Happy birthday Disneyland!
This is a greeting Disneyland fans hear a lot on July 17 every year (well, except for a few cranky die-hards who keep insisting that Disneyland’s REAL birthday is the public opening day, July 18). After the big “Ten-cennial” celebration in 1965, years in multiples of ten (and even five) became the object of major celebration and promotion. After the “new” team at Disney (Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Jeffrey Katzenberg et al) discovered the rewards of the 30th celebration in 1985, they determined to make the 35th in 1990 even bigger and more lucrative.
Readers of this blog know that the biggest day for that year-long celebration was January 11. It may seem odd to have that big of a promotion that early in the year, but Disney was able to fold the events of that memorable day into all the promotion that followed. By the time July 17 arrived, pretty much everybody on the planet was aware that Disneyland was turning 35.
But that certainly didn’t stop the creative powers-that-be (or had been?) from making the actual birthday a pretty memorable one itself. There were two major ceremonies for the public, well publicized in their own way and their own time. Oddly, the events of January have almost totally eclipsed those of the actual birthday on July 17, 1990. Today the ceremonies at Sleeping Beauty Castle and on Town Square are almost completely forgotten.
For me it was another early morning run to the park from my place in Pasadena. As I hurried through Town Square to the Castle, I had to stop and take a photo. The construction walls were down, and in place of the simple brick storage locker building there was now a row of neat townhouses delineating the new Carriage Place Clothiers extension to the Emporium. The new buildings were definitely larger, but fit seamlessly into their corner of Town Square.
My hunch was correct, there was definite activity in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle. In fact, it was kind of difficult to see the icon of Walt’s original Magic Kingdom. Large bleachers had been erected on the leading edge of the hub facing the castle, and a huge billboard-sized birthday card obscured a great deal of the lower level.
There was limited viewing for the public, to the extreme right and left of the staging area. I noted that there was a roped off VIP section to the right, so I made my way over to the nearly empty public section. By the time the event began, this area would be tightly packed with spectators.
In 1990 I did not know exactly who was sitting in the neat rows of white folding chairs. It was only years later that I identified a jaunty older man dressed in white as Van Arsdale France, one of Disneyland’s first “cast members,” and the originator of the Disneyland training program. He coined the phrase “We create happiness” and championed the Disney University.
There was a stir among the assembled media (up on their perfect perches in the bleachers) as music began to play. A group of wholesome looking young people dressed in shades of blue took the stage to offer a musical welcome. As they finished, Art Linkletter took the stage. He, in turn welcomed Roy E. Disney and Mickey Mouse. Their comments were lost on those of us in the public viewing gallery, however, because as soon as Linkletter took the stage, a couple of men in suits casually ambled over and stood directly in front of us. After a few frantic signals to a nearby Security Host, the interlopers were gently shooed away.
The performers returned to the stage, now decked out in chef’s hats. Mickey excitedly called for his pals to gather to bake a special birthday cake.
Donald and Goofy arrived, wheeling in a beautifully decorated cake, multi-tiered and bristling with candles. As they admired their creation, Roger Rabbit insisted on adding some special touches and, to absolutely no one’s surprise, ended up flattening the cake and leaving everyone oddly disappointed. Mickey and Art Linkletter commiserated on how to solve the problem, and decided to call in the whole Disney gang.
Fortunately the Fairy Godmother was among the arrivals, and in no time at all she bibbidi-bobbidi-booed the situation, filling the stage with some strategically located clouds of smoke. As the ruined cake was wheeled away, something was going on at the back of the stage…
Sure enough, thanks to her magical intervention, a massive cake appeared, looking remarkably like the smaller one, right down to the decorations and candles. (And may I add, parenthetically, that I believe this was the last magical-giant-birthday-cake to appear for a Disneyland birthday in front of the castle.)
Adding to the excitement of the moment, the candles began sparkling, more smoke shot up and daytime fireworks launched into the sky.
As everyone took the stage to pose for what was assumed to be the grand finale, there was a final massive burst of streamers and confetti, in the Party Gras colors of Disneyland’s 35th celebration.
And with that, Disneyland’s 35th birthday was officially celebrated. As the music played out, performers and characters waved to the departing crowd.
A little later in the day, final preparations were being made for a different moment in Town Square. As the park’s official dedication plaque was given a final cleaning, crowds began to gather around the flagpole and across the street in front of the train station.
With everyone assembled, a cavalcade of vehicles made their way down Main Street and around Town Square. The Mouse-O-Rail was filled with Disney characters, waving to the crowd. The double-decker bus carried a contingency of Club 55 members, park veterans who had been working at Disneyland 35 years before. And a very special vehicle, Walt Disney’s own white Main Street Runabout, arrived to drop off his nephew, Roy E. Disney.
Roy was there, of course, to deliver the dedication speech that had first been spoken on July 17, 1955. Standing in the same location, he repeated the words that have become familiar through their repetition over the years:
“To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
Although these were the only official activities on July 17, there were still a few more things to do and people to see. The Postal Service was on site, and offering an official 35 Years of Magic cancellation. In addition to specially printed First Day Covers, people were getting postcards, souvenir maps and any number of unusual items marked.
A number of radio stations were set up for remote broadcasting, and various participants from the day could be spotted making their way between them. Art Linkletter was a popular guest; not only had he been the host for Disneyland’s dedication in 1955, he was also a veteran broadcaster who could be counted on to give a lively interview.
Studio executive Donn Tatum was spotted in the Disney Gallery on Main Street. Possibly he was there to see how the plethora of Dick Tracey merchandise was going over with the public.
And it seemed as if Roy E. Disney was everywhere. His base of operations was an outdoor location near the Plaza Inn. From there he could be seen giving interviews, meeting with friends and colleagues, and even finding time to present Art Linkletter his own birthday cake at a private party inside the Plaza Inn (yes, July 17 is Art Linkletter’s birthday).
As the day stretched into evening, the crowds continued to swell. Before making my way home, I made a last trip down to Sleeping Beauty Castle to see how it was looking. The bleachers were gone, but the cake remained for a unique photo opportunity.
Happy birthday, Disneyland.