The Disneyland Resort has begun its 60th anniversary celebration this summer, which makes it the perfect time to look back at the beginnings of the park that started it all. There have been excellent books written about Disneyland (Sam Gennawey’s The Disneyland Story is a strong example), but we’ve yet to see a quintessential documentary. The Tomorrow Society challenges a talented filmmaker to take on this job. We know you’re out there!
In the meantime, we’re left with options that get at least part of the subject right. The 81-minute Disneyland: Secrets, Stories, & Magic was released in 2007 as part of the “Disney Treasures” DVD series, and there’s a lot to like. Where this film stumbles is trying to combine the PR needs of the Disney Company with park history. It’s a tricky balance, and the end result doesn’t reach the great heights deserved by an incredible place like Disneyland.
It’s not all bad news, however. The first half provides a warm look back at the origins of Disneyland and Walt Disney’s passion for making it happen. Julie Andrews introduces the story, and it’s clear this film was designed to connect to the 50th anniversary celebration. There are so many familiar names involved, though many have limited screen time. Harrison “Buzz” Price, Rolly Crump, Marty Sklar, X Attencio, and Tony Baxter are just a few of the countless participants. It’s clear how much these guys loved Disneyland. Clips of Walt introducing the park and famous attractions reveal the glint in his eye that was always there when discussing Disney’s latest projects.
Andrews calls this doc the “real Disneyland story”, and we do learn about some challenges. The gaffes in the live TV show on opening day are good fun. Disney was inventing a new genre of entertainment right before our eyes, and not everything succeeded. Kids running a potato derby at Disneyland may sound ludicrous, but it happened. Even the misses seem more like hiccups because we know where the park is now. The first 35 minutes is a fast-paced and fun take on Disneyland’s origins. It’s a thrill to watch segments on 1964 World’s Fair attractions like It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and the Carousel of Progress. Each one set the stage for Disney World seven years later.
Secrets, Stories, & Magic functions like a 40-minute TV episode with deleted scenes added to the end. Sadly, they were included as part of the main feature. The segment about Walt’s death is very well done, but any narrative coherence disappears after that point. Are Directors Bob Garner and Pete Schuermann commenting thematically on Disneyland’s uneven history since 1966? I don’t think so.
After moving chronologically through the first 11 years, we leap around inexplicably the rest of the way. There are brief segments on the Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, and Star Tours, but they’re mixed in with PR from Disney’s leadership. A fun “Disneyland That Never Was” segment is placed right after info on updating the Finding Nemo Subs. I think the editor left the project at the halfway point.
The poster child for selling the company line is Jay Rasulo, who recently stepped down as CFO. His comments are filled with marketing speak. When you’ve just heard from amazing legends, Rasulo stands out as a phony. He’s a business guy and too polished to make us believe him. By contrast, former Disneyland president Matt Ouimet (now in charge of Cedar Fair) believably sells excitement.
Sitting between the two is Bob Iger, who’s more laid back than Rasulo. He still uses corporate phrases like “raising the bar” that mean little. However, he’s smoother and doesn’t sound like a salesman. The contrast between Iger and Michael Eisner is startling, though. Eisner’s tenure had some low points, but he’s from a different sphere than the business guys who currently run Disney.
Thankfully, Rasulo and Iger make limited appearances and give way to Baxter, John Hench, and other artists before the show goes off the rails. Fun inclusions like the swimming event with Michael Phelps on Main Street keep the story engaging. The final segments give short mentions to parades, entertainment, and merchandise. The brief time on these topics shows just how much there is to cover with Disneyland. You could spend hours and barely scratch the surface. The wealth of possibilities helps to explain why this doc struggles to stick the landing. It’s interesting enough for Disney fans but leaves us waiting for the iconic film the park deserves.
Here are some other quick thoughts on this documentary:
- It’s funny to see the segment on the Flying Saucers, which everyone remembers fondly. The subsequent arrival (and failure) of Luigi’s Flying Tires revealed that even modern technology couldn’t make this idea work.
- I love Crump’s description of Disneyland as the “most beautiful salad ever built”. It’s such a perfect way to explain the longevity of the park. There’s just something for everyone.
- There are so few women in this film, and the exceptions like historian Stacia Martin talk about mermaids. Disney was definitely a boys club, and I’m not sure the culture has totally changed.
- It was great to see the late Diane Daisy Miller, who did so much to preserve her father’s legacy. I wish she’d had more screen time, especially in the first half.
- I’d love to hear stories from modern Imagineers that rival Bob Matheson’s on the Abe Lincoln animatronic giving the finger. The PR about “magic” tends to dominate the new announcements.
The images in this post are screen shots from the DVD presentation. All images are © Disney.