The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland has always been a sentimental favorite of mine; in part because my Grandfather Vic Greene was the Art Director for the attraction and for his involvement in the story of how Imagineering got the instructions to build it.
There was a little hill of land in between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland that the Skyway used to get some height to go over the back of Sleeping Beauty Castle. Walt wanted to do something with this land, but he didn’t know what, he asked my grandfather to start thinking of an attraction for the hill. The story as told in the book “How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life” and in my family went like this:
Walt was traveling to Switzerland to film “Third Man on the Mountain” and fell in love with the Matterhorn. In a moment of inspiration, he grabbed a postcard of the mountain from a souvenir stand and sent it back to Vic Greene with the message, “Vic. Build This. Walt” on the back. Vic, of course, immediately set to work on designing what was to become a first of its kind landmark attraction.
Another fun family story is the invention of the Matterhorn’s first of its kind switchback queue. Vic Greene and his team of Imagineers developed a system that would have the entrance to the switchback part of the queue be lower than the exit. When you stood at the entrance, the exit would appear closer to you in an optical illusion. The idea was to make your wait seem less cumbersome by visually shortening the queue.
A version of this story was documented in “Disneyland: Inside Story” by Randy Bright, and it has been told in my family for years. Before the attraction was set to officially open, testing was done using sandbags. When Walt wanted to see a real human on the ride, Vic Greene was selected as the first human to test ride in a bobsled on a steel tube coaster. Since water hadn’t been added to the splash down pools at the end of the ride, Imagineering had set up bales of hay to slow the cars down. Unfortunately the bobsled car hit the hay and stopped so suddenly, Vic nearly got whiplash. Still he survived and the ride was deemed complete.
Below the jump are a few more fun facts from the 55 year history of The Matterhorn.
- The Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction is unique to Disneyland park and does not appear at any other theme park
- The Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction premiered June 14, 1959, as part of the first major expansion of Disneyland Park. Other attractions celebrating their 55th anniversary this summer are the Disneyland Monorail and the Submarine Voyage.
- The introduction of these big new attractions in 1959 coincided with the introduction of what soon became another Disneyland cultural icon – the “E Ticket.”
- Since 1959, the Matterhorn has been the highest point in Disneyland Park, at 147 feet. It is the second-highest point in the Disneyland Resort, behind the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which stands 183 feet tall in Disney California Adventure Park.
- Matterhorn Bobsleds was the first roller coaster in the world to employ a tubular steel track and an electronic dispatch system, which enables more than one car at a time to be on the track.
- The most recent update to Matterhorn Bobsleds, completed in June 2012, added glistening new paint and “snow caps” on the outside, along with new lighting on the menacing Abominable Snowman inside. New, three-person bobsleds now allow guests to be seated individually.
- The attraction was inspired by the 1959 live-action Disney adventure film, “Third Man on the Mountain,” which starred James MacArthur and Michael Rennie as mountaineers. The movie was filmed in Zermatt, Switzerland, on and around the real Matterhorn.
- The mountain was built to 1/100th scale of the original Matterhorn, or 147 feet versus the 14,700 feet of the original.
- Scale and color were key components in the landscaping of the Matterhorn, with designers recreating the mountain meadow feel near the base of the mountain and the stark absence of growth above the timberline. Careful pruning and replacement of overgrown trees is done to maintain the proper scale.
- From 1959 to 1994, the Skyway (which opened in 1956) carried guests between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, passing through an opening in the mountain.
- Guests who look quickly while whizzing through the Matterhorn caverns may spot mountaineering supplies and other evidence of the “Wells Expedition.” These scenic details are a tribute to the late Frank Wells, who was President and Chief Operating Officer of the Walt Disney Company from 1984 until his death in 1994. Wells was an experienced mountain climber and skier.
- The first major modifications to the attraction occurred in 1978, when the first tandem bobsleds appeared and the Abominable Snowman began to haunt the mountain caverns.
John, I wish that post card that Walt sent had been saved, that would really be cool.