Origin of Disneyland: The Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round

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Fans of Disney history remember the story told by Walt Disney about his inspiration for Disneyland.

The idea for Disneyland came about when my daughters were very young and Saturday was always Daddy’s day with the two daughters. . . and as I’d sit [on a bench] while they rode the merry-go-round . . . I felt that there should be something built where the parents and the children could have fun together. So that’s how Disneyland started. [I]t all started from a daddy with two daughters wondering where he could take them where he could have a little fun with them, too.

And while the actual seed of thought that would eventually grow into the full idea of Disneyland may have been planted many years before, it is hard to deny the warmth of such a story. Just outside of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln in Disneyland, you can find a small display with one of the benches from Griffith Park and one of the restored horses from the merry-go-round.

Located about an hour’s drive (depending on traffic) from Disneyland is LA’s Griffith Park, home to the LA Zoo, the Griffith Park observatory, and a variety of other amenities. In an out-of-the-way corner of the park, and an area where there isn’t much else around it, is the famous Griffith Park merry-go-round. Because it is a bit out of the way, I had never been on previous trips to California, but down with a husband and daughter, I knew I wanted to make the trip there. All I knew about the merry-go-round was that it was fairly old and that there were benches. I deliberately didn’t read up much more on it before I went.

When you pull into the parking lot, you can already hear the music from the organ. In fact, you can hear the merry-go-round before you can see it. When I got down to the merry-go-round itself, it wasn’t at all what I had expected. When I think Disney carousel, I think the pristine horses with vibrant colors like at the Prince Charming Regal Carrousel at Magic Kingdom. Instead…

Most of the horses were chipped and had a disturbing amber glaze to them, like old varnish that had yellowed over the years. Around the top of the carousel, many of the scenes were unrecognizable, in such poor shape that you couldn’t make out what they were supposed to be. Areas that were not restored were missing decorative elements and had non-functioning lights. Yet, as I looked closer, it became clear that a restoration effort was taking place to restore this gem to its former glory.

 

A restored section next to an unrestored section.

Around the carousel were small signs telling the story of the Spillman company, makers of this carousel, and tidbits of information about how this particular carousel was relocated from San Diego (where it had resided since 1926) to Griffith Park in 1937, along with the additions over the years. (Some of the horses on the merry-go-round date back to the 1880s, and the most recent additions were survivors of the fire at Lincoln Park in Los Angeles in 1976.)

The detail on this carousel reflects the art stylings of a bygone era, with gorgeous paintings surrounding the center area.

When the carousel is in motion, you can catch a glimpse of an area featuring pictures of the artist working to restore the carousel, a tribute to Walt Disney, and boxes of music scrolls and information about the organ playing the huge assortment of tunes.

The Stinson Band Organ was installed in 1987, which means it has a variety of songs that it plays (including Disney tunes) that were obviously not in the mix when Walt sat on that park bench. Nonetheless, the organ is a work of art in its own right, made with a vintage styling that fits the location perfectly.

 

And yes, there is another “Walt Disney Sat Here” bench like the one on display at Disneyland.

Much as I would like to have spent a lot of time looking at the exhibit and memorabilia related to the merry-go-round, there’s only a few minutes between each running of the merry-go-round.

The fee to ride is modest–$2 (cash only)–and the ride was much longer than I had expected, clocking in at around 4 minutes. It is also much, much faster than I expected. Not unpleasant, but more thrilling than a merry-go-round typically is. Because of the age of the carousel, it is requested that people 200 pounds or over sit in the chariots or stand instead of riding on the horses.

Restoration work on the chariots gives a hint of what will develop over time.

Looking at the Griffith Park merry-go-round, it’s easy to lose heart about how something that is of historical significance for Disney fans (and fans of vintage merry-go-rounds) has fallen into such disrepair, but seeing the restoration work in progress gives hope for the future.

And in case I needed any other validation that the spirit of Walt takes a personal interest in this touchstone for the creation of Disneyland, as our merry-go-round came to an end, the selection of tunes (which had been Irving Berlin classics when we got there until our ride was ending) changed. As the merry-go-round slowly pulled to a stop and the old, worn horses turned back into statues of a bygone era, the organ began playing Feed the Birds — Walt Disney’s favorite song. We sat down on a bench to listen and watch–and saw a lot of daddies (and mommies) with their daughters (and sons) taking a Saturday afternoon ride on the merry-go-round — a place where everyone was able to have some fun with their children.

The Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round is located at 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, Los Angeles

According to the LA Parks site:

Hours:
Open weekends throughout the year and weekdays during the summer, and over Christmas and Easter vacations, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Description:
Located in Park Center between the Los Angeles Zoo and the Los Feliz park entrance, the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round has been a Los Angleles family attraction for over five generations. Built in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company and brought to Griffith Park in 1937, the Merry-Go-Round boasts 68 horses, every one a jumper. Each horse is finely carved with jewel-encrusted bridles, detailed draped blankets and decorated with sunflowers and lion’s heads. A Stinson 165 Military Band Organ, reputed to be the largest band organ accompanying a carousel on the West Coast, plays over 1500 selections of marches and waltz music.

Julia Mascardo

Freelance writer and editor, living the dream in Central Florida with my husband, cats, and spirited nine-year-old daughter.

One thought on “Origin of Disneyland: The Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round

  • June 15, 2019 at 11:17 pm
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    Disney should step up and contribute to the restoration.

    Reply

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