Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Grand Canyon Diorama

Few natural wonders exemplify America so well as the Grand Canyon. The largest canyon in the world, it is big and bombastic and symbolic of the Western frontier. Laid down and carved out over a billion years, this chasm in the desert was first home to the ancient Anasazi people, then the present-day Puebloans, then the advance of Euro-American settlers and cowboys. It is spacious, rugged, sublime. Being so iconic, it naturally drew the attention of Walt Disney. After all, the great natural showman already brought back the Matterhorn mountain for his park! Why not the Grand Canyon?

The canyon was perfectly suited to demonstrating the flashy new technology of a larger than life man. When the Disney Studios dived into CinemaScope technology with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it was preceded by the Donald Duck short Grand Canyonscope. The beautifully pop-art painted backgrounds were wonderfully served by the widescreen format, against which Donald and Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore fought off a Civil War veteran cougar (Woodlore even tells the crowd of tourists to spread out because they're in CinemaScope).

In Grand Canyonscope, we see all the elements that make up the mystique of the Grand Canyon in the modern era. The squat little National Parks ranger is there, directing tourists into the canyon aboard the famous mule ride. Donald encounters the ancient cliff dwellings of the Native Americans, as well as their stoic living descendants, who are as timeless as the canyon itself. Even the Grand Canyon's palaeontological heritage is winked at with a brief glimpse of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The Grand Canyon was honored on the opening of Disneyland with a special Disneyland Railroad parlor car. The Grand Canyon observation car was at the end of the #2 E.P. Ripley passenger train, following behind the Navajo Chief, Rocky Mountains, Land of Pueblos, and Painted Desert cars. Originally two types of trains circled the tracks of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad, the passenger and freight trains. Both carried passengers, of course, but if you wanted to ride like human beings rather than like livestock, your best best were the enclosed, Pullman-style carriages of the passenger train. Though all were painted in a deep yellow, the Grand Canyon was emblazoned with an oval mural of the canyon on its side.

Walt standing in front of Main St. Station
and his fleet of passenger parlor cars.

Then in 1958, Disney Studios took a more serious approach with Grand Canyon, a half-hour nature film preceding the theatrical release of Sleeping Beauty. The greatest gift of Grand Canyon to the mythos was the first pictorial correlation of Ferde Grofé's famous Grand Canyon Suite to the sights of the canyon itself. Deeply evocative of the natural wonders for which it and its movements were named, Grofé's composition places the canyon within the mind's eye, the emotive space of being there along the trails that descend for miles into the earth. Disney took this and gave us the Best Live Action Short Subject Oscar-winning visuals.

Those visuals were not necessarily direct correlations, however. Some could not be helped, like equating the "Cloudburst" movement of the piece to the torrential monsoons that sweep through Arizona during August. Others were more interpretive. For instance, the rolling tune of the "Sunrise" sequence was putting to the rolling rapids of the Colorado River. Instead of the mule rides, the clip-clop of "On the Trail" Mickey Moused the activities of tarantulas, sidewinders and other canyon wildlife. The effect is somewhere between a True Life Adventure film and Fantasia.

Unable to pass up the opportunity, Walt Disney Records released a soundtrack LP for the short, complete with a booklet of photos. Ken at Walt's Music has posted a recording of it, which can be reached by clicking on the cover below...

Complimenting Grand Canyon was the Grand Canyon Diorama, unveiled the same year. A long stretch of backlot between Tomorrowland and Main Street was converted into this grand finale for the grand circle tour, and no finale could be grander than the Grand Canyon itself.

The pattern for the diorama - which was the largest in the world at 306' long by 34' high, covered in 300 gallons of paint applied by 80,000 hours of labour at a cost of $367,000 - was very much the short feature. In keeping with the live-action, True Life Adventure style of Grand Canyon, the diorama made use of the only real, taxadermied animals in the park. These are no fibreglass or animatronics, and along with the constructed outcrops and copses of trees they foreground a spectacular mural of the canyon. The first half of the scene makes use of the "On the Trail" sequence of the Grand Canyon Suite, to which the wildlife scenes of the short were set. This transitions into a very short clip of "Cloudburst," illustrating the diorama's winter snowfall, just as the end of the sequence in the film does. Finally it reverts back to "On the Trail" before leaving the Grand Canyon of today for the Primeval World of yesteryear.

Seeing the largest of anything in the world, whether a canyon or a diorama of a canyon, demands sharing the experience as best one can with their loved ones back home. This first set of images are of souvenir postcards once sold at the park. The second is a set of Panavue slides featuring denizens of the Grand Canyon Diorama.

The installation of the Grand Canyon Diorama necessitated a change in the Disneyland Railroad that spelled the eventual death of the old-style passenger cars in 1974. In place of the enclosed parlor cars, new open-air excursion carriages were put on the rails. The Navajo Chief, Rocky Mountains, Land of Pueblos, and Painted Desert were retired and the Grand Canyon given a makeover. Rechristened the Lilly Belle, it served as a VIP salon car until it fell into disrepair. Then for the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, the Lilly Belle was restored to glory and reattached to the old #2 engine, where she can still be ridden if you ask very politely.

The change also came to how the railroad was run. Previously, the passenger train made its round trip from Main St. Station while the freight train made its round trip from the other station in Frontierland. The new diorama brought with it a station in Tomorrowland and the option of loading and unloading each train at each station. To bless the new station and Grand Canyon Diorama, Hopi Chief Nevangnewa was brought from the lands of the Arizona desert. Also to be blessed that day was the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad's #3 engine, the Fred Gurley. Gurley, the then-president of the Santa Fe Railway was on hand to unveil the reconditioned 1894 Louisiana plantation engine. This is the same engine featured on the Grand Canyon Diorama's attraction poster.

Disney's relationship with the American Southwest and its most stunning natural feature continues. A tile mural by Mary Blair adorned the "Grand Canyon Concourse" at the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World and Adventures by Disney offers a vacation tour to the real thing. Sadly, the Grand Canyon Railway - which offers passenger service between Williams, Arizona, and Grand Canyon National Park - retired their own steam engine in September 2008. However, one can still go by steam to Disneyland's own Grand Canyon Diorama.


Mr. Lincoln said...

I love the Grand Canyon part of the Disneyland railroad. Some of the seemingly simple things in the park add so much to it!

Thanks for the fun post.

Cory Gross said...

I agree! If one just rushes from ride to ride, they miss all the things that lend real charm to the park. Main Street, for example, is really a land unto itself complete with its own attractions. I'm sure you could probably have a fulfilling day at Disneyland without even going on any of the proper rides (not including the DLRR of course ^_^), provided you were up for it.

BTW, good to see you again!

Russell said...

"If one just rushes from ride to ride, they miss all the things that lend real charm to the park."

I heartily concur!

The parks are stuffed full of little details that are easy to miss of you don't slow down and look around. And they keep adding and refining details.

One of the things I like best about Disney's rides are the lines!

Sure, it's nice to be able to hop on the ride after a short wait, but I do like being able to examine all the details they put in the waiting areas as we shuffle along to the ride.

For example, Expedition Everest at the Animal Kingdom is one of favorite rides, not just because the roller coaster is a blast, but the whole line is a wonderful journey into the faux Nepalese village. It has old building, temples, warnings about the Yeti, a shop to buy mountaineering equipment, a Yeti museum, etc, etc. I found it to be brilliant and more than worth the time standing in line to experience it.

And for me, Disney does that over and over again with their rides. So we keep going back :)

Cory Gross said...

I'll have to keep that in mind if I ever go to WDW ^_^

Some of the queues are just plain lines and too long (eg: Peter Pan's Flight). But some are experiences unto themselves. Indiana Jones and the Temples of the Forbidden Eye for instance. At Disneysea, I frequently opted against the single-rider line just so I had more time in the queue.