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Amusement Park Food Was Boring. Then Disneyland Opened

Not far from a restaurant behind the Tahitian Terrace, crowds wait in line to experience the Jungle Cruise on July 18, 1955. (Photo by Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL archive)
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Amusement parks in the 1950s were a different experience -- and not in a good way. They were notorious for being strange, dirty and sometimes dangerous.

When Disneyland first opened its doors 63 years ago this week, Walt Disney didn't consider it an amusement park. He called it a theme park.

"The theme park really was Walt's concept," said Marcy Smothers, author of the book Eat Like Walt: The Wonderful World of Disney Food. "Every land has a specific era, a specific time era and the details and the story reflect the time era."

Photograph caption dated July 16, 1955 reads, "Disneyland, will open officially to the public at 10 am on Monday. Here's an airview of the entire area, defined by numbers and letters: (1) The railroad station, main entrance and town square (2) Main Street, U.S.A. (3) The Plaza (4) Tomorrowland (5) Fantasyland (6) Frontierland (7) Rivers of America (8) Adventureland (A) Parking area (B) The Santa Ana freeway (C) Harbor Boulevard (Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL archive)
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The themes played into every aspect of that area of the park, including the food. Considering most amusement parks in the '50s treated food as an afterthought, offering little beyond basics like cotton candy, peanuts and hot dogs, it was a revolutionary concept.

American cuisine wasn't exactly at its peak. Meals in this post-WWII America were usually boiled, overcooked and bland. This was a decade before Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking hit shelves, which in helped improve American palates.

The Food Is Part Of The Show

When Disneyland opened its doors to a preview audience on July 17, 1955, Disney made it a point to treat the park's eateries as attractions in and of themselves.

The park initially had contracts with 47 companies, most of which ran for five years. The idea was to have established brands and products set up shop in the park.

Carnation ice cream parlour, the Golden Horseshoe and Chicken of the Sea's Pirate Ship Restaurant were among the original eateries in Disneyland. The money to finance the park came from the contracts with these companies and from other sponsors.

Main Street at Disneyland a few days prior to the park's opening day. Taken July 12, 1955. (Photo by Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL archive)

One major stipulation when contracting with Disneyland was the style. Whether it was a sit-down restaurant or a snack cart, one thing was essential: It had to have that Disney magic.

Eating Like Walt

There are many things that led Walt Disney down the path to Disneyland's creation but one that Smother's mentions in her book revolves around family:

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"The idea for Disneyland came about when my daughters were very young and Saturday was always Daddy's day with the two daughters," (Disney) later recounted. "I'd sit while they rode the merry-go-round and... sit on a bench, you know, eating peanuts -- and I felt that there should be something built where the parents and the children could have fun together."

That spirit lives on through fan-favorite eats like the Dole whip in Adventureland, the funnel cake in Frontierland and the soft-serve ice cream in California Adventure's (now) Pixar Pier.

As the Disney universe continues to expand, so do the food options. You can put mouse ears on pretty much anything.

Walt Disney himself was a simple eater, enjoying food like "hamburgers, carved meats (and) black coffee," according to Smothers.

"Despite being a very complex man, and one of the most famous men on the planet and he could eat anything he wanted, he was not a fancy eater," she says.

That spirit of simple, hearty food remains a core value at Dinseyland today. From those massive turkey legs sold at the cart near the Matterhorn to the clam chowder in a bread bowl at New Orlean's Square, the parks continue to serve up comfort food -- with a side of that trademarked Disney magic.

Editor's note: A version of this story also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.

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