Disneyland’s Big River System and Private Places

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Disneyland Resort, Features, Samland

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Published on November 01, 2012 at 5:00 am with 11 Comments

When you peel back the layers at Disneyland, you find a lot of very interesting stuff that is hidden right in front of your eyes. This week, I am going to take a look at two such treasures, Disneyland’s Big River and a very private, not-so-secret club.

The Disneyland “Big River”
A hallmark of the Disney designers’ capabilities is their ability to identify innovative solutions for technical engineering problems while exhibiting incredible place-making capabilities. For example, one of Disneyland’s more understated design features is the use of water. The designers succeeded in using water to create a sense of place while at the same time keeping the water system infrastructure hidden from view. 

Many parks feature streams and ponds, but the Imagineers were required to use water in a way that reinforces the storyline while providing visual relief. As architect Christopher Alexander explains, “People have a fundamental yearning for great bodies of water. But the very movement of the people toward the water can also destroy the water.” Walt Disney needed a durable, functional, and beautiful water system.

Disneyland has two different water systems. For the attractions, such as Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s a small world, the park uses a “clear” water system. The system of “natural” waterways that tie the park together and give it a special character is called the “dark” water system. E-Ticket magazine called this system “Disneyland’s Big River.”

The headwater for the Disneyland Big River starts at the end of a pipe that pumps water from the Rivers of America. Near the Native American village is a 25-horsepower circulating pump that moves two million gallons of water a day. That water flows through a 21-inch pipe, 15 feet vertically from Frontierland and into Fantasyland. The water exits the pump and flows downhill in a pipe near Sleeping Beauty Castle toward two destinations: the Storybook Land Canal Boats and the pond surrounding the former Motor Boat Cruise loading area. From there, the water flows downhill in a pipe that curves along the Tomorrowland side of the Matterhorn toward the moat in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle.

The water enters the moat near the Snow White Garden and her Wishing Well. The flow of the water continues under the drawbridge and down the little river alongside of the Carnation Garden. The Big River passes underneath the faux-wooden bridge that leads to the gates of the stockade protecting Frontierland. As it approaches Adventureland, the water ducks into another pipe and reappears below the steps at the exit of Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. From there it flows into the rivers of the Jungle Cruise. Theoretically, as the water winds its way through the Jungle Cruise, it has traveled through the Irrawaddy, Mekong, Amazon, and Nile rivers. It exits the Jungle Cruise in a 37-inch pipe next to the base of Tarzan’s Treehouse, travels under the walkway, and drains into the Rivers of America.

Jungle Cruise

To keep the water circulating in the river, there are streams and waterfalls on Tom Sawyer Island. The pump house is located near the barrel bridge. Inevitably, the water finds its way back toward the pump near the Native American village and the cycle begins all over again.

According to E Ticket magazine, the system would lose as much as 30,000 gallons a day to evaporation on a hot day. To achieve a certain color, the park dumps in about twelve pounds of brown or green dye into the river and allows it to circulate for a few days. There is a well near Big Thunder Ranch. At every point in its journey, the Disneyland water travels via a complex, industrial-quality technological system; but to the Disneyland guest, the water is as pure and wondrous as any natural river.

Private Spaces
In any community, there needs to be places that only a few can enter, where exclusivity is expected: homes, fellowship halls, members-only associations. In the case of Disneyland, those spaces included living quarters for Walt and his family, plus a very exclusive club.

Considering the state of the regional freeway system at the time of the Disneyland’s construction, Burbank to Anaheim could easily be a two-hour drive. It made sense to have a place in either city where Walt could rest. He certainly had enjoyed having an apartment next to his office suite on the third floor of the Burbank studio. Now he wanted the same thing at Disneyland. He picked the perfect location on top of the fire station facing Town Square where he could watch the guests walking about and get a great view of his trains.

Lillian Disney worked with set decorator Emil Kuri to decorate the tiny 500-square-foot apartment. In addition to the apartment, there is an outdoor deck with wicker furniture overlooking Town Square. The mature eucalyptus trees that were the backdrop to Adventureland screened the rear deck. The apartment was Walt’s escape from the public, and it would become the stuff of legend after his death.

The apartment was comfortable for Walt and Lillian, but their family was growing. As part of the plans for New Orleans Square, Walt proposed to build a 2200-square foot apartment to accommodate his many grandchildren. The location was specifically chosen on top of Pirates of the Caribbean building to give the best possible view of the Rivers of America. Disney Legend Dorothea Redmond was picked to design the interior, and she incorporated a number of interesting features.

Redmond’s incredible career included contributions to movies such as Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Gone With the Wind, Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, and The Road to Bali starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. From there Redmond worked for an architectural firm for ten years before joining WED Enterprises. Her first project at Disneyland was the upscale looking Plaza Inn restaurant. Over the years she contributed concept sketches for the Magic Kingdom. Millions have admired her fifteen-foot by ten-foot mosaic murals that line the Cinderella Castle passageway. These huge panels are made up of thousands of small bits of Italian glass, real silver, and 14-karat gold. There is a matching set of panels in Tokyo. Ms. Redmond retired in 1974 and died in March of 2009.


The Frontierland Room of the current Dream Suite located where Walt’s apartment would have been.

The living room and bedrooms face into a very private courtyard. A climate control system was installed in the courtyard to cool or heat the space as required. In the master bedroom, Walt had electrical sockets installed everywhere to undermine Lillian’s efforts to keep him from reading late into the night. (It has been reported that Lillian had a tendency to move the furniture in the Holmby Hills residence so that Walt could not access the lights near the bed.)

The apartment was to have a small kitchen and an inconspicuous stairwell entrance in the rear that would lead down to the antique shop below. Walt and Roy planned to call the new apartment The Royal Suite, named after the New Orleans Square street where the entrance is located. Walt died before the project was started; Roy felt that it would not be the same without his brother and suggested the space be put to another use.

The space was turned into a hospitality suite for The Insurance Company of North America (INA), and later into executive offices for the Disneyland International team. It was finally opened to the public in July 1987 and served as The Disney Gallery. From its balcony, this much-loved art gallery provided one of the best views in the park as well as exclusive collectibles. By 2007, the suite was shuttered once again and rebuilt as the Disneyland Dream Suite, a tricked-out guest accommodation, as part of the Year of a Million Dreams promotion.

The two apartments were not the only private spaces hidden behind the facades at Disneyland. One of the worst kept secrets is a members only space called Club 33.

CLUB 33
When Walt partnered with General Electric (GE) for the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair and designed the Progressland pavilion featuring the Carousel of Progress, he was required to install a VIP lounge with bar facilities. This experience taught him the value of having a quiet, luxurious, very private spot to wine, dine, and entertain special clients and dignitaries. As the World’s Fair was winding down, Disney and GE began negotiations to move the pavilion from the Fair and install it permanently in Tomorrowland at Disneyland. Again, one of GE’s requirements was a functioning VIP lounge like the one in New York. Walt preferred not to have alcohol in his park and he refused to build a bar. However, after much give and take, he agreed to build a restaurant that would only serve alcohol with food and put it somewhere other than Tomorrowland.

While Walt was working on the New Orleans Square expansion, he identified the perfect location for the hospitality suite adjacent to his private apartment. He wanted a place that blended the best in location, ambiance, and cuisine. The space became Club 33 and is named for the address of the front door: 33 Royal Street. According to former Disneyland president Jack Lindquist, Walt had a thing for the number 3 and reminds us that the park’s address is 1313 Harbor Boulevard.

During their trips to New Orleans, Walt and Lillian purchased many of the antiques on display in Club 33, and original artwork done by various Disney artists is displayed throughout the space. Much of the credit must be given to the creative talents of Dorothea Redmond and Emil Kuri, who was a painter and illustrator at the Burbank Studio and who frequently worked with Lillian Disney. The space is elegant yet not stuffy.

In keeping with the New Orleans theme, Redmond chose to work in the First Empire style. This neoclassic style recalls the era of Napoleon and fits in perfectly with the early nineteenth century setting. Parquet floors, beautiful polish stone accents, and three huge chandeliers define the main dining room. A second, less-formal dining room is above the waiting area for the Blue Bayou Restaurant. The second dining room was to feature an Audio-Animatronics vulture that would “listen” in on conversations via microphones installed in the lighting fixtures. The bird would then talk back to the diners. However, it was felt that this might be an invasion of privacy and the plan was put aside. Club 33 opened on June 15, 1967. Sadly, Walt had passed away six months earlier and never got to entertain guests in this exclusive dining location.

It is a beautiful club. I have been lucky enough to dine there on a few occasions.

And that’s our collection of Disneyland secrets for today. Surely you folks have even more secrets to share in the comment section below!

About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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11 Comments

Comments for Disneyland’s Big River System and Private Places are now closed.

  1. Really interesting article this week Sam. I have a strange fascination with large water circulation systems like DLR uses, and your article offered a peak inside that I really enjoyed!

    Thanks!

  2. How does the river system keep functioning when one of the water attractions has to be drained? Are there bypass pipes that keep things flowing?

  3. It’s worth noting that in 1955 the water system at Disneyland was more contiguous and relied less on underground pipes. You can see from the model on display in the Opera House that water flowed above ground from the Castle moat under the bridges to Frontierland and Adventureland into the Jungle Cruise and then under a bridge into the Rivers of America. This was before the Tiki Room, Treehouse, and Aunt Jemima’s/River Belle were built and Adventureland opened into Frontierland.

    When the Rivers of America are drained, they are only allowed to drain so much into the sewage system. As the waters lower, the pollution and particulate matter becomes more concentrated and they are required to carry it off in tanker trucks for mitigation.

    Also, the water in Disneyland’s clear water flume rides is heavily treated with heavy duty filtration systems and is touted to be cleaner and safer than any public swimming pool.

  4. Hold on there a visible steam of water from the Castle moat going into Adventureland. So does that mean that there is a large pipe and a steam to connect them?

    Thank you for posting such a great article. Just a few questions, What about the steams that flow into the rivers of america like the one that start over at the edge of critter country. Is that spot a way to introduce new water into the system or just another trick to circulation? Also They are still lossing water to the sun but what about the ground water. Anaheim is known for its sandy bottom what about the amount of water the ground water soaks in. (I know that they cemmented the Rivers of America for that reason but what about the other water features?)

  5. We are consumate Disneyland fans. We go as often as we can and are looking forward to our very first time at Club 33. A very dear friend is a member and we are very excited!

  6. There were two other private spaces that you don’t mention and very few people know about them. Both Wally Boag & Bette Taylor had private rooms. I don’t know if Fulton Burley had his own room. Bette’s was above the Stage Door (correct me if the name is/was different) and Wally’s was across the way. I think it was above the Spanish restaurant. There’s a photo of the interior in his book. I suspect those are now storage rooms or office spaces.

    For those who haven’t seen the apartment above the firehouse, it was recently added to the Walk in Walt’s Footsteps tour. It’s well worth seeing. What I didn’t know is that Walt owned the firehouse separately from Disneyland in addition to separately owning the trains and monorail. The family sold the firehouse back to Disneyland as part of the settlement that brought in Michael Eisner etc but the family still owns the furnishings. Some of what’s there now is different from the photo above but everything that’s currently there was in fact there at one time or another during Walt’s lifetime. The two chairs by the large window are now at the museum in San Francisco but the chairs that currently occupy that space where put there during Walt’s lifetime.

  7. We know we are serious Disney fans when I loved reading about the water movement system of Disneyland, and can’t wait for more!

    I love your work Sam, thanks for all you share with us. I recently got your WatPoPCity book and can’t wait to read it!
    -Q

  8. What a waste that Dream Suite is; I really miss going up there when it was the gallery; the small, intimate details and spaces are what make Disneyland for me and now that is gone…

  9. Less known than Club 33 is that there was a private VIP alcohol serving area way back when in the Red Wagon (aka Plaza) Inn. I do have mixed feelings on the whole Club 33 thing. If given the opportunity, I’d go for it, but in some ways it’s the opposite of one of the things I love most about DL. You know that dedication footage the company trots out at what seems like every occasion. The one that starts with “To ALL who enter…”. That’s inclusive, everyone is included. Club 33 is exclusive, most people are excluded. Like I said, if invited, I’ll go, but it’s not the Holy Grail to me that it seems to be for so many.

    I’ve often thought that I’d do the WIWF Tour if they added the firehouse apt, so I’m sure i will go for it before too long, even with the big price hike.

  10. Oh what a fun article to read … a shame Walt Disney passed away before he could enjoy the luxuries of Club 33 (but what a treat to have his own furnished apartment(s) in two separate locations) ….

    Thank you for sharing Sam

    C J

  11. Betty Taylor’s dressing room was, indeed, above the Stage Door Cafe. Fulton Burley’s was adjacent, above the Adventureland Bazaar.

    Wally Boag’s dressing room, which I used often in the early 80s, was located on the second floor of the Tiki Room/Tahitian Terrace/Plaza Pavilion complex, and featured a fire escape with a view of the backside of Main Street and the Jungle Cruise boat storage.

    The AA vulture is only the last of the AA figures that once inhabited the trophy room at the Club 33. There used to be an owl over the faux fireplace and a raccoon, refugees from the film, ‘The Gnomemobile.