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A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

Visionary producer, pioneering animator, champion of technology, philanthropist, loyal American, Medal of Freedom recipient, beloved host of the longest-running prime-time series on TV -- who could say anything bad about Uncle Walt?

Well, actually, Marc Eliot has. In Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince (1993) Eliot documents the great showman's organized crime connections, his relentless union-busting, his hearty cooperation with Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, his obsessive (and successful) quest to destroy the Hollywood studio system, his heavy smoking and drinking, and his 25-year career as an FBI informant. But even Eliot agrees: Uncle Walt (as he asked the young Mousketeers to call him) achieved greatness. And perhaps his consummate innovation was the tiny Magic Kingdom he built in that sunny never-never land, southern California.

Today we may forget how amusement parks were once seedy catchpenny sinkholes of littered sawdust midways, hot dogs and beer, carny barkers, freak shows, and wheel-of-fortune hucksters conning their marks. Uncle Walt envisioned a new kind of park, so new he couldn't communicate his dream to investors. "Eleven million dollars for carnival rides?" they asked, incredulous. "With no roller coaster or Ferris wheel? No bags of peanuts? No beer?"

He finally secured funding from young, struggling ABC-TV, in a deal for the new Disneyland TV show. Building in a 160-acre orange grove in a nowhere town called Anaheim, Uncle Walt micromanaged every detail, down to the trash cans. The opening of the world's first theme park (July 17, 1955) was a fiasco, now called "Black Sunday." But nothing could deter a public enthused by the novel idea of an amusement park that actually made you feel welcome. Disneyland grossed an unheard-of $10 million in 1956 and nearly $60 million in '59, but its success never satisfied Uncle Walt. He tinkered with the park ceaselessly, like a boy with electric trains (which he also played with), until his death in 1966.

As early as the 1930s, Walt's creations made it onto 200 Mickey Mouse trading cards from Gum, now highly prized. The '60s brought Dynamic's 35-card Walt Disney and a blah set of 25 Mickey Mouse and His Pals cards in Sugar Daddy caramel pops. But the first appearance of the Magic Kingdom on trading cards came with the superior 66-card Disneyland (1965), which Donruss issued to celebrate the park's tenth anniversary. In lieu of description, note the card captions:

4: "Departing from the Swiss Chalet in Fantasyland, Guests on Disneyland Skyway Travel High Above the Magic."

16: "Disneyland Mountain Climbers, Fritz and Otto, Ascend the 90 Foot Height of Matterhorn Mountain."

34: "A Disneyland Future Attraction Under Construction for Opening in 1967, The Haunted House."

"Disneyland" cards exist in two variants: front captions with puzzle backs (common), and uncaptioned fronts with captioned blue backs (less common). Price guides list ranges from $1 to $2.50 apiece, but I've seen much higher asking prices. A scarce 1995 SkyBox set marks the park's 40th anniversary.

Disneyland permanently rescued its parent company from decades of cash-flow perils and helped create today's largest entertainment conglomerate. In 1960 it bought out ABC's interest in the park, and in 1995 bought ABC. Companion Magic Kingdoms in Orlando, Tokyo, and Paris have transformed amusement parkery worldwide. More than the cartoons, more than the spurious image of the gentle uncle, this is the magnificent showman's lasting legacy.

Meanwhile, the original awaits a major facelift. The Walt Disney Company has finally purchased Anaheim's encircling horde of ratty two-bit hotels and in 2001 will open a companion theme park, Disney's California Adventure. No doubt the collectors of 2011 and 2041 can look forward to trading-card sets marking its anniversary. Then, as now, Uncle Walt will still be around, if only in spirit.

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, January 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998 Tuff Stuff Publications, Inc.]

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