(Image Credit: Wikipedia/Labeled For Reuse)
Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood is a man omitted from Disney history. His story was so striking that I had a hard time believing I hadn’t heard his name before. Hired by Walt Disney himself in 1953, Mr. Wood would play a huge role in the making of Disneyland. Mr. Wood was there when Disneyland was just an orange grove and Walt Disney’s imagination. According to Mr. Wood’s obituary written by Bruce Lambert of the New York Times, “he was Disneyland’s first employee and supervised its site selection in California, the land purchase, the construction, the opening in 1954 and its operation for the first year.” I find it so interesting that the land we stand on when we are in Disneyland in Anaheim, California was partly chosen because of this man, that many of us, even extreme Disney fans, don’t know. Being the vice president and general manager to Disneyland in its very first year was a massive undertaking. Playing such a huge role in the origins of Disneyland lead me to believe that the trust between Walt Disney and Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood would have had to be very tight, so what came next is unimaginable.
Walt Disney fired Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood in 1956. Why? This answer is still left somewhat a mystery. All explanations of Mr. Wood’s firing seem to simply be speculation ranging from simply personality differences, to accusations of Mr. Wood’s embezzling from Disneyland. Whatever the truth is, somehow one of Walt Disney’s closest employees upset Walt so much that the Walt Disney Company has erased his name from the record books.
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It seems compelling enough for Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood’s story, but there is more. Starting his company, Marco Engineering, Inc., Mr. Wood continued to pursue the theme park industry. His first theme park job after Disneyland was helping build Magic Mountain Park in Colorado in 1957. Only two years later in 1959, Mr. Wood moved onto building Pleasure Island in Massachusetts. The Pleasure Island Park had the slogan “Disneyland of the Northeast.” These types of remarks must have cemented Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood and Walt Disney’s dislike for each other. Pleasure Island had remarkable similarities to Disneyland including a pirate themed ride, a space themed ride, a railroad, and other similar “Disneyland-like-rides.” Freedomland Park was Mr. Wood’s first theme park that he conceived himself. Opening in 1960, Freedomland Park was located in Bronx, New York and was themed around the regional areas of the United States. Freedomland Park had a short-lived history closing in 1964 for financial failure.
Mr. Wood’s story is one of lost friendship and lost trust. Turning his back on Walt Disney, Mr. Wood believed he could create his own empire on the back on another. The cemented bitterness between Walt Disney and Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood make his absence understandable, but for every name on every window on Main Street U.S.A. it is remarkable that the man who help choose the land that Disneyland stands on is left out.