While there was magic swirling in the air when Disneyland kicked open the gates on July 17, 1955, I sincerely doubt even Walt himself could've predicted where this icon of theme park construction would end up. Over 50 years later, Disneyland is as rabidly popular as ever, trucking in millions of visitors from around the globe every year to Anaheim, California, solidifying itself as a tourist perennial of blockbuster proportions.
Disneyland has its fans, followers, and fanatics, but even those who've dedicated their lives to swallowing every last drop of park minutiae will be thunderstruck by the contents of this latest release in the Walt Disney Treasures line of archival DVDs, "Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic." An exhaustive, eye-opening, retro back massage, this DVD is only scratching the confetti-stained surface when it comes to homegrown film footage of the park; yet, as a baby step toward a richer, meaningful appreciation of Walt's backyard, this is a humdinger of a DVD release.
While a slight continuance of the "Disneyland U.S.A." DVD from 2001, "Secrets" is actually its own monolithic beast. It rummages through many buried visual treasures of the company, imparting the viewer with an enormous sense of what the park meant to Walt when it opened and how that dream has been preserved to this very day, passed through the hands of countless Imagineers, cast members, and controversial executives.
"Introduction with Leonard Maltin" (2 minutes) presents the official "Treasures" ambassador with an opportunity to explain just what we're about to watch on the first DVD.
"Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic of the Happiest Place on Earth" (81 minutes) is the centerpiece of this DVD set; a documentary on the history of the park, interviewing the team who brought it to life. Originally intended to be a stand-alone program to commemorate Disneyland's 50th anniversary in 2005, the feature has been pulled apart and revived with new footage that brings the viewer up to date with the rides and festivities of the park.
Hosted by Julie Andrews and her welcomingly buttercup tone, "Earth" has the unfortunate task of compacting 50 years of history and surprises into 80 brisk minutes. It's a vigorous jog around America's first MySpace, but the goal of the documentary is to expose tidbits of trivia the casual fan of Disneyland would find amusing, and it's one task the film completes with the utmost charm.
While no doubt theme park purists will roll their eyes at the overtly fawning, "all is well" vibe of the piece, the anecdotes fly fast enough to distract from the one-note cheery tone, whisking the viewer away on a swift ride through this magic kingdom.
The interviews include precious time with Diane Disney Miller, Rolly Crump, Marty Sklar, Roy Disney, George Lucas, Tony Baxter, Dave Smith, and a horde of other management personalities and former Imagineers. They speak of the park with great reverence, praising both Walt and his tireless passion as the singular force behind the success of Disneyland, while stressing that that same spirit remains inside the property today, 40 years after his death.
The snowball of information begins with the chaos of the 1955 opening day telecast (included on the "Disneyland U.S.A." DVD) and covers: the failures of the Flying Saucers attraction and Holidayland; the death of Walt Disney and the significance of the 1967 launch of the popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction; the importance of refurbishment and innovation; discussions of the "Disneyland That Never Was" attraction plans; and tales from the likes of John Lasseter on working at the park.
It's a wildly entertaining journey, with all the interview participants giddy from the discussion. "Earth" is also reinforced by miles of park footage. While some of the clips are disappointingly cribbed from standard-issue vacation planning DVD productions, the majority come straight from the Disney vaults, delivering hard on retro chills and tender, brittle nostalgia.
While it starts out as a dangerously generic promo puff piece, "Secrets, Stories and Magic of the Happiest Place on Earth" eventually blossoms into a rewarding celebration of Disneyland, getting across that dizzying breadth of history while reassuring fans that the best is yet to come.
"Wonderful World of Disneyland Trivia Game" is a challenging quiz show designed to test the faithful on their memory of park lore. Two levels (beginner and advanced) are offered, which give way to a map of the property; each land represented with a brief overview and a question. The reward is a selection screen of classic Disneyland park tickets, offering the viewer a chance to see footage of the rides in motion. This is probably the only DVD game I've ever a) played to conclusion, and b) enjoyed.
"People and Places: Disneyland U.S.A." (42 minutes) was a 1956 Cinemascope production intended to further Walt's promotional aspirations by basking in a widescreen day at the park. This short film is nothing less than astonishing, taking on the duties of a time machine, rocketing viewers back to an era when everything was much more innocent and one-dimensional, and Disneyland was just getting its feet wet.
Narrated by Winston Hibler, "Places" is nothing more than a tour of the property; however, this is 1956, one year after the opening of the park, so the footage here is only of enchanting growing pains and minimalism. Shots of the brand-spankin'-new Disneyland Hotel and the spacious acres of Frontierland are the most compelling, revealing a potential to Disneyland Walt would perfect in the following years.
With copious amounts of flyby footage and priceless shots of period tourists baffled over what they'll find next in the park, "Places" is the ultimate document of Disneyland: Year One. Shot with obscene clarity (partially due to recent restorative efforts), the short puts the viewer in the driver's seat, offering vistas of a park that has changed much over the years, yet has retained a peculiar innocence and boldly confessional appeal.
"Places" is the true jewel of this DVD set; a pristine snapshot of an infant Disneyland, and an unforgettable tour of the park through the eyes of luscious widescreen technology. It's nearly worth the DVD price alone.
Another "Introduction with Leonard Maltin" (3 minutes) presents the official "Treasures" ambassador with a chance to clarify the origins of the more insider material located on the second DVD.
"Operation Disneyland" (14 minutes) will be of interest to Disneyland aficionados for the behind-the-scenes peek it provides of the opening day telecast. A short, curt, informational documentary created strictly for affiliates (hence the beat-up print and cloudy audio), "Operation" shows us the insane amount of work and technical know-how it took to bring a fleet of television cameras (from all over the country) into the park.
With cables precariously lining the street and buildings, the tight spaces allotted for the camera placement, and the general groundbreaking nature of the historical program, it's a miracle Art Linkletter and the boys managed to pull this one off as well as they did.
"The Golden Horseshoe Revue" (50 minutes) is an episode of "The Wonderful World of Color" from 1962. Taking the audience out of the heat of Frontierland into the Golden Horseshoe, the special is simply an "augmented" staging of the famous saloon show that ran for over 30 years.
Adding to the already overwhelming historical nature of this DVD set, "Revue" is a prime, front-row look at a piece of performance-oriented Disneyland history that's eroded away over the last few decades. Hosted by Betty Taylor and featuring appearances by Annette Funicello (dressed up in a saloon girl outfit that I'm sure sent the loins of teen boys everywhere into a frenzy), Ed Wynn, and comics Gene Sheldon and Wally Boag, the episode is a jolly, over-rehearsed extravaganza, using the participation of the audience and even the band in a fascinating 360 degree environment that's as close to being there as can be.
It's all singing, pratfalls, and dancing (including an uncomfortable Native American number about the "Red Man") up until Boag hits the stage, and then the show goes bonkers. Boag, a towering Disney legend, is a slapstick daredevil of the highest order - a sniper rifle of comedic timing - and once he takes the stage, the show kneels down before him. Sprinting through one-liners, balloon tricks, and culminating the revue with an Old West bar brawl, Boag is amazing to observe. The special is a lovely time capsule of the criminally dismantled Horseshoe Revue era.
"Disneyland Goes to the World's Fair" (50 minutes) is another "World of Color" episode, with the emphasis this time on Walt's dominance at the New York World's Fair in 1964-65. The show opens with some animation covering the history of fairs, leading to early motion picture footage that takes the story up to the modern age.
The episode is primarily a showcase for the labor-intensive creation of the audio-animatronics figures Walt sent to the Fair, which ended up snatching him more publicity than he predicted, with some of these creations eventually finding their way into Disneyland. You know them today as the dinosaur dioramas that greet visitors as they take a train ride around the park, the "Carousel of Progress" attraction (at Walt Disney World), "It's a Small World," and the currently in-limbo "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln."
The show climaxes with a startling glance of the World's Fair, where Walt steamrolled over the competition with his popular brand, sending antsy characters into the overwhelmed crowds and wowing them with his rides.
"Disneyland Around the Seasons" (50 Minutes), as Leonard Maltin warns, is an episode of "World of Color" similar to the "World's Fair" in several ways, yet this show has plenty of fresh goodies to offer, the best being the opening of "Small World." With a blinding multicultural attitude, watching the first international groups float along this ride is a hoot, again retaining an innocence about the world that has sadly been erased in the age of the internet.
A closer inspection of "Mr. Lincoln" is provided (impressive then, impressive now), we get to see where the dinosaurs ended up, and an overview of Walt's latest addition, New Orleans Square, is given ample screentime.
Finally, there's a parade - a Disney specialty. The "Fantasy on Parade" show was a holiday classic, mixing traditional Disneyland sights and sounds with the likes of Santa and caterpillars. Most, if not all the fun is watching the reactions of the children to these bizarre sights. Also of curiosity is a peep at older character costume designs, where hiding the cast member's face just wasn't the priority it is today. The show closes with a little bit of vocal might, with several Southern Californian church and school choir groups assembling for a soothing candlelight procession.
Airing in 1966, this episode is of special note as it was run only days after Walt's untimely death.
"Secrets" has been culled from a variety of visual sources nearly impossible to list. The bottom line is that this DVD looks tremendous, preserving video and film with the type of powerhouse sparkle that the Disney archives are known for.
The "People and Places" film is perhaps the greatest miracle of the set; a gorgeous Cinemascope experience (with 2.35:1 aspect ratio) that preserves the explosive colors of the constrained technology without the nagging erosion of time. The image is clear as a bell, and absent any overt film scratches and assorted damage that one would expect from limited exhibition promotional footage 50 years old.
The rest of the selections are just as stunning, with only "Operation Disneyland" aged the most due to its one-time-only specialty exhibition.
The majority of the programs here are given the Dolby Digital 2.0 treatment, with a nice blending of narration with park sounds and score. With most of the DVD selections pulled from television sources, the experience sounds as grand as can be.
The real firepower is left for the "People and Places" film, which is bestowed a potent 5.1 audio treatment, along with a 5.1 music-only track to better appreciate the lovely score.
A commentary from lifelong Imagineer Tony Baxter and Leonard Maltin accompanies the "People and Places" film. With Baxter's awe-inspiring knowledge of the park and Maltin's built-in bearded enthusiasm, these two are the perfect tour guides to walk through the film, offering tremendous insight into Disneyland and this cinematic postcard.
With such an abundance of material to discuss, Baxter and Maltin do a credible job hitting all the major question marks, introducing 1956 Disneyland to the puzzled modern viewer. Some friendly trivia competition between the two is enjoyed, along with a fascinating discussion of the technical secrets behind the film, and a stunning admission from Baxter that he uses the short to this day to remind new hires of the park's astronomical growth. It's a marvelous commentary track.
"Building Walt's Dream: Disneyland Under Construction" (37 minutes) uncovers corporate archival footage of the park's birth. Using time-lapse and traditional eye-in-the-sky photography, this is a dazzling piece of history, presenting how the fearless construction crews had Disneyland up and running in just under a year. Again: just under a year.
The silent footage is provided some perspective through a commentary by Tony Baxter, Ed Hobleman, and Walter Magnuson, who discuss the frantic construction of the park. Courtesy of Walt's persnickety insistence to document everything, this collection of private reels (Baxter claims this is only a small amount of what's out there on Disneyland) is flat-out remarkable, including a priceless moment of Walt on a bicycle, scooting around the park checking out the ongoing work.
Finally, a gallery of maps and examples of Imagineering concepts is provided.
Disneyland is a tremendous park to visit, requiring days of attention and the tricky ability to embrace the joy of artifice. However, there's even more merriment to be found by burrowing through its history and learning the secrets that enrich the experience of the property. As with any selection from the "Treasures" line, this DVD set left me thirsty for more, especially when it comes to an in-depth discussion of management decisions and attraction recollection. Regardless of its brevity, "Secrets, Stories and Magic" is a must-see for any mouse-ear-topped Disneyland devotee, and, with any luck, a first step in what should rightfully become an exhilarating assembly of park history on DVD.
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