Sunday, March 24, 2013

Disneyland, Inc. and the Business of Western Publishing's Disneyland Comic Books

 Cover Art for Dell Giant Comic Vacation in Disneyland (1958)
Art by Frank McSavage, © Disney
Image Courtesy of 

The conception of Walt Disney's original Disneyland was the stuff of dreams, but the harsh reality of bringing it to physical completion could only be fueled by a a financial engine far bigger than the growing Walt Disney Productions could support. Walt Disney himself invested much of his own personal finances to get the new project rolling. However, that strategy (as well as the patience of his wife, Lily) could only be stretched so far. Outside resources were needed to propel dreams to reality.

Large, cash-healthy corporations balked at the idea of Walt Disney crafting a "crooked, dirty amusement park" and flatly refused the proposition to share ownership in the new enterprise. Many of the more amicable businessmen Disney approached tried to talk him out of the idea altogether. Fortunately for Walt, two outside companies bought into the vision, and by late 1952 (two years before the park was announced to the public) Disneyland, Inc. was incorporated as an investment pool to manage and construct the Anaheim, CA theme park. Only one of these two outside companies participating was already invested in a prior relationship with Walt Disney Productions.

The ABC Television Network
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The first was an unlikely candidate. The fledgling ABC television network (American Broadcasting Company) dwelled in the shadows of established giants NBC and CBS. Meanwhile, Walt Disney bucked the trend of motion picture studio heads snubbing television outrightinstead, he produced two hour-long Christmas specials to air on network television. One Hour in Wonderland (1950) sponsored by Coca-Cola and The Walt Disney Christmas Show (1951) sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. Both featured Walt Disney himself in hosting segments framing clips of prior and upcoming animated films.

One Hour in Wonderland Coca-Cola Sponsorship Title Card
Image Courtesy of Today in Disney History

Respected Author and Disney Historian Jim Korkis has generously provided details for what occurred during Walt's initial foray into television:
"The two Walt Disney Christmas TV specials did not run on ABC. The first ran on NBC, and the second on CBS. With the success of the specials, both of those networks wanted Walt to produce a weekly TV series. Walt insisted that he would do so only if they invested in Disneyland. NBC briefly flirted with the idea but when David Sarnoff missed an important meeting, Roy O. Disney was so incensed he went to ABC... who quickly signed on. ABC was at the bottom of the ratings. Milton Berle joked, 'If the Russians ever drop a bomb, let's all run to ABC because they have never had a hit.' The weekly Disneyland television show which originally aired on Wednesday night became an overnight hit pushing an ABC show into the top ten for the first time ever."
Jim Korkis
ABC used an influx of cash from their recent merger with United Paramount theaters and signed an agreement to invest $500,000 in the risky Disneyland venture, sealing the deal to broadcast a weekly hour-long show on the network. Aptly titled Disneyland, the anthology program premiered in October of 1954, grudgingly hosted by Walt himself. The exchange for capital investment in the park gave ABC a significant bump in credibility amongst an otherwise limp lineup of programming. 

 Original Opening Title for ABC's Disneyland Television Show
Image © Disney, Courtesy of

The premiere episode entitled The Disneyland Story gave the world the first look into what Disneyland the Park would be, as Walt stood before a huge concept map (by master artist and matte painter Peter Ellenshaw) and boldly announced the official grand opening would take place in 10 short months. This was no doubt a frightening public claim to the ears of investorsat that point, the Anaheim acreage more closely resembled a razed orange grove than a magic kingdom.

Walt Disney Introduces Disneyland to the Television Public in October of 1954
Image © & Courtesy of O.C. History Roundup

Of course, things worked outDisneyland the television show not only amassed ratings to garner ABC their first entry into the Nielsen Top 20, but prompted an order for two more original series from Walt Disney Productions the following year: the weekly adventure series Zorro, and the hour-long, daily Mickey Mouse Club. Both were smash hits, and elements of each soon found their way into the new park in Anaheim, CA.

Western Printing and Lithographing Company
Image Courtesy of Joakim Gunnarsson

The other outside partner in Disneyland, Inc. was Western Printing and Lithograping. Western (the parent company of Whitman Publishing and Simon & Schuster, Inc.) already had a successful, long-standing relationship with Walt Disney Productions. In 1933, Disney's canny licensing and marketing head Kay Kamen signed the initial contract granting Western the exclusive book rights to all the Walt Disney licenses characters. By 1937, Kamen negotiated a deal for Western to take over production and publication of the popular children's periodical Mickey Mouse Magazine. These deals were a springboard to a publishing bonanza, for in the ensuing half-century, Western published near-uncountable licensed Walt Disney items including (but not limited to) storybooks, coloring books, tray puzzles, games, kiddie records, stamp books, craft kits... and comic books. Lots and lots of Walt Disney comic books, released under the Dell comics imprint from 1940 to 1962, under a separate deal with Dell Publishing in which the comics were financed and distributed.

 Throughout Their History, Western Publishing Signed and Maintained a Remarkable Variety of Well-Known Licensed Properties
Image Courtesy of Joakim Gunnarsson

The Disney deal struck a ripple effect of good fortune and prosperity for Western: it set a standard that quickly attracted other prominent licenses. Western's high quality output and success record secured them nearly every major entertainment license in publishing, this was particularly beneficial in the booming days of comic books. It was hard to go wrong, offering a wide variety of titles with characters everyone knew from movie and television screens: from Mickey Mouse to Bugs Bunny to Roy Rogers to Lassie. To put things into perspective, an article from the Fall 1999 issue of The "E" Ticket magazine reported:
"In a special June 1954 ceremony, Walt Disney himself purchased the 2 1/2 billionth Dell comic for ten cents. The 1955 output of Dell comics represented more than 50% of all comic books printed that year."
Mickey Mouse Magazine, the publication that ignited the Disney/Western newsstand relationship slowly began to feature more comic strip art, and less text-only stories, prompting the periodical's makeover to an official comic book under the Dell imprintWalt Disney's Comics and Stories premiered in October of 1940, resetting the numbering to issue #1 to reflect the change in title and format.

 By the End of 1940, the Original Mickey Mouse Magazine
Became the Immensely Popular Walt Disney's Comics and Stories
Cover Art © Disney

Sales soared and the mouse magazine turned comic collection was a fitting talisman for success to come: Walt Disney's Comics and Stories holds the distinction of being the highest selling comic book title of all time, with a circulation of over three million copies per month at it's zenith in 1953. The ledgers didn't lie, and Western Publishing understood talking mice, cantankerous ducks and seven dwarfs were a good business strategy.

Western Publishing's $200,000 investment (a considerably large figure in 1952 dollars) in Disneyland, Inc. equaled out to 13.8% of the pool, making them the smallest investor. That status notwithstanding, the partnership provided Western a significant quid pro quo in the stake of the new enterprise: the rights to unlimited merchandising potential of the Disneyland name for their own products and the benefit to Disneyland of their printing presses and know-how to produce high quality press kits, guide maps, brochures, menus, premiums and plenty more on behalf of Walt's new park, with the benefit of refreshing said materials on a frequent basis. Their existing financial success with the Disney license and the phenomenon that Disneyland quickly became proved Western's gamble a wise one.

In-Park and Nationwide Merchandising Opportunities Abound
Between Disneyland and
Western Publishing
Cover Art © Disney

Not only did Western Publishing have a stake in Disneyland itself, they would be provided retail space on Main Street U.S.A. to showcase and sell their publications. Located within the Crystal Arcade behind the Upjohn Pharmacy, the Arcade Bookstore stocked a dazzling assortment of books, comics, games, puzzles and other Western-produced output. The deal was not limited to Disneyland or Walt Disney Productions items, either: for many years, Little Lulu and The Lone Ranger* comic books were available for purchase and displayed on the same shelves as Lady and the Tramp and Chip n' Dale comics within the railroad-circled berm of 1313 Harbor Boulevard.

 A Main Street Arcade Bookstore Attendant Readies Shelves for Opening Day
(Note: Copies of the Dell Giant Donald Duck in Disneyland are Plentifully Stocked!)
Image © & Courtesy of The "E"-Ticket Magazine

The framework and entryway of the Arcade Bookstore exists today: entering from the Center Street entrance to the left of the Carnation Cafe, the original intent of the space as it's own area is easily evident.

The Yellow Plaque Beneath the Canopied Doorway Notes the Entry to the Crystal Arcade, Which Led Guests to The Arcade Bookstore
Image © & Courtesy of Vintage Disneyland Tickets

The space that once occupied densely-stocked shelves of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories and large Disneyland coloring books now displays toys and dolls beneath a decorative turn-of-the century children's nursery tableau. The area is now considered part of a whole that is the expanded Emporium shop, which has swallowed nearly the entirety of the interiors of the southwest portion of the Main Street facades.

The Former Arcade Bookstore Space, Now Part of the
Disneyland Emporium Shop (Photo Taken April 2013)
Image © & Courtesy of Guy Selga

As July 1955 drew near, Walt used the Disneyland television show to provide frequent updates on the construction of the park. To further whet the appetite of a curious public, news articles and print advertising began to appear around the country. Preliminary concept art was prepared and submitted to licensees to ensure Disneyland merchandise would be ready for purchase as souvenirs by opening day. Western Publishing's editors and artists readied items for release that July to be available not only in the park, but in newsstands, drug stores and book shops across the country. Their presses hummed, running out colorful fare such as Disneyland Souvenir Guides, coloring books, Little Golden Books, Big Little Books, and, of special note to this article: the Dell Giant comic book Donald Duck in Disneyland a 100-page special busting at the seams with fun, beneath sturdy covers, retailing for 25 cents. Due to it's nationwide availability and a healthy lifespan of the Dell Giant series on newsstands and drugstore racks, this comic likely provided the most widespread introduction of Disneyland to Baby-Boom America.

 Walt Requested That His Biggest Stars Preview the New Park 
in Walt Disney's Donald Duck in Disneyland (1955)
Art by Al Hubbard, © Disney

Despite a rocky opening season, Disneyland was a a hit and became a household name by the close of '55. The identification of the theme park became synonymous with Mickey Mouse himself, and Western Publishing did their part to maintain that status, spreading the word by way of their books, games and through the Dell comics imprint.

Disneyland Contests and Promotions Such as This One
Could Often Be Found Within the Pages of Dell Comics
Image Courtesy of Flickr User Neato Coolville

Promotional contests were showcased across multiple comic book titles: "WIN A TRIP TO DISNEYLAND!" became an ubiquitous headline in post-1955 youth and family periodicals. Interestingly, this early park synergy didn't carry over to the actual content or stories in the standard Walt Disney licensed books. Forthcoming Disneyland-focused tales were showcased in 80-100 page Dell Giant specials following the same structure as Donald Duck in Disneyland.

A Typical "Linking" Page Transitioning One Story to the Next
From Walt Disney's Disneyland Birthday Party (1958)
Art by Tony Strobl, © Disney

The format for nearly all of the Dell Disneyland comics were set up within a basic framework of "separate tales within a tale" in which central characters visit the park and either join in or recount adventures of inhabitants and environments based on the various realms. For instance, a park-touring Minnie Mouse and Goofy might run into several characters within Fantasyland and help solve a conflict, while Scrooge McDuck strolls through Frontierland and regales Grandma Duck with an adventure he had in the days of the wild, wild west.

 Santa Claus Brings Two Children to The Park as a Special Christmas Gift
in Walt Disney's Christmas in Disneyland (1957)
Art by Tony Strobl, © Disney

Of course, 80 to 100 pages of content is a tall order for any single artist or writer to undertake. To efficiently break up creative duties, the framing sequences were often drawn by one artist, with the stories within taking up a larger share of each section by other artists. The most frequent and reliable cartoonists utilized for these specials were the top Disney artists that Western employed. Regular Dell Disney comic book readers could recognize the work of
their usual favorite artists, such as Carl Barks, Paul Murry, Tony Strobl, Al Hubbard, Carl Fallberg, and Harvey Eisenberg, amongst others.

When Carl Barks Crafts a Tale For a Dell Giant... Buckle Up
Splash Panel From Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge Goes to Disneyland (1957)
Art by Carl Barks, © Disney
Image Courtesy of Vintage Comic Book Art & Artists

The lone exception to the Disneyland-themed comics as Dell Giants was a standard size (36 pages with a slick cover) issue of Vacation in Disneylandissue #1025 of Dell's long-running Four Color series. The Four Color Series were a showcase for one-shot properties, such as movie adaptions, or a testing ground for potential new ongoing titles. Most Walt Disney comic titles began life through several issues of Four Color over a few years, before graduating to their own, independently numbered title. It's interesting to consider the prospect of Vacation in Disneyland as a standard, bi-monthly title.

 Games and Puzzles Like This Attraction-Themed Rebus Filled Out Every Book
Example From Walt Disney's Disneyland U.S.A. (1960)
Art by Tony Strobl, © Disney

Between 1955 and 1960, Dell produced 10 Disneyland comics books containing nearly 1000 pages of new, original content. This level of output was likely dictated by the worldwide success of the park and their own financial stake. The dawn of the 1960s brought many changes to the business of comic book publishing and distributionin the case of our story, the Dell Giants shrunk from 100 to 80 pages to maintain a 25¢ cover price. By the end of 1961, Dell's Giant-size format would fade away completely. The cessation of Disneyland comic books probably had more to do with the fact that, around this time, Walt Disney Productions bought out Western Publishing's share from Disneyland, Inc.

By 1961, The Disneyland Comic Books Had Ended, But Their National Influence
Persisted Through Western's Whitman Line of Coloring and Activity Books
© Disney 

While amicably continuing their licensing relationship with Western post-Disneyland, Inc., the Studio's relationship with ABC turned sour due to clashing stances on contracts and programming content. Walt Disney Production acted on their option to buy out ABC in 1960. The Studio honored their original television contract commitment, for the '60-'61 season, then boldly transitioned the television anthology show to NBC for the start of the '61-'62 season. Where they could control more of the content, and Walt continued his hosting duties... this time, in living COLOR. 

Of course, forty-plus years later, a much larger Walt Disney Company acquired Capital Cities/ABC Television Inc. for $19 Billion! But that's another story...

With That Kind of Endorsement, Who WOULDN'T Want to Visit?
Conclusion From Walt Disney's Donald Duck in Disneyland (1955)
Art by Al Hubbard, © Disney
With Walt's share of Disneyland, Inc. bought out by his own company, Disneyland became a wholly-owned part of Walt Disney Productions by 1961. The theme park's realization and success was due to some wise business deals, primarily funded by the shareholders of Disneyland, Inc.while ABC television furnished more cash and occasional television exposure, Western Publishing kept the name Disneyland present in the eyes of the public nearly everywhere they went in those early years.

The Complete Dell Disneyland
Comic Books in Order of Release Date

 Dell Walt Disney's Donald Duck in Disneyland #1
100 Page Giant Comic (July/September 1955)

Dell Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse in Frontierland #1
100 Page Giant Comic (March/May 1956)

Dell Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse in Fantasyland #1
100 Page Giant Comic (March/May 1957)

Dell Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge Goes to Disneyland #1
100 Page Giant Comic (June/August 1957)

Dell Walt Disney's Christmas in Disneyland #1
100 Page Giant Comic (October/December 1957)

Dell Walt Disney's Donald and Mickey in Disneyland On Tom Sawyer's Island #1
100 Page Giant Comic (March/May 1958) 

 Dell Walt Disney's Vacation in Disneyland #1
100 Page Giant Comic (June/August 1958)

Dell Walt Disney's Disneyland Birthday Party #1
100 Page Giant Comic (August/October 1958)

Dell Four Color #1025: Walt Disney's Vacation in Disneyland
36 Page Standard Comic (August/October 1959)

Dell Giant #30: Walt Disney's Disneyland U.S.A.
84 Page Giant Comic (April/June 1960)

Click the links below to read the next installments in this series:

PART 1.5: The Disneyland Comic Art of Carl Barks
& Q&A with Joseph Cowles, Author of Recalling Carl

PART 2: Western Publishing's Disneyland Comic Books,
Post-Disneyland, Inc. & Walt Disney World


Vintage Disneyland Tickets frequently posts fascinating rare photos, articles and scans of Disneyland ephemera, with an emphasis on the wide variety of paper tickets through the decades. I visit the site daily, and dig through the archive of posts—which never fails to produce something undiscovered and unique.

There's even a post with some more full-page scans of the 1955 Dell Giant Donald Duck in Disneyland #1, which you can see HERE

Guy Selga of Touring Plans was kind enough to take the current-day photo of the Arcade Bookstore for me. His Angry AP blog is also packed with a great selection and commentary of ephemera and photos about Disneyland, the Walt Disney World resort, and then some.

Guy is also very active daily on Twitterhe writes some funny stuff throughout his day working at Disneyland... I understand he's obtained quite a following for people interested in pictures of sandwiches.

* This was long before The Lone Ranger was a Disney feature film starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp. The comic book mentioned here were based on the long-running television series starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. In a bit of tangential irony, The Lone Ranger was a property owned at that point by Jack Wrather, whose company owned and managed The Disneyland Hotel from 1955 to 1989.