When my colleague Denise Goolsby was interviewing a World War II veteran not long ago, she couldn’t wait to tell me that his wife, Dorothy Wrigley, had been Walt Disney’s secretary for five years during the 1950s. She was there for the development, building and opening of Disneyland — and so much more.
Being able to sit down with her and talk about Walt and the development of Disneyland was like giving a kid the key to a candy store.
And it only got better. A couple of weeks after the interview, Mrs. Wrigley called me and asked if I would like to have a copy of some minutes she found from a Jan. 25, 1956, meeting that included Walt Disney describing at length his plans for improvements and additions to Disneyland, which had opened just six months before.
I was on the other end of the phone doing the Snoopy dance while as calmly and professionally as possible I answered, “Yes. Very much so.”
It was a meeting of the Disneyland Merchant’s Association that ran 90 minutes, starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Red Wagon Inn — today called Plaza Inn. Walt seemed pleased with the park’s success so far, but had plenty on his list of things he was eager to still create. He also opened up about almost not having enough money to finish the park, saying he “needed a few more million dollars” so he took a risk and created a new TV show — the “Mickey Mouse Club.” The show was a huge success.
“Today the show has a 25 rating which is the highest rate of any day time show and compares very favorably with some of the night time shows,” Walt said.
He reiterated that Disneyland was designed as a park that would constantly change.
“The park was not set up to ‘make a quick buck’ but is a long range development and as I will show you today, we have plans showing the expenditure of one million dollars between now and June 1st in order to make Disneyland even more attractive to the public,” Walt told the group.
“We must build Disneyland into an attraction that will never be in competition with anything else. It must be made impossible to duplicate …,” he said.
He outlined plans for a variety of new rides and attractions, including what ultimately became the Skyway ride.
“Engineers arrive today from Switzerland to establish a sky ride in Tomorrowland. It is actually an adaptation of a chair lift. This will travel from Tomorrowland across the big hill, 30 or 40 feet in the air, offering an aerial view of Disneyland. Passengers can disembark at Fantasyland or return back to Tomorrowland,” Walt told the group.
That ride opened six months later and, to the disappointment of many, closed in November 1994. It’s not clear why it closed. There were conflicting reports at the time with the Los Angeles Times reporting it was over safety reasons after a passenger was injured after falling from one of the gondolas onto a tree about 20 feet below. Disneyland, however, said the ride had experienced waning popularity and was being closed so the 10 people staffing it could be repositioned at the soon-to-open Indiana Jones ride.
I remember this ride being a favorite for my family. It offered an awesome view of the park, plus traveled through the Matterhorn mountain. The Swiss chalet where riders got on and off the ride in Fantasyland still exists, tucked behind some trees near the Casey Jr. train ride.
Walt also talked of the “dream house” of the future.
“Tomorrowland has many things for the men, but very little for the women and this should create a great deal of interest for them as the kitchen will have the most elaborate utilities and fixtures that can be imagined,” Walt said.
The house was up just a few years and today the area is home to Pixie Hollow.
The creation of Tom Sawyer Island and the Casey Jr. Railroad and Canal Boats of the World — better known today as the Storybook Land Canal Boats — were also outlined by Walt, along with things that didn’t belong in Disneyland.
“We went out on a limb and put in a circus for Christmas season. Although it was a great circus … It is something that can be seen without coming to Disneyland. We need things that are unique — things that are ‘Disneylandish,’” he said.