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DISNEYLAND AT 50
REMEMBERING A GRAND OPENING -- WITH GLITCHES

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It was sweltering that day. And crowded. People gathered at the entrance even if they didn't have tickets, that's how eager they were to get inside.

"Hotter than hell" is how Art Linkletter, the emcee and Walt Disney's longtime friend, remembers it. "The asphalt had just been rolled and people's shoes got stuck in it. But we carried on. We didn't worry about stuff like that."

Fifty years is a long time, but those who were there when Disneyland opened its gates on July 17, 1955, still remember the tiniest details -- rides that broke down, wet paint that rubbed off on guests' clothes, the smile on Walt Disney's face.

It wasn't a perfect opening, but Disney's dream -- to build a family theme park unlike any other -- became a reality that day, despite the glitches.

The memories are flooding back as the Happiest Place on Earth approaches its 50th anniversary with an 18-month celebration -- dubbed the Happiest Homecoming on Earth -- that begins Thursday. Employees who were there on the first day, or those who worked at the park in its early years, haven't forgotten how it all began.

"I remember the first day, seeing Walt walking down Main Street," said Bob Penfield, a ride operator when the park opened. "I'm an 18-year-old Iowa farm boy, and I'm watching Walt Disney walk down the street. That's one thing I'll always remember."

The Disneyland of 50 years ago barely resembles the sprawling complex that covers 430 acres today and includes Disney's California Adventure theme park, Downtown Disney (a mall of retail shops and restaurants) and three hotels.

There were 18 attractions then; there are more than 60 now. Even the terminology has changed: Employees are called cast members, rides are called attractions.

But some things remain almost as they were when the park opened (with some tweaks and updates): Peter Pan's Flight, Mad Tea Party, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the Jungle Cruise. Sleeping Beauty's Castle seems as magical as ever.

The original park was built on 160 acres that were once orange groves. Ron Dominguez's family was one of 17 that sold their land to Disney, and although he recalled that his mother was sentimental about giving up their 10 acres, it led to a 39-year Disney career for the now-retired Dominguez -- from ticket taker on opening day to a variety of supervisory jobs and eventually executive vice president of Walt Disney West Coast.

Old-timers say Disney, who died in 1966, was a frequent visitor, prowling the park at dawn and trying to figure what attractions could be improved. He often slept in a small room above the firehouse on Main Street rather than drive home -- although he inadvertently locked himself inside the night before the park opened and would have missed his own opening had no one heard him shouting for help.

The room isn't used anymore, but a light is always kept on in tribute.

When Disney was there, "you wouldn't recognize him at all," said Oscar Martinez, 69, a chef at Carnation Restaurant who began working at the park in 1956. "He wore a straw hat and overalls, like a farmer. You would never see him in a suit, and he always came out very early in the morning."

Martinez has served popcorn, scooped ice cream, flipped burgers and sliced sandwich meat in the 49 years he has worked at Disneyland. His wife, Shirley, used to work at the park, too, in the Plaza Gardens, where Disney often visited to drink milkshakes.

"She used to make them for him," Martinez said. "He liked them made special, not too runny. Vanilla or chocolate."

By then, Disneyland had become a rousing success. But on that first day, when the turnout was expected to be 15,000 and more than 28,000 crammed inside -- among them Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Kirk Douglas -- there were doubts.

"I probably shouldn't tell you this," said Penfield, "but it was known as Black Sunday. It was such a mess.

"People came pouring in. We tried to control them, but there was no way because it was a preview for the press and invited guests and celebrities, so people didn't have to buy tickets to get in. They could just jump the fence.

"It was a tough day."

According to reports, there were problems everywhere -- a power outage in Fantasyland, restaurants running out of food, rides breaking down.

"It was a hectic day," Dominguez said. "Like anything that's brand new, it's a different way of doing business. But we survived."

Walt Disney, too busy with the live televised broadcast by ABC, was unaware of the problems. Linkletter, assisted by co-hosts Ronald Reagan and Bob Cummings ("I picked two guys who were great talkers," Linkletter said), kept the show moving from one venue to another.

"It was criticized by a lot of newspapers for that first day because things didn't work," said Linkletter, who turns 93 on the day Disneyland turns 50. "They didn't expect all those people, and besides, everything was so new that a lot of the rides hadn't even been tried yet."

Linkletter still recalls the day -- several years before the park opened -- when Disney asked his friend to join him on a driving trip. "He didn't want any real estate people to know what we were doing, because he said the price would change," Linkletter said in a phone interview. "There were no freeways then, just little towns and orange groves. We were an hour and a half out of the city, heading toward San Diego. But that was where he planned to put Disneyland.

"I thought, 'He's out of his mind.' "

But he wasn't, and not even a few opening-day hurdles could upset Disney's plans for a family entertainment park.

Even later, there were occasional problems. Penfield recalls the day he worked the Autopia ride and forgot to close the gate that was used to transport the tiny cars to the maintenance area at the end of each day. The next thing he knew, kids were driving their cars onto the road.

"I thought for sure I was going to get fired for that," he said.

He didn't. Penfield remained until 1997 -- he was the last original Disneyland employee to retire -- and the park has welcomed more than 500 million visitors since it opened.

"I think Walt would be proud," Linkletter said. "It's bigger than he ever thought it would be, and it's a little more commercial in some respects, but he'd be proud."

TABLE: Did you know:

* That the employees at Disneyland are called "cast members" and the visitors are called "guests"?

* That there is a "hidden Mickey" on every ride? See www.hiddenmickeys.org.

* That the Matterhorn, which opened in 1959, was the world's first steel roller coaster?

* That Disneyland provides kennels? Indoor kennels at the main entrance are available for $15.

* That you can have the park hold your paid merchandise and have it ready to be picked up at the front when you leave? Also, guests of Disneyland Resort hotels may have their purchases shipped directly to their hotel through Package Check Service.

* That 750,000 gallons of water are used in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction?

* That you can buy a piece of the park? Personalized pavers between Disneyland and California Adventure are available to purchase with your name and date.

* That the park changes with the seasons? Main Street and rides such as It's a Small World are decorated with poinsettias and lights for Christmas. The Haunted Mansion is converted to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" for the Halloween and Christmas seasons.

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