The opening day of Disneyland carries an infamous story of unexpected crowds, miscues, and chaos. Viewed through today’s lens 60 years later, the issues on July 17, 1955 are an aberration. Disney fans know the stories well, and it’s fun to consider the legendary park’s messy start. Even the 90-minute live TV special had problems. The smooth and glitzy presentations that Disney airs now are in a different stratosphere. Despite the issues, the 1955 show required a massive effort to even exist. The fascinating Operation Disneyland chronicles the challenges in pulling off that special during TV’s early days. The 14-minute feature also reminds us of the obstacles that Walt Disney and his team faced when building a complex park in such a short time.
Initially provided to local ABC affiliates as background for the festivities, this black-and-white presentation is surprisingly frank. There are no claims about the magic of Disneyland’s construction. Instead, narrator John Fell provides matter-of-fact explanations of the technical details. Without handheld cameras, the amount of wiring needed to set up the park is amazing. The technicians ran over 85,000 feet of cable between the cameras and five separate control rooms to document the opening. They even borrowed equipment from across the country and other networks because of the show’s massive scale. It’s surprising that anything worked at all.
A Crazy Scramble
Operation Disneyland presents a scene of utter disorder on the edges of the frame. While the crew prepares for the TV show, construction crews scramble to meet the ambitious deadline. The rehearsals are stopped repeatedly by workers building the park. It’s so weird to see regular cars driving down Main Street and near Sleeping Beauty Castle. New buildings change sight lines for the cameras and force the ABC crew to keep changing their tactics. There’s even a 110-foot crane hovering over Tomorrowland that cannot be safe. They were inventing new processes for documenting live TV on the spot, and that matches what Walt was doing at Disneyland.
Another bonus is seeing early footage of attractions like the Mark Twain, Jungle Cruise, and the original Autopia. They aren’t the focus but sit in the background of many scenes. It’s hard for your brain not to envision the modern Disneyland surrounding the spare beginnings. Despite the construction and unfinished buildings, the soul of the park is present. When Fess Parker rides a horse in Frontierland during the rehearsal, I could picture the detailed Frontierland around him. Parker looks odd in normal clothes, especially while following the Davy Crockett mold on the horse. The mix of horses, workers’ trucks, and TV equipment creates a weird clash of themes.
Five Separate Shows
The most remarkable part of the preparations in Operation Disneyland is the way the crew built five telecasts that each functioned on its own. The main control center organized the work of the centers into a coherent whole, but it is really five crews. The workers at Frontierland are shooting a different presentation than what’s happening on Main Street. The final cuts to the groups at their stations are a nice way to end this feature. It’s like a short prequel to the 90-minute live show to remind us of its stakes. If you’re a Disneyland fan (which is likely) and interested in behind-the-scenes footage and history details, I’d definitely recommend it. I’m more amazed by Disney’s accomplishments in building this park every day.
Operation Disneyland is easy to locate on YouTube and through other online sources; here’s one example. It’s also part of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD release Disneyland – Secrets Stories & Magic, which is very expensive.