Theme park history is fascinating enough on its own, but Disneyland history is especially fascinating. Why? Because, as these incredible—and, in some cases, almost unbelievable—former Disneyland attractions underline, the early years in the park were wild. Live mules! Real fishing! Actual mermaids! Can you imagine the careful, safety-oriented Disneyland of today launching these kinds of attractions? Nope. But when the park had just flung open its gates to visitors, all these and more could be found within its borders.
Disneyland Park, as it’s now known (presumably to differentiate it from both the Disneyland Resort as a whole and the resort’s adjacent second gate, Disney’s California Adventure), first opened in 1955—and although opening day was, uh, rough, things obviously worked out eventually. Now, the Disney Parks division is a juggernaut, boasting resorts in six different cities around the world.
But although these resorts are constantly introducing new and advanced rides and attractions, there’s something so delightfully chaotic about the original park’s lo-fi origins. These nine attractions—many from the park’s first few years of operation, plus a few from slightly later on—might sound bonkers now, but they were big hits back then. Ready for a walk down the wackiest memory lane ever?
Real, Live Pack Mules
“Real, live pack mules” doesn’t just mean mules you might see at a petting zoo or what have you. (Disneyland did have a petting zoo for many years, by the way; it was part of the Big Thunder Ranch area, which opened in 1986 and closed in 2016 to clear the way for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.) No, “real, live pack mules” means mules guests in the park could ride themselves.
The mules served as an opening day attraction in the Frontierland section of the park in 1955 and quickly became a fan favorite. The attraction underwent several iterations over the years: From 1955 to 1956, it was simply called the Pack Mules and led guests through a handful of trails near the waterfront before heading back into Frontierland’s town square; then, following the park’s big Summer 1956 expansion, it became known as the Rainbow Ridge Pack Mules, taking guests around Rainbow Ridge mining town, through some desert areas, and around the waterfront, once again ending the trip in the town square; and in 1960, after yet another expansion, it was dubbed the Pack Mules Through Nature’s Wonderland, riding through significantly more souped-up scenery—such as a waterfall and animatronic animals.
To be fair, there were a handful of ride-type attractions that involved live animals at Disneyland in the early years, including the Rainbow Mountain Stagecoach and Conestoga Wagons; the difference, though, is that for those attractions, cast members held the reigns—literally. The pack mules ceased operating in 1973, and although the decision to close up shop was to make room for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, it’s hard not to think that it might have had something to do with the risks of putting actual people on actual mules. Just think of the possible liability issues.
The Aluminum Hall of Fame
Walt’s initial vision for Tomorrowland was less about science fiction and more about scientific fact: His plan for it was to have it stand as a testament to human ingenuity, demonstrating both the technological marvels of today and the “new frontiers in science, adventure, and ideals” that awaited us as our knowledge grew. He also relied heavily on a sponsorship model, with other companies footing the bill for the attractions, much like he would for the experiences WED Enterprises—the division that would eventually become Disney Imagineering—later built for the 1964 World’s Fair.
That’s how Disneyland ended up with a scintillating attraction about the history, uses, and merits of aluminum in Tomorrowland on opening day.
To be fair, the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame (which, duh, Kaiser Aluminum sponsored) actually did have some pretty neat stuff in it. Yes, it was geared toward teaching kids and families about the various kinds of aluminum Kaiser made and how they were utilized around the world, which doesn’t sound terribly exciting; however, it did boast things like the Time Sphere, which—as the Disney-centric website Laughing Place puts it—“projected images of people throughout history, from knights to spacemen, all proudly wearing aluminum outfits.” That’s definitely enough to provide a few minutes of entertainment. Also, the mascot of the attraction was a cute little piggy made out of aluminum. Adorable.
Kaiser wasn’t keen on keeping the sponsorship going, though—a problem that would plague most of the attractions during Tomorrowland’s sponsorship era—and in 1960, it closed its doors. But guess what takes up that space now? Star Tours. Quite the improvement by today’s entertainment standards.
The Lagoon Mermaids
Sure, Ariel (aka The Little Mermaid) has plenty of meet-and-greet opportunities throughout all of the Disney parks—but even when you spot her with her tail on, she’s usually on dry land. But in the days before Ariel became Disney’s prime oceanic princess, you could find other mermaids at the park—in actual water.
The mermaids initially appeared in the park in support of another ride: The Submarine Voyage, which began taking visitors under the lagoon in Tomorrowland in 1959. During the ride’s opening ceremony on June 14 of that summer, eight live “mermaids”—women in their late teens and early 20s wearing rubber tails and showing off a huge amount of training—performed synchronized water ballet in the lagoon; then, throughout the summer, the park’s team of mermaids alternated sunning on the rocks in the lagoon and diving below the water to wave at guests when the Submarine Voyage vehicles went by.
Former mermaid Susan Hoose (née Musfelt) told MousePlanet in 2012, “Our job was unscripted. We could cavort in the water, wave at the occupants in the submarine, and swim upside down.” However, the job was not all fun and games; the water was incredibly chlorinated as well as freezing cold. According to Hoose, the reason the mermaids spent so much time on the lagoon’s rocks was that it was the best place to warm up after a dive.
The mermaids were present in the lagoon during that first summer of 1959, and then for three more summers between 1965 and 1967. After that, they disappeared, with the Submarine Voyage shutting down several decades later in 1998. Don’t fret, though; the ride hasn’t gone away completely. It reopened as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage in 2007.
The Bathroom of Tomorrow
It’s kind of a toss-up what the strangest part about Tomorrowland’s “Bathroom of Tomorrow” really is: What Disneyland and the attraction’s sponsor, Crane Plumbing Company, thought bathrooms would look like in the future, or the simple fact that there was an exhibit about bathrooms at Disneyland at all.
Like the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame, the Crane Company’s Bathroom of Tomorrow hails from Tomorrowland’s early sponsorship years. Opened on April 5, 1956, inside the building that already housed the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry (yes, really), the Bathroom of Tomorrow was thankfully not a functional bathroom; rather, it demonstrated to visitors what sorts of hygiene-focused conveniences supposedly awaited them in the years to come. Per the website Duchess of Disneyland, the model bathroom featured “a state-of-the-art bathtub, a toilet, a bidet, a wrapping vanity with built-in sinks, and a huge glass shower.” It was also gold-plated and included such bells and whistles as “built-in dumbbells, ceramic figurines, and its own connected telephone.”
Sounds cool, huh? Maybe; after all, high-tech toilets are to this very day an object of fascination for some and of daily life for others. But Crane’s vision of the future’s bathroom was geared more toward show and less toward practicality (the built-in dumbbells are particularly notable here)—and, for what it’s worth, it ended up being inaccurate as well (in a world where mobile phones are the norm, connected telephones in bathrooms are undeniably superfluous).
Alas, the attraction failed to garner much of an audience, closing for good in 1960. Meanwhile, the Hall of Chemistry managed to hang around until 1966. But the space didn’t go to waste; along with the Aluminum Hall of Fame’s building, the one that the Hall of Chemistry and the Bathroom of the Future once occupied went on to host first the Adventure Thru Inner Space, and later, Star Tours.
The Mickey Mouse Club Circus
When Disneyland opened in the summer of 1955, The Mickey Mouse Club hadn’t started airing yet. But it did in October of that year, bringing a variety show aimed at children to households across the country. With every Thursday on the show being “Circus Day” and featuring a series of impressive circus performers, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Walt wanted to bring some of the show’s magic—and its circus skills—to his newly opened park; and so, at the end of November, the Mickey Mouse Club Circus put up its red-and-white-striped big top in the area the Matterhorn now occupies and began performing three to four times per day. Performances were 75 minutes long and—initially, at least—began with a full-on circus parade, with performers, animals, and all making their way down Main Street and into the tent.
Alas, though, it was—in a word—a flop. For one thing, the performances rarely went as planned; the llamas frequently escaped, and on one memorable occasion, one of the trapeze artists had a wardrobe malfunction of epic proportions. (Accounts differ as to whether the malfunction in question was a lost bra or split tights, but either way, it wasn’t quite the show that was intended for audiences.) The circus was also expensive to run, on top of which most guests to the park just… didn’t seem to care about it all that much.
The tent was relocated to Holidayland—the picnic area just outside of Disneyland’s gates—six weeks after the circus’ main Disneyland debut, but it didn’t fare much better there; so, by September of 1956, it wrapped up its final performances. The tent would go on to house food and alcohol (which famously couldn’t be purchased within Disneyland itself) during the rest of Holidayland’s run; however, the area was scrapped in 1961 to clear more space for the park. These days, the show buildings for Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion stand where Holidayland once was.
Speaking of the Haunted Mansion…
Live Actors in the Haunted Mansion
The Haunted Mansion is great if you love gleefully spooky things, but the one thing it doesn’t have that, say, the kinds of haunted attractions that spring up during the Halloween season across the country have, is live actors.
…Or at least, it doesn’t now. And it hasn’t for most of its lifetime, from its opening day in 1969 up through the present. But for one very brief period in the 1980s, the House of the Mouse did test putting live actors in the attraction—to great effect.
Longtime Haunted Mansion fans are undoubtedly familiar with the “Endless Hallway” scene: Shortly after leaving the loading area, your Doom Buggy passes a hallway that seemingly stretches on forever thanks to the use of forced perspective and some well-placed mirrors. A candelabra floats down the middle of the hallway; meanwhile, a spooky-looking armchair flanks the hallway’s entrance to the left, while a moving suit of armor flanks it to the right.
During the Live Actor period of the ride, the suit of armor was replaced with a person wearing a suit of armor, who would stand as still as possible to fool riders into thinking they were just a statue before jumping out at them—usually scaring the pants off the riders in the process. According to an interview on Haunted Mansion fansite Doom Buggies with Kyle Clark, who acted as a knight in the attraction for one summer, it was great fun, although sometimes a little dangerous; Clark remembered one of his fellow knights received a broken nose after leaning in too close to a rider—who reflexively punched him in the face. The living knights also carried emergency shutoff devices that could shut the ride down if needed.
The living knights only occupied the Haunted Mansion for a short space of time before vanishing into the ether. However, Disneyland did bring them back—along with a few other living ghosts—for two nights in 2019 during the park’s 50th-birthday celebration for the venerable spook house.
In 1985, Disney was undergoing a lot of changes as a company. Newly minted CEO Michael Eisner had just stepped in the year before, and he had some big plans in mind to make sure the company stayed relevant to as many demographics as possible. Teens and young adults may not have been interested in some of the younger, cutesier aspects of Disney’s brand identity—but what do teens like? Dancing. Teens like dancing. “Aha!” the company thought. “I know! Let’s open up a nightclub! Nightclubs are cool!”
Thus, Videopolis was born. The club opened up on June 22, 1985, in the northern section of the park at the edge of Fantasyland—a spot that had previously housed the Fantasyland Theater. With a 5,000-square-foot dance floor, camera crews filming and projecting live dancers on two 16-foot screens and 70 video monitors, and all sorts of lighting tricks and effects, it tried—it really tried—to be a hip destination for teens.
Unfortunately, though, the club proved to be far from a solution to the “How do we make ourselves cool enough for teens?” conundrum—and, in fact, ended up causing a whole bunch of problems instead. First, the park got in some hot water due to a policy prohibiting same-sex couples from dancing together at the park (and, by extension, the club); the policy was dropped in July of 1985, but the fact that it had existed in the first place wasn’t a good look. And second, the recent uptick in youth violence centered around nightclubs in the southern California area gave rise to fears over the club’s safety.
Videopolis wouldn’t be the only time Disney dabbled in the nightlife scene—in 1989, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida opened the adult-oriented clubbing destination Pleasure Island—but it certainly had the shortest run: While Pleasure Island operated until 2008, Videopolis closed in November of 1989 after just four years in operation. It’s now home to the latest iteration of the Fantasyland Theatre (this time with the European spelling).
In case the Frontierland pack mules weren’t enough for you, get a load of this: When Tom Sawyer Island opened in June of 1956, visitors didn’t just cross the Rivers of America to get to it—they could also fish in the Rivers of America upon their arrival. For real, live fish. Which they could then take home with them at the end of the day.
According to Duchess of Disneyland, the Huckleberry Finn’s Fishing Pier section of the island featured a shed equipped with fishing poles guests could borrow. The portion of the river located at the pier was sectioned off from the rest of the larger body of water with hidden nets—and the park made sure to keep this netted-off section stocked with catfish. If guests were lucky or skilled enough to catch one of the fish, they could bring it to the River Belle Terrace once they were back ashore in Frontierland; the restaurant would clean and chill the fish until the guests who had caught them were ready to go home.
Unfortunately, though, not enough people actually followed this last step. Instead, they carried the fish around with them throughout the day—or, in the worst cases, just abandoned them elsewhere in the park. With southern California as hot as it is most of the time… well, let’s just say that the problem stank. Literally. The fishing attraction was accordingly done away with by August of 1956.
Walt Disney Himself
Yep. During Disneyland’s first decade, Walt himself could periodically be seen walking around the park. In fact, many photos of Walt at Disneyland exist—a combination of publicity shoots, documentation of the construction or opening ceremonies of new rides attractions, and even some candid shots. These days, with Walt having been gone since 1966 and the company having expanded as much as it has in the intervening decades, it’s hard to imagine that now—but it happened. For real.
However, if you look in the right spot at the right time of day, you might still see Walt in the park. A light is always kept burning for him in the apartment above the Fire Department on Main Street, the place where he used to live during the park’s construction—and sometimes, that light has been known to turn on and off by itself.
Some think it’s just faulty wiring. Others, though? They believe it’s Walt’s ghost, still keeping an eye on his beloved park after all these years.