DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.28 – 1956 Disneyland Animals Before Animatronics

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times

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Published on April 02, 2014 at 3:00 am with 18 Comments

Today’s Wheel of Years stopped at 1956, so here we go. In the years before Disneyland’s attractions were able to use Audio-Animatronic figures, both human and animal, animations were very rudimentary. A few still exist along the banks of the Rivers of America in the form of non-moving deer and lions. But a few do have ears that wiggle or tails that flick. Of course, the Jungle Cruise opened in 1955 with quite a few animals with various degrees of motion.

Within a few years of Disneyland’s opening, we began to add more creatures with more motions. But these were controlled by simple local controls such as drum timers, cams, and switches to operate simple motions. Fully programable digital show controls systems were years in the future. But we tried a lot of goofy mechanical tricks anyway to get a bit more action. The first example of these was the Jungle Cruise Charging Rhinos of 1958.

Vic Greene was a Disney animator who had become an attraction art director for the Jungle Cruise. Vic wanted me to design a machine that would feature two charging rhinos that would leap out at the passing Jungle Cruise boats to scare the guests. In order to reset back to the starting action position to be ready for charging the next boat less than a minute later, the rhinos would have just normally reversed their action by backing up. Vic wanted the rhinos to turn around and go back to the start, then turn around to face the oncoming boat and wait for the action to begin.

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Now that’s a much more complex action than a simple drum timer, switches, air valves and cylinders. When you have a simple action with an actuating cylinder, the machine goes in one direction, then goes back to start in reverse. Getting the two rhinos to turn around independently of each other, go back to start, and then rotate back to the charging position…well, that’s a whole new deal. But I’d give it a try. I designed a track layout that would move the rhinos on a wheeled carriage that would mount the rhinos on a rotational post. Then I rigged up some leaf springs that would catch some trigger arms on the posts such that as the rhinos would start to back up, the rhinos would spin 180 degrees. This gave the turn around action that Vic wanted.

OK, the gizmo worked just fine when I demonstrated it to vic on the machine shop floor at the Burbank Studio. So we installed it in the Jungle Cruise. But before long, guests were complaining that sometimes the two rhinos were not always doing the same thing together. One or both rhinos were charging the boats tail first. Now we had animals that were mooning our guests and I was told to fix it immediately!

Oh boy…it seems that the combination of weather, water, and wear was allowing unpredictable actions. This was a big lesson for me – never depend on a machine design that cannot be precisely operated in a specifically defined manner. Any design that, even though simple, can develop random action may eventually be a failure. Thereafter I always designed specific actions. But I did try one last time anyway with the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland Olympic Elk animation (Battling Elk project No. 4988-1 thru 13, March 11 to April 22, 1960)

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Bob Gurr (right) with the drum timer controller for the Battling Elk in the background

The elk machine was basically two elk connected at the antlers and supported by two horizontal pivots at the belly sides. The pivots in turn were mounted to two vertical swing arms pivoting on a common base and connected with a horizontal tie rod. One air cylinder would move the arms back and forth to simulate the elk pushing and shoving each other. Additional 4-leg action was by smaller air cylinders. All the cylinders were controlled by on-off air valves operated by a multi-cam drum timer. By adjusting the air valve flow rates, we could get a real random, but predictable action almost as good as the later fully programmable digital show control systems. These elk ran trouble free for many years.

The locations of the Olympic Elk and the Bounding Deer animated animals can be seen in the center of the illustration. The Mountain Sheep was positioned near Mountain Goat.

The locations of the Olympic Elk and the Bounding Deer animated animals can be seen in the center of the illustration. The Mountain Sheep was positioned near Mountain Goat.

One animal was hopeless, the Bounding Deer (project No. 4973-1 thru 16, November 11, 1959 to February 19, 1960) The idea was that a deer would traverse a triangular course thru a mountainside forest while appearing to jump along the course. The jumping action was by supporting the deer on a wheeled carriage with it’s feet connected to crank arms. This simple action looked pretty good. The carriage ran in a concrete trough pulled by a wire rope circuit. When the machine ran, it looked believable – Bambi prancing thru a forest. The bugaboo that killed this insane design was that the wire rope just would not stay stitched together, unraveling every few days. Thus it was soon abandoned. Anyone living today who remembers seeing it in action is lucky indeed. It qualifies as my worst design disaster of all time!

The most successful early animal I ever did was the Mountain Sheep (project No. 4987-1 thru 13, February 2 to March 22, 1960). All the animal had to do was walk out from behind some rocks to greet guests riding the mule train on a path on a mountainside. The gag was real simple to build and had an easy one cylinder action. After successful tests it was placed into operation on the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland. We ran it just one time, then turned it off, never to be seen again. It was my best and most believable animal ever.

Why? The mules took it to be real. As the first guest-laden mule train approached, the sheep leaped out at the lead mule, who promptly reared back. The poor creature toppled off the mountain path, falling into the river below dragging all the trailing mules and guests with it. We waited a week, then turned the sheep on again. This time the same mule stopped shortly before where the sheep had scared it and refused to go any further. To the mule, that sheep was real and was hiding behind the rocks to get him. So the sheep was never operated again. But I knew for sure I had designed a winner.

About Bob Gurr

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."

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18 Comments

Comments for DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.28 – 1956 Disneyland Animals Before Animatronics are now closed.

  1. This was so cool to read. Wish there were photos of this stuff.

  2. This is really awesome stuff. Love hearing about your “goofy mechanical tricks.”

    Disneyland really opened at a time of great innovation and it’s so much fun to hear how the park we know and love today developed!

  3. Bob,

    Those are great stories, I am always eager to read everything I can about the development and creation of Disneyland and how the early challenges were approached.

    I remember riding the mules, but sadly never saw the Ninja sheep. I don’t remember the bounding deer, either. If the sheep had been slowed down, or a sound effect added seconds before the sheep appear (BAAH!), would the mules have eventually become accustomed to the sheep, or was it the shock factor of seeing something appear from ‘nowhere’?

    • Mules are…well, mules. Their reputation for stubbornness are legendary. If they get spooked, they remember. After the guests were pulled from the river, we didn’t want to risk them further, so no more sheep. They are experts on loose trails, but miss-load them, and they will not move. “Stubborn as a mule” is fact-based.

  4. Wow! I wish I could have seen that mountain sheep. Thank you, Bob, for another wonderful article.

  5. I used to like that mule ride, but not as much as the stagecoach ride. That was the best!

  6. The mental image of the rhinos “mooning” guests gave me a good laugh.

  7. Bob:
    Really fascinating.
    Why do you think your design for the elk machine was so much more reliable than the charging rhinos? Was there something specific about the way the machines moved?

    • Go back and read the story again…the Elk were “connected at the antlers” while the Rhinos had to “catch some trigger arms”. Big difference – “catch” is not the same as “connected”, might not always catch.

  8. Bob,

    Thank you so much for a wonderful article. I wasn’t around to experience the Mine Train or witness any of these clever animatronics, but I am fascinated with the history of that attraction nonetheless.

    Is it true that the paint pots, geysers, and animatronics that inhabited the Living Desert were not removed but instead covered in concrete once the Mine Train closed?

    • That was art direction – I’m a mechanical guy. Maybe Dave Smith knows.

  9. It must have been a total blast to dream up this stuff, design it, play with the parts in the shop and eventually see it fleshed-out in the final attraction. Failures are a great learning tool, eh Bob? Can’t be afraid of them, and they typically make the best stories. Anyway, thanks for another fun look back!

  10. Great article! I’m so glad you share this information with fans! Thank you for taking the time to do this, it’s greatly appreciated.

  11. Just awesome.

  12. Fascinating as always, Bob! I have always tried to figure out how things work, and as a result I have become pretty good at fixing things. Hearing you describe haow you figured a way to build things is a real treat for me! Thank you!

    ~Bob

  13. This is my favorite column ANYWHERE. The New York Times might actually have subscribers if they printed articles like these!

    Curious what Bob thinks about that Disney Research project involving computer-generated cam and linkages: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfznnKUwywQ

    Bob, I hope heaven is filled with vehicles that you have designed.

  14. Bob,

    Did you work on the animals in the Grand Canyon portion of the diorama featured on the Dismeyland Railroad? If so, do you remember a painter by the name of Bob Melick. Do you remember a story about when they presented the mural to Walt, a train came by, had a problem

  15. with too much smoke, and they had to reprint the mural?