The Amusement Park’s Scandalous Roots

But the concept of a closed and permanent amusement park was probably born on Coney Island in New York. The island had been attracting visitors since the 1800s, but from 1897 to 1904 it created three lavish mini-environments, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland, which would radically transform the concept of entertainment. Each had an individual entry and entrance fee, and offered ever more elaborate attractions. Luna Park hosted A Trip to the Moon in which the Luna airship took 30 passengers past Niagara Falls and over the curvature of the Earth before dropping them off in caves where they could visit the Palace of the Moon. on the moon and walk away with remembrance pieces of green cheese.

At its peak, Coney Island spawned over 20,000 imitators in the United States alone. However, with a relatively short season, running from Memorial Day in May to Labor Day in September, it seemed unnecessary for homeowners to invest in high-quality materials for their buildings. Made of lath and plaster, the ornate but fragile structures were susceptible to harsh winters and highly flammable. Dreamland burned down in 1911, taking with it the era of Coney’s greatest splendour.

Although crowds continued to flock to the area in the 1920s, they had less money to spend, so cheaper and more sleazy attractions arrived to satisfy them. Then came the Depression and World War II. Coney Island, along with its imitators, began to wither away. When better times arrived in the 1950s, more exciting leisure pursuits were on offer – movies, television, air travel, and individual adventures in the ever-ubiquitous automobile. Amusement parks were considered tacky, ramshackle relics of a bygone era.

And yet, it was precisely at this time that Walt Disney decided to build his own. “Everyone from his family to the reporters who approached him thought it was a crazy thing to do,” says Richard Snow, author of Disney’s Land, which documents the extraordinary story of how Disneyland was created.

But Disney persevered, initially funding the park with its own life insurance policy, convinced it had a unique vision that would charm the world. “I don’t think he really thought of it as an amusement park. He thought the next step would be to put the audience inside the film. He always saw it as an experience rather than a lots of rides,” said Neiger.

Disney assembled a talented team of engineers, architects, artists, animators and landscape designers who miraculously managed to turn their ideas into reality in just over a year. At its heart was Main Street, a tribute to the small American town of Disney’s youth. Around it were a series of magical worlds and the soon to be iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle. There was stunning attention to detail, with Disney insisting that the railings – which would only be seen from afar – were iron rather than plastic because the public could “feel” the difference. As visitors walked through the park, the texture of the ground changed beneath their feet to suggest entering another distinct land. “He brought this obsessive perfectionism to every detail of the park, and that’s why it then felt and feels different from other places,” Snow explains.

Yet despite all the attention to detail, the opening day to which the press and many celebrities were invited was a disaster. The tarmac was laid two hours before opening, meaning it was soft enough throughout the day to suck up the high-heeled shoes of female visitors, including those of Frank Sinatra’s wife.

Harold B. McConnell