Written By: J.I. Baker
The following is from LIFE’s special tribute issue to the Disney theme parks, available on newsstands and online:
Walt Disney spent his life dreaming impossible dreams—and usually realizing them. In 1928, he created the first animated short with synchronized sound (Steamboat Willie), which turned Mickey Mouse into an international superstar. Less than a decade later, Disney released the first full-length animated feature (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), which became the most successful American film up to that point. And in the early 1950s, Walt dreamed the most impossible dream of them all: an amusement park to end all amusement parks. He would call it Disneyland.
Though it’s hard to believe now, the park’s success was anything but certain. In fact, Roy Disney—Walt’s brother and financial partner—thought it was yet another one of “Walt’s screwy ideas,” and bankers refused to lend the company a dime. “When he started Disneyland, he didn’t have a friend in the world,” one colleague said. But Walt persevered, as always. “Sometimes I wonder if ‘common sense’ isn’t another way of saying ‘fear,’” he said. “And fear too often spells failure.”
In the face of enormous obstacles (record rainfall, labor strikes), a ballooning budget (total price tag: $17 million), and a disastrous opening day (women’s high heels sunk in Main Street’s still-drying asphalt), Disney prevailed. His “screwy idea” quickly became an enormous hit—and eventually changed popular culture forever.
Of course, he kept dreaming, making plans for an even more ambitious park (Walt Disney World) that would include a place that he felt would transform the country’s future (EPCOT). Sadly, he didn’t live to see these become a reality, but the spread of Disney parks throughout the world (Tokyo, Paris, and Shanghai among them) and the astronomical ongoing success of the company he founded prove beyond a doubt that Disney’s “impossible” dream endures.
Here are some images from LIFE’s special issue Inside the Disney Theme Parks: The Happiest Places on Earth