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 MuseumMineral 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
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.
th 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 The Disney Mountain,
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.
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
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.
Calico Mine TrainMatterhorn 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.
- 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.
I'd like to invite you to join me for a special presentation calledat The Walt Disney Family Museum
Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City Walt and the Promise of Progress City is available today on Amazon.