Today sees the 60th anniversary of themed entertainment in Anaheim, California.
But what if the fates had not been kind and something else had happened to those orange groves in Anaheim?
That is indeed an interesting question.
Had the property not been developed as the anchor of the Disney theme park empire, the logical assumption is that the property would have remained producing oranges. Indeed, much of the land taken up with this endeavor was still profitable doing what it had for decades before. Americans had not outgrown oranges or other citrus products. Even in the decade that followed, orange juice of a kind went into space with American astronauts. Tang anybody?
Citrus was (and still is) big business. Packing houses dotted the landscape as fruit came from the trees to be sent across the country by refrigerated rail cars and trucks. In the Fifties, many packing houses were still busy in Orange County.
Another booming industry of the times in Southern California was that of aerospace. It had begun before the Second World War and was still going strong after the Korean conflict. And with the space race ahead thanks to Sputnik, the sky was the limit.
Don’t forget that back in 1953 when the folks from the Stanford Research Institute first looked over the properties that ultimately became the Disneyland Park, there was no highway right by the place. Folks tell of tortured drives from downtown LA on two-lane roads, barely paved in spots, to reach Orange County, let alone Anaheim. Had it not been for Disneyland, the highway would likely have gone elsewhere, leaving that stretch of Harbor Boulevard as rural as the SRI found it.
Speaking of Anaheim, most of what constituted the city proper, was nowhere near the corner of Harbor and Katella. Several miles to the east, the homes and businesses of this community begun by German immigrants was as sleepy as a whole number of municipalities of the same size at those times. What if the city fathers of those times were not visionaries? What if they saw the theme park as an albatross instead of the golden goose and had said, “No thank you!” to Walt’s plans?
Disneyland was anything but a good investment. Sure, Walt spun tales better than anyone. But what if that drawing from Herb Ryman had not been so convincing to the money men Roy had to impress in New York? Or what if ABC Television had not seen Walt’s plans worthy of their major investment? What took a year to plan and build might have taken much longer and have bankrupt the Disney company in the process.
A flop at the box office might have been enough to have tipped the scales the other way. It doesn’t take a lot to imagine what a disaster 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea would have been had Walt not spent the money to re-shoot the climatic scene with the giant squid. The original scenes just looked sad, phony in the red sky of sunset. Some even said you could see the wires controlling the rubber monster on-screen. Audiences would have laughed at it and box office receipts would have tanked; literally.
But what if Disney had actually built the Park and no one came to visit? Consider all of the things that had to be overcome to meet the deadline of Sunday, July 17th, 1955. What if that plumbers strike had not been settled? No bathrooms would have spelled certain doom. Or what if Disney had not been able to get the concrete or asphalt needed to pave streets and walkways? A park with dirt paths through former orange groves would not have been very appealing. Bad enough that some places had weeds disguised as exotic plants with fancy names on plaques.
Imagine if the press preview had been just that? A small group of PR flacks and newspaper reporters covering the opening. Pretty bland. Or what if ABC had decided that the live television broadcast was just too much to carry off? Given the technology available and the limitations, all it would have taken is some executive back in New York to have decided the other way and the whole thing would have been off the air. Had Disneyland not been seen in glorious black and white in living rooms across the nation, attendance that first year would have been counted in low numbers.
Don’t forget! That first summer the Park opened saw record heat. Keeping guests at home. Had it not abated or had a tropical storm turned Southern California into a flooded mess, those predictions of using the property as a movie studio might have come to pass. But all those millions sunk into bringing Walt’s dreams to reality would have had to been repaid somehow. It is not unthinkable that the Disney empire with the studio, film library and even Walt’s Holmby Hills home might have ended up on the auction block as the highest bidder satisfied creditors. The profitable company of today might never have gotten out of the 1950’s intact.
I guess you can see how things really all came together to make one man’s dream reality. It is fairly amazing that sixty years later, Disneyland still attracts guests in the numbers it does. That shared experience sought by a father for his daughters worked so well.
Thanks Walt! Speaking for myself, you done good.