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The Stories Behind Disneyland’s Hidden Wonders

As the amusement park celebrates its 60th anniversary, here’s the truth behind some of its more unusual features

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On July 17, 1955, Walt Disney stood near Sleeping Beauty Castle and, as millions of Americans watched live on televisiondedicated Disneyland to the “ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all of the world.” 

Today, as Disneyland readies itself for its 60th anniversary celebration, the theme park is one of the world's most successful tourist attractions. However, the “happiest place on Earth” was anything but on that July day. While the opening ceremonies were only intended for invited guests, many crashed the party using forged tickets, and the park grew overcrowded. A plumbers’ strike had left Disney with a choice of having completed bathrooms or water fountains (he chose bathrooms). Many of the rides broke down amid power shortages. Disney himself later would dub the day “Black Sunday.”

Bob Penfield was there working on Disneyland's opening day. That later helped him earn entry into Club 55, a special group for those present at the park's very beginning. Penfield was also the last member of the club to retire from Disneyland, which he did in 1997.  “I was supposed to work at Peter Pan on the 17th, but it wasn’t running, so I got moved the carousel. It was very hot and [there were] no drinking fountains … So every time I got a break from work, I went over to the Welch's Grape Juice Stand,” says Penfield.

Disneyland eventually worked out the kinks, and over the next six decades the company would open theme parks all over the world, from Paris to Orlando to Shanghai—where a Disney attraction will open in 2016. But the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California, will forever be the place that Walt Disney built. It is the only park that he personally oversaw construction of from beginning to end before dying in 1966 amid complications from lung cancer.

Like many others who worked at Disneyland, Penfield has fond memories of those early years. “My mother started to work there in ’57 as the first matron … and was known as the Grandma on Main Street. I met my wife at the park and we married in ’64. My son worked there too for ten years while finishing high school and college ... It’s a magical place ...  I still can't walk by a door and not see what's behind it.”

That urge to look behind the doors is a common one at Disneyland, and the internet is rife with urban myths and tall tales about this Southern California landmark. Here’s the truth about seven Disneyland secrets, based on extensive research, interviews with cast members and confirmations with Disney archivist Justin Arthur:

The Cats of Disneyland

Yes, this urban myth is true—there are feral cats that roam Disneyland, whose job is to control the rodent population. (They even have their own Twitter account.) Though they are more often seen late at night, daytime sightings do happen. “I’ve seen them, especially in the Big Thunder Mountain area … They are not domesticated or anything, but I believe they are fed and taken care of,” confirms Arthur.

The story goes that Walt Disney originally found a feline colony taking up residence in Sleeping Beauty Castle. Instead of getting rid of them, he allowed the cats to stay, provided they earned their keep. He laid down only one rule—no chasing the park’s two most important mice, Mickey and Minnie. 

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

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