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On first day, reality overtook fantasy

A big buildup didn't prepare the park for when twice as many as were invited showed up.

Associated Press
Published July 16, 2005

ANAHEIM, Calif. - When Walt Disney built Disneyland, he supervised every aspect of planning and construction - right down to the paint color inside the railroad station. But there were a couple of things he couldn't control at the opening 50 years ago: the temperature and the turnout.

The sun rose bright and glowing in a cloudless sky on that Sunday, and the mercury climbed higher and higher. By early morning, all roads leading to the park were clogged. Thousands poured through the turnstiles, more than twice as many as had been invited.

The heat and the crowds, along with a Magic Kingdom full of other problems, contributed to what would forever after be called Black Sunday in the Disney organization.

Long lines formed at the rides, forcing visitors to stand in the sweltering sun. Later it was discovered that counterfeit tickets had been used by the uninvited. Adding to the congestion, crashers scrambled over fences and berms in remote areas of the park.

Several of the rides shut down because of overuse, and by the end of the day all the "Autopia" cars had been sidelined. The deck of the river boat Mark Twain was awash; too many passengers had climbed aboard. And a gas leak was discovered in Tomorrowland, forcing evacuation of the entire area.

Refreshment stands quickly ran out of food and drink, and there were few drinking fountains. Women's spiked heels sank into the newly laid asphalt on Main Street. Families waited in long lines to use toilets. A saboteur snipped electrical lines in Fantasyland, bringing all rides to a halt.

Survivors of Black Sunday retain vivid memories of that day, including Disney consultant Harrison "Buzz" Price, who chose the then-sleepy agricultural town of Anaheim as the location for Disneyland.

"I was on the bridge that led to Sleeping Beauty's Castle, and it was full of people," he recalls. "We couldn't move, and the asphalt was sticky. I looked down and saw Frank Sinatra, and he was cursing."

Bob Kurr, designer of the vehicles for Main Street, had been assigned by Disney to oversee "Autopia," a miniature freeway with real gasoline-powered cars. In the heat, "these cars were suffering from the typical gasoline vapor lock," Kurr remembers.

Walt Disney knew little about the problems, since he was busy on the live ABC-TV broadcast with his fellow masters of ceremonies Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings and Ronald Reagan. The next day, he read devastating reviews in the newspapers and heard dismaying reports from his staff.

"Walt was furious," Price recalls. "In a hell of a hurry, he fired Woody, the guy who built the park in 18 months."

Woody was C.V. Wood, a former U.S. Army general. While opening day was crumbling, Price says, "Woody was upstairs mixing a lot of mint juleps for his staff; it was kind of like firing-squad day."

Walt Disney's damage control was immediate.

"Walt was personally around the park every day that first week, looking into every situation and then getting something done about it," Kurr says.

He also was mending fences with the press, hosting small groups of reporters and editors for dinner and a tour of Disneyland.

One reporter had suggested that Disneyland had skimped on drinking fountains to sell soft drinks. Disney called her and explained, off the record, that a local plumbers strike had been settled shortly before opening day. He had to decide between toilets and drinking fountains.

Within seven weeks, thanks in part to months of national buildup on ABC's Disneyland TV show, the park had attracted 1-million visitors - 30 percent more than had been predicted. And they were spending 30 percent more money than expected.

[Last modified July 16, 2005, 00:25:11]

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