10 Things That Went Disastrously Wrong on Disneyland’s Opening Day

Disneyland is commonly known as the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but when the park opened on July 17, 1955, it didn’t live up to its now-ubiquitous nickname. In fact, Disney employees who survived the day refer to it as “Black Sunday.” Here are 10 of the most disastrous things that went wrong.

1. FAKE TICKETS FLOODED THE PARK.

Disneyland’s opening day was “invite only” and not for public consumption. Tickets were mailed out and only reserved for special guests, including friends and family of employees, the press, and celebrities, such as Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. However, scores of counterfeit tickets were widespread on opening day. Disneyland was only expecting about 15,000 guests in total, but more than 28,000 people entered the park.

In addition, there were two sets of tickets with designated times: one for the morning and one for the afternoon. The time to leave Disneyland was printed on each ticket, so if it read 2:30 p.m., you were supposed to leave the park at that time to make way for the afternoon ticket holders to come in. Unfortunately, the morning ticket crowd didn’t leave, so attendance ballooned when the afternoon attendees were admitted.

There was even some money to be made from Disney's woes: one man set up a ladder outside one of the park's fences and charged $5 per person to climb it and sneak in.

2. TRAFFIC WAS BACKED UP FOR MILES.

Sukarno riding mini car with Walt Disney
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Since Disneyland and the city of Anaheim were not prepared for the amount of people that showed up, California's Santa Ana Freeway that led into the park was backed up for seven miles. The traffic essentially shut down the freeway for hours. In fact, people were in their cars for so long that when they finally made it to Disneyland, there were reports of families taking restroom breaks in the parking lot and on the side of the freeway.

3. THE PARK WAS COVERED WITH WET PAINT AND WEEDS.

Completing Disneyland was a race to the finish. Walt Disney wanted a quick turnaround, and it took exactly one year and one day from announcement to opening day, with construction crews working around-the-clock to meet their deadlines. 

However, once the doors opened, guests could easily see that it was not completely finished. Workers were still painting structures and planting trees all over the park. Along the Canal Boats of the World (now the Storybook Land Canal Boats), weeds had yet to be removed from the riverbanks. And instead of landscaping the area, Walt Disney simply added signs with Latin plant names printed on them to make it look like they were meant to be there.

In addition, a number of rides were still under construction like Tomorrowland’s Rocket to the Moon, which showed a glimpse of what routine space travel would look like in the distant future of ... 1986.

4. NO FOOD, NO DRINK, NO FUN.

For the lucky people who made it into Disneyland on opening day, they experienced a shortage of food and beverages in every restaurant and concession stand in the park. Because of the unexpected influx of guests, virtually all food and drink inventory was wiped out within hours.

5. THERE WAS A PLUMBERS' STRIKE.

Entrance to Disneyland circa 1957
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

While there were plenty of water fountains on site, many of them were not working because of a plumbers’ strike during construction. Walt Disney had to choose between working water fountains or working restrooms for Disneyland on opening day, so he picked the latter because he felt the toilets were more important.

“A few weeks before the opening, there was a major meeting,” Dick Nunis, chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, explained to WIRED. “There was a plumbing strike. I’ll never forget this. I happened to be in the meeting. So the contractor was telling Walt, ‘Walt, there aren’t enough hours in the day to finish the restrooms and to finish all the drinking fountains.’ And this is classic Walt. He said, ‘Well, you know they could drink Coke and Pepsi, but they can’t pee in the streets. Finish the restrooms.’”

6. THE WEATHER WAS SCORCHING.

Although Walt Disney had no control over the weather, it contributed to the disastrous opening day experience at Disneyland. Temperatures reached an intense 100 degrees, which must have been unbearable in a park without working water fountains. The day was so hot that the fresh asphalt became like a sticky tar, with guests complaining that they were getting their shoes and high heels stuck in the pavement of Main Street, U.S.A.

7. THE RIDES WERE BREAKING DOWN.

Like so many of the other workers toiling to make Walt Disney's one-year deadline, both Disney Imagineers and construction workers rushed to complete the theme park. As a result, a number of rides—including Peter Pan’s Flight, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Fantasyland—broke down or were closed altogether because they simply were not finished yet.

The growing pains didn’t stop on opening day. During the first few weeks after opening, the stagecoach ride in Frontierland permanently closed when it was discovered it would flip over if it was too top-heavy; 36 cars in Autopia crashed due to aggressive driving (ironically the ride was designed to help children learn respectful rules of the road); and a tiger and a panther escaped from the circus attraction, which resulted in a “furious death struggle” between the animals on Main Street, U.S.A.

8. THE MARK TWAIN RIVERBOAT SANK.

The iconic Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland was filled way over capacity on opening day, with about 500 people cramming into the attraction. This caused the boat to go off its track and sink in the mud, but the ordeal was far from over.

"It took about 20 to 30 minutes to get it fixed and back on the rail and it came chugging in," Terry O'Brien, who was working the ride on opening day, later recalled in an interview. "As soon as it pulled up to the landing, all the people rushed to the side to get off, and the boat tipped into the water again, so they all had to wade off through the water, and some of them were pretty mad."

9. SLEEPING BEAUTY’S CASTLE ALMOST CAUGHT FIRE.

A gas leak in the park prompted the closing of Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland for a few hours, while flames from the leak were seen trying to engulf Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Walt Disney was so busy during opening day that he didn’t learn about the fire until the following day.

10. ABC'S LIVE SHOW FROM DISNEYLAND WAS A TRAIN WRECK.

Walt Disney had a partnership with the broadcast network ABC, which helped finance Disneyland with an investment of $5 million of the park’s $17 million price tag. In return, Walt Disney would host a weekly TV show about what people could expect to see in Disneyland, a full year before it was set to open its doors.

On opening day, Walt Disney hosted a 90-minute live TV special with co-hosts Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and future president Ronald Reagan. Over 90 million viewers tuned in to see the “Happiest Place on Earth.” And while the cameras showed the fun and excitement of Disneyland, the TV special obscured the numerous disasters described above.

However, the live broadcast itself was riddled with technical difficulties, such as guests tripping over camera cables all over the park, faulty miscues, on-air flubs, hot mics, and unexpected moments that were caught on camera—namely Bob Cummings caught making out with a dancer just before going on air.

“This is not so much a show, as it is a special event,” Art Linklater said during the live broadcast from Disneyland. “The rehearsal went about the way you'd expect a rehearsal to go if you were covering three volcanoes all erupting at the same time, and you didn't expect any of them. So, from time to time, if I say, ‘We take you now by camera to the snapping crocodiles in Adventureland,’ and instead, somebody pushes the wrong button, and we catch Irene Dunne adjusting her bustle on the Mark Twain, don't be too surprised.”

The live broadcast also featured the debut of the original Mouseketeers from The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, which premiered a few months later in 1955 on ABC. So at least something positive came out of all of it.

The Disputed Origins of Publix’s Chicken Tender Subs

Josh Hallett, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Josh Hallett, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

After Popeyes released its new chicken sandwich last week, a heated battle broke out on Twitter over which fast food chain offers the best one. Favorites included Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, and KFC, but the Publix chicken tender sub was mostly absent from the dialogue. Maybe it’s because Publix is a supermarket rather than a fast food restaurant, or maybe the southern chain is too specific to Florida and its neighboring states to warrant a national ranking.

Either way, the chicken tender sub is a cult culinary classic among Publix customers—there’s even an independently run website devoted to announcing when the subs are on sale (they aren’t right now), and affiliated Facebook and Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers. So whom do sub devotees have to thank for inventing the Publix food mashup from heaven? A Facebook user named Dave Charls says, “Me!,” but Publix begs to differ.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that in May of this year, a man named Dave Charls posted a message on the “Are Publix Chicken Tender Subs On Sale?” Facebook page recounting his origin story for the menu item, which allegedly took place in 1997 or 1998. At Charls explains it, he and his co-worker Kevin convinced their friend Philip, a deli worker at the Fleming Island Publix location, to assemble a sub with chicken tenders and ring it up as one item—something that deli workers had refused to do for Dave and Kevin in the past. According to Dave, Philip then convinced his manager to make it a special, publicized it via chalkboard sign, and the idea spread like hot sauce.

“You’re welcome,” Charls said. “It was actually Kevin’s idea and Philip brought it to life.”

Publix, however, told the Tampa Bay Times that its recorded documentation for a chicken tender sub recipe and procedure goes all the way back to 1992 or 1993. Based on that information, Publix spokesperson Brian West confirmed that Charls's heroic account of the origin is more fairytale than fact (though West, unfortunately, doesn’t have an equally thrilling origin story—or any story at all—with which to replace it).

Charls didn’t respond to a request from the Tampa Bay Times for comment, so we may never know how much of his claim is actually true. It’s possible, of course, that Publix’s 1992 (or 1993) chicken tender sub recipe hadn’t gained momentum by the time Kevin’s moment of culinary genius struck in 1997 (or 1998), and the lack of date specificity suggests that neither party knows exactly how it went down. What is incontrovertible, however, is the deliciousness of Publix's beloved sub sandwich.

"I'm just happy to live in the same timeline as this beautiful sandwich," says die-hard Pub Sub fan (and Mental Floss video producer/editor) Justin Dodd. “Copyright claims aside, it's truly a wonderful thing."

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER