From the publisher of The Unofficial Guide books comes The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream by Sam Gennawey, the story of how Walt Disney’s greatest creation was conceived, nurtured, and how it grew into a source of joy and inspiration for generations of visitors. Here is a brief excerpt:
“Disneyland has always had a big river and a Mississippi stern-wheeler,” Walt said. “It seemed appropriate to create a new attraction at the bend of the river. And so, New Orleans Square came into being—a New Orleans of a century ago when she was the ‘Gay Paree’ of the American frontier.” New Orleans Square opened along the banks of the Rivers of America on July 24, 1966, at a cost of $15 million. It was the first new land since the park opened and the first time that the Imagineers were challenged with creating an environment that was a representation of a specific place at a specific time: romantic, pre-Civil War New Orleans in 1850, when it was the most cosmopolitan and diverse city in America.
In an early press release, the Imagineers proclaimed that Disneyland’s New Orleans was “a city of contrasts. Magnificently gowned ladies, genteel and gracious, strolled past benign Indian squaws selling sassafras root. Iron-lace balconies seemed even more delicate when compared with stretches of ashed walls. Intimate courtyards were lazy counterpoints to crowded markets.” This new section of the park would “be as exciting as a pirate treasure hunt, as colorful as a Mardi Gras ball, as memorable as a visit to the French Quarter.”
John Hench described New Orleans Square as “Disney Realism, sort of Utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements. In fact, we even go beyond realism in some cases to make a better show. The streets were much cleaner than New Orleans had ever experienced.” He noted, “Frankly, if we created a totally perfect, authentic themed experience where we had complete realism, it would probably be ghastly for contemporary people.”
Guests could easily spend an entire day at New Orleans Square. The French Market Restaurant offered buffet-style dining and a terrace with live Dixieland music. It was the largest restaurant in New Orleans Square and was decorated in old brick with accents of core and green, black iron furnishings, and a quarry-tile floor all under an antique pressed-tin ceiling. The domed “skylight” had two tile murals portraying the ceremonies for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. For a quick drink, the Mint Julep Bar offered non-alcoholic mint juleps, lemonade, and fritters. For those in need of an ice cream or coffee, there was the Sara Lee Cafe Orleans, complete with a 19th-century espresso machine acquired by Walt during a trip to Milan.
At Crystal D’Orleans, guests could watch the glass blower at work and purchase fine Spanish crystal and decorative glassware. The silversmith at Leaflet’s Silver Shop made jewelry to order and performed minor repairs. Guest could purchase a hat or film at Le Chapeau Hat Shop and kitchen accessories and spices from Le Gourmet. Custom stained glass and wrought iron could be found at Le Forgeron. Over at Mlle. Antoinette’s Parfumerie, guests could blend custom fragrances. The shop kept records so that guests could return and reorder the exact fragrance they had previously selected.
Walt personally wanted an antique shop in the park. The One-of-A-Kind Shop was meant to emulate a walk through a favorite grandmother’s attic. Every square inch was covered in merchandise. Items ranging from old maps to fireplace fixtures to door knockers were available. Some of most valuable items for sale included a Gregorian Chant Book dated 1607 and old negatives that turned out to be pictures of the Wright Brothers flying in Paris. In spite of such treasures, the store was never about making money, only adding a sense of authenticity.
Other touches included tucked-away little spaces like Le Grand Court with its spiral staircase and ornate gas lamps. At times, artist would be available to paint watercolor portraits. Throughout the land were carts appropriate to the period, selling flower baskets and candy and Louisiana pralines, mints, and pecans.
Sam McKim was put in charge of designing the Pirate’s Arcade (also known as the Rogues’ Galerie). Walt wanted him to reconfigure existing arcade games into pirate-themed machines. McKim designed games with names like Free Booter Shooter, Captain Hook, and Blackbeard. Dick Nunis helped McKim build 16 machines. McKim was proudest of one particular machine, “Fortune Red,” a machine that stamped out pirate tokens. As the mold for the tokens, McKim used a “piece of eight” coin from an ancient Spanish galleon that had sunk in the Dutch East Indies.
“You know, those arcade machines were played for 10 cents for years . . . I even had some 5 cents machines in there,” McKim said. “We were following Walt’s philosophy about this. He didn’t even want them to raise the price of parking, which stayed at 25 cents for years. He didn’t mind making money off the Park, but he didn’t want to make money off the parking. He wanted to give the public a good deal.”
New Orleans Square was blessed with a mature tree canopy, giving it an instant authenticity. In 1962, Bill Evans had discovered that the City of Los Angeles was doing a remodel of Pershing Square in downtown. He drove by and noticed that there were about thirty small Ficus trees at the edges of the park and another eight very large ones in the middle. This was too good of an opportunity to pass up. He contacted the contractor and learned that they were going to box up the smaller trees to be reused elsewhere and destroy the large ones. In fact, they had already disposed of one of the large trees. Evans quickly moved in to acquire the remaining trees. He boxed them up and cut off the top 15 feet of the trees as required by the California Highway Patrol.
Walt asked Evans where he was going to plant these trees. Evans had no idea but he knew this was a good find. He suggested storing them behind the Haunted Mansion area. Within a year, Bill Martin started on the New Orleans Square project and the seven trees found a home. In addition, six Italian cypress trees that had been used to delineate the entrance to Tomorrowland were moved in front of the Haunted Mansion when construction started on the Tomorrowland area in 1967.
When Walt died, in 1966, he had seen the New Orleans Square area and he’d seen the mock-ups for the Pirates of the Caribbean, but he did not see the ride open. At the grand opening of the new land, Walt joked with New Orleans Mayor Victor H. Schiro how much cleaner his version was compared to the real thing.