well-researched book shows, just after 6am on July 17, 1955, Walt was very much ‘stuck in’– trapped inside his apartment a few hours before Disneyland’s turnstiles spun round for the first time.
Throughout the night, teams of workmen, including an army of painters, had toiled to put the finishing touches to the ground-breaking California tourist attraction while he tried to grab some sleep in his private flat (still perfectly preserved today) above the mock fire station.
These decorators had been so thorough in their efforts on that particular building, however, that the door was stuck tight with paint and an embarrassed Walt was forced to call one of his maintenance men to let him out on what was arguably the most important day of his life.
A lot has happened in the Disney empire in the 65 years since, with 12 Disney parks in the world today. The original, in Anaheim, less than an hour's drive from Hollywood, is the only one Walt Disney ever saw, supervising the entire design, and author and historian Richard Snow here focuses most of his attention on the crucial few years either side of that fledgling venture’s arrival.
He says of Walt: ‘He’d hocked his life insurance, sold his summer home, and borrowed every dollar he could to build what was a three-dimensional tribute not so much to himself as to how he would like to see the world and persuade others to see it.’
Perhaps not surprisingly it had been a tough concept to sell, costing $17million. That’s about $160million in today’s money by Snow's reckoning.
On opening, it was described as an amusement park but within three years the now-universal term ‘theme park’ had been invented to sum up Disneyland, and was immediately taken up by trade publications.
Flashbacks in the book recap Disney’s childhood days in Kansas City, shivering ‘along snowy pre-dawn streets delivering newspapers to help keep his family solvent.’
They also take in his bankruptcy in 1923 and convey the sense of betrayal he felt five years later on discovering – when refused a pay rise and ordered to take a pay cut – that not only did Universal Pictures own the rights to his successful creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but that the organisation had also hired away his entire animation staff.
A tense cross-country rail journey home followed that studio showdown and while wife Lillian brooded, Walt scribbled out a scenario featuring what would become his winning creation, Mortimer Mouse. Lillian immediately told him the name was ‘ponderous, fussy and pretentious – a horrible name for a mouse’ and the character was wisely given the friendlier moniker Mickey, still so synonymous today with everything Disney.
Snow says: ‘As Oswald quietly joined the immense menagerie of forgotten cartoon animals, Mickey – and Disney with him – rose to such heights that just a few years after his birth the gossip empress Louella Parsons could write that Mickey Mouse had a bigger following than nine tenths of the stars in Hollywood.’
Snow confesses, surprisingly perhaps, that he never intended to write a book about Disneyland. He says the subject he was working on felt like ‘a particularly dreary homework assignment’ and during internet research for that, he came across an unofficial guide to the evolution of Disneyland. Snow ended up buying the book and, appetite whetted, set about writing his own ‘take’ on Disney’s creation.
That he was totally engrossed in this new direction becomes evident when you glance through the bibliography which runs to seven pages. The information that has gone into this definitive account was gleaned from 155 different sources, including a set of CD-roms from the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco containing two dozen issues of a magazine which was devoted to Disneyland’s past.
Facts and figures abound, naturally, but Snow’s storytelling skills ensure the details are shared like a conversation with a friend rather than some dry scientific lecture.
So was Walt Disney being altruistic or just a shrewd businessman as he pursued his theme park dream, quietly confident of its success while those around him worried? The most telling quote in this book, regarding what was potentially a ‘get-poor-quick’ scheme, has to be the one Snow came across from a long-standing member of Disney’s team of animators, who were known collectively as Disney’s Nine Old Men.
This was Ward Kimball, who once said: ‘If you want to know the secret of Walt Disney’s success, it’s that he never tried to make money.’
Walt Disney died of lung cancer on December 15, 1966, just 10 days after his 65th birthday, and he was cremated – not frozen, as is the popular myth – in a private family funeral the day after his death.
His ashes were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, but his dreams definitely live on in Disneyland. Or, in Snow’s eyes, Disney’s Land, where a staggering 800 million visitors – including yours truly – have flocked since that opening day in 1955.
(Scribner, hardback, £20)