Walt’s Happiest Night

On this day in 1955, Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary by hosting a party at Disneyland just days before its grand opening. Approximately 250 people, including Hollywood friends, colleagues and family members, were invited to what the couple dubbed their “Tempus Fugit Celebration” (tempus fugit is a Latin phrase that roughly translates as “time flies”). The party invitation noted the location would be at Disneyland “where there’s plenty of room” and that the festivities would include “cruising down the Mississippi on the Mark Twain’s maiden voyage, followed by dinner at Slue-Foot Sue’s Golden Horseshoe!” Guests were also told “no gifts, please—we have everything, including a grandson!”

Walt spent the day of the party working at Disneyland as construction crews hustled to get the park ready for its television debut four days later. After changing for the party, he made his way down to the park’s entrance to await his guests. With many arriving late due to the long distance from Los Angeles and lack of a completed freeway at the time, Walt was anxious. Meanwhile, Joe Fowler – the man overseeing Disneyland’s construction – headed over to the Mark Twain to ensure it was ready for guests to come aboard. He told Disney biographer Bob Thomas that when he got to the steamboat, he encountered a woman who told him “Here, get this broom. Let’s get this place cleaned up. It’s terrible.” The woman was Lillian Disney. According to Joe, that was the first time he had the pleasure of meeting his boss’ wife. 

The guests did eventually arrive, and they were given a ride from the park’s entrance down Main Street, U.S.A. to Frontierland via horse-drawn surreys. After boarding the Mark Twain, guests were served mint juleps and listened to the sound of a Dixieland band as the paddle-wheeler steamed down the Rivers of America for the first time with guests. Walt made his way to the wheelhouse and waved to his friends. One can safely assume he likely took to the steam whistle and bell to fully show off his new toy. 

Walt Disney stands atop the Mark Twain steamboat

Following the voyage, guests were seated at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon for dinner and the very first performance of the historic Golden Horseshoe Revue, starring Wally Boag, Donald Novis, and Judy Mars, the original Slue Foot Sue. Near the end of the show, Walt made his way to the stage left balcony.

Walt stands in the stage left balcony

As guests recognized and pointed towards him, Walt and Boag traded some imaginary pistol shots before Walt climbed down onto the stage. After he made his way to centerstage, Walt stood and faced the crowd. According to his daughter, Diane Disney Miller:

“Everyone started saying, ‘Speech! Speech!’ But there was no speech forthcoming. All he did was stand there and beam. Then everybody applauded and said, ‘Lilly! Lilly! We want Lilly!’ So mother got up on stage, figuring, ‘If I get up there, I can get Walt down.’ Well, that wasn’t the case. So mother dragged Sharon and me up on the stage and still nothing happened. Dad was just planted there, and he was loving every minute of it. “I guess someone must have sensed our plight, because the band started to play and Edgar Bergen came on stage and started to dance with me, and some others came up and danced with mother and Sharon. Everybody started dancing, and my father was gently elbowed into the wings. He was loving every minute of it, just grinning at people.”

In a fortuitous sign for Disneyland’s imminent opening the party had been a tremendous hit. Joe Fowler said years later, “It was a party, I’ll tell you! It was a great party!” According to Walt’s daughter Diane, “I never saw my dad happier, ever, ever, ever.” He had such a good time, in fact, many were worried about Walt driving home, so Diane stepped in and offered to drive her parents home. During the long ride back to their Hollywood home, Walt rode in the back seat. Diane shared later that “he had a map of Disneyland, and he rolled it up and tooted in my ear as if with a toy trumpet. And before I knew it, all was silent. I looked around and there he was, with his arms folded around the map like a boy with a toy trumpet, sound asleep.”

From left to right: Diane Disney, Lillian Disney, Sharon Disney, Walt

Despite all the fun of the night before, Diane says the next morning Walt “bounded out of the house at seven-thirty and headed for Disneyland again.” After all, an even bigger party was just days away. 

It’s easy to see why this was such a jubilant occasion for Walt. It was a pivotal moment in his life. On one hand, it was a celebration of the past 30 years of his marriage to a woman he met in the early days of the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studios when she worked as an inker and painter. Over the course of those 30 years, the Disney Studios would experience tremendous success commercially and critically. On the other hand, it was also a celebration of the completion of Disneyland, which was constructed in less than a year from the removal of the first orange tree. As Walt prepared to lift the curtain on the theme park, he was confident in the magic kingdom he had dreamt of – and now built. Despite the doubters and naysayers, Walt had now invited guests into his park and believed the next 30 years could be just as exciting. 

On This Day

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