Happy Birthday, Disneyland. 60 Years of unbelievable excellence. It inspires, thrills, and excites. Hundreds of millions of guests have visited this one-of-a-kind place. It truly is the Happiest Place on Earth.
But it wasn’t so on opening day.
So many things went wrong that first day. At the center of this was the fact that Disneyland wasn’t ready to open. Construction on this unique, never-before-created edifice had only gone on for a year. Much of Tomorrowland had to be hidden behind bunting and balloons, simply because it wasn’t finished.
There had been a plumber’s strike just previous, and when it was finally resolved, there were only days left to get ready. It was a choice between toilets working or drinking fountains working. Toilets won, but it left people on that hot summer day sweltering and longing for a drink. That same heat kept the freshly laid asphalt from sealing. Women wearing spiked heals found their shoes sinking into the street.
Then there was park operations. One young man overloaded the Mark Twain Steamboat, causing the boat to run aground and take on water. A suspected gas leak in Fantasyland caused that section to be closed during part of the day. Added to this were the thousands of counterfeit tickets that were disseminated, causing the park to take on thousands of additional visitors over what was expected.
The critics that day held the park in disdain and the company would come to refer to the event as Black Sunday. But by the end of the summer, Disneyland had over a million visitors. It was an enormous success. Still, park management learned one lesson. Don’t open a theme park during a busy time of the year. Soft open the park so that they have time to work out the kinks of opening a major attraction. Therefore, when Walt Disney World opened in 1971, it chose October 1st as its opening date. That same pattern has existed ever since:
- Epcot: October 1st, 1982
- Tokyo Disneyland: April 15, 1983
- Disney-MGM Studios: May 1, 1989
- Euro Disneyland: April 12, 1992
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom: April 22, 1998
- Disney California Adventure: February 8, 2001
- Tokyo Disney Sea: September 4, 2001
- Disney Studios Paris: March 16, 2002
- Hong Kong Disneyland: September 12, 2005
Disney never again opened a park in the middle of summer. Instead, it has opened somewhere in the off season like the fall or winter, or at least early enough in the spring that they had time to get into a groove before summer. The exception was Disney-MGM Studios, now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios. They weren’t really quite ready to open–it was a very small park when they did, and attractions like Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular didn’t open until later. They barreled into summer with strong crowds that continued for months later, resulting in practically closing the gates before they opened. But they were trying to open well before Universal Florida opened its gates, so they took the risk of getting out the gate in the timeframe it did.
When Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened, they had soft openings down to a science. I remember preview days as a Disney Cast Member, which allowed employees an opportunity to take the park on a test drive before paying guests did. The theater that now serves as home to Finding Nemo the Musical was first the home to a musical called Journey Into The Jungle Book. They didn’t have the masks ready for the show so during the previews the Cast Members simply used stage makeup. But when the masks finally arrived, they found that the guests actually liked it more without the masks. The masks were ditched, and the show had a popular run until it was replaced by Tarzan Rocks.
What’s the message? Soft open your product or service so that you have time to learn what you need to perfect your offering. Doing so will help you create a better perception of what you have to offer.