The Story of Storybook Land

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

The Story of Storybook Land

"Storybook Land, inside Fantasyland, is one of Disneyland's finest examples of the Disney magic in artistry and the creation of unique and entertaining attractions. A kingdom in miniature, Storybook Land presents life-like re-creations of villages, castles, houses and other buildings from the pages of fabled stories-scene after scene of painstakingly detailed settings. If you've ever wanted to actually see from close up Gepetto's Village high in the snow covered Alps, Kensington Gardens from the story of Peter Pan, the straw, stick and brick houses of the Three Little Pigs and the Crazy Quilt Country from Wynken, Blinken and Nod, they're all there-along with many more-in Storybook Land. Gaily painted, picturesque European canal boats take visitors through the mouth of Monstro the Whale into this wonderful world."
—Disneyland Holiday magazine Spring 1958

There was a 50th birthday last year that was ignored. The Storybook Land attraction opened exactly at noon on June 18, 1956, roughly 11 months after the opening of Disneyland.

As a child and later as an adult, it was one of my favorite rides at Disneyland, although as a child there was a little discomfort entering Monstro's gigantic mouth and the dark tunnel of his throat. I was—and still am—fascinated by the miniature buildings that seemed to capture the spirit of Fantasyland more than Fantasyland itself.

Some might argue that the attraction actually opened July 17, 1955 with Disneyland since the attraction began as the Canal Boats of the World. The souvenir guide of the time to Disneyland described it as "Boats of Holland, France, England and America travel through canals which pass the fabulous sights of Fantasyland."

In actuality, this was one of the rides that didn't work on opening day, breaking down and having to be towed back to the boarding area by disgruntled cast members in the water like Volga boatmen.

The boats were built by the Robert Dorris Boat Works and the gas-powered outboard motors were unreliable to say the least. (The Robert Dorris Boat Works replaced them with electric motors that are individually powered by direct chain drive from the propeller shaft to a General Electric motor for the opening of Storybook Land.)

The ride itself was merely a trough of muddy water with boats going by uncompleted muddy banks sometimes decorated with weeds. To this day, Dick Nunis refers to this version as "The Mud Bank Ride."

The original plan was to be a journey past miniature re-creations of the great landmarks of the world, but time and money were not available at the time to make this vision a reality. Walt Disney was one of the first visitors to Madurodam, a tourist attraction that opened in the Netherlands in 1952.

It was a miniature environment that still exists today that showcases the landmarks of the Netherlands with miniature buildings, streets, walkways, windmills, the countryside and more. Since he had suggested that Ken Anderson, the primary designer of Storybook Land, also visit Madurodam, it is apparent that Walt wanted a similar experience for Disneyland.

Walt had a great affection for miniatures. Not only did he have an extensive collection of miniatures he gathered from around the world, he also built miniatures including little pot bellied railroad stoves to give as gifts to friends. In fact, Walt's first concept for Disneyland was to be a series of miniature mechanical dioramas to be called Disneylandia that would travel around the United States and eventually the world.

On the original Canal Boat ride, embarrassed cast members would tell guests: "The miniature landscaping is so miniature you can't see it!" There was no set spiel because there was nothing to talk about and, in addition, it was difficult to shout above the noisy outboard motors that often overheated. The cast members driving the boats would shut off the engines occasionally so they could describe a variety of upcoming Disneyland projects, "both real and imagined" wrote Bruce Gordon and David Mumford in their excellent out of print book, The Nickel Tour.

Walt had considered a "Lilliputian Land" village with miniature animated figures like those he had experimented on with his Disneylandia project, but it proved unworkable with the available technology of the time. It was finally determined that a series of miniature buildings inspired by the classic Disney animated films would be best, but designed in a way to give the guests the feeling that the characters might appear at any moment or had just recently left the building.

At one time, Walt planned to have miniature replicas of famous American landmarks like Monticello and Mt. Vernon on the then unnamed Tom Sawyer's Island that could only be viewed by the riverboat plying the Rivers of America. In fact, some early souvenirs sold when Disneyland opened show the tiny landmarks dotting the landscape of the island. It was finally decided to transform the island instead into the home of Tom Sawyer.

When the Storybook Land attraction opened during the summer of 1956, four Mouseketeers (Darlene, Lonnie, Sharon and Bobby) joined a half dozen other children as the American Dairy Princess (remember there was a Dairy Bar in Tomorrowland serving Carnation milk) put on her tiara and christened the boats by pouring a pint of milk over their hulls.

The eight original Canal Boats of the World were named Nellie Bly, Lady Katrina, Lady of Shallot, Annie Oakley, Gretel, Bold Lochinvar, Lady of the Lake, and Lady Guinivere.

The Storybook Land boats were named Cinderella, Daisy, Aurora, Alice, Faline, Flora, Fauna, Merryweather, Flower, Katrina, Wendy, Snow White and Tinker Bell. In later years, Belle and Ariel joined the fleet. The boats are almost 16 feet long and move along a submerged guide rail very similar to the one used in the Jungle Cruise.

Walt's was extremely pleased with the work of Ken Anderson on the early Fantasyland dark rides like Snow White, Peter Pan, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. He was also aware that Ken not only had architectural training but also had worked as an animator and layout artist on the classic Disney animated features.

So it was natural that he turned over the task of converting the Mud Boat Ride to the Storybook Land ride to Ken. While Ken did the primary design work, he worked with others on this project, including Frank Armitage, Walt Peregoy, Harriet Burns and Fred Joerger.

One of my favorite stories from the Gordon-Mumford book is how the roof of the church was aged by Imagineer Fred Joerger. They wrote: "Fred became notorious by standing over the little copper roof of a miniature church each day right after lunch and 'aging' the copper in the most organic and personal way imaginable?Luckily, the paint shop soon came up with its own chemical formula for aging the copper and Fred found himself out of a job."

Imagineer Bruce Bushman had come up with an idea for a ride where guests, just like Pinocchio, would be swallowed by a huge Monstro the Whale, lifted high in the whale's throat and then hurled down a watery path to a pond below. Walt rejected this idea just as he had the proposal to make Mr. Toad's Wild Ride a roller coaster because of his expressed concern that grown up family members would probably shy away from a too-thrilling white knuckle ride.

However no good idea was ever totally abandoned when Walt was alive, and so the concept of being swallowed by Monstro the Whale was later incorporated into the beginning of Storybook Land.

One contractor concerned about the labor and expense of the details Walt was including in Storybook Land, in frustration at not being able to cut some corners asked Walt, "Who'll know the difference?" Walt sternly replied, "I'll know the difference."

Ken later found out that Storybook Land was one of Walt's favorite rides, and while Walt rarely visited the site when construction was going on, he did make frequent visits to the model shop at the Burbank studio to provide comments and directions on the models.

I was recently transcribing an interview with Ken Anderson from 1985 where he talked about the Storybook Land project. The entire interview will appear in a future edition of Walt's People, but it inspired me to write this article so I am sharing part of the interview with Mouse Planet readers as a "sneak preview."

Once again, I strongly urge those readers who love Disney stories told by the people who knew and worked with Walt to pick up copies of the Walt's People series available at Four volumes are in print, and a fifth is coming out shortly with an interview with landscaper Bill Evans, where he talks about his work on Storybook Land among other great stories.

Ken Anderson remembers: "According to a press release, Storybook Land was a "model maker's paradise.' I did all the design work. We had to get special permission on Cinderella's Castle. It was a 19-foot castle. It looks like it was about 10 feet at the most. We had to get special permission to bring it to Disneyland on the freeway because there were places you couldn't get it underneath the overpasses.

[Wade interjects: The castle actually made the trip from Burbank to Anaheim on its side on the bed of a truck. Few Disney fans realize that Disneyland is the only Disney theme park with both a Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella castle.]

"Just because everything was small doesn't mean that they were easy to build. We had to grade the ground, lay the electrical wiring. Everything had to be done in the manner of a full scale house because these houses would never disappear. They were meant to be permanent structures.

"We made the houses out of wood siding and fiberglass over the top of it. The buildings were made of marine plywood or redwood covered with fiberglass to survive in the weather. The roofs and brick chimneys were modeled out of fiberglass and joined to the houses.

"Metal and concrete were used for the foundations to resist rot. Each little house or shop had openings so that the air could circulate through and prevent mildew. There were hundreds of tests to find the right transparent dye for the tiny plastic stained glass windows.

"Tiny lead doorknobs were installed on tiny doors that opened and closed on miniature hinges. Little thatched roofs were covered with plastic so the birds couldn't carry it off and make nests out of it.

"When the buildings were finished and painted, then we put in landscaping: miniature trees, shrubs, mountains. Everything had to be miniature because it was an inch to a foot.

"Snow White's cottage had these tall trees at twelve feet which made them a hundred and twenty feet tall. Where do you find small redwoods that would stay small? I found a place up north in San Francisco called Van Damme State Park. There was a redwood forest and an area where the redwoods had starved to death because there wasn't enough place for them to grow. It was on a platform of rock, these tiny trees.

"They wouldn't let me have them or even go in there. We finally got access to a place near there that was like it and we absconded with some 20 trees and brought them down to Disneyland.

"I got little daffodils from New Zealand that were an inch across. Little, tiny daffodils but the trouble was they had stems a foot and a half long so I had to buy the stems and just have the daffodils on top. But they didn't last long enough. I had to get things that would last. I just couldn't stand anything fake.

"Walt didn't like anything fake. It had to be real. So we gave up the daffodils and got some little dinky flowers.

"All the little houses in Gepetto's Village started with some drawings Tenggren had done for the original animated feature. We enlarged on it. Tenggren had designed the original cottage. He was from the old country so it was stuff he knew. Those of us who worked on it we kind of enlarged on it and made it better we think.

"We had a pretty nice feeling for Swiss-Italian architecture of around 1500 or 1600. The buildings were all kind of katty-wompus and askew. Everything is cock-eyed. Nothing straight. Everything is like it has been there for some time. All the edges were round which gave it more character. There wasn't a flat roof or a t-squared top any where. They all showed the result of age and how aging had changed things. That is what happened to Gepetto's village.

"The challenge with Storybook Land is that each one was from a different country. You had Thaddeus Toad, Snow White, Cinderella and so on but they all had to go together. So we had to consider that. I had to consider the same thing for Fantasyland."

And as a special treat for MousePlanet readers, while I was researching Walt quotes in old magazines, I ran across these two wonderful stories from Saturday Evening Post June 28,1958 and I think they are a nice way to finish today's column:

"Disneyland has a variety of water attractions?river boat, canal boats, keelboats, rafts, canoes and motorboats?and kids occasionally fall in. Last August, a six-year-old slipped from a Storybook Land boat while leaning too far out to see the miniature house of Pinocchio. After being fished out of the shallow canal, the boy was taken to Disneyland's wardrobe department, where his wet clothes were replaced with a cowboy outfit, which he was allowed to keep. A week later, a playmate of this youngster fell in 'accidentally' at the same spot. Instead of a cowboy outfit, he received only a reprimand while his clothes were being dried and pressed for him.

"One of the most famous overage kids was (former President of the United States) Harry S. Truman, who went on almost all the rides except Dumbo, during his Disneyland visit. Mr. Truman wanted nothing to do with any elephant, even Dumbo. When he decided to see the miniature fairy tale settings in Storybook Land, there was a slight delay. The canal boat was fully loaded, but, for some reason, the pretty young operator seemed unable to get it going. Finally, she turned to her noted guest.

'Pardon me, Mr. Truman,' she said. 'If you would lift your foot off the brake, we could start.'

"The former President of the United States instinctively lifted his right foot and the boat took off. He looked down at the brakeless floorboard; then joined the laughter at having fallen for this old wheeze that operators on many of the rides frequently pull on unsuspecting patrons."