The History Behind Walt Disney’s First Park (And No, It Wasn’t Disneyland!)

Disneyland wasn’t Walt Disney‘s first Park.

Sure, it was the first Park he built that Guests could actually walk around in, and it’s widely regarded as the first theme park, ever, but before Disneyland even reached the planning stages Walt was focused on an entirely different park.

A much, much smaller one.

Shanghai Disneyland

Credit: Disney

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Disneylandia was an elaborate miniature that Walt Disney made and put on display in 1952. Looking back on it now, we can see how it served as a physical and spiritual precursor to Disneyland that worked as proof of concept to Walt that he could mastermind and control a physical space in the same way he did the cinema screen.

A Love Of Miniatures Begins

According to the Walt Disney Family Museum, Walt‘s interest in miniatures dates to the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, where he “was impressed with several dioramas that featured handcrafted furniture, exquisite accessories, and perfectly decorated rooms created by Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago.”

Credit: Walt Disney Family Museum

Over the ensuing years, Walt‘s fascination with the miniatures he observed turned into a hobby, and by the end of the 1940s he was an avid collector. As the Museum notes, “Everything from furniture to figurines, silverware to paintings, rugs to musical instruments, liquor bottles to books-even a tiny organ created by conductor Frederick Stark -began to fill his shelves.”


Credit: Inside The Magic

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The Birth of Disneylandia

In his definitive biography of Walt Disney, Walt Disney: The Triumph of The American Imagination, writer Neal Gabler explains how Walt turned this hobby into something that might prove profitable:

[A]s Walt scoured miniature shops during his trip to Europe in 1949 and on his various forays to New York and even up into New England; as he attended miniature shows; as he enlisted friends to find miniatures for him; as he solicited miniatures through catalogs, midwestern newspapers, and hobbyist magazines . . . he hit upon a plan. With his own two hands he would create an entire miniature American turn-of-the-century village, a sort of Lilliputian Marceline [Walt‘s Midwestern hometown], and then display it in large cases across the country.

At the same time as he was coming up with the idea for this exhibition – which he came to call DisneylandiaWalt was simultaneously growing fascinated with wind-up toys, an obsession that would ultimately lead to the development of Audio-Animatronics. For now, though, he saw a way to combine his two hobbies into an evolving vision of Disneylandia, as Gabler explains:

Walt forged ahead on his exhibition . . . which he described as a series of “visual juke boxes with the record playing mechanism being replaced by a miniature stage setting.” He was considering exhibiting the show in department stores or in railroad cars, where schoolchildren could bring coins to “play” the scenes, though Walt hesitated at having children come to freight yards, and in any case he had been told emphatically that the exhibition couldn’t possibly be profitable. In the end, he settled for unveiling the scene of “Grany Kincaid” at a Festival of California Living at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles in November 1952. The vitrine, roughly eight feet long, contained tiny rugs, a plank floor, a stone fireplace, lace curtains, dishes, and even an outhouse with a potty.

Clearly, Disneylandia served as a showcase for Walt‘s obsession with detail and his perfectionism, two traits that he would carry with him as the impetus behind Disneylandia grew immensely in scale.

Walt Disney, EPCOT

Credit: Disney

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From Disneylandia to Disneyland

Obviously, there’s quite a difference between a miniature scene displayed at a public events center and the world’s first theme park. But for Walt the creation and mounting of the Disneylandia exhibit proved to be a starting point for expanding his need for control off the movie screen and into the real, physical, tangible world.

mickey mouse and walt disney

Credit: Disney

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Gabler explains of Walt‘s reasoning behind creating Disneylandia that,

Beyond the psychological benisons of control and the tactile exhilaration of his own craftsmanship, beyond the way it preoccupied him while the studio seemed to wobble, he did it because he harbored an even larger, more audacious plan-a plan for which Disneylandia was only a trial run and a plan that seemed to sustain him even as he was losing interest in the rest of his company. It is impossible to say exactly when, but Walt Disney had decided to build an amusement park.

This Park would be in the vein of Disneylandia in that, “Walt had described the park as providing a lesson in American heritage, just as Disneylandia had been intended to do, and he wanted visitors to appreciate the kind of bedrock values of which he had become a representative after the war, values that were especially salient with the onset of the Cold War.”

To tap into the feeling of nostalgia (that is, the deep-seated longing for a time and place which never actually existed) which was required in order to appeal to those “bedrock values,” Walt turned to valuable insight he had gained from Disneylandia. Again, Neil Gabler explains:

To achieve cinematic effects, [Walt] had manipulated the park‘s proportions. . . . The reason, Walt averred, was psychological-a lesson learned, no doubt, from Disneylandia. For one thing, the altered size “made the street a toy,” he felt, and provided the subliminal fun that toys did. For another, it underscored the sense of nostalgia because it associated the past and the fantastic with the small and the quaint. . . . And finally, he thought, the scale made the park more inviting and accessible-a human monument. . . . At Disneyland the people would be made to feel that they towered over the buildings.

Alt Text: An artist’s rendering of the gallery titled “Your Disney World: A Day in the Parks” within Disney100: The Exhibition portrays guests walking around and looking at exhibits, artifacts, and interactive displays related to the Disney Parks, including full-size ride vehicles from the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Peter Pan’s Flight as well as a rendering of Main Street, U.S.A., that fills one wall.

Credit: D23

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Though it may be mostly forgotten today, then, it’s quite possible that without Disneylandia there would never be a Disneyland, or at least its success might have been muted. The lessons Walt learned building his miniature displays came into play when creating the world’s first theme park, and helped turn the Disney Parks into the living, breathing entity that we love today.

About Andrew Friedenthal