The Modern Disneyland Was Born 60 Years Ago Today With the Introduction of the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Monorail
(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises.)
For theme-park aficionados, July 17, 1955 is a banner day, marking the opening of Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. But those same aficionados know something other folks may not: the Disneyland Park that we know largely didn’t exist on the park’s opening day. Though a few stalwart attractions, such as the Mad Tea Party and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, were there from the beginning, many more were added over time.
Attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and more weren’t even a glimmer in anyone’s mind in 1955. Or, if they were a glimmer, they were just that; a large-scale amusement park wasn’t a sure thing for Disney, and only became so over its first few years of operation. For two specific attractions, which each celebrate their 60th anniversary today, their arrival represented an important turning point for the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland, ensuring its long-term future: the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Disneyland Monorail.
Climbing the Summit
The Matterhorn Bobsleds was a new ride that arrived in similar fashion to another Fantasyland attraction, the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Both of these park icons (also dubbed by Walt Disney as “weenies”, meant to lure guests in) have the distinct honor of having been released before the feature films that technically inspired them. Sleeping Beauty Castle was part of the Day One festivities in 1955, and unveiled its walkthrough exhibits in 1957, showcasing models and dioramas inspired by the film of the same name that wouldn’t open until January of 1959. The Matterhorn Bobsleds, inspired somewhat by the 1959 mountaineering Disney drama Third Man on the Mountain, arrived at Disneyland just five months before that film was released in theaters.
The Matterhorn Bobsleds also were designed somewhat out of necessity. At first, the area that separated Fantasyland and Tomorrowland was nothing more than, literally, a pile of dirt. For some of the younger crowd who visited Disneyland in the late 1950s, this was far from a deterrent. In fact, as documented at the theme-park fan site MousePlanet, all this did was give young lovers their own version of a lover’s lane. The so-called “Holiday Hill” was soon turned into the foundation for part of the Disneyland Skyway, opened in 1956, during which time Walt Disney pondered the idea of turning the location into a genuine snow-covered hill for some tobogganing action. Like Disney’s original idea for the Jungle Cruise — why not have real animals on the cruise? — it was aiming higher than was logistically possible.
The idea of a “wild mouse” roller-coaster (the kind of coaster that isn’t about huge drops or loops, but careening riders back and forth with quick turns and short, sharp drops) dovetailed nicely with the production of Third Man, which took place in Switzerland. Impressed with the majesty of the actual Matterhorn mountain as well as Swiss design as a whole, Walt was inspired to turn the dirt hill at the foundation of the Skyway into a roller coaster that would indulge a facsimile of a snow-covered hill if the real thing couldn’t be achieved.
Building out Tomorrowland
At the time, the Matterhorn Bobsleds wasn’t an attraction considered part of Fantasyland; instead, the Bobsleds were included as part of Tomorrowland, along with a couple of other new attractions. June 14, 1959 marked the opening for the Matterhorn, as well as the Monorail and the Submarine Voyage. (The latter attraction, in which riders descend into a functioning submarine, used to be themed to the 1954 live-action adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Now, the sub attraction is themed to Pixar’s Finding Nemo.) All of these attractions accomplished a few very important tasks for Disneyland: they helped beef up Tomorrowland’s slate of attractions, and they also became the very first E-Ticket attractions at a theme park that is now known for such high-profile rides.
A bit of helpful context: for a good chunk of its first few decades, Disneyland didn’t sell a single overall ticket. And, of course, until 2001, there wasn’t a second park for guests to visit in Anaheim, so there weren’t any Park Hoppers. Instead, guests could buy ticket books that offered them different categories of attractions: A-Ticket through E-Ticket. A-Tickets were the low end of Disneyland attractions, such as the King Arthur Carrousel. E-Tickets were the big-name attractions that guests would only hope to ride over and over again in a time when a single E-Ticket cost 50 cents. (Adjusted for inflation: $4.39 in 2019 dollars.) It took until 1982 for these types of tickets to go away, but in 1959, E-Tickets were unveiled with these pioneering attractions.
Inspiring Future Iconography
The 1959 version of the Matterhorn Bobsleds is radically different from the attraction that exists today. One of the coaster’s most notable elements now, its Audio-Animatronic version of the Abominable Snowman, wouldn’t be part of the ride until the late 1970s, long after most people’s memories of Third Man on the Mountain had faded away. And only recently did Walt Disney Imagineering redesign the queue for the attraction — what was once a single, very long snaking line around the whole of the mountain (depending on where you are at the base of the mountain, you can see a large swath of Tomorrowland or Fantasyland and even a sliver of Main Street, U.S.A.) has now been re-styled to include FastPass and a less daunting line near the ride’s entrance.
The Matterhorn Bobsleds managed to be inspired by a film few people outside of true Disney diehards remember, yet it led to one of the most common visual icons in any of their theme parks: mountains. Though the word itself isn’t in the ride’s name, mountains have become a key for just about every E-Ticket-style attraction they introduce: Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Space Mountain all come to mind, and are all among the anchors at any of the continental Disney theme parks as well as those overseas. Ironically, while many of those attractions can be found at multiple Disney parks, the Matterhorn Bobsleds are just at Disneyland. Accept no substitutes.
Gliding Into an Optimistic Future
The Matterhorn wasn’t the only icon unveiled on June 14, 1959. Another attraction, even more appropriate to Tomorrowland, was the Disneyland Monorail. One of the most admirable qualities of the Disneyland mentality of the late 1950s and early 1960s was its optimistic futurism. Even in an age that would lead to the Cold War, Disneyland stood as a beacon of hope for what the decades to come could look like if only technology and ingenuity lined up correctly. For Walt Disney, monorails were the public transport of the future. Years before he began putting plans into action to build a domed community meant to combat urban blight, Disney saw monorails as a way to combat high traffic, accidents, and more.
If Disney had his druthers, the monorail would’ve been part of Disneyland on opening day. But it was only after he saw a monorail in action in Germany, created by the Alweg Corporation, that he saw a way for such a vehicle to reside in Tomorrowland. Disney put his Imagineers, led by Bob Gurr, to work with Alweg to design a monorail with a different track style than other monorails of the period. The Mark I monorail premiered on June 14, with just three cars per monorail doing a single circle around Disneyland; over 60 years, the monorail has been updated to the Mark VII, with an even sleeker design and more cars (five) per vehicle. Now, too, the Monorail has one stop, at the edge of the Downtown Disney shopping center and near the Disneyland Hotel.
What the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail, as it was originally called, represented was a vision of the future that would never come to be outside of a beautifully realized facsimile. This was the era of the space race, a competition between countries actualized in Tomorrowland as Disney’s designers offered guests a vision of what it might be like to travel on a Rocket to the Moon (an attraction that would close in 1966), or what your house could look like in a tech-heavy future in the Monsanto House of the Future. The Tomorrowland of the 1960s was one of hope and excitement, of the idea that there was, indeed, a great big beautiful tomorrow. (The attraction featuring that phrase, The Carousel of Progress, was first opened at Disneyland in 1967 and now lives on in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.)
Optimism vs. Reality
Reality butted in, of course, and though the Disneyland Monorail represented a possible present with futuristic technology, it never got actualized outside of the theme parks in a major way. Monorail transportation, despite being treated highly by such luminaries as Disney, never became a commonality in major cities in the country as automotive travel simply became the dominant way people would move around from place to place.
And Walt Disney’s vision of the future, which included his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (a title he shortened to its acronym, EPCOT), was dimmed when he passed away in 1966. His EPCOT project became the basis for Walt Disney World, an expanded version of the theme park in Anaheim. Eventually, EPCOT became EPCOT Center, opening in 1982, with a monorail system bringing travelers to and from the park and the Magic Kingdom. But the monorail became, outside of places like Disney, something akin to a punchline. (It’s worth noting that the very best episode of The Simpsons is all about the folly of monorail travel, in “Marge vs. the Monorail”.)
It’s bittersweet that Walt Disney’s vision for the future never came to be — or, at least, that most of his vision never came true. A streamlined version of transportation in major metropolises would have been an excellent way to improve upon car and train travel, but it’s instead now something akin to a visual representation of what makes the Disney theme parks so powerful. The sight of a sleekly designed monorail gliding along an elevated track doesn’t represent something you can find in most of the real world. Instead, it’s a representation of a hyper-stylized vision of reality that’s preferable to the real thing.
60 years ago today, Disneyland essentially entered its second chapter, with the introduction of major attractions that represented its future. Though both the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Disneyland Monorail have undergone updates and changes in the last six decades (the latter is sometimes used now as a form of advertising for new films and attractions on the exterior), they have largely withstood the test of time. Moreover, they’re both so inextricably associated with the legacy of the Disney theme parks and Walt Disney himself that it’s hard to imagine them ever going away. For these attractions, at least, it’s encouraging to know that they’re still moving forward into that great, big beautiful tomorrow of fantasy.
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