147 Feet of Fun Or: Why I Love the Matterhorn
by, 01-11-2012 at 08:54 PM
By Sam Gennawey
Photos courtesy Richard Harris
The Matterhorn Bobsled attraction at Disneyland opened to much fanfare on June 14, 1959. I entered the world a couple of months later to far less attention. In my head, I feel a special connection and I am reminded that I am as old as a mountain. As some of you may know, I will be speaking at The Walt Disney Family Museum, along with Ron Miller and David Price, talking about Walt’s vision for a ski resort called Mineral King. Because of this, I have the Matterhorn firmly placed in the front of my mind.
Why? In 1958, Walt was visiting the set of his new live action film called Third Man On The Mountain. It is the story of the first men to climb the icy slopes of the Matterhorn in Switzerland. The nearby village of Zermatt was used as the location for the film and Walt fell in love with the place. According to studio publicist Leonard Shannon, “He would stand there and literally look at that thing for an hour or so.” As he looked toward the mountain he came up with two brilliant ideas.
First, Walt used to really love winter sports but got less interested because, among other reasons, he wasn’t really fond of most ski resorts. But he loved this little village and he started to think about something like that in the United States. He already had an interest in another ski resort. Plus, he was gearing up for the pageantry job at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley.
If you are really interested to learn more about Walt’s idea for a ski resort, I suggest you visit last week's article here. Or better yet, join us in San Francisco on January 21 at the Walt Disney Family Museum. But, for now, let’s get back to the little mountain in Orange County.
Walt had this huge, ugly steel tower holding up the Skyway gondolas, right next to his beloved castle. He really wanted to hide this eyesore. Plus, his crew was suggesting to him that he should consider adding some sort of thrill ride. Serving the public need was always a good motivation as far as Walt and his team were concerned.
Walt’s original idea for a thrill ride was going to be a real toboggan ride. A frozen trough would allow bobsleds to drop freely down the side of the mountain. Technical issues got in the way, such as draining the water as the ice melted and the inherent danger of a real bobsled. Instead, it was Disneyland executive Jack Sayers who suggested to Walt that they build a wild-mouse-style roller coaster and decorate it with some snow effects. In 1958 he gave the green light and told his team of Imagineers at WED Enterprises to come up with “a pair of wild-mouse bobsleds on Snow Hill.” Walt modified the setting later when he became inspired by the real life Matterhorn.
Walt sent two postcards of the Matterhorn to his team at WED and on the back he wrote, “Build this!” Harriet Burns and Fred Joerger got started trying to figure out how you take a real mountain, scale it down to 1/100th of its actual size (147-feet versus 14,700-feet), and then turn it into a building with a roller coaster stuffed inside. Burns did most of the initial work. Later, Fred would assist in the larger scale models. As documented in Jason Surrell’s fun book The Disney Mountain, Burns said the mountain is not an exact duplicate. She said, “We overemphasized the hook, the nose of the mountain, just a little to create a shadow effect.”
The Matterhorn is an absolute stunning example of what architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour call a “Duck.” They came up with the term when they were driving along one day and encountered a duck-shaped duckling stand in Riverhead, Long Island. Buildings that are shaped as a representation of their function is also known as mimetic buildings, architecture parlante, or programmatic architecture. Most architects just hate these kinds of buildings, but there is something magical about the Matterhorn. It is one of the few multistory structures within Disneyland. It has become a landmark and something unique to this park.
As a building, the superstructure is actually quite simple and basic. As you can see in the photo, the building is a steel skeleton that would have a mountain wrapped around the outside. All of the weight would be on this load-bearing skeleton. Bob Gurr, and the guys over at Arrow Development, worked on winding a rollercoaster through the beams. This was no easy task in the days before computers. If you look closely at the mountain, there is a very clear line between the structure holding the roller coaster and the roof, which is shaped like the mountain. Disney Legend Marty Sklar said, “Walt wanted to capture the thrill of bobsledding. It was a totally new kind of roller coaster. You’re in the ground. You actually feel like you’re part of the earth.”
The use of cutting edge technology is another reason why I just love the Matterhorn. By now, most people know that this was the first use of tubular pipe rails on a roller coaster. With the removal of the flat wooden tracks, the ride could bob and weave between the beams inside of the mountain on top of tubular track. The tubular track can be pressurized, allowing sensors to note if any of the track is worn. You could run multiple bobsleds in complete safety because of the Ride Control System. And the tracks could be intertwined. Even the little booster brakes (the tires embedded into the track) gave birth to the conveyance system for the Ford pavilion at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair and the Disneyland version of the PeopleMover. The soon-to-be replaced fiberglass bobsleds also made for the perfect ride on date night due to the cozy seating arrangement.
One of the most remarkable things is the speed in which this project was designed and built. Once Walt decided on the Matterhorn, the entire project took less then a year to build. You could not get the environmental approvals and permits for such a project in that time today.
Did you know the mountain even has its own theme song? The movie featured a tune called Climb the Mountain. The tune is mostly heard as a background throughout the film. During the splashy nationally televised grand opening ceremony on June 15, 1959, there was a huge production number with Swiss dancers mixed with Western dancers topped with a guy ice-skating. It is a catchy tune and impossible to find as a stand-alone track. The Matterhorn Bobsleds were just part of the second opening of Disneyland.
Other attractions opening that day included the Submarine Voyage, the Monorail, the Fantasyland and Tomorrowland Autopias, and the Motorboat Cruise. The Matterhorn Bobsleds was one of Disneyland’s first E-ticket attractions.
I miss the mountain climbers. They are there for more then just decoration. They link back to the original film that inspired the attraction and give the casual viewer something interesting to see that they aren't likely to encounter very often. The mountain climbers sure did get a lot of airtime during the opening ceremony broadcast. The broadcast was pretty special.
The Matterhorn would also be one of the last of its kind. You see, during one visit to Knott’s Berry Farm, Walt was invited to ride the new Calico Mine Train. When Walt stepped up in front of the attraction he was surprised that there was no line. What he didn’t know is that the line was hidden behind some fake rocks. From that point forward, Walt would always try to hide the line. The Matterhorn Bobsleds simply wrap around the sides of the mountain. A few years back some genius decided to experiment with a switchback line right out in front, creating a mess. That was thankfully a short-lived experiment.
And where did that dip in the water at the end come from? During testing, the ride was not finished. The Imagineers set up a bunch of hay bales at the end to slow down the sleds. Walt loved it. He wanted something just like that. Since hay would have been impractical, Imagineer Joe Fowler figured out a way to use water for the same effect.
- It is said that King Baudouin of Belgium asked why the Matterhorn had holes in it. “Because it’s a Swiss mountain,” was Walt’s reply.
- I have gone through the mountain wearing headphones and blasting a polka by Myron Floren. At night, it may be the best experience in all of Disneyland this way. Try it.
- The abominable snowman (aka Harold) inside of the mountain has more movement then the much-celebrated Yeti inside of Expedition Everest.
- During development, the mountain went through many names such as Holiday Hill, Snow Mountain, Mount Disneyland, Echo Mountain, and the Valterhorn (think about it).
- Yes, there really is a basketball court (half-court) on an upper floor.
- If you look closely, you will see a crate buried near some crystals with Franks Wells name stenciled on the side. This is a tribute to Walt Disney Company President, Frank Wells, who was an avid mountain climber. He was tragically killed in a helicopter accident.
As for the ride itself, there really is nothing quite like it. Get comfortable in your bobsled and fasten your seat belt. The sled rolls down to a stop in front of the mountain before you trip begins. Take a close look at the rock painting at the entry archway. Here you can appreciate just how much effort it takes to create this illusion. The sleds are pulled up the thirty-degree ascent in pitch-darkness. This was not always the case. The original caverns were not decorated and there was a wonderful window that looked down at Main Street USA. You could clearly see the structure of the building as you were pulled up the hill. Then in 1978, the cavern was sealed and the the abominable snowman was added. The Skyway was removed in 1994 and the hole in the mountain patched as though it had never been there.
The Tomorrowland side has 2,126 feet of track and the Fantasyland side is 2,238 feet long. If you are on the Tomorrowland side, the ride feels quicker, the turns seem sharper, and you get to experience the one true drop, Dolly’s Drop. The Fantasyland side seems smoother.
Are you a Matterhorn fan? Do you have a favorite side of the mountain? Let us know which is your favorite and why.
I'd like to invite you to join me for a special presentation called Mineral King: Walt’s Lost Last Project at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco on January 21. I'll host past Disney CEO and Museum Founder Ron Miller and architect David Price to discuss the innovative (and now-forgotten) year-round mountain resort that was one of Walt’s last major projects. This fascinating program gives context and detail to a remarkable and imaginative destination resort project and explain the forces and opposition that led to its ultimate abandonment. Illustrated with rare images, art, photos, archival documents, and film clips; this program offers insight into Walt’s vision at the height of his final career phase.
Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City, an amazing new book that explores how Walt Disney—the master of fiction—was determined to bring new life to the non-fiction world of city design and development and, in doing so, fundamentally improve the Great American way of life. Walt and the Promise of Progress City is available today on Amazon.