We have something really exciting for you today from Disney legend Bob Gurr. He’s starting a new series of articles for you which focus on his amazing travels. You knew Bob was a brilliant designer, but you may not have known that he’s also an avid adventurer and fantastic photographer as well (is there nothing this man can’t do). Welcome to episode one of Bob’s True-Life Adventures!


Today’s Wheel of Adventures stopped at 2013, so here we go.

Twenty six miles across the sea
Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me
Santa Catalina, the island of romance

So sang the Four Preps in 1957, their ode to a fantastical place once seemed so far away, but so close today. With a very interesting history, Catalina Island, located off the coast of Southern California was a booming visitor destination in the 1930s.

Press play to set a musical tone for today’s article:

My father took our family to the island by steamship in 1937, later I enjoyed a week at YMCA Camp Fox in 1939. I marveled at the SS Catalina, a real steamship which had a triple expansion three cylinder steam engine located such that there was a viewing balcony so folks could watch all the fascinating mechanical motion-work, which kept me mesmerized.

Cat 3

Avalon, the harbor town, was jammed with sightseers, big band enthusiasts filled the Casino Dance Hall where music programs were beamed to the mainland by radio. Catalina seemed to be a magical south sea island during those years, only to fade almost completely away during the WWII years, never recovering it’s former glory

I revisited postwar Catalina in 1948 by Grumman Goose seaplane, then again in 1958 by private yacht, but it was not the glamourous place of my childhood memories. Then came another family visit in 1991, this by a fast jet boat, followed in October 2013 by an overnight stay – this time I found Catalina to be a wonderful adventure. Join me for two days of exploration.

Today’s Adventure

Along with mountain biking buddy Fred Morgan, we zipped rapidly from the Port of Long Beach to Avalon Harbor in less than an hour by Catalina Express jet boat. Avalon today has a quaint and friendly waterfront filled with numerous restaurants and watering holes, even a small pier where water adventures may be chartered.

The first thing a new visitor will notice is the near absence of automobiles, which have been restricted to only a few. The main private transportation is by gasoline powered golf carts. One gets the impression of a Mediterranean village what with the constant putt-putting sounds everywhere similar to motor scooters.



The town center has a great number of historic old wooden hotels and B&Bs, some of them delightfully colorful and charming. We soon checked into the Catalina Island Inn before heading out for a town stroll. First off, we hiked up a steep hill to enjoy the view of the entire town and lovely harbor filled with all sizes and types of watercraft from kayaks to mega yachts.
















What was surprising was the brilliant blue green water, more like the Caribbean than the local Pacific Ocean. Continuing on past the classic Casino, we next explored Descanso Beach, a fabulous cove filled with snorkelers, a scuba training operation, and kayak rentals. One can savor a fine lunch and libation on a sunny deck overlooking a fine white sandy beach. Can we really still be in Southern California, it’s more like the Mexican Riviera.







Other Catalina fun includes a submarine ride, glass bottom boats, parasails, and of course plenty of fishing charters. The one big adventure not to be missed is a four hour exploration of the mountains and back country on primitive roads by Hummer vehicles. Catalina away from civilization is a totally pristine wilderness punctuated by numerous bison sightings. The tour passed by old farms and vineyards with a stop at one of the spectacular beaches on the island west coast. 














One can even enjoy a lunch of buffalo chili at the Airport in The Sky restaurant, a stop on the Hummer tour. Yes, one can also arrive by plane at a most interesting historic airport. Twice back in the Disney years, a few of us Imagineers would fly a private plane to Catalina for a long buffalo burger lunch, returning to work just a bit late! One of our engineers would let me perform the landings in his plane to give me the experience of a hilltop runway.

Catalina is slowly coming back to life, with plenty to do and see all year round. Travel to the island is provided by fast jet boats from Long Beach, Port of Los Angeles, and Dana Harbor in Orange county. While the town’s beachfront life is quite a party in summer, any time of year is perfect for a quiet getaway to what still remains from prior times – an island of romance.

Well folks, did you enjoy our first true-life adventure? Have you visited Catalina? What are your tips for this little treasure just off the coast of California?

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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.”

  • jazzbanjo

    When I was a young boy our parents would take us to Catalina. We would travel on the old steamer. There were always people there to meet the steamer when it docked. On one trip Doodles Weaver was in an outboard boat, circling the steamer and weaving to us as we entered the harbor. There was also a guy that was always standing on the dock that looked like Mr. Clean. One of my favorite side trips was the evening cruises to watch the flying fish.

  • Klutch

    Wow, I had no idea there is so much to see and do at Catalina. The mountain tour sounds especially interesting. I think I would enjoy visiting, but I’m thinking it’s far too expensive for my budget.

  • Wanda Woman

    Thanks, Bob! I feel like I just went on a weekend getaway.

    Despite living in SoCal my entire life, I’ve never been to Catalina. I would have loved to have seen it in its Big Band glory days.

  • This is so much fun. I haven’t been to Catalina since I was a kid. Now I really want to go back.

    Looking forward to sharing your adventures Bob. It’s like taking a 5 minute vacation from my desk job!


  • olegc

    I have landed on that hilltop runway and seen some of the planes off to the side that thought it was a cliff (hee hee). Spent our lunch time once from jury duty there. Mmm – buffalo burgers..

  • DisneyLover66

    Thank you for the beautiful photos and description of Catalina Island. I want to visit Catalina now, and I will!

  • CCS

    Thanks for the great photos, Bob. I’ve been visiting the island since the Big White Steamship days and recall tossing coins to the kids swimming around the original pier when we docked. My husband and I almost were married on Descanso Beach with a reception in the Casino, but there were issues with lack of catering services at the time. We honeymooned there instead, and go back frequently. I recommend the hike up to the Wrigley Monument, and also having lunch up at the Inn at Mount Ada, the former Wrigley Mansion (named for Mrs. Wrigley). Call ahead for availability. One can stay overnight at Zane Grey’s former home which is located on the hill opposite the Mansion. We agree that the four-hour back country tour is not to be missed. There are also dinner cruises to the town of Two Harbors on the other side of the island during summer. Don’t miss the Marlin Club, the oldest bar in Avalon. One can also horseback ride and play golf at the 9-hole club in town. BTW, there is also a boat leaving from Newport Beach, for which I just scored a Groupon voucher after reading this post! It’s time to go back, especially with this great weather we’re having and the much-lower Winter and midweek rates. Catalina is expensive in the summertime, so midweek rates are a great savings.

  • notquitecanadian

    Thanks for such an in depth portrait. Photos are beautiful.

  • JulieMouse

    Fun! I love Catalina, but haven’t been in quite a few years…will need to plan a trip!!
    Thanks for sharing, Bob!!

  • wmatzner

    Thanks for sharing Bob, looks like you had a lot of fun.
    I heard there were wild boar roaming the island.
    Do you know about this, or did you see any?

    • Bob Gurr

      Yes, wild boars roamed the island back in 1939 when I spent a week at Camp Fox. They’d enter our tents at night, sniffing about. We were terrified of their big tusks, but no one was ever gored.

  • Country Bear

    Thanks for sharing your great trip and a little bit of history, Bob.

    I have often wondered what the draw was to go to Catalina and now I see. It looks very beautiful. I have seen brochures for the Catalina Island Cruise when visiting Disneyland and thought that might be fun to try sometime. It does look like it might be an expensive visit however, just based on your beautiful pictures. Is that the case?

    Have you ever done the submarine experience and would you recommend it? I’m curious about that one.

    Thanks again Bob.

    • Bob Gurr

      You can always visit the island on a day trip and just wander about – should be affordable. I’ve never ridden their sub, but you do see the same undersea life from the inexpensive glass bottom boats.

  • Princess Victoria

    Thank you Bob for the excellent write-up. I have been to Catalina twice over the last two years with my now-fiance, and both times were absolutely wonderful. Even though you are still in Southern California, you feel like you are somewhere far away. I definitely would say that it is a very romantic place no matter when you decide to visit. We went in November and then again in February, and it was relatively quiet. Avalon is so small that you run into the same people multiple times. We also went on a good hike that took us up to one of the taller peaks, and that gave us a great view of both sides of the island as well as the interior. Plus, we could see other Channel Islands like San Clemente and Santa Barbara. It was also so clear that we could see the mainland from Santa Barbara all the way to Mexico! A visit to Catalina isn’t all that expensive, either, and one of the ferries offers a free birthday ride. Indeed, Catalina is now one of our favorite places to be.

    Oh, the pink hotel in your photo, the St. Catherine, is the one we stayed at in 2012. Immediately to its right is an old three-story apartment building that was once home to none other than Marilyn Monroe during the World War II years.

    • CCS

      Morning. I think the pink one at the top of Beacon Avenue is the Hotel St. Lauren.

      • Princess Victoria

        You’re right; it’s the Hotel St. Lauren. Lovely place to stay.

      • Princess Victoria

        St. Catherine is the Catholic Church.

  • Bob Gurr

    The pink one is locally known as the Pepto-Bismol Hotel.

  • tgdiver

    For divers, the dive park next to the Casino is not to be missed. Much bigger than it appears, it’s a great way to see the beauty of Catalina’s waters. For more variety, there are several excellent dive boats operating from Avalon. Top service, and operators who really know their stuff. Before I dove Catalina, I always thought SoCal water was dark and murky. Now it’s one of my favorite places to dive. In the summer. No drysuit, and lovely or not, the water is cold.

  • QPerth

    What a truly unique and beautiful place!! That architecture is just stunning!!! Thanks for taking us there with these stories and pictures you shared!

  • JJ61

    Catalina is one of my favorite spots on earth. So close, yet with a feel of a distant locale. We take our boat, the Sea-Lancer, over there several times a year for relaxing downtime, kayaking, snorkeling and SCUBA diving. We usually opt for Cherry Cove in the quieter, Two Harbors area.

    But we have visited Avalon many times and I would add that the Casino Tour, guided by locals very knowledgeable in the nostalgia of this great art deco treasure, is NOT to be missed. With a little imagination you can almost see and hear dancers twirling the night away in the ballroom to the sounds of the era’s Big Bands. If an overnight stay is part of your itinerary, then I’d recommend watching a film in the Casino movie theatre. Be sure to arrive early to hear a musician play the amazing pipe organ before the show.

    Catalina, as you noted, is a great walking town. Straight in from the town of Avalon is the Botanical Gardens and a short hike to the Wrigley Memorial with a rewarding view.

    Catalina also has some of the best SCUBA sites along Southern California and I’ve hit most of them. Great visibility and sea life with plenty of boat options to reach them from private charters to the big King Neptune operated by SCUBA Luv.

    My mother has told me stories of the steamships and dancing at the Casino. She said they would dance on the ship all the way out, dance all night in the Grand Ballroom, then dance on the ship all the way home. I would remind her of these stories if I ever stayed out too late.

    Another fascinating transportation method of the past is the glorious sea planes. I’m old enough to remember stays in Cat Harbor on the backside of the isthmus where the Grummans (?) would come roaring over for a splashdown just a few hundred feet from our boat. That startling noise would make you jump out of your chair! A great book on the subject called “Knights of Avalon” is still available on Amazon.

    Catalina is truly one of Southern California’s treasures. Always looking forward to our next adventure there, my wife is slowly turning our family room into the Catalina Room!