Disney
© Disney. All rights reserved.

Fifty years ago this week, the gates first opened at Disneyland, one of the world’s most popular and profitable amusement parks. Disneyland was brought to life by entrepreneur Walt Disney against seemingly insurmountable odds — a story that has lessons for Michigan’s leaders today.

With Disneyland, Walt Disney envisioned a place where parents and children could go to enjoy themselves and see fantasy become real. Disappointed with the quality of amusement parks he visited with his children, Disney wanted his park to be clean, well-organized and family-friendly.[1] He first planned to build the park on a lot in Burbank, but he soon realized that he needed more space, so he bought an orange grove in Anaheim, Calif.

No one thought his idea would work. He was advised by other amusement park officers that the park was doomed to failure. He could not convince financiers to invest in the park because his dreams offered "too little collateral."[2] Even his brother, who handled the studio’s finances, refused to spend company funds on the project.

In spite of opposition, Disney refused to give up. He cashed in his life insurance policy and sold his family home to raise the $11 million required for the park’s construction. When more money was needed, he signed a contract with the American Broadcasting Company to air a weekly show in exchange for ABC’s investment in the park.[3] He bet every penny on the success of the park and remained determined to make it a reality. Driven by his zeal, construction of the park began July 21, 1954, and it opened almost exactly a year later, on July 17, 1955.

It appeared the doomsayers had been right. Opening day was a disaster. Worse, there was national TV coverage. Tickets were counterfeited, resulting in 28,000 guests instead of the 11,000 invited. Rides broke under the stress of operation. Plumbers were on strike, so bathrooms and drinking fountains were not working. The asphalt roads, having been poured the night before, were still soft and trapped ladies’ high-heeled shoes.

Disney was not swayed by the park’s disastrous opening. He fixed the problems and continued to plan and build better attractions. He found new ideas that kept people coming back for more. After 10 years, more than 50 million people had visited Disneyland, and it remains today a national attraction. More than that, as historian Larry Schweikart has observed, "Disneyland set the standard by which future parks were judged."[4] Against all odds, Walt Disney had built an amusement park that had become an amazing success.

Michigan has its own Disneyland, though on a much smaller scale: Michigan’s Adventure, a privately owned and operated water park that attracts visitors from around the country. Michigan’s Adventure continues to add new rides and exhibits, and its corporate owner, Cedar Fair, is growing.

Today, Michigan needs entrepreneurs like Walt Disney and Cedar Fair. Such enterprising individuals and firms have the vision and dedication to make their dreams come true, even when the experts say those dreams cannot work. Entrepreneurs are frequently willing to risk everything to make their vision a reality.

But they often face long odds, and state and local governments in Michigan often undermine entrepreneurial success by financing public entertainment facilities with taxpayers’ dollars. In fact, Michigan governments have subsidized community swimming pools, ice rinks, golf courses, sports stadiums, theaters, concerts, water parks and art exhibits.[5] They sometimes subsidize one entrepreneur at the expense of another.

The founding of Disneyland shows that entertainment ventures can succeed without government intervention. Michigan leaders should encourage economic innovation by letting entertainment entrepreneurs face the "insurmountable" odds and mastermind their own dreamlands.

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Monica J. Rubingh is an intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.



[1] Larry Schweikart, The Entrepreneurial Adventure: A History of Business in the United States (New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000), 399.

[2] Walt Disney, "How It All Began," http://www.disneydreamer.com/history/disneyland.htm.

[3] Schweikart, The Entrepreneurial Adventure, 399.

[4] Ibid, 399.

[5] Michael D. LaFaive, "Privatization: The Life of the Party," Michigan Privatization Report, no. 2001-01 (Spring, 2001), 14.