But the concept of an enclosed, permanent amusement park undoubtedly originated with Coney Island in New York. The island had been attracting visitors since the 1800s but from 1897 to 1904 it created three lavish mini environments, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland, which would dramatically transform the concept of entertainment. Each had an individual entrance and admission fee, and offered ever more elaborate attractions. Luna Park had A Trip to the Moon in which the airship Luna took 30 passengers up past Niagara Falls and above the Earth’s curvature before depositing them in grottoes where they could visit the Man in the Moon’s Palace and come away with souvenir chunks of green cheese.
At its peak, Coney Island spawned more than 20,000 imitators in the US alone. However, with a relatively short season, running from Memorial Day in May to Labor Day in September, it seemed pointless to the owners to invest in high quality materials for their buildings. Made of lath and plaster, the ornate yet fragile structures were susceptible to harsh winters and highly flammable. Dreamland burned to the ground in 1911, taking the era of Coney’s greatest splendour with it.
Although crowds continued to flock to the area in the 1920s they had less money to spend, so cheaper and more tawdry attractions arrived to cater to them. Then came the Depression and World War Two. Coney Island, along with its imitators, began to wither. When better times came in the 1950s there were more exciting leisure activities on offer – movies, TV, air travel and individual adventures in the ever-ubiquitous automobile. Amusement parks were seen as tacky, down-at-heel relics of a bygone age.
And yet this was precisely the time Walt Disney decided he wanted to build his own. “Everyone from his family to reporters who got near him thought it was a crazy thing to do,” says Richard Snow, author of Disney’s Land, which documents the extraordinary story of Disneyland’s creation.
But Disney persevered, initially financing the park against his own life insurance policy, convinced that he had a unique vision that would charm the world. “I don’t think he thought of it as an amusement park at all really. He thought the next step would be to put the audience right inside the movie. He always saw it as an experience rather than a bunch of rides,” says Snow.
Disney assembled a talented team of engineers, architects, artists, animators and landscapers who miraculously managed to transform his ideas into reality in little more than a year. At its heart was Main Street, a homage to the small-city America of Disney’s youth. Around it were a series of magical worlds and the soon-to-be-iconic Sleeping Beauty’s castle. There was astonishing attention to detail, with Disney insisting that railings – that would only be seen from a distance – be made of iron, rather than plastic, because the public would be able to “feel” the difference. As visitors wandered through the park, the texture of the ground would change under their feet in order to suggest entry to another distinct land. “He brought that obsessive perfectionism to every detail of the park, and it’s why it did then, and does now, feel different from other places,” says Snow.
Yet for all the attention to detail, the opening day to which the press and numerous celebrities were invited was a disaster. Tarmac was being laid two hours before opening, meaning that throughout the day it was soft enough to suck off the high-heel shoes of female visitors, including those of Frank Sinatra’s wife.