“Its purpose is enlightenment. Its product is happiness.” – Narrator describing Disneyland
We haven’t seen a definitive documentary about Disneyland, but there are still plenty of ways to discover its history. Walt Disney was a master at marketing the park even before it opened in 1955. Those vintage projects now provide a remarkable look at Disneyland’s history. One of the best examples is the striking 1956 theatrical release People and Places – Disneyland USA. The 41-minute short provides both gorgeous helicopter shots from above the park and up-close views from inside the grounds. Shot on Cinemascope and restored for the Walt Disney Treasures DVD series (with a commentary from Tony Baxter and Leonard Maltin!), this film offers one of the best perspectives on Disneyland’s early days.
What I love about early Disneyland films like this one is how much time we spend in the park. There is little of the over-the-top marketing that’s common in videos from the modern company. All it takes is showing the parks to charm us, and the work from Cinematographer Charles Boyle makes everything shine. The park is barer than today’s look, but there’s still a lot to see. The flyover shots reveal the sparse land surrounding Disneyland, which is completely different from today. It truly was a surprising haven split from the outside world. There’s a real sense of whimsy all over the park within this film.
Main Street, U.S.A.
What makes Disneyland USA click is the way it mirrors a guest’s trip to the park. Our “typical day” actually begins by helicopter and then takes us to the Disneyland Hotel. Our next stop is the front gates for a walk through the tunnel and onto Main Street, U.S.A. There’s a real feeling of activity in each corner of this land. There are musicians, transportation vehicles, and plenty of guests. Even so, the paths aren’t nearly as packed as you’d experience today. Disneyland was a success but drew a slim crowd when compared to modern numbers.
The highlight on Main Street is riding in the back of a horse-drawn street car. The camera sits inside the vehicle and provides an intimate view of the themed buildings. The sensation reminds me of the Circle-Vision films, which use a similar device to place the audience inside the movie. There’s a slow, relaxing atmosphere on this ride despite all the hustle and bustle. I rarely experience the Main Street vehicles anymore, so this was a cool reminder about their charms.
The film’s most attention goes to Frontierland, which was a center piece in the original Disneyland. The popularity of Westerns and Walt’s interest made this land a key component. The overhead view shows how massive the Rivers of America is compared to the rest of the park. Even without the Columbia, there’s so much energy on the water. It’s a world on the move! Shots of the Mark Twain along with canoes, keelboats, and rafts bring it all together. Views on board the large ship showcase both its majesty and engaging scenes along the water.
There’s a huge difference between this Frontierland and the current experience. Guests ride horses and even board a stagecoach in the barren landscape. There’s also the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train, which has been usurped by Big Thunder Mountain. It’s also interesting to see the Indian Village and tribes in traditional garb that weren’t Disney employees. I completely understand why it was removed, but it brought a very different vibe to Frontierland.
Adventureland and Tomorrowland
We spend less time in Adventureland and Tomorrowland, though both include memorable scenes. The Jungle Cruise was the only attraction in Adventureland in 1956, and it looks familiar on the surface. You’ll notice a glaring omission on this ride, however. There are few jokes! It’s mostly a straightforward boat ride with a dry narrator describing the animals. I did get to experience a traumatic event from my childhood — the skipper shooting the hippo. The Jungle Cruise is still good fun, but Marc Davis’ updates in the early ‘60s definitely plussed it.
The strangest area is Tomorrowland, which actually includes a section devoted to model airplane clubs. When you don’t have many attractions, it’s good to improvise. There is entertaining footage of the Autopia, including an older couple wearing their Sunday best. The other main attraction is the Astro-Jets, which looks stunning but starts on the ground. At least they aren’t crammed into a small space at Tomorrowland’s entrance. They were replaced by the Rocket Jets in 1967.
The largest crowds in the film appear in Fantasyland, which resembles the modern version on the surface. We see Peter Pan’s Flight and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, though both were changed drastically in the 1980s revamp. No footage is present from inside the rides, probably due to technical limitations. There is a fun glimpse from outside of the hell scene at the end of Mr. Toad. It still works after all these years. The camera also joins a surprisingly mature host on the boat for Storybook Land. Dumbo, Casey Jr., and the Mad Tea Party were all there near the start. This film includes a silly moment with a band performing on board the spinning tea cups.
It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel the loss of the Skyway, which brought so much to the park. Along with providing amazing views and a different perspective, it also added to the energy of Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. There’s been a lot of recent online chatter about the Swiss chalet, and I didn’t really get the furor until seeing it here. I’d missed just how much charm it added to this area and the Skyway. Guests were transported to a new place through this structure.
The Happiest Place on Earth
Disneyland USA is a real treasure for anyone interested in Disney history. It’s worth viewing solely for the hilarious image of Walt and Fess Parker leading a circus parade while riding horses. There are some impressive floats and a few elephants, but a lot of this parade is just people walking. The film ends with striking shots of Main Street, Frontierland, and Sleeping Beauty Castle altered by Ub Iwerks to resemble nighttime footage. This creates an otherworldly atmosphere that fits with the magic of Disneyland. You can feel that excitement throughout this film.
If you don’t own the “Disneyland – Secrets, Stories & Magic” DVD from the Disney Treasures series (now out of print), you can still easily watch Disneyland USA on YouTube. Here’s a link to one example if you’re interested in checking out this true gem.
The images in this post are screen shots from the DVD presentation. All images are © Disney.
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