7 Theme Parks That Inspired Disneyland
Since opening in 1955, Disneyland has inspired new theme parks and attractions all around the world. But before the “Mickey Mouse Park” was a twinkle in his eye, Walt Disney drew inspiration from many different theme parks.
1. Electric Park, 1899-1925 — Kansas City, MO
Image courtesy of Yaxy 2011, used under Creative Commons license
Though Disney spent much of his youth in Chicago, in 1911 his family moved to Kansas City, home to Electric Park. According to Walt Disney’s Missouri, the second version of the amusement park (which opened in 1907) was located only 15 blocks north of the Disney home on East 31st Street. Walt and his younger sister Ruth often visited the park, which shot off fireworks at closing time each night, together.
Disney seems to have drawn inspiration from the nightly fireworks as well as the train system that circled Electric Park, which Disney would bring to his own park in the form of the Disneyland Railroad (1955).
2. Griffith Park, 1937-Present — Griffith Park, CA
According to Walt Disney’s recollections, the Eureka moment for Disneyland struck while sitting on a park bench watching his daughters ride the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round. He pondered what it might be like to have an amusement park where parents and children could partake in youthful enjoyment together. In "History is Bunk": Historical Memories at Henry Ford’s Green Village, Disney is quoted as saying, “What this country really needs is an amusement park that families can take their children to.”
On opening day at Disneyland, he’d echo this message, saying, “Here age relives fond memories of the past and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.” Perhaps because of the warm feelings elicited by the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round, the King Arthur Carrousel (1955) would become one of Disney’s favorite attractions at his own theme park.
3. Henry Ford’s Museum and Greenfield Village, 1929-Present — Dearborn, MI
Image courtesy of The Henry Ford Museum
In 1940, Walt Disney made his first trip to Greenfield Village, a historically-themed amusement park designed to depict period environments from the 17th century onward. There, he visited with students and posed for a tintype photo. Quite taken with the park, he visited once again in 1948 with animator Ward Kimball on a side trip while traveling to Chicago for a Railroad Fair.
On the way back from the trip, Disney wrote a memo to production designer Dick Kelsey which took ideas from Greenfield. “The Main Village, which includes the Railroad Station, is built around a village green or informal park,” Disney wrote in the memo. He continued on to describe an opera house, movie theater, horse car, magic shop, and kids' clothing store. These ideas would be realized with Main Street, U.S.A., a nostalgia-inducing turn of the century-inspired street that continues to serve as Disney’s main hub.
4. Beverly Park, 1946-1974 — Beverly Hills, CA
David Bradley, whose wife Bernice worked in story research at Disney Studios, bought and opened Beverly Park, a small theme park on Beverly and La Cienega Boulevards in Beverly Hills (the current site of shopping center Beverly Center) in 1946. Through Bernice, David was introduced to Walt Disney, who began picking his brain and showing Bradley his plans for a theme park of his own. Bradley went on to consult for Disney and was instrumental in some of Disneyland’s signature characteristics. To name a couple, he convinced Disney to build Main Street at a reduced scale and introduce themed photo ops to the park.
5. Tivoli Gardens, 1843-Present — Copenhagen, Denmark
One of Copenhagen’s most famous attractions, Tivoli Gardens, drew Disney’s attention in 1951 when he visited with his good friend (and TV personality) Art Linkletter. Linkletter later spoke about the experience, describing Disney as taking notes about everything from the rides to the food that was served at Tivoli. The park featured twinkle lights and a variety of outdoor entertainment outlets, characteristics typical of Disneyland’s Main Street. The Danish amusement park was also known to be very clean and orderly, something Disney was determined to translate to his ‘land.
6. Children’s Fairyland, 1948-Present — Oakland, CA
As the story goes, while Disney was visiting Oakland, California's Children’s Fairyland, he asked to contribute a cartoon to a wall of the park and, when given permission, drew Mickey Mouse. He would also hire the first director of Fairyland, Dorothy Manes, to work as youth director of Disneyland, a post she held from 1955 to 1972.
Fairyland is also home to an attraction based on Alice in Wonderland, which supposedly influenced Disneyland’s dark ride of the same name that opened in 1958.
7. Madurodam, 1952-Present — The Hague, Netherlands
Image courtesy of Staka, used under Creative Commons license
Madurodam opened only a few years before Disneyland with a collection of miniatures depicting famous Dutch castles and other quaint buildings on display. In his book Walt Disney and Europe, author Robin Allan credits Disney’s visit to the Dutch attraction with animator and Imagineer Bill Cottrell with influencing the creation of the Fantasyland Storybook Land Canal Boats, which take guests on boat rides past miniature depictions of scenes from Disney films.
And Four More Potential Inspirations...
World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893 — Chicago, IL
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Before Disney was born, his father Elias was a construction worker at the World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) in Chicago. Though Walt didn’t visit the Exposition himself—he wouldn’t be born until seven years after it closed—he spent much of his childhood in the Windy City and was likely intrigued by stories of the fair, which featured the first Ferris Wheel (named after designer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.), an elevated train, and moving sidewalks.
Eden Springs Park, 1930s-Present — Benton Harbor, MI
Disney was always fascinated by trains. When he was young, his uncle Michael Martin was a train conductor, and in his later years one of his most prized possessions was his live steam miniature backyard Carolwood Pacific Railroad.
It is rumored that Walt Disney may have visited Eden Springs Park and purchased a miniature train built by House of David religious community members, which he took back to California to study.
Playland at the Beach, 1926-1972 — San Francisco, CA
Image courtesy of James R. Smith, used under Creative Commons license
A year before Disneyland opened, Disney traveled to Northern California to visit Playland at the Beach, a San Francisco attraction put together by brothers George and Leo Whitney. George Whitney’s son, George K. Whitney, would become Director of Ride Operations at Disneyland (and the park's seventh employee) after being personally recruited by Disney.
Knott’s Berry Farm, 1940-Present — Buena Park, CA
Image courtesy of METRO96, used under Creative Commons license
Though Walter Knott and Walt Disney owned competing amusement parks just several miles from each other, they had an apparently cordial relationship with one another.
In the 1940s, Knott’s Berry Farm was home to a Bottle House and Music Hall, which had a collection of Swiss birdcages filled with automaton birds that made whistling noises. Some speculate that Walt Disney gained inspiration from these birds for his own Audio-Animatronics and, more specifically, the Enchanted Tiki Room (1963).