Tivoli: The inspiration for Disneyland

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When planning my second big European trip, I just knew Copenhagen had to be on the itinerary. Not only is it ranked as one of the happiest cities to live, but it’s also home to something of a mecca for hardcore Disney fans: Tivoli Gardens. In fact, due to the seasonal nature of the park, I actually moved the entire trip forward two weeks once I learned it would be closed on my original travel dates!

Tivoli Gardens was founded in 1843 by Georg Carstensen, who was able to get a charter for the park by telling King Christian VIII, “When the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics.” In attendance on its opening day was none other than Danish fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen, who Tivoli honored 150 years later with a dark ride based on his stories (Den Flyvende Kuffert, aka The Flying Trunk).

Georg Carstensen designer of Tivoli Gardens (Wikipedia)
Georg Carstensen.

Tivoli is the second oldest theme park in the world, following only Dryehavsbakken, which is also in Denmark. It takes up 20 acres smack dab in the heart of the city, and very much feels like an oasis of serenity in the midst of Copenhagen’s hustle and bustle, much like Disneyland does in Anaheim.

Unlike most “Walt Disney visited this place and copied it for Disneyland” stories I’ve heard, Walt’s visit to Tivoli Gardens in 1951 was actually well-documented. It seems that Walt was incredibly impressed by how clean and organized the park was compared to the seedier carnival-style amusement parks he was used to back in the US. Walt’s good friend, famed radio and TV personality Art Linkletter, recalled him furiously scribbling notes the whole time, about everything from the gardens to the food to the chairs they were sitting in. When Linkletter asked Walt what he was doing, he said, “I’m just making notes about something that I’ve always dreamed of, a great, great playground for the children and families of America.” And when Disneyland opened four years later in 1955, it definitely bore a strong resemblance to Tivoli, from the perfectly manicured landscaping, to the extensive use of waterways and intricate lighting, to the well-themed “faraway land” environments. It even has a Matterhorn bobsled coaster that on the outside looks very much like Tivoli’s The Mountain, which opened in 1914 and is one of the world’s oldest roller coasters.

Walt visited Tivoli again in 1958, and then in 1964 in the midst of the New York World’s Fair, when he was deciding which rides from the fair to bring back to Disneyland for a major overhaul of the park. It also seems like Walt took some of the philosophy of Disneyland from Georg Carstensen, who in 1844 said, “Tivoli will never, so to speak, be finished.” This mirrors one of Walt’s famous quotes from Disneyland’s opening day: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world”. And it’s intriguing to see how Tivoli has actually managed to evolve and add things like thrill rides and weekly rock concerts to stay relevant, while still holding on to 175 years of tradition and maintaining its original charm. I’m not sure you could make that case quite as convincingly for the current state of Disneyland….