The politics of “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) have helped to make California one of the most expensive states in the country by blocking the construction of much-needed housing. But did you know that the same impulses once imperiled one of the region’s most iconic institutions, a destination on par with the beaches of Malibu or the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Such is the now-forgotten origin of Disneyland.
Our story begins in the 1930s—as Walt Disney tells it—with Disney taking his daughters to the Griffith Park merry-go-round. The precocious young Disney soon began to conceive of a park that adults and parents might enjoy in equal measure, without all the shabbiness typically associated with American theme parks and carnivals of the time. The idea would linger in Disney’s mind for nearly two decades as the studio he built transformed American animation.
In 1952, ideas turned into concrete proposals in the form of Mickey Mouse Park. The original park would have covered a paltry 25 acres on part of an unused lot near Disney Animation Studios at the corner of Riverside Drive and Buena Vista Street in Burbank, California. As envisioned in illustrative maps from the time, many of the now-familiar features are there, including a haunted house and a railroad encircling the park. The grand castle that would later define Disneyland is conspicuously absent.
Unfortunately, the Burbank city council didn’t share the dream. Despite Disney’s express intentions of creating a family-friendly theme park, local politicians criticized the park for potentially giving the industrial Los Angeles suburb a “carney” atmosphere. Thus, the Mickey Mouse Park died in committee, with the lot eventually carved up by the Ventura Freeway. Today, it hosts ABC executive offices.
Of course, this story has a happy ending: after the project was rejected, Disney closed on 160 acres of orange groves in Anaheim, and the Disneyland we know and love today opened in 1955. Ironically, this was likely the best possible outcome, as the move to Orange County gave Disney more room to see through his vision. Even Burbank would eventually get its own theme park in the form of Universal Studios, made possible partly by Universal’s location on unincorporated county land.
Unfortunately, most NIMBY stories don’t have such happy endings. For every rejected Mickey Mouse Park that would go on to turn into the Happiest Place on Earth™, many more such dreams almost certainly die under the pressure of chaotic permitting and onerous regulations that define California. How many more times might the Golden State have changed the world—as Disneyland did—with a more pro-growth approach?
These questions are hardly hypothetical. Earlier this summer, the Disney company announced that it would be moving its parks division from Southern California to Orlando, citing a friendlier business environment. Where once California was a place where someone like Walt Disney could arrive penniless and build an entertainment empire, today’s dreamers are moving in the opposite direction. If we are going to revive that California Dream, we have a lot to learn from the case of Disneyland.