When the “Happiest Place on Earth” shuts down, you just know it’s serious.
Throughout its 65-year history, Disneyland has proven to be a stalwart constant—its gates welcoming visitors seemingly every morning no matter what’s happening beyond its fabled berm. The famous saying “I’m going to Disneyland!” has meaning because it holds true. You can go to Disneyland. 365 days a year, rain or shine, the park is always there. Still, some things are even bigger than Disneyland, as history has proven yet again.
Disneyland is something of a bellwether for how the country is feeling at any point in time. In the wake of national tragedy or crisis—as Disneyland goes, so goes the nation.
The coronavirus closure is only the third time in Disneyland history that the park has fully suspended operations. While there have been many weather-related and partial closures over the years, an unplanned and complete shutdown like the one we’re experiencing now has only happened twice before: after JFK’s assassination and on 9/11.
1963: The assassination of President JFK
Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Disneyland closed its gates for a national day of mourning on November 23, 1963, marking the first unplanned closure unrelated to weather in its history. Kennedy had visited the park once, as a Senator, four years earlier in October 1959.
1970: An attempted invasion and riot
A bunch of Yippies took over Tom Sawyer Island and riot police were called in to stop their attempted invasion of Disneyland, forcing the park to close early. No, seriously… this actually happened. Yippies (not to be confused with hippies) were a radical, countercultural revolutionary offshoot of the free speech and anti-war movements of the 1960s. This theatrical protest group of sorts organized a demonstration at Disneyland to air their grievances. Several hundred Yippies showed up and caused a little bit of minor chaos on Main Street before police in riot gear swooped in. A few arrests were made and all guests were ordered to leave the park early, so mark this one down as a partial closure thanks to Yippie Day. Yip yip hooray?
Los Angeles Magazine has all the bizarre, first-hand details of the incident. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit about this tale: Disneyland allegedly extended parts of their strict employee dress code to guests after the Yippie invasion, including the banning tie-dyed T-shirts for years.
1987: A fierce winter storm
On December 16, 1987, a fierce winter storm in Southern California was strong enough to close Disneyland. While it didn’t snow at the park, the beaches at Malibu reportedly got a sprinkling of snow, nearby Knott’s Berry Farm also closed, and parts of the Interstate 5 freeway were shut down, according to The New York Times.
“At lower elevations, where it did not snow, it rained and blew–weather so inclement that Disneyland closed its gates unexpectedly for only the third time in 24 years,” reads an article in the Los Angeles Times.
1994: The Northridge earthquake
On January 17, 1994, the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake struck the Los Angeles area at 4:30am in the morning. After the quake, all theme parks in the SoCal area, including Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Six Flags Magic Mountain, were inspected for damage before opening to the public. The quake is often cited as another unscheduled closure, but according to Disney, it wasn’t a full shutdown and the park was actually able to open on that day. Fortunately, no major damage was reported at Disneyland, but nearby Anaheim Stadium did sustain some damage.
Damage caused, to Anaheim Stadium, by the Northridge earthquake on January 17, 1994. #Angels pic.twitter.com/ofw6dzQvbo
— MLBcathedrals ⚾️ (@MLBcathedrals) November 26, 2013
2001: The September 11 attacks
Disneyland never opened on the morning of September 11, 2001, following terrorist attacks on the other side of the country. 9/11 marked only the second unscheduled, non-weather related closure in Disneyland history. Traffic signs outside Disneyland flashed “Theme parks are closed today,” as the park turned away guests for the first time in a decade. Cast members who showed up to work were greeted to eerily empty walkways and shops. Back East, Walt Disney World in Florida was open briefly, but was eventually evacuated and shut down too as a precaution.
Disneyland reopened the next day, but the attacks had a lasting impact on attendance, as the park was nearly deserted in the weeks following 9/11.
2020: The coronavirus pandemic
In a drastic measure to counter the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, Disney took the unprecedented move of closing both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure starting on March 14, 2020, through the end of the month. Other theme parks nationwide would follow suit, suspending operations amid efforts to contain coronavirus at all large public gatherings and events. This marked the first unplanned closure at Disneyland in nearly two decades, and only the third in history unrelated to weather. The closure extends through Disneyland’s usually busy Spring Break season and is by far the longest period of time the park would go dark since its opening in 1955.
Interestingly, attendance at Disneyland was unusually stronger on the days before the shutdown—despite rainy weather and even warnings to avoid large crowds. It’s still too early to tell exactly what impact, if any, the COVID-19 closure will have on the park’s attendance going forward.
For the best and worst days to visit Disneyland, keep an eye on the Disneyland Crowd Calendar. The forecast is updated frequently, so be sure to check back often.
Have you visited Disneyland around any of these unscheduled closures? What was it like? Was it crowded at all? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!