The Tri-Circle-D Story

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Walt Disney loved horses.

He first got acquainted personally with horses when as a child he lived on a farm in Marceline, Missouri.

One memorable day, a neighbor, "Doc" Sherwood (Dr. Leighton I. Sherwood who was retired from practicing medicine and pulled out his beard hair one by one rather than shaving) encouraged Walt's love of drawing by having the 7 year old do a sketch of Doc's Morgan horse, Rupert, who, unfortunately, on that day was skittish and constantly moved around.

"Doc Sherwood had me come over one time and bring my crayons and my big sheet tablet," Walt told interviewer Pete Martin. "I was going to draw a picture of Rupert for him and he was going to give me a nickel. He got Rupert out and being a stallion was very restless."

"I think there was a mare in the pasture that was in heat or something," he said. "I'd never seen Rupert act up so. I was trying to draw him and I'd get one stick down for a leg and Rupert would turn around and then I'd have a profile and I'd move around for a front view. Doc would try to hold Rupert still, but it (the drawing) turned out to be quite a mess, but he liked it and he kept it."

"The result was pretty terrible," recalled Walt told another interviewer, "but both the doctor and his wife praised the drawing highly, to my great delight."

Sherwood gave Walt a nickel (the very first money Walt ever earned for drawing something) and framed and hung the picture in his living room.

Walt combined his love of horseback riding with an opportunity to mingle with Hollywood society and took up the sport of polo. Walt bought a stable of polo ponies including, at one time, June, Slim, Nava, Arrow, Pardner, Tacky and Tommy.

He patiently taught both of his daughters how to ride horses and they fell in love with them. When they were small children, Walt's daughters proclaimed that when they grew up that they would both marry horses.

"Daddy taught me to ride," Diane Disney Miller told me. "He set me on the horse and led me around with the lead rope, and he'd take me out for hours and devote so much time to getting me over my fear of horses. He'd take many pictures of us. He was naturally a camera bug. We have many pictures of me showing off on the horse. I'm about 5 years old. I am making faces and things."

Beginning in May 1938, Walt became a member of the Rancheros Visitadores (The Visiting Ranchers), a group of business professionals who for one week during the year took a horseback ride in the outdoors of the Santa Ynez Valley around Santa Barbara, camping out each night under the stars.

Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable, Art Linkletter, Gary Cooper, Gene Autry, P.K. Wrigley (of chewing gum fame), and Bob Hope were also members of this invitation-only group at the time that required "an interest in and ownership of horses." Walt rode his own horse, named, believe it or not, "Minnie Mouse."

During Walt's lifetime there were so many memorable horse characters in both his animated and live action films, that a hefty book could be written with little effort just about them from the majestic Samson in Sleeping Beauty (1959) to clever Cyril Proudbottom careening around London with Mr. Thaddeus J. Toad in The Wind in the Willows to Comanche, who survived the Battle of Little Big Horn in Tonka (1958), to the ebony Tornado (real name Diamond Decorator) in the popular Zorro television series.

Diamond Decorator was personally owned by Walt, who arranged for him to spend out the rest of his life peacefully at the Golden Oak Ranch once his theatrical career was over.

Not to mention Horace Horsecollar!

So, it comes as no surprise that Walt wanted horses in his new theme park. As always, he went to an expert in his field to make that particular dream come true.

When Disney fans talk about the windows on Main Street at Walt Disney World, they primarily focus on the ones on the second story. However, a very important one is on the side of the Car Barn near the Harmony Barbershop.

It honors "Owen Pope. Harness Maker." In March 1951, Walt Disney met with Owen and his wife Dolly to ask them if they would be interested in beginning training horses for Disneyland.

A week after Thanksgiving, Pope moved his trailer onto the Disney Studio lot to do so and the Popes became the only people to ever live at the Disney Studio in Burbank, California, where there were 10 stalls built for the horses. The Popes stayed at the Studio for about two and half years with Walt visiting them everyday.

They had to train the horses so they could adjust to the large crowds and loud noises of the theme park.

As work was beginning on the construction of Disneyland, one of the houses on the land was moved to a 10-acre location behind Fantasyland dubbed the "Pony Farm" (and known as the "Circle D Corral" since 1980).

The Popes moved into the house three days before the opening of Disneyland and were the first and only people who actually resided in Disneyland. At one time, the dog that was the live-action reference model for Tramp from Lady and the Tramp (1955) lived with them as well.

Believe it or not, there were approximately 200 horses at the Pony Farm on Disneyland's opening day and were visible pulling the horse-drawn trolleys on Main Street to the stagecoach in Frontierland.

This house is the only onsite existing structure from before Disneyland was built and is still located in the park behind Big Thunder Ranch. It was in this house that Owen made the harnesses and riggings for the horses that would work at Walt Disney World. That's why his window states "Harness Maker."

With the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, the Popes were relocated to Florida in January 1971, where they supervised the creation of the Tri-Circle D Ranch at Fort Wilderness.

Tri-Circle refers to the three circles that make the famous Mickey Mouse head silhouette and, of course, "D" stands for "Disney."

Some Disney fans get confused and think the name refers to the ranch in the The Adventures of Spin and Marty serials for the original Mickey Mouse Club television show. That ranch was called the "Triple R."

The Popes retired in 1975, but continued to visit at least once a year until their deaths. Actually, when Dolly retired in September 1975, she became the first Walt Disney World cast member to ever retire. Owen retired in October 1975 and died in 2000 at the age 96. Dolly died in 2003 at age 89.

The Tri-Circle-D Ranch has two sections that are located roughly a mile apart. Horseback riding takes place at the Trail Blaze Corral located just inside the main entrance of Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground next to the Outpost area. Guests can take the reins for a 45-minute guided trail ride through the resort.

The remaining Tri-Circle-D Ranch areas with the Draft Horse Barn, Blacksmith Shop, Carriage Rides and Pony Rides (the ponies are adults and weigh on average 500 pounds; pony riders have to weigh less than 80 pounds and be under 48 inches tall) are located at the Settlement area, next to Pioneer Hall at the rear of the Campground.

To get to this area, there are buses that run from the Outpost Depot at the Main Entrance parking lot to the Settlement Depot. Or guests can take one of the boats from the Magic Kingdom or Wilderness Lodge.

Generally, 80-90 horses are maintained at the ranch and roughly thirty of them are draft horses. The draft horses can get as large as 18 hands tall (72 inches). A hand is about four inches and was originally based on the breadth of a human hand as a measure. They weight approximately 2,000 pounds each.

The horses that are chosen go through a probation process where they are observed in how they interact and whether they are comfortable around people and activity. Some don't make the cut and are returned.

The staff at the ranch (approximately 30-35 cast members) names the animals. One horse was black and white and they wanted to name him "Mickey" but had to settle for calling him "Oliver," from the animated feature Oliver and Company (1988).

One of the most beautiful horses is Jacob who plays the role of "Angus" from the Pixar animated feature Brave (2012) in the Magic Kingdom parades. It is rare to have a black Cyldesdale.

Jacob is 6 years old and the tallest horse at the ranch at 19 hands high. He was an orphan and was so shy when he was brought to the ranch that when he was introduced to the other horses he would go hide under a nearby tree.

He has a half brother who works on the trail ride. Jacob is socially awkward, so he does the carriage rather than the trolley. He is a beautiful horse and does love attention.

Don't worry about his fate. When it comes time for him to retire, he already has been approved to be adopted by an amazing young woman who loves him and Jacob loves her.

Khan, named after Mulan's horse in the animated feature Mulan (1998), is half Percheron and half thoroughbred, and is the horse primarily used as the Headless Horseman's horse at Halloween. He is not used to pull a carriage because, believe it or not, he thinks he is being chased. Another horse, Ike, who was used by the Headless Horseman was adopted out to a family in Texas who now take care of him.

If you visit the Tri-Circle-D ranch, these horses all have their names on the stalls and cast members will be more than happy to regale you with stories about each one.

The horses that pull the trolleys on Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom no longer wear plastic shoes as they once did. They are shoed on the front and barefoot on the back and that is done to help prevent slipping. Mineral oil is put on the hoofs to prevent wear and tear.

While the trolley is heavy, especially loaded with guests at about 4,000 pounds, it is so well balanced that once it gets moving, it takes only minimal effort (now weighing closer to 100 pounds). That's one of the reasons that Disney has started to grease the track just outside the car barn to help it get started.

When Walt Disney World opened, there were four horse drawn trolleys and it cost a dime or an "A" ticket to go one way either up or down the street. Today only one operates and soon after the 1 p.m. trolley show (that was first performed in 2002) it is pulled off the street to avoid congestion because of the parades and crowds.

The chrome and brass on the show harness for the trolley horse is cleaned and polished every day it is used. The carriage harnesses are wet down as needed during the week before a cleaning.

The horses are now considered service animals, so guests are asked not to pet them without supervision. Horses are naturally curious animals so fingers too close to a mouth sometimes are reminiscent of carrots so the horses may want to take a nibble to find out.

Also, while the horses enjoy the attention and petting, too much can be overwhelming at times, so cast members have tried to be considerate of that fact.

An outside veterinarian visits every Thursday, which is why guests might find the area at the barn blocked at that time.

Guests sometimes misunderstand behavior about the horses. For instance if a horse is drooling, he is not uncomfortable. A well-hydrated bit lubricates the mouth causing that drool.

What is a day like for a Main Street horse? They are fed and bathed in the morning. Around 8 a.m. they are loaded into a trailer and taken to backstage Main Street U.S.A. where they are put in harness and hooked and ready to go by 9 a.m.

They are kept inside the Car Barn during the "Welcome Show" at the front of the train station because of the noise and pyrotechnics and then brought out just as the guests enter the park.

They have gone through a lengthy training program, including being introduced to the music. The next step is to be introduced to the costumed characters backstage to get used to seeing a five foot tall mouse. Then, they are put in the stall in the Car Barn so they can watch the parade and other activity.

The horses are part of Disney's AZA accredited Animal Programs department, the same one that oversees animal care at Disney Animal Kingdom and Living Seas with Nemo and Friends. The manager is now the manager of the horses at the Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Paris, so there is consistency.

The manager loves Clydesdales, which is why they were introduced to Walt Disney World. In the past, there were reasons for not using them, including some concerns about temperament, the larger proportionate size and the fact that they were most commonly associated with Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser) who were operating competing entertainment venues like Busch Gardens.

That official connection ended when InBev sold off its amusement parks in 2009.

Did you know you can adopt a Walt Disney World horse when it retires? There is an application process that is intensely scrutinized and the waiting list is very long. Disney is very particular who the horses go to, including investigating whether the person is financially capable of taking care of the animal, and Disney will take back horses if they find out that the horses are not being well treated.

When the Disney Cruise started, there was discussion of having horses on Castaway Cay for trail rides but it was decided that it would become an issue if the horses needed to be evacuated from the island. Horses can swim but not for great distances.

The Draft Horse Barn at the Tri-Circle-D ranch has two special treasures that are available for Disney guests to enjoy.

One is a small room museum named "Walt Disney Horses." It is a tribute to Walt Disney's love of horses. There is an original black-and-white drawing of a young Walt sketching Doc Sherwood's horse "Ruper.t"

One wall is completely decorated with black-and-white photos of Walt and horses including him on top of the Disneyland stagecoach and riding one of his polo ponies. The two other walls have photos of the horses at Walt Disney World over the years in a variety of events.

There is also an original 1971 show harness with the old "World Mickey" emblem under glass as well as a scale model of the Dragon Calliope.

Just across from this museum is the Dragon Calliope housed under glass and there is a button to push to hear what it sounds like. It has been missing for awhile for repairs but was returned at the end of January. (Sometimes the stagecoach that used to be in front of Pioneer Hall is housed in the area instead.)

For the 1955 Mickey Mouse Club Circus parade at Disneyland, Walt Disney purchased some authentic turn-of-the-century circus wagons and very carefully restored them. In fact, anything removed from a wagon during the restoration, Walt had preserved. Walt purchased nine authentic circus wagons from Bradley & Kaye, who were using them as decorations outside the entrance to their small amusement park at the corner of Beverly and La Cienega in Los Angeles where Walt would take his young daughters on Sunday outings.

In this purchase was a 1907 20-whistle steam calliope that was in disrepair.

Its first appearance was in the Mugivan and Bowers shows in England, circa 1907, after which it was sold to Ken Maynard's Diamond K Circus in 1936. At a cost of $50,000, Disney redesigned the calliope to resemble the others in the collection, and adorned its wagon with decorative pieces from some of Disney's other circus wagons transforming it into the Dragon Calliope.

Take a close look at the car behind the engine of Disneyland's Casey Jr. train. The dragon is an exact recreation of the one on the calliope, since it is a circus train.

Many of the circus wagons, as well as the calliope, appear in the Disney live-action film, Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With a Circus (1960). Starring young actor Kevin Corcoran, and based on the well-known novel of the same name by James Otis Kaler, the film recounts a young boy running away to work in a circus and becoming a circus star after befriending a mischievous chimp. The film's world premiere was held January 21, 1960, at the Florida Theater in Sarasota, Florida, the winter home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (now owned and operated by Feld Entertainment, who produce the Disney on Ice shows). Just as the parade and the credits are ending the movie, the Dragon Calliope comes in to view, followed by the eager Toby Tyler, as music and steam billow from the colorful wagon.

In 1962, Walt would donate the wagons (including the pieces that had been removed) to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where they are taken care of and displayed to this day. However, he kept the Dragon Calliope.

Besides being part of the short-lived Mickey Mouse Club Circus parade, the calliope went on to appear at Disneyland parades until the park's 25th anniversary.

It was repainted silver and blue and pulled by six black Percheron horses when it was relocated to Florida for the Walt Disney World Tencennial celebration in 1981. Normally, it is an eight-hitch vehicle with eight Percherons pulling it. It was seen in numerous parades at Walt Disney World, including several Christmas broadcasts, until it was retired from parade duty.

It was pulled out briefly in July 2013 as part of the Limited Time Magic promotion to appear on Main Street at the Magic Kingdom.

In 1983, Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney World Percheron horses toured Canada and the United States, winning eight-horse championship at World Percheron Congress in Alberta, Canada. In 1989, The World Champion team of Walt Disney World Percheron horses represented Florida in President Bush's Inaugural Parade.

In January, I took an afternoon to visit the Tri-Circle-D and enjoyed it so much that I thought I would take some time to remind readers of this often forgotten treasure at Walt Disney World. No Fast Pass or Magic Bands needed to enjoy this fascinating treat that is a true tribute to Walt Disney's love of horses.



  1. By DwarfPlanet

    I have always wanted to visit the Tri-Circle-D and missed it again in May of last year, but have it on our agenda for this September. I wondered all what was there and what we could see and your article just made me want to visit it more. Thank you.

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.