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An Education in Magic Part 2: Go West Young Man

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by , 04-11-2012 at 04:32 PM

Last week I started a column (An Education In Magic) on a walkabout of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World with a class of honor students from Western Illinois University (WIU).The class was called Communication Around the World and was put together by David Zanolla from the Communications Department. The my challenge was to help them “discover the layers of non-verbal communication utilized by the Disney Imagineers.”

The walkabout was focused on the west side of the park and included Liberty Square, Frontierland, and Adventureland. I talked about Liberty Square in the last article and it is amazing how the Imagineers used the language of architectural styles to create a sense of time and place. Then they clustered the facades by region (Hudson Valley, Philadelphia, New Amsterdam, Williamsburg, etc.).

By the time you have walked over to the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon, you have metaphorically reached the edge of civilization and are about to cross into wild frontier. So let’s continue our journey at that edge. Welcome to Frontierland.

Stop 10 - Diamond Horseshoe Saloon

It is said that Frontierland is the most distinctly American statement in the park. This is the land that is influenced by Davy Crockett and Tom Sawyer. A walk through Frontierland is a walk through time and space. As you travel east to west, on one side you are skirting the vast wilderness represented by the Rivers of America and on the other side is a row of facades that represent geographic locations along the frontier trail. In a sense, you are recreating the great American westward migration.

Let me explain. The Diamond Horseshoe Saloon is representative of a typical dancehall found in St. Louis around 1840. At the time, St. Louis was considered the gateway to the new frontier and the perfect place to start your adventure.

Our trip will take us from the midwest through the Southwest and end up in a ghost town in the far west. We will see the landscape change from a forested frontier to the desert.

As you cross over a small bridge that is barely noticeable, you will be making the leap across the mighty Mississippi River. Notice that the pavement even changes as you cross from one land to another.

Many of the buildings along the corridor have the dates when they were supposedly built. For example, the Town Hall is dated 1867. Let’s go deeper into the woods and see what is up at Grizzly Hall, home of the Country Bear Jamboree.

Stop 11 - In front of the Country Bear Jamboree closer to the river

If you look above Grizzly Hall you will notice sculptures of what appears to be Western Longhorn cattle. What you don’t realize is that these animal heads are actually in Adventureland. From that vantage point they appear as Asian Water Buffalo. A pretty clever solution and a way not to interrupt the immersive theming.

The Country Bear Jamboree’s Grizzly Hall represents Colorado in the mid 1800s. Grizzly Hall was founded by Urus R. Bear (1848-1928) and has apparently been running daily shows ever since. Look down at the floor of the lobby and you can see how scratched up it is from the paw prints.

The attraction was first proposed for the Mineral King ski resort in California. The show was the brainchild of Marc Davis. Marc told a touching story of his last encounter with Walt Disney. One day, after Walt had gotten out of the hospital, he went into Marc’s office and asked him to run through the bear show. Marc knew Walt had this one down but went through it anyway. As Walt left the room, he turned to Marc and said good bye. This just hit Marc like a ton of bricks. Walt never said good bye. He might have said, “See you later” or something but not good bye. That was the last time the two men talked.

Stop 12 - Down on the Boardwalk by the Rivers of America

Walt knew that children needed a place to burn off that extra energy and a spot for spontaneous, unprogrammed play so he came up with the idea of a themed playground called Tom Sawyer Island. He thought that the children would love to run around and pretend they are part of the story while the parents could sit, relax, and know there was only one way on or off the island. There was no way they could get lost. At the Magic Kingdom, there are two islands that were connected by a bridge in 1973. The plantings were meant to look like the native woods of the untamed Midwest. The island features hardwoods like maple, oaks, and sycamores.

While we were standing in this spot, I had the class look down the Frontierland corridor toward Splash Mountain. I reminded the class that something much different and far more grand was originally planned for that spot. At one point, the far west edge of Frontierland would have been the home to the Western River Expedition.

For those not familiar with the proposed attraction, it sure would have been a doozy. Marc Davis was a brilliant Imagineer and animator who worked on such iconic Disney attractions such as the Jungle Cruise, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean. With those successes under his belt he decided he really wanted to outdo himself, so he came up with a Western themed version of the Pirates attraction.

The Western River Expedition project was started back in 1968. The Imagineers felt the real New Orleans was not far from Florida and would not prove to be exotic enough of a setting for a major "E" Ticket attraction. What they proposed was to build a huge show building dressed as a mesa for the end of the corridor. The building would be so large that Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad could fit inside. In fact, the show building was going to be so large, they were going to cover part of it with runaway mine train (designed by Imagineer Tony Baxter).

Like Pirates, guests would have sat in boats floating by highly detailed, comic scenes. For example, one scene had bank robbers wearing masks. The strange twist was their horses were also sporting masks. Another scene featured Native Americans doing rain dances (and only getting themselves wet). Everything would be tied together with a catchy song. An incredibly detailed model was constructed and put on public display. In fact, some of the show elements had already been fabricated before the project was cancelled. The buffaloes and some of the other animals in Epcot's Living With The Land attraction were repurposed from the proposed ride. In the end, the demand by the public was so strong for Pirates of the Caribbean that the Western River Expedition was shelved. You can still see evidence of what could have been in some early guidebooks and maps.

Stop 13 - Boardwalk in front of Splash Mountain

There is one exception to the time and space journey of Frontierland and it is Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain was kind of stuffed into the Magic Kingdom. The attraction is set in the rural South in the 1870s and based on the 1946 film Song of the South. It opened in 1992 and takes 11 minutes to make a full circuit. It is also the fastest ride in the park; the logs get up to 40 mph during its 52.5-foot, 5-story drop. Splash Mountain was inspired by Knott’s Berry Farm’s Calico Log Ride.

Tony Baxter and Bruce Gordon, among many other Imagineers, created this attraction for Disneyland. Along with the need for a thrill ride, Splash Mountain addressed another need...what to do with the Audio-Animatronics that were going to be torn out of America Sings. America Sings was a fun, but odd, Marc Davis production that replaced the Carousel of Progress when it was moved from California to Florida. The idea was to take advantage of the American bicentennial in 1976, but once the show was considered past its prime and the audiences kept dwindling, it was eventually closed. The show featured a tour of American music sung by really great Audio-Animatronic characters. The design team knew that there were going to be dozens of very sophisticated characters about to be retired. So the story goes that each character in America Sings was matched up with a character from the Song of the South and the left over characters were put on the showboat at the end of the new attraction.

While the original name for the attraction was the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah River Run, Michael Eisner was in a synergistic mood and suggested that they integrate a new character - Madison, the Mermaid from the film Splash - into the ride and rename the attraction Splash Mountain. The mermaid did not make it but the name stuck.

In Florida, traffic was so congested in this area that the park added the boardwalk in 1999. Personally, I enjoy the interaction between those who have been splashed and those who are about to.

Stop 14 - The intersection between Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Frontierland train station

The railroad represents the closing of the frontier. In Liberty Square, we started at the beginning of our nation’s history along the East Coast. As you walk west, you travel across the country and through time. You end up at a Ghost Town after the gold rush.

I am a train geek and this was a chance to get in a bit of train trivia. There are four locomotives and they were purchased from the United Railways of Yucatan. They were the first attraction to be completed at the Magic Kingdom. If you go from Frontierland station (set in the 1880s) to the Main Street USA station (set at the turn of the 19th century) you will have just cycled through American history.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was built in 1980. What many people don’t realize is the mountain is 197 feet tall. That makes it taller than Cinderella Castle. The little mining town is called Tumbleweed and it seems that a flood brought on by a cursed mine has brought havoc. A lot of attention has been paid to the plant materials. They include spineless yucca, Texas ebony, mesquite, and many other succulents. The mountains are based on Monument Valley in Utah.

Stop 15 - Walking past Pecos Bill on the way to Adventureland

As we walked toward Pecos Bill, I point out yet another example of the Imagineers using a common architectural language shared by two different eras to tie together two very different themed areas. Pecos Bill is firmly planted in the American Southwest and is based on the Spanish Mission style popular around 1870. However, when you turn the corner to enter Adventureland, you notice that the same details fit in nicely with the Caribbean theme. A natural fit. Some things change, the materials change from stone to wood. The surrounding landscape starts to intrude as you move deeper into the islands. What you experience is a smooth cross-dissolve that is not jarring and helps to set the mood...for Pirates! The landscaping creates the energy for the land. You are meant to feel that you are on the edge of civilization as the surrounding plant materials feel unkept, wild. What you don’t notice is that this area was built on a clay landfill and most of the large trees are in pits due the world famous Utilidors underneath.

Stop 16 - Sitting outside of Pirates of the Caribbean during a storm similar to the skeleton piloting the ship in the caverns.

The plaza area in front of Pirates was not part of the park when it opened. As I mentioned earlier, the attraction was opened very quickly in 1973. When the park first opened, Adventureland was a cul-de-sac. The opening of the attraction was a chance to create a self contained mini-land within Adventureland. The entrance is modeled after the El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro built in the early 1600s. The fortress was built to protect Havana from pirates, but the crow’s nest that defines the pirates plaza tells a different tale. The tower is called the Torre del Cielo (skytower) and was considered the gateway to the “New Spain.”

Stop 17 - A Walk Through Adventureland

At this point, the class was treated to a talk by an Imagineer about the changes inside of Pirates and the group went for a ride. Safely back on land, we quickly ran through Adventureland as the skies opened up.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom pioneered a new kind of intensive ground theming. Adventureland was the first area in the Magic Kingdom to be retrofitted. There are a couple of transition underpasses similar to the one that separates Fantasyland and Liberty Square. The portals look like a carriage entryway on the Frontierland side and a romantic Polynesian style on the Adventureland side. This was a good chance to remind the students about the Asian Water Buffaloes and Western Longhorn cattle high atop the tower. To create a sense of life, the set designers have decorated the area to suggest that you just missed the people who lived here. Even the shops reinforce the theme.

Other Trivia? The camels that spit on you while riding the Magic Carpets of Aladdin were used in the 1995 Aladdin’s Royal Caravan Parade. The camels lived in a restaurant at Disney’s MGM-Studios until 1998 until they became part of this attraction in 2001.

I just love the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. I am not fond of the Tarzan overlay in Anaheim. Based on the 1960 film, the tree contains more than 300,000 polyethylene leaves that cost $1 each in 1974. There are 1,400 branches and real Spanish Moss. The foundations are buried 42 feet into the ground. Overall, the tree is 60-feet tall and 90-feet in diameter. They even gave it a Latin name - Disneyodendron eximus, which means “out of the ordinary Disney tree.” This is also the only attraction in the Magic Kingdom with a foreign flag overhead (Switzerland). As you leave the attraction, notice how many of the benches are made out of scraps from the ship. And they left their carving tools near the exit.

Finally, the gateway from Adventureland is yet another example of the visual cross-dissolve. In this case, the Victorian era Crystal Palace, which was inspired by greenhouses such as the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, Kew Gardens in England, and the Crystal Palace in New York fits within both realms. The only difference is that the jungle edge gets much closer in Adventureland.

Whew. Thank you for taking the tour! What are some of your favorite little details from the Magic Kingdom? How do you feel they enhance the Disney experience?


One of the benefits of writing a book, like Walt and the Promise of Progress City, is the opportunity to speak to groups about Walt Disney and urban planning. Below are some upcoming events. Sign up to my Facebook or Twitter pages to get updates. If you are a local blogger or podcaster, please contact me and let’s get together.

May 3 @ 10:30 a.m to Noon
460 East New England Avenue
Winter Park FL

May 3 @ 6:00 p.m. to 8:00
Albertson Room
101 East Central Boulevard
Orlando FL

May 5 @ 6:00 p.m.

May 6 @ 2:00 p.m.
Italy Pavilion at EPCOT

May 6 @ 7:00 p.m.
Was Walt Disney a New Urbanist?
With Chad Emerson Project Future

May 7 and 8 Walt Disney World
Meeting with various Cast Member teams.

May 20 @ 11:00 a.m.
Griffith Park in Los Angeles
Home to the birthplace of Imagineering

There's more to come in June and July. Thanks for your support.

Follow Samland on Facebook and Twitter.

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Updated 04-12-2012 at 08:52 AM by Dustysage



  1. WDW1971's Avatar
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    This series is very similar to The Imagineering Field Guide to Magic Kingdom book.
  2. Dustysage's Avatar
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    You'd make a great college professor Sam! Loved part one and two of this column.
  3. DragoHarley's Avatar
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    My goodness, this was excellent. I still can't believe how good it was. I learned so much in such a short amount of time. I am so grateful to you Sam for giving me this insight because the next time I am at WDW I am going to look at things a whole new way. Disney should put you on the payroll as a knowledge ambassador!
  4. Belgarion42's Avatar
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    This was a fantastic pair of articles, Sam! Your information and insights onto the flow of theme & history, connections & transitions between areas, and more provide such wonderful insights into what an amazing job the Imagineers did (and do), and how much more there really is to the Disney parks than just "ride the rides, see the shows, meet the characters".

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Those were some very fortunate students!
  5. BigThunder's Avatar
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    Excellent tour! I especially appreciated the facts about WRA, the greatest attraction never built.
  6. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    Thank you everyone. It was a good group and they came with tough questions and solid observations about how the built environment can non-verbally tell stories.

    DragoHarley, I don't think anybody at Disney knows I exist. But I do know the MiceChat community is aware and that is a beautiful thing.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  7. ryno1986's Avatar
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    Big Thunder Mountain is 197 ft above sea level, not 197 ft tall. Anyone can see it's not taller than the castle, and it's definitely not 2 ft shorter than Everest/Tower.
  8. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ryno1986
    Big Thunder Mountain is 197 ft above sea level, not 197 ft tall. Anyone can see it's not taller than the castle, and it's definitely not 2 ft shorter than Everest/Tower.
    Actually, Big Thunder Mountain's peak is 197 feet tall and it is taller than the castle at 189 feet.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  9. Skipper A's Avatar
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    I believe there is a British flag flown over the Jungle Cruise loading dock because it is themes as a British outpost in Amazon. I saw it every day at work.

    As for the how high Big Thunder is versus the castle, it depends on where you measure. The Castle, from base to spire, is 189 ft. tall, however the base is above ground level, the most elevated "ground" space where guest walk. on top of Utiilidors. Big Thunder is 197 ft tall from its base, which is sunken, along with Rivers of America, to real ground level, which places it at lease 10 to 15 lower than the castle base. In short, if they were next to each other, BTMRR would be taller, but the base elevation differences probably make BTMRR just a hair shorter than the castle.

    Use the railroade as a level. The Castle's base is about level with the Railroad. BTMRR is below the railroad. Look how elevated the station is in Frontierland next to the mountain.
    Updated 04-13-2012 at 09:37 AM by Skipper A
  10. Atomobile's Avatar
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    Another great entry. I am loving the information in this series, because I figured much of this out on my own over the years and have never been able to get anyone to pay this much attention to it! TO find even MORE story and research informs these details is a wonderful thing. The reason Disney theming is SO GREAT is EXACTLY the thought that goes into these little features. Bringing this all out, you're a true Scholar Sam!