Building the First Disneyland Mountain: The Matterhorn

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When Disneyland opened, there was not enough time or money to do everything that Walt Disney wanted to do especially in Tomorrowland. It took until 1959 and the much publicized "Second Opening of Disneyland" that summer to make significant additions to that land including the monorail, the Submarine Voyage and the Matterhorn bobsleds.

The Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction can claim numerous milestones:

  • First thrill ride in Disneyland
  • First tubular steel track roller coaster in the world. Previously roller coasters were built on wooden frames.
  • First roller coaster with multiple cars on the same track made possible through individual braking zones and an electronic dispatch system
  • First roller coaster built by Arrow Development (later Arrow Dynamics), which went on to become a leading worldwide supplier of roller coasters.
  • World's first themed indoor-outdoor roller coaster
  • It is unique to Disneyland and does not exist in any other Disney theme park.
  • It is the highest point in Disneyland since 1959 and was the highest point in Orange County for many years and could be seen from the Interstate 5 Freeway

In the process of digging the moat around Sleeping Beauty Castle, there was a twenty foot pile of dirt left behind put between the entrance to Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Because it would cost so much to remove it and nothing to replace it, Walt simply leveled off the top of it, added some trees and landscaping and a few picnic benches and called it Lookout Hill but Walt called it Holiday Hill.

He chose the name not just because of its alliterative nature but because he had been thinking of having that area be devoted to celebrating holidays, something he would later create elsewhere in 1957 with Holidayland.

Imagineers exaggerated the uppermost "hook" of the peak to dramatize the shadow it cast.

When the Disneyland Skyway opened on June 23, 1956, the hill became the home for a large steel tower used to support the buckets that traveled from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland and back.

That summer, Walt sat on the hill with Admiral Joe Fowler who was in charge of Disneyland construction and talked about the possibility of transforming the hill into a toboggan ride with real snow.

In 1938, Walt wrote a letter to the Marceline News in which he reflected on the joys of growing up in Marceline, Missouri and recalled, "What fun I used to have on winter days going down the hillsides lickety-split on a sled."

The good Admiral was aghast at the logistics and expense of trying to get a working snowmaking machine to generate enough snow to accommodate Walt's vision. He argued that in the summer heat it would all quickly turn to slush, and that there would be drainage problems. He steered Walt away from the idea by talking about all the other things needed in Disneyland at the time.

Walt's response was to start calling the area "Snow Hill" and the name evolved by the end of 1957 into "Snow Mountain" as Walt kept thinking bigger. One day a female employee found Walt sitting on a bench between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland and staring up in the sky.

"What are you looking at, Walt?" she asked.

"My mountain," he quietly replied.

Disney Legend Bob Gurr recalled, "We always had an area in the park east of the castle called Snow Mountain. It was just a lump there. They bulldozed a lot of earth and put a bunch of trees around it.

"One of the gardeners was growing marijuana up on top and had been growing it there for about a year before Bill Evans, the landscape architect went up there," he said. "He saw the plants and sent a guy over to the local agricultural office in Anaheim. 'We have these plants….' They were removed the next day. So the Matterhorn started out as a marijuana farm."

Amorous couples quickly discovered that this secluded, out-of-the-way location could be a somewhat private location which resulted in a Security Report dated July 18, 1957 that it was a favorite spot for guests who were "using the viewing area for love-making" and that Security needed to patrol the area more vigorously and make "frequent inspections".

In October 1957, Disneyland executive Jack Sayers read an article in Funspot magazine about a "wild mouse" coaster that could make quick turns and sharp drops, and he passed the article along to Walt, who passed it along to Dick Irvine.

By May 15, 1958, Bill Cottrell was talking at a meeting about converting Holiday Hill with "a pair of wild mouse bobsleds" with a little bit of artificial snow. It was hoped that by having two separate tracks it could accommodate capacity issues.

Once the concept was presented it took another six months for the name of the mountain to be finalized. Possible names included "Mount Disneyland," "Disneyland Mountain," "Fantasy Mountain," "Echo Mountain," "Sorcerer's Mountain" (after the mountain in Fantasia) and even "Magic Mountain" ("Magic Mountain" later became the name of a Southern California amusement park competitor).

As a joke, it was even suggested to call the mountain "Mt. Valterhorn" to parody Walt's name in a Bavarian accent.

In production at the same time was the Disney live action film,Third Man on the Mountain (1959) based on a true story of a famous mountain climber who had died trying to climb the Matterhorn and his determined young son attempting to complete the task.

Walt went to visit the location for the filming for about a week, traveling by train to the Alpine village of Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn. He became more and more enamored of the impressive peak. Disney publicist Leonard Shannon who was there as well remembered, "He would stand and literally look at that thing for an hour or so."

"At this time," remembered the film's director Ken Annakin, "Walt had taken a shine to Switzerland and everything Swiss. He used to go there on his summer holidays every year, and adored it, and this story, he felt would be the thing for all young people. No effort was spared to make it as entertaining as the holiday which Walt was taking in Switzerland proved to be for him."

Walt bought a souvenir postcard with a photo of the mountain and sent it back to Burbank to one of his art directors, Victor Greene, with the terse message: "Build this!"

By the time the movie had completed production, the project at Disneyland was officially named Matterhorn Mountain. Unfortunately, the attraction did not help the box office for the finished film.

Amazingly, Greene, who would become the attraction's art director, was able to convincingly re-create the Swiss Matterhorn on paper, faithfully rendering its crags, clefts, and cliffs without actually visiting the location in person.

He had very little reference material to work with, only a photo layout from National Geographic magazine, another two page spread from Life magazine, the Encyclopedia Britannica as well as a handful of picture postcards Walt had sent from Zermatt.

Imagineer Fred Joerger, who would later join the project, was busy on another assignment. Imagineer Harriet Burns turned Vic Greene's drawings into the first of a number of three-dimensional models, so that the Matterhorn design could be studied from every perspective. She originated a technique of building the model in layers like a birthday cake. Constructing in layers enabled the model to be evaluated, structurally and aesthetically, as an assembly of components. One flawed layer could be replaced without scrapping the entire model.

Burns admitted that the Imagineers exaggerated the uppermost "hook" of the peak to dramatize the shadow it cast. The Disneyland Matterhorn is oriented exactly like the Swiss Matterhorn, relative to the compass-points, so that the sun over Anaheim casts authentic-looking shadows. She thought the Matterhorn project was crazy. "I said, 'Good grief, a Matterhorn in the middle of Disneyland!' We just thought, well gosh, there's a real Matterhorn, so why would he want to bring it here?"

In addition, she felt that Walt was trying to cram too many design features into the irregular, non-geometrical shape of the Matterhorn.

Walt had even suggested having an indoor ice rink built inside the base of the mountain and incorporating a menacing Abominable Snowman figure in an interior scene.

Running out of time and money (it would end up costing roughly a million and a half dollars to build the final attraction), Walt left the interior hollow and guests did not mind seeing the bare beams and catwalks because the final attraction moved so quickly and was so exciting.

Burns later said:

"Nothing like the Matterhorn had ever been built before. Walt would bring in experts and engineers to advise him on the problems we were likely to encounter. He always wanted the very best advice he could get.

"But if the experts said, 'This is impossible, this can't be done,' it rolled right off of him. He wouldn't argue with them, he'd just smile. He had accomplished the so-called 'impossible' so many times in his life that the word no longer had any meaning to him.

"The experts told Walt that there was no way we could build the Matterhorn with two separate toboggan runs on it, plus planters for the greenery, plus water flow systems to operate the waterfalls, plus openings for the Skyway.

"The experts said that after we had installed all of this machinery, the structure would no longer look anything like the original Swiss Matterhorn. They insisted that what Walt wanted to achieve was simply impossible. And Walt had a simple response: 'Just get it done.' So we put our heads together, solved all the engineering and design problems, and we got it done."

Disneyland's Matterhorn would be roughly 1/100th the height of the original or approximately 147 feet high, compared to the actual 14,700 feet of the real thing. It would hide the steel support structure for the Skyway.

The Matterhorn was built in 10 months out of 2,175 individual steel girders, each a different weight and length. These beams were covered by hundreds of plywood shapes from enough pieces of lumber to build 27 tract homes to help create the contour. Then the entire form was covered with tons of concrete that was sculpted and covered with 800 gallons of paint to resemble the majestic mountain.

Imagineer John Hench wrote, "That guests accept the notion of a miniature Alpine peak covered with snow in the middle of Southern California is a triumph of the Imagineer's art. The key effect that makes it so persuasive is the astonishingly realistic silvery-white, blue-shadowed snow."

The cap was completed first because it didn't house any of the ride mechanisms so that external access was not necessary. If it had been built from the ground up, previously finished areas might have been damaged during the continuing construction.

The steel skeleton was done by American Bridge, a major steel fabrication company. The company hung signs from the beams with its name to promote its business that specialized in bridge and high-rise structures.

Walt bought a souvenir postcard with a photo of the mountain and sent it back to Burbank to one of his art directors, Victor Greene with the terse message: "Build this!"

Once the skeleton was in place, then the two tracks were installed. The track utilized for the first time tubular pipe rails allowing it to twist and turn beyond anything done in the past. The hollow steel pipe track could also be pressurized.

Ed Morgan of Arrow Development stated, "Steel tube rail lends itself much more to accurate bending, because the forces are always the same no matter what axis you bend on. You can't do that with a flat bar or anything like that. Essentially they built a steel building and we had to bridge the distances between the supports they gave us."

Karl Bacon of Arrow Development added, "We had to miss the other track with proper crossover points. There was not a lot of room for two tracks. To get enough hourly capacity to be viable, the sleds needed to be dispatched at a fairly close interval. We needed to design a block system to keep them separated."

Morgan recalled:

"In a Wild Mouse ride, the people are sitting high above the rails. We said that we can't have that; it was not safe if you have a lot of forces that are not controlled. We wanted it nested by the rails. We built the bogies on the sleds so that the rails are at mid-section, and the rails encapsulate the car so it looks like you are going through the snow, not on top of it.

"Disney was going to design the sled but nothing happened. I decided to mock it up and they just accepted it. I never actually got anything but a preliminary sketch. It really didn't show the shape. The only reason our car was accepted is because Walt saw it and liked it.

"I felt we needed safety bumpers that would absorb a lot of energy if they bump each other. So the nose was two feet long and that could absorb a lot of energy. We also had a back bumper made out of a resilient foam cushion with a boot over it probably about six inches thick.

"We chose polyurethane for the wheels because we weren't going to run steel wheels on a steel rail. The noise being the biggest factor. Polyurethane rolls with a lot less effort than rubber does. A rubber tire deforms differently and loses more energy to heat than polyurethane. We had DuPont's assurance off the record that they would help us. They had the rights to polyurethane."

Fiberglass bodies were used because they were light, flexible and could be molded into a pleasing aerodynamic shape. The bobsleds connected to the track in three different places restricting the vertical movement of the car.

The vehicles were not motorized in any way, relying largely on gravity for momentum and pressurized air brakes for additional safety in key zones.

Equally challenging was making the building look like a mountain. Landscaper Bill Evans had to determine what should be a "timberline" for a fourteen story building. He finally decided it should be halfway up the summit, approximately 65 to 75 feet up with the snow level above that mark.

He planted full-sized live spruce trees on the lower levels and then progressively smaller trees at the higher elevations to create a sense of forced perspective so it looked taller. Thousands of plants native to Switzerland, like edelweiss, were planted in profusion around the base of the mountain as well as near the waterfalls and glacial pools.

As Evans told me when I interviewed him in 1985:

"Let me tell you the prescription for planting a reproduction of a Matterhorn. The formula is to fill a cement bucket on the edge of a 125-foot boom, with some planter mix and fir bark for the ball roots of the trees, and then plop down a few plants and a tree and on top of the pile plop down a gardener on top of the plants and then hoist the whole thing up in the air about 100 feet.

"Find some pad to dump the soil and plants and stomp them into place. And go back down for another load. That's how the planting was done. The area was equipped with a plastic irrigation and drip system and some rather conventional plumbing to make sure that everything drained.

"We had a sophisticated system of feeding those plants. (laughs) We had an old 50 foot gallon oil drum on the top of the Matterhorn connected to the irrigation system and we dumped some fertilizer in that and periodically it dribbled down on the plants.

"I think the Matterhorn was about 1/100th scale so it wouldn't do to put California fir trees or pine trees up there because they would be totally out of scale. We found some old stunted pinon pines on the edge of the Colorado Desert and brought those in. They were three to six feet high but much more in keeping with the scale. Very short needles. But in intervals of every three or four years they get replaced."

The Matterhorn straddles the boundary of Tomorrowland and Fantasyland just as the real Matterhorn does the borders of Switzerland and Italy. The ride has always had two tracks, commonly called the "A" side or the Tomorrowland side (2,126 feet of track) and the "B" side or Fantasyland side (2,238 feet of track) but the ride really doesn't belong in the Land of Classic Stories of Childhood or the World of Tomorrow.

For the most part, up to 1970, the Matterhorn was listed under Tomorrowland because it was part of the 1959 rehab of Tomorrowland. By 1972, Matterhorn had moved on official park literature to Fantasyland, where it remains on current Disneyland guide maps.

The Matterhorn mountain climbers would begin their first ascent in 1959 using members of the Sierra Club who continued to do so for awhile until Disneyland hired its own climbing team. The climbers would typically scale the mountain in groups of two or three and were required to wear bright red Lederhosen and had to climb the mountain several times throughout each day.

There are 40 different routes to take up the Matterhorn. The climbers would consistently climb the exterior until 1979, after which it would only be done sporadically.

There is a one-third court with a basketball hoop located in an empty space in the upper two-thirds of the mountain. However, despite urban legend, the basketball court was not built to get around a City of Anaheim ordinance about tall buildings. Walt himself gave his OK for its installation for the mountain climbers on their breaks to entertain themselves.

According to Disneyland lore, the visiting King Baudouin of Belgium asked his host Walt why the mountain had so many holes in it. "Because it is a Swiss mountain," Walt laughed referencing the many holes in Swiss cheese.

Eventually, most of the holes gradually got filled in like during the 1978 rehab and when the Skyway stopped operating in 1994. The Matterhorn has been through two major refurbishments since its opening.

From the mid- to late-1960s, the Anaheim Police Department positioned a patrol officer on top of the Matterhorn to help direct traffic flow. From that high point, he could see for three miles in every direction. Using a two-way radio, he would help other police officers down below direct traffic and reduce congestion on the surrounding streets. The improved traffic flow was especially helpful for peak attendance days at Disneyland.

From 1961 until around 1972, a giant, 24 foot tall Christmas star that lit up at night was installed at the top of the mountain each December for the holiday season. In its early years, it also rotated but the mechanism kept breaking down and in later years it was just stationary. A large crane had to be used to place the star on top of the Matterhorn.

Shortly before the Matterhorn opened, Joe Fowler told Walt, "I think we'll have it finished on time but next time, when we have to build a mountain, let's let God do it!"