Let’s go way back in time with Disney Legend Bob Gurr as he takes us to that time of great music and terrible hair, 1987.  Disney was in the midst of creating their answer to Universal Studios Florida with Disney MGM Studios, and both parks intended to open with a studio tour attraction.  While Universal planned to simply drive folks around the park, Disney had much grander things in mind for their version of a trip through the movies.

Today’s Wheel of Years stopped at 1987, so here we go. Since 1989, Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World Resort has featured the stunt spectacular show “Catastrophe Canyon” as part of their Studio Backlot Tour. It’s billed as a live demonstration of how complex movie effects (EFX) are achieved. The show encompasses fire, water, sound, show action equipment such as a burning gasoline tanker truck, along with a number of other action sets. All of these EFX are programed in a show that depicts a violent earthquake, fire and explosions, culminating in a devastating flash flood, all live just a few feet away from a tram audience.

Most folks assume that it’s a complete Disney engineered and installed attraction show. Well, not entirely. Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) contracted Sequoia Creative Inc. in Sun Valley California, not far from WDI in Glendale California. (Sequoia ceased operations a few years later). I was a co-founder of Sequoia along with two former Disney veterans, Dave Schweninger and Tom Reidenbach in late 1984. Sequoia was known for a number of show spectaculars – Universal Hollywood’s Conan Swords and Sorcery Show, King Kong, and the 2010 Special EFX Show among other Theme Park Attractions around the country.

Large Theme Parks typically contract specialized show equipment suppliers such as Sequoia to manufacture what is referred to as show action equipment to specifications developed by the Theme Park companies. Sometimes a Theme Park will ask for design/build proposals in response to a park’s written and illustrated attraction design concept for a complete attraction. So there is a great variety of how new Theme Park Attractions are conceived, manufactured and installed. One project might be installed by the park, other times the installation is performed by the outside special equipment manufacturer. The whole business is typical of the industry as represented by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA).


Thus it was standard business procedure for WDI to request a proposal from Sequoia to manufacture a variety of show action set pieces for their Catastrophe Canyon attraction, which WDI had nearly completed manufacturing drawings for a major piece of equipment, a collapsing railroad bridge. Since the bridge was the most complicated piece, WDI wanted to do their own propriety engineering documents, Sequoia would just built it to their blueprints. Unfortunately, the Sequoia bid was much higher than the WDI budget, so the negotiations stalled. Everyone understood that WDI designs a show, the estimating department prices it out, then bids are requested. But the show design is fixed and approved!

OK then, being the disruptive dude I am, I asked if I could take a shot at the problem by starting with the budget numbers and working backward into the show. How novel an idea – lock down the price then design a show to fit the money. Others did it, why not WDI? Lo and behold, they told me to give it a whack. Their show called for some railroad oil tanker cars to get knocked into a sea of flames when a flash flood collapsed the bridge. I thought little kids were more into big highway trucks more than old railroad stock. I figured that a highway gasoline tanker would be more fun, and threatening too. I suggested forget the bridge, just put a truck on an elevated roadbed that would be out of line of sight – no bridge, no rails, no expensive built-to-scale railroad tank cars. Voila – big bucks designed out, and with a more spectacular gasoline explosion to boot. The kids would like it better too.


WDI gave us the go-ahead, we did the engineering, then built all the special action equipment. I found an old worn out highway diesel tractor and tanker for $3,000 – now we didn’t have to build one, more bucks saved. We eventually built all the other EFX except the flood water system, which was a huge installation that Disney’s local contractors performed. And Sequoia was awarded the installation contract as well for the action equipment. The truck action was so simple – just slide it part way off the road down towards the tram guests, all the while roaring in big flames. Folks imagined getting torched and drenched – pretty darn effective everyone thought.


The moral of the story – don’t just force a story into a clash with the budget, why not just get all departments into the story earlier so that a company does not have to write off expensive engineering document expenses later. Get the show concept and the money to fit while trying to keep a “good show”. It can be done – Disney proved it with Catastrophe Canyon which went from catastrophe budget to Catastrophe Spectacular.

Meet Bob Gurr at the MiceChat D23 Expo Booth


Are you on your way to the D23 Expo August 9th – 11th, 2013? Please stop by the MiceChat booth in the Collectors Forum to shake hands with Disney legends and notables, win prizes, and meet the MiceChat and MicePod crew. For a full listing of MiceChat special guests, prizes and activities please visit our 2013 D23 Expo page HERE


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Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."
  • Thank you Bob! Catastrophe Canyon is just about the only reason to go on the Studio Tour these days. If they’d had a few more of these special effects areas along the route, they’d have had a real hit.

    Fascinating to hear about the process of putting together an attraction such as this with outside contractors.

  • Jeff Heimbuch

    As a kid, this was always be favorite bit of the Studio Tour. I knew you had a hand in it, but it’s so interesting to hear how you worked backward to make the entire thing work! Just goes to show you what a great brain for problem solving you have!

  • Trevor

    I have great memories of that section of the tour from my one and only trip to Walt Disney World. As always, I love hearing how these things came to be and how it was you who got it all together in the end Bob!

  • SuperDisney

    It’s unthinkable to me to describe something like sliding a truck off a road, in controlled show conditions, as simple. There’s some brilliantly simple engineering going on there. I want to know how it works. Do they offer a tram ride behind the tram ride?

  • davidrusk

    Behind the scenes can be every bit as interesting as the show, as you have just shown. Thanks for continuing to educate and entertain!

  • JJ61

    I was just telling Dusty how much I’ve enjoyed your articles. Not just the Disney-related ones either. Hearing about growing up in California during the war is a great slice of history everyone should take a moment to savor and remember.
    I also enjoy the ‘Just get it done!’ articles such as this one and the WDW tram article. They remind me of what I love about my job.
    Keep ’em coming!

  • SpaceMTFan

    Great article! I really enjoy Catastrophe Canyon and I am wondering… anyone know how many fire effects were designed in? I know the top fuel tank, the pipes, the left tank, the end of the truck and the oil pump on the right. I saw a youtube video and it did look like there was a fire effect on the bridge on the right of the tram. It doesn’t seem right.