When Walt Disney built Disneyland, he supervised every aspect of planning and construction � right down to the paint color inside the railroad station. But there were a couple of things he couldn’t control at the opening 50 years ago: the temperature and the turnout.
The sun rose bright and glowing in a cloudless sky on that Sunday, and the mercury climbed higher and higher. By early morning, all roads leading to the park were clogged. Thousands poured through the turnstiles, more than twice as many as had been invited.
The heat and the crowds, along with a Magic Kingdom full of other problems, contributed to what will forever after be called Black Sunday in the Disney organization.
Long lines formed at the rides, forcing visitors to stand in the sweltering sun. Later it was discovered that counterfeit tickets had been used by the uninvited. Adding to the congestion, crashers scrambled over fences and berms in remote areas of the park.
Several of the rides shut down because of overuse, and by the end of the day all the “Autopia” cars had been sidelined. The deck of the river boat Mark Twain was awash; too many passengers had climbed aboard. And a gas leak was discovered in Tomorrowland, forcing evacuation of the entire area.
Refreshment stands quickly ran out of food and drink, and there were few drinking fountains. Women’s spiked heels sank into the newly laid asphalt on Main Street. Families waited in long lines to use toilets. A saboteur snipped electrical lines in Fantasyland, bringing all rides to a halt.
How did Walt handle the debacle? He made some quick decisions…
Disney’s damage control was immediate.
“Walt was personally around the park every day that first week, looking into every situation and then getting something done about it,” Kurr says.
He also was mending fences with the press, hosting small groups of reporters and editors for dinner and a tour of Disneyland.
One reporter had suggested that Disneyland had skimped on drinking fountains in order to sell soft drinks. Disney called her and explained, off the record, that a local plumbers strike had been settled shortly before opening day. He had to decide between toilets and drinking fountains.
We all do pretty well when things go just like we’d planned. What do we as leaders do when “The Big Day” turns into a “Big Bust?”