Skip to main content

Parkology: Disneylandia Debunked ‘ Myth #1 “It all started on a park bench”


Disneyland myth debunked - bench in griffith park where walt disney was inspired to create disneyland

“It all started on a park bench”

mel mcgowanby Mel McGowan

Related: Parkology: Coney Island the First Theme Park?

So much has been written and publicized regarding the genesis of Disneyland that it hardly bears repeating it here. However, over the next few posts, I’d like to debunk a few “creation myths”, or at least some gross over-simplifications that have become accepted history in theme park lore.

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard the “warm and fuzzy” story (recited by the man himself) of a bored Walt sitting on a park bench on “daddy days” watching his daughters at the Griffith Park carousel, wishing there was a place he could enjoy with his kids. However, behind and following this flashpoint, was a process of evolution and synthesis that goes much further back and simmered for decades in Walt’s creative stew.  

Disneyland myths debunked - electric park kansas city

Electric Park – Kansas City

As a child in Kansas City, Walt would peer through the gates of Electric Park, one of the hundreds of Luna Park “inspired” trolley parks around the world. To a Midwestern farm child just arrived from Marceline, Missouri, it must have appeared as a true vision of Heaven on Earth — or at least Oz — realized. This image would linger with him the rest of his life. As a young, disillusioned animator who moved to Los Angeles in 1923 to pursue his new dream of being a Hollywood director, he snuck onto the Universal Studio lot with semi-bogus business cards. The world’s largest movie back lot must have been as magical to him as it was to Steven Spielberg (who pulled a similar move decades later). After he had built the Walt Disney Studios, he was inundated with requests to visit Mickey and the gang. 

disneyland myths debunked - Greenfield Village – Inspiration for Main Street,  USA

Greenfield Village – Inspiration for Main Street, USA

In the same year of the opening of his Burbank Studios (1940), Walt visited Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village for the first time and Knott’s Berry Farm opened (which certainly inspired Main Street and Frontierland, respectively).  Coincidentally, in the same year the “World of Tomorrow” (NY World’s Fair) finished its two-year run, serving as an inspiration for Tomorrowland (originally labeled the “World of Tomorrow” on early master plans). Within a few weeks of returning from the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair (featuring historical settings around trains) and a return visit to Greenfield Village, he issued his first memo on “Mickey Mouse Park.” 

Disneyland myth debunked Knott’s Berry Farm was inspiration for Frontierland Knott’s Berry Farm – Inspiration for Frontierland

Disneyland myths debunked - 1939 “World of Tomorrow” – Inspiration for Tomorrowland1939 “World of Tomorrow” – Inspiration for Tomorrowland

His first 1950 visit to Tivoli Gardens inspired renewed confidence in his vision. For anyone that has strolled past the outdoor cafes, waterfront gardens, twinkle lights, exotic thems and festive atmosphere of Tivoli on a summer’s evening, the inspiration is obvious.

Disneyland myth debunked - Tivoli Gardens

Tivoli Gardens

Walt’s genius was to be curious enough to explore his world and to “file away” relevant benchmarks, and then to synthesize these disparate experiences into a new creation. Our design team was “re-inspired” by Tivoli Gardens when we “channeled” Walt during the “Big Idea” discovery for Downtown Disney’s “Vine Street” in Anaheim. The European-inspired urban festival garden was a perfect “decompression” zone linking the two Disney theme parks with Disney’s first “in-berm hotel” and the Resort District.  The “garden” theme is “fertilized” with increasing amounts of pixie dust as one wanders closer to the “source” (Disneyland) where the garden leaves begins to take on a resemblance to ones you might find in Alice’s Wonderland.

Disneyland Myth debunked - Downtown Disney – Tivoli Gardens inspired “Vine Street”

Downtown Disney – Tivoli Gardens inspired “Vine Street”

Search for something

More from this author

Related content

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update