- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
July 17, 1955, was intended as an invited-guests-only, media-oriented day to celebrate the long-awaited opening of Disneyland.
Technically it was called the “International Press Preview,” but Disney employees — and even Disney himself — would afterward come to label it “Black Sunday.”
During the 1930s and 1940s, Walt Disney had visited several amusement parks with his wife and their two daughters. What he saw often tended to be rundown, trash-littered places that usually focused on scary “thrill rides.”
Disney began to envision something better. In 1948, he sketched out a small place that he dubbed Mickey Mouse Park, its primary attraction to be a boat ride. Over the years, though, his once-simple plan morphed into a spectacular venue that would draw people from around the world.
To raise much-needed cash, Disney sold his vacation home and borrowed against a life insurance policy.
Then, in October 1954, the fledgling ABC-TV network helped by offering priceless promotion for Disney’s dream through an hour-long Wednesday-night show called Disneyland.
In 1953, Disney had purchased 160 acres of orange and walnut trees near the farming town of Anaheim, 22 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. With a crew of 1,200 workers, construction began the next year.
By opening day in 1955, Disneyland’s price tag had reached $17 million (about $125 million in today’s money).
Disneyland officials expected 15,000 of their invited guests to show up for the opening, but over 28,000 excited folks, many wielding counterfeit tickets, jammed into the overcrowded park that day. One enterprising man charged $5 to people who wanted to climb a back fence by using a ladder that he brought.
Much to Uncle Walt’s chagrin, his troubles were just beginning that day. Around the park, workers frantically slathered on paint and hastily planted trees, and beds of weeds suddenly bore signs with Latin plant names.
Many rides were still under construction, and those that operated sometimes broke down. Too many passengers aboard the Mark Twain Steamboat nearly caused it to capsize. Every park restaurant and concession stand ran out of food and beverages within hours.
A small fire broke out in Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Adventureland, Frontierland, and Fantasyland had to shut down for the afternoon due to a gas leak.
The temperature that afternoon reached a sweltering 101 degrees, with the now-sticky fresh asphalt seizing women’s high-heeled shoes. While drinking fountains were available around the park, none worked on that fateful day. Plumbers had gone on strike, and Disney had to choose between working water fountains and working toilets.
“Well, you know they could drink Coke and Pepsi,” he grumbled, “but they can’t pee in the streets. Finish the restrooms.”
After opening day, adult park visitors paid a $1 admission fee — kids were 50 cents — while the park’s 35 rides each carried a separate cost of 25–35 cents each per adult, with children paying 10–25 cents each.
Two months after opening, the Magic Kingdom had welcomed its 1 millionth customer, the debacle of Black Sunday mercifully forgotten.
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.