Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Books: "Disney's Land" On The Creation Of The Happiest Place On Earth

Disney's Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park that Changed the World
By Richard Snow
Scribner; hardcover, 432 pages; $30 

"Walt Disney envisioned his park as an antidote to an edgy, restless, suspicious era, a concrete affirmation of the better angels of our national nature. Of course it was to be a place where people had fun and spent money, but he believed it could also, by drawing on the American past, give its visitors a faith in a safe and prosperous future," Richard Snow writes in the richly-detailed new book, Disney's Land.

Snow, a popular historian who spent nearly four decades at American Heritage magazine, explores how one of the most iconic attractions in the world became the "Happiest Place on Earth." Disney defied predictions that amusement parks were seen as a fading enterprise that wouldn't produce any revenue or increase the studio's popularity to create a park that changed the landscape of California and entertainment forever.

This landmark work takes you through the journey of Disneyland from conception to opening day. Disney's dream not only didn't have the personal support of his family, but also the financial backing of his company. Determined to see his dream to completion, Walt Disney financed the park against his own life insurance policy and gave his team of engineers, architects, artists, animators, landscapers, and even a retired admiral a one-year timeline to get the park up and running.

Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, and Snow's details on that chaotic day provide some of the most entertaining drama of this book. This was the culmination of Walt's consistent persistence to be at the head of innovation that the curious masses would keep coming back. 

Over eight hundred million people have visited Disneyland since it opened, and Disney's fantasy has grown into a global enterprise that includes Disney World in Florida, and parks around the world in Paris, Tokyo, and Shanghai.

One of the striking things about Disneyland is its attention to detail, and Snow writes of one of its most distinctive features, "The initial step toward giving the stern-wheeler something to float on took place on July 12, 1954, when a bulldozer started scraping at Disney's acreage. For a place that was going to produce continual pageants, the work commenced with surprisingly little fanfare. An official groundbreaking had been scheduled for August 26, but there were, among the Anaheim citizenry, enough holdouts still worried about carnival disorder to cause fears of a public protest, and the idea was dropped. Besides, it had become clear that the schedule allowed little time for extraneous festivities.

Disney had hired McNeil Construction, a third-generation operation that had been helping build Los Angeles since 1868, as the prime contractor. What McNeil's bulldozers' blades turned up, said Morgan 'Bill' Evans, 'was sand. It was almost ball-bearing sand. You could have used this stuff for a good grade of concrete. It wasn't contaminated with any soil. It was just sand. This isn't the best prescription for horticulture.'

The sand concerned Evans because he and his brother Jack had been hired to landscape the park - as Bill said, 'to put a green frame around all those adventures and rides.'

The Evans brothers had grown up around plants. Their father cultivated a three-acre garden given over to unusual greenery, and a 1920s tour of duty with the merchant marine allowed Bill to harvest exotic seeds from lands as distant as South Africa and Australia. Home from the sea, he nurtured his seeds and in 1931 began wholesaling rare plants to local nurseries. Five years later he and Jack opened a landscaping business. Their unusual inventory gained them a Hollywood clientele that included Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Walt Disney brought them to Holmby Hills to dress up the Carolwood Pacific right-of-way, and was so happy with the result that he gave them their largest job. 'We landscaped all of Disneyland,' said Bill, 'in less than a year with a maximum of arm-waving and a minimum of drawings.'

The Evans brothers' intimidating challenge was that from the day Disneyland opened, the park had to look as if it had been there forever. This meant they needed mature trees. 'We superimposed a drawing on an aerial photograph of Disneyland over the trees on the land and endeavored to salvage whenever possible the existing orange trees. We did this because they represented to us the equivalent of about five hundred dollars a tree, which was a lot of money in 1954. Wherever the grade remained at the original elevation, we could keep the trees.' Still, they needed far more of them than their $360,000 budget could accommodate, which led to a working routine that often seemed more a scavenger hunt than a horticultural project.

Bill Evans was friends with the head of landscape architecture for the California Department of Transportation, and thus got advance word when a new road was about to cut down the trees that stood in its path. 'The Santa Monica Freeway, the Pomona and the Santa Ana Freeways all yielded trees for Disneyland. We paid twenty-five dollars for each tree to the contractor who was going to bulldoze them and take them to the dump. That fee was so he'd stay away from those trees and not bruise them, while he was wrecking everything else. As fast as we could, we'd get in there and put a six-by-six box around the roots, which was anywhere from five to ten tons a unit, and then pick up the tree and drive it down to Anaheim and give it a new home.'

Evenings they spent cruising through prosperous neighborhoods with Harper Goff, the art director for Adventureland, knocking on the doors of houses whose yards contained promising specimens and offering to buy them outright. Sometimes they got lucky. In Beverly Hills they came upon a magnificent banyan shading the lawn of an equally magnificent house, a tree easily worth several thousand dollars.

Goff rang the doorbell and, when the owner answered, nervously asked if he might consider parting with his tree. The men laughed. 'That big old son of a bitch there? I'm so tired of that thing.' Goff and Evans got it for the cost of installing a small tree in its place.

They scored at least one coup closer to home. A Canary Island date palm stood on the land Disney had bought. 'Planted in 1896 by an early rancher,' said Bill, 'it was a stalwart and revered resident of his front lawn, admired by three generations of children and adults. One member of his family was married beneath it. When the owner of the land sold his acreage...he requested that this venerable palm be preserved. Walt was more than happy to oblige, but since the tree stood in the middle of Section C of the projected parking lot, he ordered that it be carefully 'balled,' lifted from its old home, and trundled, all fifteen tons of it, to Adventureland.' The tree stands today near the Indiana Jones ride, the oldest living thing in the park."

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