24 May 2009

Orange Groves to Theme Park

Though I have only been to Disneyland once and Walt Disney World will always be where my heart belongs, Disneyland has a quality to it, as the first park, which should be revered. The storied history of Disneyland continues to fascinate me, and I plot out the next trip I will make to the first park, Walt’s park, as a sort of pilgrimage.

So it was with awe that I read and reread this week’s Back Issue article, Orange Groves to Theme Park, which features an interview with Ron Dominguez. Dominguez started out his career with Disney as a ticket taker for Disneyland in 1955 before becoming the vice president of Disneyland and the vice president, Walt Disney Attractions, West Coast. In what can only be considered the truth is stranger than fiction, he also happened to have lived with his family on ten acres that were purchased by Walt Disney for Disneyland.

Orange Groves to Theme Park was originally printed in the Spring 1990 Disney News.

Ron Dominguez well remembers the orange groves of Anaheim that were destined to become home to a brand new concept in family entertainment – Disneyland. He grew up there. The Dominguez family owned and lived on 10 acres of property that were eventually purchased for the revolutionary project. Today, Ron Dominguez is Executive Vice President of the original Theme Park.

“Our house was situated right about where the entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean and CafĂ© Orleans are today,” he says. “We were actually the last people to leave the property. Our new house wasn’t quite ready, so we didn’t move until August of 1954.” Construction of the new Park had begun in July.

Putting together the acreage needed to house the new entertainment center wasn’t as easy as you’d think.

“Prior to 1955, as far back as ’51 or ’52,” recalls Dominguez, “a group of real estate people approached the land owners and tried to obtain a block of land. But they couldn’t make it work. Later, two independent brokers from Anaheim were approached by Disney to try. Each took the people he knew, people they could deal with, and explained the project and benefits. This way they were able to put the package together.”

The Dominguez property was settled originally in the mid-1890s by Wyran Knowlton, Dominguez’ maternal grandfather, who emigrated from Perry, Iowa. Knowlton first planted a walnut grove, then, in 1910 changed the walnuts for oranges. He died in 1912. In 1920, Knowlton’s daughter, Laura, married Paul Dominguez, who was part of the Bernardo Yorba clan which held enormous land grants in Southern California.

The couple set up housekeeping at the Anaheim orange grove and in 1925 built the house eventually purchased by Disney. Dominguez was born while the family was living in that house in 1935.

“My mother had a lot of sentiment about selling the property to Disney,” Dominguez recalls. “She had gone through some very tough times there getting the orange grove to pay off after her father died. Also, ‘amusement parks’ had a bad connotation in those days, and people didn’t know what to expect. But Disney invited everyone to a presentation up at the Studio, and after that everyone felt good about it –about what was coming to Anaheim.”

Many of the houses situated on the property were put to use rather than being torn down or moved. The Dominguez and another home were put together to form the first Disneyland Administration Building. A third home was moved over to West Street to become the Casting building. A house on The Disneyland Hotel site was moved behind the Park for use by the Landscapers. Although these homes have now been replaced by newer, more functional buildings, one house still remains. Originally located where the Toll Entrance now stands, it t0o was moved behind Park where it still stands next to the Circle “D” Corral.

At the time the property was sold, Ron Dominguez was a 20-year-old student at the University of Arizona. When Disneyland opened the following year, he applied for a summer job. “I was a Ticket Receptionist at the Main Gate for two weeks,” he says, “then I was transferred to the Trains. After the summer, my boss (‘Doc’ Lammon) said to me, ‘You ought to stick around. This place is here to stay. You should get in on the ground floor.’ So I decided to stay, and I’ve never regretted it.”

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