'Saving Mr. Banks' Takes Place in 1961, But How Has Disneyland Changed Since Then?
In Disney's critically-acclaimed new movie, Saving Mr. Banks , Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) takes the author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Disneyland as part of the process of wooing her into allowing her book, Mary Poppins, to become a Disney movie. Of course, the Disneyland of today is known as a small city operating on $5 bottles of water, tickets that cost more than a minimum wage worker could make in a day, and its own mega mall conveniently attached to the park's entrance. But in 1961, the year in which Saving Mr. Banks sends Walt and his guest to their wonderful day in the park, Disneyland was actually known for its charm and whimsy. It just so happens that along with that whimsy came a slate of doomed attractions that would eventually fall short of the contemporary Disney-goers expectations.
The makers of the film took great pains to recreate the look of 1961 when they filmed at Disneyland — placing the iconic ride posters on the front gate and decorating Fantasyland in its old cheesy, dated style — but with the amount of change that goes on at the ever-evolving theme park, there's an entire graveyard of other, less inspirational, items that may have been found on Walt and Travers' trip.
1. Skull Rock and The Pirate Ship Restaurant
The fact that this attraction is gone still makes me a little jealous of folks who were born before the '60s. Plucked straight from Peter Pan, this faux-lagoon opened in 1961 and featured the eerie Skull Rock from the film overlooking a replica of Captain Hook's pirate ship. The ship's restaurant was a popular haunt, known for its all-tuna menu which included tuna burgers and hot tuna pie — which sounds disgusting and is probably why this awesome pirate experience got the buckled boot.
2. E Ticket Rides
When Disneyland opened, you had to buy different tickets for each individual ride. The rides were divided into groups A, B, and C, with A representing the least popular rides and C representing the most popular, or big-ticket, rides. Starting in 1959, Disneyland expanded its existing ticket system to a five-letter system with E serving at the ticket for the park's most popular attractions, which included the Matterhorn Bobsleds, The Haunted Mansion, It's a Small World, The Tiki Room, The Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Country Bear Jamboree — people were really into slow boat rides and animatronic variety shows back then. It seems strange to imagine that system running the park, but for early Disneyland visitors (like most of the elder members of my family) the ticket system is second-nature. In fact, some Disney fans (again, including the elder members of my family) still refer to big rides like The Indiana Jones Adventure or Splash Mountain as E ticket rides, though the system was discontinued in the '80s.
That said, in Saving Mr. Banks, Thompson's character would have needed the A ticket from Disneyland's five-ticket system for her ride on King Arthur's Carousel... if she wasn't with Disney, himself of course.
3. The Monsanto House of The Future
Yes, the House of the Future was sponsored by the same Monsanto that was the subject of anti-genetically modified organisms protests earlier this year. Disneyland guests weren't quite prepared to protest over the house, but the Tomorrowland model home was made completely of man-made materials and featured microwave ovens and new-fangled dishwashers. Sold separately: the raging gender stereotypes present throughout the above video about the attraction.
4. The Awful Carnival Tent Aesthetic in Fantasyland
Contemporary Fantasyland appears as a storybook village, with elaborate, detailed cottages and stone buildings shooting off from Sleeping Beauty's castle at the center of the park, but in the '60s the facades were a little simpler. Looking like brightly colored set-pieces of a big-budget high school play, attractions like Peter Pan's Flight or Snow White's Scary Adventures were a smattering of stripes and patterns -- a look that became dated rather quickly.
You can see glimpses of the old Fantasyland in the video above around the 1:20 mark.
5. The Flying Saucers
Ah, the self-guided attraction you steer with your butt. Well, sort of. These personal hovercrafts debuted in 1961 and were basically bumper cars you steered by leaning. They weren't perfect because they didn't work when riders were tiny children or very large adults, but they were pretty revolutionary at the time, so their home in Tomorrowland was a no-brainer.
6. Troves of Movies and Museums
While Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln — that animatronic history play your dad always wanted to see — was not yet conceived, learning was the order of the day for much of Disneyland's early history and luckily for Travers, 1961 provided a remarkable cross-section of available museum-like attractions.
Some of the available exhibits were entertainment-based, like the Babes in Toyland and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea walk-throughs, which included pieces of those movies' sets. But for the most part, these mini museums were sponsored — many by Monsanto (again, that Monsanto) — and aimed to lead visitors in academic pursuits: a few extremely self-explanatory attractions included The Hall of Chemistry, The Mineral Hall, Fashions and Fabric Through the Ages, and The Art of Animation. Guests could also check out Circarama, U.S.A. which was a circular room displaying scenes from around the U.S. (and for one stint, China) until 1997 — the building now houses the game/ride Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, because as I said to my parents regarding the photo-heavy attraction, why look at pictures when you can ride rides? Take that, American landscapes! Perhaps visitors in the early sixties were smarter and less candy-filled than their contemporary counterparts, but I'd still take the Big Thunder Mountain Roller Coaster over the Hall of Minerals' fancy rock collection.
Unfortunately for 1961 visitors, the not-at-boring-sounding Aluminum Hall of Fame would have been closed by that time. Oh, darn.
7. The Indian Village
The Indian Village once stood where Critter Country — home to the Winnie the Pooh ride and Splash Mountain — cropped up. And while the aim of The Indian Village was educating (there's that scourge of the theme park realm once more) visitors about the traditions and history of Native Americans in America. However, it ended up being kinda racist.
The section of Disneyland boasted a real Indian chief who guests could meet and gawk at. Shows included ritual dances and performances, but the set-up appeared to present these arts as something "other" to be put on display, rather than something to be understood. At the very least, the park tried to make it educational, but as we saw in something as innocent as Peter Pan, Disney's representation of Native Americans wasn't exactly a fair one.
In 1971, the Indian Village was taken down and the canoe-paddling attraction "Indian War Canoes" was renamed "Davy Crocket's Explorer Canoes," which was really for the best, if you think about it.
8. Skybuckets Going Straight Through The Matterhorn
Up until 1994, Disneyland operated one of those sky bucket rides you can find at fairgrounds and zoos. The Skyway to Fantasyland took visitors from the backside of Tomorrowland, up over all those museums on over to Fantasyland. Of course, being that these were Disneyland skybuckets, they had to do something special in addition to offering some lofty transportation. Riders were treated to a bird's eye view of the Matterhorn when the buckets traveled straight through the middle of the man-made mountain — I can attest to the fact that it wasn't as alluring as it may sound, despite the attention to detail in the faux snow caves.
Today, if you look up at the Matterhorn, you can still see the twin tunnels going through the middle of the ride, but without the buckets they just look like oddly symmetrical holes.
9. The Mickey Mouse Club Theater
In case you're not a complete Disneyphile: Once upon a time there was a TV variety show called The Mickey Mouse Club (not to be confused with the revival which starred Ryan Gosling, Justin Timberlake, and Britney Spears) and it's the reason your parents were really upset when former mouseketeer Annette Funicello passed away earlier this year.
Where the Pinocchio ride now stands in Fantasyland, there was once a theater dedicated to putting on live versions of The Mickey Mouse Club , with occasional appearances from the actual stars of the TV show. Now, when celebrities visit Disneyland, they get special tours so guests don't mob them and this is why we can't have nice things like the Disneyland visitors of the 1960s. The best variety show celebrity we get these days is Darth Vader crashing the Jedi Training Academy show in Tommorrowland. (But that's probably far more entertaining that catching former Mouseketeer J.C. Chasez in some Disneyland sideshow where he accosts a microphone for two whole minutes.)
10. The Submarine Voyage
The ride that would become Nemo's Submarine Adventure, based on (of course) Finding Nemo, was once far more educational — sort of. The old Submarine Voyage was great because it began as a very serious, educational ride, but eventually added the textbook Disney whimsy. There were fish and octopi. There was seaweed and coral. There were bubbles rushing past the window that "Dive, dive!" command seem so real. But just when you thought you were going the learn something, boom: visions of Atlantis, a sea serpent, and of, course, mermaids. In 1967, Disneyland hired actresses to play real mermaids in the Submarine Voyage pool, but for most riders they were just as fake as the wildlife present under the surface. Still, as a kid no voyage to Disneyland was complete without those rickety old submarines.
Now, when you ride the Finding Nemo-inspired ride, you see a rock formation shaped like a sea serpent that visitors to the original Submarine Voyage would have seen — it's a little nod for those of us who miss the original ride, which shut down in 1998 to my own extreme disappointment.