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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

(© Disney. All Rights Reserved.)

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. 

The Skull on Pirates of the Caribbean

The Pirates of the Caribbean boat ride was the last attraction Walt Disney worked on before his death in December 1966. When it opened in March 1967, the ride was revolutionary for the use of audio-animatronics in its storytelling. But it may have been notable for other reasons, too: “When it opened, my understand is that most of [the skulls and bones] were procured from medical institutions. There weren’t really good, realistic fake skeletons out there at the time, so they had to use real ones,” says Arthur.

As the years have passed, most of the bones have been swapped out for fakes—except, possibly, for one skull. “There is nothing official, but I have heard it is the one in the headboard above the bed. When they did get rid of the real ones, that one was molded into something,” says Arthur. 

The Basketball Hoop Inside of the Matterhorn

(© Disney. All Rights Reserved.)

When the Matterhorn opened in 1959, it was the world’s first tubular steel roller coaster, but Disney wanted more. So, he hired real climbers to scale the 147-foot manmade mountain as if they were climbing the original Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps.

But once the climbers reached the top of the Matterhorn, they didn’t have much to do. So, Walt Disney built a basketball hoop in the top third of the mountain to keep them occupied. Contrary to some reports, it's not an entire court, Arthur says. “I don’t ever call it a basketball court. You can potentially play a game, but it’s not quite a whole court … It has been there for a very long time.” 

Walt Disney’s Petrified Tree Stump

(Image courtesy of Flickr user Tom Simpson)

In front of Frontierland sits a rather large, odd artifact—a five-ton piece of petrified wood. The plaque says little more than where it came from—Pike Petrified Forest, Colorado—and that it was presented to Disneyland by Walt’s wife in September 1957. The real story behind the stump sheds some light on Disney’s original intention, which was to make parts of the park a sort of natural history museum, complete with a mineral hall

In 1956, Walt and his wife were on a road trip in Colorado when they stopped at Pike Petrified Forest. Touring the forest, he decided that a petrified tree stump would be perfect for his still-new park. Walt purchased the stump for $1,650 from a local dealer and had it delivered to Disneyland. To justify such an extravagant purchase, he told the media and his family alike that it was an anniversary gift to his wife. Since she didn’t want it, he joked, she had donated to the park. Disneyland eventually became more focused on entertainment than education, and the stump seems rather out of place in the park today. 

Disneyland's Illusion

Walt Disney wanted everyone who stepped through the gates of his park to feel like a child, no matter their age. One of the ways he chose to do this was by using the architecture and photography technique known as forced perspective. The technique involves shrinking (or enlarging) objects to scale in order to make a building or object seem larger (or smaller) than it actually is.

While the entire park has elements of this, the most profound examples are Sleeping Beauty Castle and the buildings on Main Street. Many of the shops on Disneyland’s main road are built to three quarters scale on the first story, five-eighths scale on the second story, one half scale on the third story. This gives the illusion of a full three-story building without the building actually being as high as a three-story building. 

“Walt brought in a lot of set designers and a lot of people who worked on films, who employed a lot of principles from there, including forced perspective. Part of the reasoning was that Walt wanted [Disneyland’s buildings] to be more personal … and to make you feel like a kid because everything is bigger,” says Arthur.  

The Secret Message at the New Orleans Square Train Station

If one listens closely while waiting for the Disneyland Railroad at the New Orleans Square station, a tapping sound can be heard coming from the Telegraph Cable Office. This tapping is actually a message coded in Continental Code (and not in Morse Code, a frequent misconception).

There is some uncertainty about exactly what it's saying. Originally part of Frontierland, the telegraph was supposed to tap out a portion of Disney’s famed opening day speech. In order for it to be ready to go for July 17, 1955, a memo was distributed on July 8 with an early draft of Disney’s remarks. Of course, as anyone who has spoken in public knows, sometimes what is written on paper is not what comes out. While the variation in what got coded into the telegraph and what Disney actually said is slight (a few added words), it's unclear whether the telegraph was ever updated. However, an amateur ham radio operator did some digging and claims that he helped to fix a missing gap in the message. 

Don’t Bring the Ashes of Your Loved Ones to Disneyland

Disneyland holds a special place in the lives of many, so it's only natural some might wish it to be their home forever. While the park has never confirmed that they have caught people scattering human ashes, according to multiple Disneyland sources, it does happen somewhat frequently, and it's a health hazard.

The Haunted Mansion and the Pirates of the Caribbean seem to be the most popular spots for the practice. When it happens, health code regulations dictate that rides have to be shut down for draining and cleaning. 

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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