Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Woody And Walt

I just read Three Years In Wonderland, the story of the making of Disneyland with an emphasis on C. V. Wood, the park's first general manager.

Wood, born in 1920, grew up in Texas.  He was a charmer, but seemed best at hell-raising, an art he perfected with his close group of friends who named themselves the Bombers.  He ended up working at the Stanford Research Institute, which was hired by Walt Disney in the early 50s to study the feasibility of opening an amusement park.

Disney himself was looking for a new challenge.  His years as an innovator in animation were behind him, and now, along with older brother Roy, who ran the studio's financial side, he was just trying to keep from going broke.  Walt started playing with toy trains, which got bigger and bigger.  Soon, he wanted to build an amusement park in some empty acreage he owned across from his studio in Burbank.  His plans, however, kept getting bigger and bigger, and more and more expensive. (From the original concept to the final cost, the price doubled, then doubled again, then double once more.)  This is where Wood was hired.

Most of the actual research was done by Wood's partner from SRI.  Wood was more the salesman--a guy who could convince people like Disney they were brilliant and that he would do everything he could for them.  Areas around Los Angeles were investigated and they decided to put Disneyland somewhere in Anaheim, where the new highway from L.A. to San Diego was going through.

They needed to purchase numerous parcels of land so they kept the buyer secret to keep costs down. Even then, it was a tremendous hassle, and almost didn't work.  But the Anaheim politicians helped out (they were willing to close down a street and make it part of the park) and Wood got every deal signed one way or another--he'd promise, for instance, that a house wouldn't be torn down so someone's daughter could continue to live there.  How she'd live in Disneyland would be something that could be solved later.

Roy liked Wood's work, and hired him to help manage the financial side of building the park.  Here he was at odds with Walt.  Walt Disney wanted creative people to be in charge, and made sure that his studio people got to determine what would be in the park--even if others had to take their notions and turn them into reality.  Wood's most important job was to raise money. Disney had gotten enough to start the project by promising to create TV shows for ABC (a network that was way back in third to NBC and CBS, and thus willing to take a chance) and having the network guaranty bank loans.  But as things got ever more expensive, more money was always needed, and Wood tried to convince numerous companies to sponsor rides or exhibits, or lease shop space in Disneyland.

Most experts doubted the project would pay off.  Amusement parks were loud, rowdy and often seedy places, with rides that gave people sensations but not much more.  Disney wanted to change the amusement park to the theme park. A self-contained space that gave the whole family a special experience, with rides that would affect them emotionally.  He was a storyteller, and wanted to transfer that talent to his park.  No one was sure how to do it, or even if it could be done.

No one knew how hard it would be the build the park, either, and with the opening date of July 17, 1955 set, it looked like it wouldn't open in time.  Truth is, it wasn't ready, but open it they did.  It was a hot day and people's shoes sank into the newly poured asphalt.  Though it was invitation only, more than twice as many showed up as expected and the place was a madhouse.  It took hours to get on a ride, and was hard to just walk around.  Quite a few rides, shops and exhibits weren't open yet.  There was a gas main leak.  All the rides but one (the jungle boat) broke down during the day.  Food ran out before the day was over, and there were no water fountains.  And only pay toilets. Though Disney tried to put on a good face, it was a disaster, and the reviews were not great (it didn't help that he refused to serve alcohol to the press).

It took a while to turn things around, but eventually the park put Disney on firm financial footing (for the first time ever). But within months of the opening, Wood was fired.  There are a number of reasons.  First, there's only one star at Disneyland, and that's Walt.  Second, they had different styles, with Wood focusing more on the bottom line while Disney liked to dream, and Wood liking dirty jokes and plenty of drinking while Disney was a bit more prim.  Third, and probably most important, Wood was a bit shady.  He hired a bunch of Bombers to work for him (though he'd done that before, and there may be nothing wrong with hiring people you trust).  He also had that house he promised to keep standing secretly burned down during construction.  By far the worst, he took kickbacks from companies.

If the book has problems, it's that it sometimes loses focus on Wood. And the ending feels abrupt. We don't quite stick around to see Disneyland turn into a major success, and Wood's future career, where he helps with many other places and changes the face of the amusement park world, is summed up in a few lines.

Wood has since been scrubbed from official Disney history, but this book should at least do something to redress that oversight.


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I hadn't realized the accuracy of the statement in Jurassic Park that when Disneyland opened, nothing worked. But of course, the pirates didn't eat the tourists.

9:47 AM, September 07, 2016  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

"There's only one star at Disneyland"

That's a book title if ever there was one.

Ah, we're going to miss you, LAGuy.

3:06 PM, September 07, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I object to Walt in that his world of imagination was largely hackneyed and limiting

4:37 PM, September 07, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Many have complained about the Disney view of the world. I think the criticism is misplaced.

First, in his early days, he was a great innovator, advancing animation and doing classic work. But even if you concentrate on his later, more conservative years, he still put out solid entertainment, and created a company that brought and continues to bring happiness to millions.

No one is forced to enjoy Disney creations, they do it voluntarily. The world is not Disneyfied, just Disney is--others can follow or not as they choose. Many kids grow up with Disney, among other things, and that's fine--I don't think they'd get something superior, or even less homogenized, if Disney didn't exist. When they get older, they can decide for themselves if they wish to continue to partake in that world or try other things. Disneyland may be a nice place to visit, but no one is forcing us to live there.

5:54 PM, September 07, 2016  

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