During the spring of 1954, Walt Disney approached the Texas oil wildcatter and television pioneer Jack Wrather concerning the possibility of building accommodations for the many guests that Walt hoped would flock to his innovative “theme park,” then under construction in Anaheim, California. Since the “imagineering” and building of Disneyland was taking nearly every penny that he had, Walt approached Jack, hoping that his long-time friend would be willing to take such a huge risk. Wrather was the producer of Lassie, The Lone Ranger, and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, popular 1950s television programs.
Originally, Walt had approached Hilton executives and other well-known hotel chains, hoping to convince them to finance the construction of a first-class hotel next to Disneyland. However, the general consensus was that such a venture was too risky. No one was certain that what was quickly becoming known as “Disney’s folly” would be successful.
In 1954, Anaheim was a little-known community, largely consisting of orange groves Rajeel KP. The entire city had only seven small motels and hotels, accommodating only a total of 87 guests. Wrather admitted at the time that he was somewhat skeptical about building in such a small community (of approximately 30,000), next to an experimental and yet unfinished theme park. His doubts were further increased by the fact that the risky venture had already been turned down by more than one major hotel chain.
Wrather spent several days with Walt Disney, looking into the area’s potential for expansion. Legend has it that Walt had tears in his eyes while describing his dream of Disneyland to Wrather. With a sense of adventure, Wrather became convinced that the idea just might be a success. Also, with Walt showing such emotion for and dedication to his project, how could Wrather have resisted?
One of the first discussions between the two friends was where the hotel should be located. Wrather first talked of locating it near the entrance to Disneyland. Walt said, “Jack, our guests aren’t going to be thinking about a hotel when they begin their visit to Disneyland. They’ll start looking for a room when they leave the park. The best place to build your Hotel is near the Disneyland exit.” Wrather agreed with Walt’s logic and leased 60 acres of Disney-owned land on West Street directly across from the Disneyland exit. There he built what was to become known as the “Official Hotel of the Magic Kingdom.”
On March 18, 1955, Jack Wrather, Bonita Granville Wrather (his wife), and Anaheim Mayor Charles Pearson, using a three-handled shovel, officiated at the groundbreaking for the Disneyland Hotel.
The Disneyland Hotel opened on October 5, 1955, nearly three months after Disneyland’s live televised grand opening on July 17, 1955. The first guests registered at a hotel having only 104 guest rooms located in five two-story complexes, built at the southeast corner of the leased property. These were the South Garden rooms, later to be known as the Oriental Gardens. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Arnone of Inglewood, California were to be the first guests at the newly opened hotel.
The Disneyland Hotel was the first major resort to be built in Southern California since the early 1940’s. However, the number of available rooms quickly proved to be insufficient for the unexpected demand, and 96 more units of the same type were added the following year on the property’s northeast section. Built by Hodges and Vergrift Construction Company, this new addition was called the North Garden rooms, later renamed the Garden Villas.
During the first year, room rates ranged from $9 for a standard room to $22 for deluxe quarters. Rooms were advertised as accommodating four people. For an additional adult, there was a $3 charge.
At the same time that construction had begun on the additional garden rooms at the northeastern corner of the property, construction was under way on the Administration Building, which would house a lobby, restaurants, shops, and meeting rooms. The Gourmet Restaurant was opened in a converted ranch house on the property, redesigned by C. Tony Pereira. This converted ranch house had been the original Disneyland administration building.
The original hotel design, by the architectural firm of Pereira and Luckman, called for 300 motel and hotel rooms, suites and garden apartments. Also included were plans for three swimming pools, tennis courts, a golf course, cocktail lounges, and four restaurants. The original blueprints designated a total of 10 buildings in the South Garden or Oriental Garden section. However, only five buildings were actually built.
The opening of the Administration Building (which would later become the Travelport), and the “official” grand opening for the hotel was on August 25, 1956. It was a star-studded grand opening celebration that resembled a Hollywood movie premiere. Celebrities in attendance included Walt Disney, Art Linkletter, William Bendix, Alan Ladd, Sue Caroll, Yvonne DeCarlo, and Jeanne Crain. Also in attendance were as many as three hundred enthusiasts, observing the ribbon-cutting and taking a grand tour of the facilities.
By 1956, there were 204 guest rooms and suites at the Disneyland Hotel. As an added attraction, each garden patio had its own orange tree, a reminder of what the original property had been only a few short years earlier. This had been a part of the original plans when the grounds were being cleared to build the hotel. An additional amenity at this time was the Coral Club which included a huge 45-foot by 75-foot completely tiled and heated swimming pool, wading pools for children of all ages, fountains, sandlots, and a cabana area. The pools were surrounded by lounge furniture for guests’ relaxation and so that they might acquire a Southern California tan. One-day laundry and dry cleaning services were available, and a physician and nurse were on call. An 18-hole putting greens and shuffleboard courts were also early inclusions at the Disneyland Hotel.
Guests were able to register for a hotel room from their car or they could go into the lobby for a more traditional method of registration. There were parking spaces for 1000 cars, and parking was free. Also, limo and bus service was provided. Richfield Oil (also the Disneyland sponsor of Autopia) offered full automotive care. Even in the 1950s, every room was equipped with a television set and air conditioning.
During these early years, the attendance at Disneyland was beyond the most optimistic expectations. Even Walt had to be amazed by the overwhelming success of his dream. As a result, the City Council of Anaheim began reviewing plans for other motels and restaurants. Disneyland had proven all the skeptics to be wrong, and Disneyland was destined to bring major changes to what once had been a sleepy, orange grove community.
From the beginning, the Disneyland Hotel was one of the outstanding showplaces of Orange County. Celebrities such as Jack Benny, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Billy Graham, and Cary Grant were often spotted at the hotel. These and other celebrities enjoyed bringing their families for a stay at the hotel and for a trip to Walt’s park. Also attracted were business people, coming for luncheons, meetings, and conventions. The Disneyland Hotel quickly had become the place to see and the place to be seen.
Room rates in 1957 were advertised from $10 to $19. SuitesÊwent for between $22 and $25. The hotel’s brochures boasted of an assortment of shops, air conditioned rooms, television in every room, pools of all sizes, restaurant and cocktail facilities. Also touted was tram service to Disneyland every five minutes, transportation via a Disneyland station wagon, playgrounds, childcare facilities, barber and beauty shops. Doctor, nurse and even dental facilities were available on the grounds. The brochures further emphasized a private sundeck or patio for every room. Best of all, the Disneyland Hotel was billed as the only hotel right at the Magic Kingdom of Disneyland. Also in the late 1950s, the concept of “seasonal” and “non-seasonal” rates first appeared. Typically, it would cost a dollar or two more for a room during the holidays and summer months (late May through mid September).
By 1959, over 25 hotels and motels had crowded around Disneyland to take advantage of the Park’s spectacular drawing power. By 1960, Anaheim had established itself as Orange County’s largest city, with a population in excess of 100,000. People were traveling from all areas of the world to visit the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Indeed, Anaheim had magically grown from a quiet, small agricultural community into a mecca of tourism, and the boom had only begun. As Walt had promised on opening day, the park continued adding attractions (the Monorail, the Submarine Voyage, and the Matterhorn all opening in 1959); and the hotel continued to grow, having more than 300 rooms by 1960. A 13,000-square foot convention center was also added at that time.