The Man Erased From Disney History

(L-R) Walt Disney, C.V. Wood, Buzz Price. Image Credit: Disney Revue

In August 1955, Vice President Richard Nixon visited the former orange grove fields that had been meticulously cleared and packed with towering rocket ships, flying Dumbo carts, and a castle. With cameras going off, Nixon was given the key to Disneyland by the park’s own Vice President and General Manager, Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood.

An engineer who had been hired away from the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) the year prior, C.V. Wood had selected the site in Anaheim, purchased the land, and supervised construction. He was Disneyland’s first employee; Walt Disney was known to refer to him as a “son.”

Six months later, Wood was gone—not just from the park, but from Disney’s official history. 

Possibly the biggest influence on Disneyland next to Disney himself, Wood studied petroleum engineering at the University of Oklahoma. He met Disney when the animator began consulting with SRI on the logistics of his long-planned theme park. Wood proved so adept at solving problems—and so enamored with the concept of a fantasy landscape—he was brought on full-time to supervise the project’s frenetic construction.

The park opened in July 1955 and was an immediate success. Wood had a one-year contract, but in January 1956, trade papers announced his departure from the company. That he’d leave a job he was so fond of so abruptly immediately raised questions. (Embezzlement was one popular theory.) Though there’s never been a definitive answer, Van Arsdale France, a Disneyland employee who knew both Disney and Wood, believed the two men were so fiercely independent that their relationship wasn’t going to last.

“In one week, Wood was holding his regular meetings as usual, with an office crowded every minute of the day,” France was quoted as saying in The Disneyland Story. “Just about overnight, he was out.” According to employee Dick Irvine, Disney had his brother, Roy, fire Wood after a heated argument.

But Wood was still fascinated by the amusement industry. With severance pay in his pocket, the year he separated from Disney Wood he started Marco Engineering, which specialized in the design and execution of attractions. Wood was a one-of-a-kind talent for investors who wanted to try and replicate Disney’s success. He hired away several key Disney staffers; to promote his fledging business, he even started to bill himself as “The Master Planner of Disneyland.”   

Marco got off to an auspicious start. They opened Magic Mountain in Golden, Colorado in 1958, but construction delays bogged down business and the park was operational only during the summer. He also developed Pleasure Island, a Boston park that opened in 1959. Both ventures soon dissolved.

By this point, Wood was invoking his Disney ties a little too often for his former boss' liking. When he opened Freedomland in the Bronx in 1960, he billed it as “The Disneyland of the East.” Lawyers for Disney sued in order to protect the brand's copyright, and the matter was settled out of court.  

While Wood had high hopes for Freedomland—which tried to recreate historical cities and events—a series of incidents garnered the wrong kind of press. A stagecoach toppled over, breaking a guest’s spine; robbers made off with over $28,000

Freedomland closed in 1964, unable to compete with the neighboring World’s Fair and its stockpile of Disney-endorsed attractions. Wood later became famous for moving the London Bridge to Arizona, piece by piece, for a tourist attraction in 1968. He also founded the International Chili Society before ending his career at Warner Bros., where he worked until his death in 1992.

There is no account of Wood ever reconciling with Disney. While the company has received criticism for not acknowledging his contributions to Disneyland, not everyone got the memo. In 2011, an official Disney travel magazine innocently offered a bit of trivia about the relocated London Bridge in Arizona and one of the men responsible for it: C.V. Wood.

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.

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iStock
Disney Parks May Soon Have Robotic Stunt People
iStock
iStock

Animatronics are a staple of any Disney park, but as the company introduces more characters into the fold—like heroes from Star Wars, Marvel, and Avatar—the bar is being raised on audience expectations. On the screen, these characters defy gravity and pull off death-defying stunts, yet at the Disney parks, they’re still relying on fairly static animatronic models for their live shows and attractions. As Tech Crunch details, though, the gap between what the heroes do on film and in the park may be closing.

This development is all thanks to Disney’s R&D department, where Imagineers are working on next generation animatronics that can pull off aerial stunts like you’d see in any of the studio’s blockbuster films. The project is called Stuntronics, and its goal is to create animatronic stunt "heroes" that can replace a more static model in the middle of a Disney park show when the scene requires some high-energy action to take place. It's similar to the flesh and blood or CGI stunt people that movies have been using for decades.

In a video demonstrating their progress, a robot model is shown leaping from a cable to do backflips, double backflips, and other heroic landings. It’s something straight out of a Spider-Man movie and is years ahead of any animatronic character currently at the park.

Tony Dohi, principal R&D Imagineer at Disney, told Tech Crunch that the idea for this type of animatronic came about because they realized there was a “disconnect” between the exhibits at the park and what people see on film, so swapping in advanced animatronics for complex action scenes would go a long way toward making Disney’s parks feel more authentic to their properties. The Na’vi Shaman from the Avatar exhibit shows that Disney can get their animatronics to emote; this next step will put them into action.

According to Tech Crunch, right now the stunt robots are realized with the help of an “on-board accelerometer and gyroscope arrays supported by laser range finding.” They are autonomous and self-correct their aerial stunts to hit their marks. Though the model used in the video is just a generic mockup, it’s not hard to see how the Imagineers at Disney can easily turn it into any number of heroes from Marvel or Star Wars.

Stuntronics is just one of the advancements happening with robotics at Disney. Tech Crunch also detailed the Vyloo, which are a trio of autonomous bird-like robots in the park that react to guest movements. They can be seen in the Collector's Fortress in the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! attraction at Disneyland in California.

The Stuntronics project is still in the R&D phase with no practical application in place just yet. But if this technology does progress the way the Imagineers are hoping, the blockbuster action of Star Wars, Marvel, and The Incredibles won’t just be exclusive to the movies anymore.

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