During the spring of 1954, Walt Disney approached the Texas oil wildcatter and television pioneer Jack Wrather concerning the possibility of building accommodations for the many guests that Walt hoped would flock to his innovative “theme park,” then under construction in Anaheim, California. Since the “imagineering” and building of Disneyland was taking nearly every penny that he had, Walt approached Jack, hoping that his long-time friend would be willing to take such a huge risk. Wrather was the producer of Lassie, The Lone Ranger, and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, popular 1950s television programs.
Originally, Walt had approached Hilton executives and other well-known hotel chains, hoping to convince them to finance the construction of a first-class hotel next to Disneyland. However, the general consensus was that such a venture was too risky. No one was certain that what was quickly becoming known as “Disney’s folly” would be successful.
In 1954, Anaheim was a little-known community, largely consisting of orange groves. The entire city had only seven small motels and hotels, accommodating only a total of 87 guests. Wrather admitted at the time that he was somewhat skeptical about building in such a small community (of approximately 30,000), next to an experimental and yet unfinished theme park. His doubts were further increased by the fact that the risky venture had already been turned down by more than one major hotel chain.
Wrather spent several days with Walt Disney, looking into the area’s potential for expansion. Legend has it that Walt had tears in his eyes while describing his dream of Disneyland to Wrather. With a sense of adventure, Wrather became convinced that the idea just might be a success. Also, with Walt showing such emotion for and dedication to his project, how could Wrather have resisted?
One of the first discussions between the two friends was where the hotel should be located. Wrather first talked of locating it near the entrance to Disneyland. Walt said, “Jack, our guests aren’t going to be thinking about a hotel when they begin their visit to Disneyland. They’ll start looking for a room when they leave the park. The best place to build your Hotel is near the Disneyland exit.” Wrather agreed with Walt’s logic and leased 60 acres of Disney-owned land on West Street directly across from the Disneyland exit. There he built what was to become known as the “Official Hotel of the Magic Kingdom.”
On March 18, 1955, Jack Wrather, Bonita Granville Wrather (his wife), and Anaheim Mayor Charles Pearson, using a three-handled shovel, officiated at the groundbreaking for the Disneyland Hotel.
The Disneyland Hotel opened on October 5, 1955, nearly three months after Disneyland’s live televised grand opening on July 17, 1955. The first guests registered at a hotel having only 104 guest rooms located in five two-story complexes, built at the southeast corner of the leased property. These were the South Garden rooms, later to be known as the Oriental Gardens. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Arnone of Inglewood, California were to be the first guests at the newly opened hotel.
The Disneyland Hotel was the first major resort to be built in Southern California since the early 1940’s. However, the number of available rooms quickly proved to be insufficient for the unexpected demand, and 96 more units of the same type were added the following year on the property’s northeast section. Built by Hodges and Vergrift Construction Company, this new addition was called the North Garden rooms, later renamed the Garden Villas.
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