I'm new here but definitely not new to being a Disneyland fan. I wrote the following piece for MiceChat. For some reason, it was never published. I hope you enjoy it.
Does anyone know a website that will post this piece and others like it? I'm not looking for money, just an outlet.
Disney in the Details: Matterhorn Bobsleds
By Brett Padelford
Welcome to my new periodic column for MiceChat, “Disney in the Details.” In this space, I’ll take a look at one Disneyland attraction at a time, researching not only the history of the ride but the history behind the ride. Then, I’ll take you through the queue and onto the attraction where you’ll see that history represented in all the little details that make Disneyland special. It’s these small touches that show the attention and care that Imagineers invest in their creations and keep Disneyland dorks like you and me coming back to find that little something we missed last time.
I chose to write first about the Matterhorn Bobsleds for two reasons. 1. It just reopened after it’s most extensive rehab since 1978 and 2. Even though it’s not my favorite ride, I do have a special memory about the Matterhorn (that didn’t even happen in the park!). Once when I was a little, my brother and I rode along with my dad as he visited construction sites. At the end of the day, we stopped at a job and there was a big pile of dirt there. My brother and I dug tunnels throughout the mound. I went to my Dad and told him proudly that I had made a Matterhorn. It must have been a big hit with the grizzled construction workers.
Why is the Matterhorn such a big deal? Why is there a picture of it on my Old Spice body wash? Not only is it not the tallest mountain in Europe, it’s not even in the continent’s top ten. In fact, it’s not even the highest peak in Switzerland at 14,691 feet above sea level. So why has this relatively small peak in the Pennine Alps – it’s still bigger than California’s Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous US – fascinated so many over the years, including Walt Disney?
The easy answer is that the Matterhorn has a unique, elegant look with its hooked, pyramidal summit with each snowy face facing a cardinal direction. It also has an aura of danger. The ascent of the peak in 1845 by a team led by Edward Whymper marked the end of the so-called Golden Age of Alpinism where British aristocrats made sport of climbing the major peaks in the Alps. Whymper threw rocks down on the Italian climbing party he beat to the summit and, maybe because of the bad karma, four of his team members died on the descent. Since then, the mountain has sadly claimed over 500 climbers.
The path of the first ascent – up the northeast ridge dubbed Hörnligrat – can be seen on the Disneyland version as you approach the southwest side from the hub along the parade route. It’s right above the waterfall, which unfortunately does not exist on the Swiss version. If it did, the water would plummet over 10,000 feet. The “glacial pools” however that act as natural brakes for the bobsleds are an actual phenomenon near the base of the Swiss peak.
Like its counterpart in Anaheim, the Matterhorn lies between two lands. Well, the Disneyland version technically resides in Fantasyland after “moving” from Tomorrowland in the early 70s. The European version actually has dual citizenship, sitting on the border between Switzerland and Italy. “Matterhorn” is only what the Swiss call it, combining the German words for “meadow” and “peak.” If you asked Pinocchio and Geppetto, however, these Italian Alp-dwellers would call it Monte Cervino.
Holiday Hill Grows Up
The main inspiration for the Matterhorn is an attraction that hasn’t been in operation in nearly 20 years. After the Skyway opened in 1956, Walt Disney needed a way to cover up the unsightly tower that had sprung up on Holiday Hill, which was a nice name for what was basically a mound of dirt from the excavation of the Sleeping Beauty Castle moat. The name “Holiday Hill” was also a leftover. Originally, Imagineers planned to a “Holiday” themed land – whatever that means – between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland.
The Skyway, in fact, foreshadowed the Matterhorn. The multi-colored gondolas (incidentally designed by a Swiss company) emerged from an elegant Swiss chalet-style loading station on the Fantasyland side. If you were to look at the building during the Skyway’s heyday, you’d assume it was built to complement the mountain. But the Matterhorn didn’t open until three years after the Skyway debuted. It was more than coincidence, though. The Skyway station was emblematic of Disney’s fascination with Switzerland and the Alps, which also manifested itself in his early plan for Holiday Hill: a toboggan ride – with real snow! – in and around the mound. In 1957, Disneyland executive Jack Sayers suggested a wild mouse coaster built into the existing hill. Imagine Goofy’s Sky School buried in dirt and covered in snow where the Matterhorn is now and you get the idea.
Photo: The Fantasyland Skyway station is hidden behind trees and an outdoor vending location next to Casey Jr. Some of the original artwork can still be seen.
It wasn’t until Walt Disney traveled to Switzerland for the filming of Third Man on the Mountain in 1958 that it all came together. According to Disney Studio publicist Leonard Shannon, Disney stood for literally an hour at a time just staring at the Matterhorn. It was an inevitable equation: Switzerland + toboggan + mountain = Matterhorn Bobsleds. He famously sent his Imagineers a postcard of the mountain with the inscription “Build this.”
The building of the Matterhorn itself could fill an entire essay but here’s the nitty-gritty. The art director of the project was Vic Greene and the venerable Joe Fowler – the guy who basically made sure Disneyland got built – was in charge of construction. A team of Imagineers led by Fred Joerger and Harriet Burns designed the mountain. Arrow Development – who had designed the ride systems for Mr. Toad and Snow White along with other early Disney attractions – was given the task of designing their first roller coaster and they met the challenge mightily. The Matterhorn would not only be the world’s first steel coaster but the first that could have two cars on the track at once.
Arrow Development (later Arrow Dynamics) would go on to become one of the leaders in roller coaster design, including many of the classic coasters at Valencia’s Six Flags Magic Mountain. (Incidentally, Magic Mountain was one of the proposed names for the Holiday Hill roller coaster, along with Mount Disneyland, Disneyland Mountain, Sorcerer's Mountain, Fantasy Mountain and Echo Mountain)
The Matterhorn was built from the top down so that spilled cement wouldn’t ruin the already finished rockwork below. It was composed of 2,175 pieces of steel, none of which, supposedly, were the same length (sounds to me like hyperbolic marketing copy) and enough lumber to build 27 tract homes in Southern California’s then-exploding suburbs (sounds more realistic.). It cost $1.5 million to build in 1959 or almost $12 million today, not really that much considering the newest E ticket at the resort – Radiator Springs Racers – reportedly cost over 17 times that. Speaking of E tickets, they debuted with the opening of the Matterhorn. Before that, D tickets were the most expensive.
The Matterhorn debuted on June 14, 1959 as part of “Disneyland ‘59” in a re-opening akin to DCA’s recent “reset.” Vice President Richard Nixon and family presided over the festivities and, like the park’s grand opening, there was an accompanying televised special. Also like four years before there were a few snafus including ceremonial scissors that wouldn’t cut the ribbon for the Monorail and a Danish flag unveiled on the Matterhorn with the Swiss envoy in attendance.
Like the landmark that the Matterhorn eclipsed, Sleeping Beauty Castle, the mountain pulled double duty as a marketing tool. And just as Sleeping Beauty the film wouldn’t debut until four years after the castle was built (in January 1959!), “Third Man on the Mountain” wouldn’t open in theaters until November of the year. Walt knew how to plan ahead.
In the years since its opening, the Matterhorn Bobsleds has debatably evolved more than any other attraction in the park. Most of the alterations have escaped notice because they have largely gone on inside and, let’s face it, thrill seekers screaming through drops and spills don’t care quite as much about “theming.”
The ride early on could only be described as “sparse.” It’s hard to imagine now, but the mountain wasn’t closed in as it is currently. Riders saw mostly steel and concrete, not the “glacier grottos” promised in the advertising of the time. There were perks, though: At the top of the chain lift, with Skyway buckets whizzing overheard, riders had the highest view in Orange County, looking out toward Main St. and beyond.
Walt’s crusty joke, when asked by the King of Denmark why there were holes in the Disney version of the very solid Matterhorn, was “It’s a ‘Swiss’ mountain.” As in the cheese… get it? But indeed the modern Matterhorn is much less “holey” now. Openings behind the waterfalls that got riders wet were soon closed in and, after the Skyway disappeared in 1994, the big hole in the middle “iced” over.
The biggest alteration over the years, however, was the addition of the “Abominable Snowman” and ice caverns in 1978. The Matterhorn, having moved from Tomorrowland, ventured further into the realm of fantasy. Just as no bobsleds careen down the real mountain, the Abominable Snowman would have to travel over 4,000 miles from its home in the Himalayas to get to the Swiss/Italian border. Disney did get its geography and cryptozoology right when Expedition Everest opened at Animal Kingdom in 2006. This ride has the Yeti in its traditional Himalayan home with its “correct” (or at least what locals claim is true-to-life) brown fur.
The roar of the 8-foot-tall Disneyland Snowman was actually Imagineer Dennis Mecham – chosen by a contest – yelling into a microphone and electronically manipulated. The face was sculpted by Disney legend Blaine Gibson. He is nicknamed Harold by cast members. Another big change that year were the new dual bobsleds, basically two vehicles fused together to increase capacity. Supposedly, the original vehicles were much smoother because the track wasn’t designed for the longer sleds. After riding it recently with my mom, she had a good point: taking a bobsled down the real Matterhorn probably wouldn’t be that smooth a ride either. So, I guess, we can’t complain.
The most obvious changes to the mountain have been on the outside. Unlike Earth, the Matterhorn’s climate has cooled over the years. Snow on Disney’s mountain has gradually “fallen” farther and farther down the hill. Originally, Disney’s landscaper Bill Evans had decided the “tree line” – the altitude above which trees can’t grow – was between 65 - 75 feet. Above that would be snow. And if you look at old photos of the Matterhorn, the lower slopes look pretty bare and the rock is grayer. As time went on the snow caked on the mountain as more and more paint was applied and the rock took on a warmer hue. During the recent refurb, Imagineers took pains to ensure the new snow looked as if it had fallen naturally and added glass beads to the paint for a shimmery effect that mimics the real cold stuff.
Photo: The snowfall differences between 2000 and 2012.
Getting Down to Details
You probably already know that, yes, there is a basketball court in the upper reaches of the Matterhorn built for the climbers (who have just recently returned to the park). If you haven’t, here’s an odd photo of former Laker Vlade Divac shooting a hook shot with local radio hosts, Mark and Brian. You and I will probably never go there, so let’s concentrate on the stuff you can see.
Before you even get into line, walk around the front. Set into a planter is a faux plaster cast of an Abominable Snowman foot that was the part of the dedication for the attraction’s 1978 reopening. It’s somewhat hidden behind some benches now so you may have an awkward time getting a close-up look. It was placed there during a ceremony that featured the Los Angeles Rams (long time ago, huh?). The plaque reads:
Cast of Footprint
Discovered by Matterhorn Expedition
May 27, 1978
Walk around the mountain counter-clockwise. There are little pools and meadows that surround the base. While researching this article, I saw a duck and her chicks hiding in the long grass that surrounds one of these alpine ponds. It’s easy to check out this side of the mountain since there is no longer a line on the “B” (Fantasyland) side. The line now starts around the mountain on the “A” or Tomorrowland side and feeds both tracks. There’s also another cast of the Snowman foot on the south side.
As you get in line next to the submarine lagoon you can see the recent additions of stone railings on the bridges for fall protection during evacuations. (You can see similar additions next door at Alice in Wonderland.) As you approach, you’ll hear the iconic safety spiel “Remain seated with your seatbelt fastened; Permanecer sentados por favor.” Voiced by Disneyland legend Jack Wagner, this is probably the most famous safety recording in the world. The second part is, of course, Spanish. (No, it’s not “cinnamon crunchy tacos on the floor”).
The bilingual recording was a Disneyland anomaly before every attraction received both Spanish and English spiels starting in about 2002. It’s so iconic that it was included in the “Remember… Dreams Come True” fireworks soundtrack and is sampled in the title track of No Doubt’s iconic 1996 album Tragic Kingdom. Interestingly, the “with your seatbelt fastened” part was added later – cut from another safety recording – but the Spanish part stayed the same. So, if you unbuckle early and are reprimanded by a cast member, tell them “No hablo ingles.”
Once you make it up to the chalet, look at the central tower. There’s a bell in it permanently stuck at a 45 degree angle. On the entrance sign there’s a guy playing the alphorn – you know the long wooden horn played in the RIII-CO-LAAAA commercials. He’s dressed in high socks and a red vest but not, as you may think, in lederhosen. The leather shorts-thing is more German. You also may notice the wooden coat of arms plaques that cover the front of the queue with the funny lions, eagles, and French words on them. These represent Switzerland’s cantons (pretty much the same as our states). There are 26 cantons. The Matterhorn is in the canton of Valais. It’s the half-red, half-white shield with 13 stars in the top row, two to the left of the Swiss flag.
As you enter the queue, you may notice flowers carved into the wood. These are tulips. Although they’re usually identified with the Netherlands (think of the Dutch kids in clogs sitting in tulips in “It’s a Small World”) one of the most famous tulip festivals in the world is in Morges, Switzerland. The flower more commonly associated with Switzerland is edelweiss – you know, the song in The Sound of Music – which is an alpine sunflower. You can see it represented on the embroidery on cast member’s shirts, the ride loading sign, nearby trash cans, and, of course, at Edelweiss Snacks across the way.
As you squeeze into your sled, look for the decal on the front of the first sled. It’s a 50s-era travel shield of the type you might’ve found at a ski resort back then. Its design hasn’t changed over the years. The new bobsleds are equally retro, two-toned like the original sleds: white with a thick red, green, or blue stripe. For a while, the sleds had funky 70s-era orange and red stripes on the sides that looked more at home on a Space Mountain rocket.
You enter tunnels that take you up the lift hill in darkness except for a weird, projected snow effect toward the top. A turns left, B right. B stays in the dark longer. If you look up right around where the snowman’s eyes appear, there’s no ceiling and you can see past chickenwire mesh up into the mountain (even better if you use the flashlight on your phone). Both sleds pass an ice cavern that has climbing equipment – ice axe, rope, snowshoes – and a box marked with the stencil “Wells Expedition.” This is a tribute to Frank Wells, President of the Walt Disney Company from 1984 until his death in a helicopter accident in 1994. He was an avid alpinist so this is a fitting (albeit ostentatious) tribute.
Both tracks pass the Abominable Snowman three times. The first time is the red, glowing eyes. Each track sees this separately in the first tunnel. Then, both A and B passes by the same full-figure moving figure. Farther down the track, A and B each encounter a separate Snowman. A’s third snowman appears much sooner than B’s. In my opinion, the A side’s encounter is scarier.
Now, the big debate. Disneyland enthusiasts have argued for years which side is faster (including many times on this website’s message board). Based on my extensive scientific research – I rode each side twice – the Tomorrowland side averaged 2 minutes, 3 seconds and the Fantasyland side averaged 2 minutes, 15 seconds. The time difference, though, doesn’t necessarily mean the A side is much faster. Since the B side is often on the outside, its track is slightly longer. This also makes the A side feel faster because its turns are tighter. If you really want a fast ride, bring big friends. More weight = more momentum = faster bobsled.
In general, for a longer, smoother ride, take B. If you want a more thrilling ride, take A. A also has a really sudden, surprising drop toward the end as it ducks under a bridge on the B track. Both tracks end in a splashdown on either side of the station. The A side has a far more picturesque conclusion. The B side circles back inside the mountain and then is covered by the Monorail track.
For a really memorable experience, ride the bobsleds when the fireworks are on. Getting the timing right is difficult if you join the regular line but if you’re willing to do single rider, it should be pretty easy if you walk up right before the fireworks start.
But no matter when you ride this Disneyland classic, take a moment between screaming, ducking from the Abominable Snowman and wiping the waterfall spray off your face and look for the Disney in the Details.