My trip to Disneyland the year it opened: 1955Jun 28, 2022 12:10PM ● By Jan Weeks
The jungle hung low over the green-gray waters, thick and humid. Exotic bird calls sounded around us. Something slithered and splashed into the river as the captain guided his boat downstream, pointing out beasts only seen in comic books and tropical art.
Suddenly the water surged as a gigantic beast broke the surface, its huge mouth opening wide in a shattering roar. I jumped back against my mother’s knees as the giant sank below the surface again.
This intrepid explorer of ferny Iowa woods and clear creeks, champion to all in her bath towel cape, had come face to face with one of Walt Disney’s miraculous creatures—an animatronic hippo calculated to scare the bejesus out of visitors to the world’s first theme park.
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The Adventureland Jungle Cruise made me want to explore the deepest jungles on earth. The Rocket to the Moon in Tomorrowland made me wish I had my cardboard space helmet “bought” with box tops. I could barely walk up the ramp from my excitement. I was going to the moon! Of course, I knew that was fantasy, but when the dawn of the space age was just a glimmer, imagination did strange things to a girl who sent away for the Captain Midnight Decoder Ring and watched Flash Gordon battle with Ming the Merciless on the small screen.
I took my seat in the circular tier and waited for blastoff. A great roar filled the room. A screen below the amphitheater filled with smoke; the screen above us trembled as we lifted off for the moon. Minutes passed as I watched the earth recede and the moon grow closer in the screens. In black and white we raced closer. I held my breath. And there was the moon’s surface, pockmarked with craters, a stark contrast with the utter blackness surrounding it. I was in heaven!
Uncle Whitey had taken me, my sister, mother and his daughter to Disneyland the first year it opened: 1955. Fantasyland’s castle glistened in the sunlight. Frontierland’s stockades reinforced my desire to be a cowboy. The park was so new that some attractions were still under construction.
I climbed into one of the Mad Hatter’s tea cups and spun around the floor, flew up and down on Dumbo, and feasted on cotton candy and hot dogs.
When I returned to Disneyland in the 1970s, it was a whole other experience. The Rocket to the Moon had morphed into a dome structure.
Standing at 76 feet tall, the TWA Moonliner I was the tallest structure at Disneyland on opening day, outmatching Sleeping Beauty’s Castle by about eight feet. The rocket was removed in 1967, and a smaller, one-third size rocket was installed in 1998. The rocket now stands outside an Alien Pizza Planet restaurant (from “Toy Story”) that once housed the “Flight to the Moon” attraction.
“There used to be an actual rocket here,” I said.
My friend Paul, having grown up in nearby Bakersfield, scoffed. “There never was.”
“Yes, there was!” I insisted. I corralled an employee and asked, “Did there used to be a rocket here?”
“There sure was,” he said.
I smirked at Paul.
Pirates of the Caribbean enthralled me, as did the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. We viewed the park from the monorail, but the lines for Space Mountain were too long, so we opted for the water ride through It’s a Small World. Two minutes in I was ready to jump ship and swim for it to escape the cacophony of those tinny voices.
Now Disneyland spans almost 300 acres, and its East Coast twin, Disney World, is even more impressive. Theme parks spread across the globe, vying to have the most death-defying rollercoasters and adult-oriented activities. Yet for me, that hot August day in 1955 was the place where dreams come true and adventure and fun wait just beyond the next turnstile.
The Mark Twain Riverboat has been in operation since opening day. Guests can cruise the scenic Rivers of America aboard a majestic 19th-century paddleboat.
Watch this live-action footage of the animals on the Jungle Cruise.