Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Matterhorn Bobsleds

As a rather large souvenir of the Swiss Alps and the first tubular steel roller-coaster ever built, the Matterhorn Bobsleds was one of the celebrated attractions added to Tomorrowland in its 1959 refurbishment. When Disneyland USA opened in 1955, Tomorrowland was piecemeal, with only two real signature attractions: Rocket to the Moon and Autopia. The remainder tended towards corporate showrooms and ill-fated temporary fixes. A major overhaul was in order, coming close with The Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage and the Monorail.

The story of the Disney empire's first great mountain began only a year before the ride's debut. In 1958, Walt Disney travelled to Switzerland to film Third Man on the Mountain. Starring Disney regular James MacArthur, who would later star in Swiss Family Robinson, and Michael Rennie, Third Man on the Mountain adapted James Ramsey Ullman's 1954 novel Banner in the Sky about the first ascent of arguably the world's most famous peak.

Sharing a bite with the actors.

Ullman chose to veil the identity of that mountain under the alias of "The Citadel", though there was no mistaking its renowned profile. This allowed the author to invent his own dramatic story deviating from the historical record of the Matterhorn's first ascent in 1865. British artist and mountaineer Edward Whymper regularly attempted the climb since 1861, fascinated by the peak that had for so long frustrated would-be conquerors. For every attempt, Whymper took for granted the received wisdom that the Italian side of the mountain - so-called the Lion Ridge - was the best route to take. His triumphal ascent opted instead for the presumed impregnable Swiss side, up Hörnli Ridge. It turned out that this route was deceptively simple and Whymper's party reached the peak at 1:40pm, July 14, 1865. Tragically, an accident upon the descent claimed the lives of four members of his party.

Third Man on the Mountain replaced Whymper with Captain John Winter, played by Rennie, but the focus of the story was one James MacArthur's Rudi Matt. A frustrated guiding hopeful, Rudi is forever trapped in the shadow of his father, who died attempting to climb the Citadel. His mother and uncle, resentful of the family practice, kept Rudi shuttered away as a hotel dishwasher until a fateful meeting with Winter awakens hereditary ambition. Still, Uncle Fritz does his best to discourage Winter from the Citadel and Rudi from being his guide, and Rudi inadvertently helps him by endangering himself through inexperience. Nevertheless, Rudi overcomes each setback in typical Disney fashion to forge ahead and learn the lessons he needs to rather than reach the goal he desires.

Walt on location.

As previously noted, MacArthur would go on to star in Swiss Family Robinson, filmed the following year. Costar Janet Munro would join him once again as the love interest and both would be directed by Third Man's Ken Annakin. Utilizing the same actors, director and ethnic heritage invites comparison between the two films, though Third Man on the Mountain has not entered the canon of most beloved Disney films.

Digressing for a moment, Third Man on the Mountain was not Disney's first cinematic visit to Switzerland. In 1955 they released a short feature entitled Switzerland as a part of the People and Places documentary series. Ken at Walt's Music has graciously provided an online copy of the soundtrack, which was a double vinyl shared with the People and Places: Samoa soundtrack (again recalling the Third Man on the Mountain/Swiss Family Robinson connection).

Click on the cover to listen.

According to James MacArthur, and evidenced by on-set photos, Walt was enchanted by Switzerland. He would appear in full garb, from Tyrolean hat to lederhosen, ready to tour the stunning Alps. This trip also provided the spark of inspiration needed to address a mounting problem spot within his Magic Kingdom.

Excavated dirt from the moat surrounding Sleeping Beauty's Castle was piled near Tomorrowland and landscaped as a green picnic spot. However, where teenagers mix with poorly lit and park-like spaces, romance is sure to happen. Solutions were being considered, including a "crazy mouse" style roller coaster or a perpetual toboggan hill with artificial snow. Neither of these would be feasible in the long run, but the ideas focused the ultimate solution. An additional concern was the newly installed support beam for the Skyway ride that traversed the park between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Any new attraction on this green patch must also cover such an unsightly practicality.

Matterhorn Bobsleds concept art.

The solution was to bring back the biggest souvenir ever obtained from Switzerland: the Matterhorn itself. At least, a 1/100 scale model housing the world's first tubular steel roller coaster, themed to an exciting bobsled run. One could be amazed that the idea went from conception to completion in well-under a year, except that this is Disneyland we are talking about and the same amazing feat was true of the whole park a few scant years before. Building an 147' mountain as well as installing a working monorail and emptying a lagoon for a fleet of "atomic" submarines was child's play.

Walt posed beside a model of the Matterhorn Bobsleds,
demonstrating its scale with Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

Kismet ensured that both the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Third Man on the Mountain would premiere in 1959, the latter a few months after the former. Disney, ever the showman, once again employed his television presence to introduce the world to his new attractions. Art Linkletter was brought back to rededicate the park in Disneyland '59, Vice President Richard Nixon (attempted to) cut the ribbon for the Monorail, and members of the Sierra Club made the first ascent up the Matterhorn to the soundtrack from People and Places: Switzerland. Closing out the Matterhorn's ceremony was a semi-sensical dance number with lederhosen-clad villagers, figure skaters, and a Western hoedown for some reason.

Opening ceremonies of the Matterhorn Bobsleds in 1959.

The Matterhorn's external design is a sight to behold and has remained largely unchanged for the past 50 years. As a scale model, forced perspective is used to accentuate its height, with smaller trees placed further up the slopes. At the base are two lakes that not only add an exciting splash to the finish but also act as a natural braking system for the bobsleds' final turn into the loading area. Originally the attraction was considered part of Tomorrowland, presumably for the air of adventure and exploration, but has since found a more comfortable home in Fantasyland. To an extent, the Swiss-Bavarian Alpine village theme of the 1983 Fantasyland redevelopment was based on the fact that the Matterhorn looms high above. This highly visible feature was incorporated as a priceless backdrop for the castle, Peter Pan's Flight and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. The queue itself replicates a Swiss chalet, complete with yodelling and the most famous of all Disneyland's safety announcements.

The interior of the mountain left much to be desired until a 1978 refurbishment. Though the exterior was impeccably themed, the interior was an open hollow space that easily broke illusions. Two gaping holes on either side of the Matterhorn allowed for both the passage of the Skyway buckets and massive amounts of illumination. What this light exposed were the obvious girders of the mountain's internal structure, covered with only the most superficial layer of spray-on rockwork.

Recognizing this almost inconceivable lapse in judgement, the 1978 refurbishment closed off the passages that penetrated into the Matterhorn's interior. These were themed to ice caverns complete with sculpted snow and fibre-optic crystals, as well as a brand-new new character. Advertising for the reopened attraction asked "What's gotten into the Matterhorn?", and that was its very own Audio-Animatronic abominable snowman. Different sources disagree on its official name, with some calling it an Abominable Snowman and the late Virtual Magic Kingdom matching it up to the Yeti of Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest. Castmembers just nickname him Harold, or Harry for short.

The Matterhorn's resident Yeti.

Virtual Magic Matterhorn.

In 1994, Disney company vice president Frank Wells passed away in a helicopter accident after a day of skiing. An avid mountaineer, Wells fell only one Everest short of climbing the Seven Summits, or the highest peak on each of the seven continents. In honor of Wells, crates were placed throughout the Matterhorn labelled to the "Wells Expedition".

On a more lighthearted note, the Matterhorn continues to serve as the staging area for the flying Tinkerbell and Dumbo who join Disneyland's nightly fireworks extravaganzas. Accommodating them required a slight alteration to the break-room used by the daily mountaineers who ascend the peak. Yes, the urban legends of a basketball court inside the Matterhorn are true, though it is not a full court. Instead, it is comprised merely of a wooden floor and a hoop. When engaged in their proper duties, at least one of the mountaineers must play the part of Mickey Mouse for a short conquest and flag-planting on the summit.

The following series of Pana-Vue slides were amongst those sold as souvenirs at Disneyland.

The classic view of the Matterhorn
with the Submarine Voyage and Skyway.


A vertigo-inducing view of the climbers.

The abominable snow man.

Another view of the mountain from Autopia.

The Matterhorn Bobsleds endure as one of Disneyland USA's most beloved attractions. Amidst the standardization of the Disney Park's brand, the Matterhorn remains unique. Some plans attempted to copy the mountain at EPCOT for a Switzerland pavilion, but these never materialized. The world's first tubular steel roller coaster can only be found at Walt Disney's first park. It also acts as a local beacon. It was my own first sight of Disneyland from the freeway and the landmark by which I found it again from my hotel.


Mr. Zahta said...

Great post! I really love Matterhorn, as one of the things you can only find at Anaheim Disneyland.

Violet said...

Nice article! I have fond memories of the Matterhorn - it was always my favorite ride and it was my grandmother's favorite as well. She used to use her "old lady" status to get people to let us ride in front. :) I really love the design of this area of Fantasyland, since those areas of Europe - Switzerland, Bavaria, Belgium, etc. all look like fairy tale lands to me in real life.

grouchomarxist said...

Thanks for the fascinating and informative article.

Though to tell you the truth, I probably could have done without the mental image of Uncle Walt in a Tyrolean hat and lederhosen.