In 1953 Walt Disney hired the Stanford Research Institute to examine the economic potential of developing a theme park in a Southern California location that would be easily accessible from Los Angeles and adjacent to one of the freeways being developed to connect urban and suburban developments across the region. Disney subsequently acquired 160 acres of orange groves and walnut trees alongside the new Santa Ana Freeway and Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim, placing the park a 30-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles and even closer to the expanding residential areas of the growing postwar metropolis.
As development in the region favored flat sites for rapid construction, existing agricultural fields were displaced. Disneyland’s construction required removal of a grove of more than 12,000 orange trees, although many were boxed and retained on site for future use in the park landscape. Some of these displaced trees were eventually “replanted” upside down, along the banks of the Jungle Cruise attraction to approximate the appearance of tropical mangrove roots.
Park construction began in 1954 with approximately 68 acres devoted to concentrated areas of building and landscape development on a site resembling an inverted triangle with rounded corners. Surrounded by a fifteen-foot-high raised berm, the park was closed off with thickly planted trees and shrubs that created horizon points, framed internal views, and, most especially, obscured views out of the park, notably to the parking lots that lay the south. Ticket booths and twin entrances through two low tunnels greeted visitors at the southern apex of the triangle, where they left their cars behind. From there, pedestrians arrived in the Town Square (a re-creation of an 1890s open space) and walked down Main Street, which was lined with buildings at 7/8 scale and filled with attractions, shops, and restaurants—all of them framed by carefully chosen matching elm trees—before finally arriving at the Plaza Hub. Encircled with olive trees, the Hub offered arrival points for each of the park’s thematic “lands” (Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Frontierland) in a lush garden setting, including a bridge over a moat into Sleeping Beauty Castle and Fantasyland.
Walt Disney wanted the “happiest place on earth” to present the image of an “eternal spring.” To carry this out, he hired landscape architects Morgan “Bill” Evans and his brother Jack Evans, and he invested heavily in the acquisition of hundreds of mature trees, many of them rescued from the highway and residential subdivision development during Southern California’s postwar boom. The Evans brothers brought superior botanical expertise and nursery experience to the project, and they supervised the extensive soil and irrigation infrastructure that would be required to support the plantings. But because they were not experienced in designing a site as large and complex as Disneyland, Disney asked his friend, architect Welton Becket, to recommend a landscape designer experienced in large-scale commercial projects. Becket recommended the landscape architect Ruth Patricia Shellhorn, who was responsible for the original landscapes for Bullock’s department stores. Although Shellhorn joined the design team just months before opening day, she contributed detailed planting and hardscape plans, she designed the pedestrian plan for the entire park, and assisted with the layout of watercourses and grading.
The park’s landscape design was intended to support the “story” for each of the thematic lands while also linking the different areas into a cohesive whole. Shellhorn’s scheme knit the park’s various elements into a unified experience: she organized pedestrian circulation throughout the park, shaping and refining the size, alignment, and positioning of all the paved and planted areas. This required a sophisticated understanding of how to move and manage crowds of people. Her techniques included focusing and screening views, narrowing and widening pathways, and highlighting intersections. This approach also occasionally necessitated the relocation of large trees already planted in the park if they conflicted with her newly designed circulation plans.
When Shellhorn’s sketches and detailed planting palettes were realized, visitors transitioned seamlessly from the Plaza Hub to the park’s thematic “lands.” These palettes utilized plant material in a masterful way to differentiate and unify the elements of the park. Pine trees, for example, made up the forest around Sleeping Beauty Castle, and Shellhorn used the same trees in planting compositions in other areas to weave a botanical thread throughout the park. She also used melaleuca trees, with their peeling bark and tiny leaves, in the entrance landscape to the dry and dusty Frontierland; the same species of melaleuca was pruned to evoke a contorted bramble near the entrance to Sleeping Beauty Castle. Throughout these selections, Shellhorn showcased her exceptional knowledge of plant materials and their cultural connotations.
After the park opened to the public on July 17, 1955, the Los Angeles Times named Shellhorn Woman of the Year, partly for her work at Disneyland. Though Jack Evans died in 1958, Bill Evans remained at Disneyland as supervising landscape architect. He devoted the rest of his career to Disney projects, including Walt Disney World in Florida.
Disneyland has undergone almost continuous change and development since 1955, but core elements of the original scheme are still discernable, especially in the Town Square, Main Street, and Plaza Hub.
Comras, Kelly. Ruth Shellhorn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016.
Comras, Kelly. “Ruth Shellhorn: Landscape Architect of Fantasy.” View 12 (Summer 2012): 14-16.
Comras, Kelly. “Securing the Ruth Patricia Shellhorn Papers.” View 16 (Summer 2016): 2-7.
Evans, Morgan. Disneyland: World of Flowers. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Productions, 1965.
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Ruth Shellhorn: Midcentury Landscape Design in Southern California. Library of American Landscape History North America by Design Series. Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc., 2015.
Shellhorn, Ruth. “Disneyland: Dream Built in One Year through Teamwork of Many Artists.” Landscape Architecture 46, no. 3 (April 1956): 125-136.