Walt Disney and the Grand Canyon

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Walt Disney and the Grand Canyon

"Adventures by Disney" vacations are Disney's attempt to tap into the travel and leisure market by providing professionally guided travel experiences in destinations across the United States, Central America, Asia and Europe.

First launched in 2005, Adventures by Disney continues to expand its offerings and in 2008 will offer a new tour "Backstage Magic-California" that will take guests through Hollywood and the Disneyland Resort. That new addition brings me to the inspiration for this column. While the feedback on these tours have been good, some guests are disappointed there isn't a more "Disney connection" to the presentations and locations.

I know a few of the guides, and they do an outstanding job and certainly model the high standards expected of Disney, but I can't help but feel that one of the things that makes the Disney Cruise Line so successful, even at a higher price point than other cruises, is not just the service but its immersive Disney feeling.

Some people feel that the failure of the Disney Institute was that it should have been more tightly aligned with the Disney product. Certainly, the most popular classes were the ones that did so from making a Mickey Mouse topiary, or experimenting with animation to taking a tour of the nearby theme parks.

[And for all those who wrote to me, it was Richard Hutton, vice president and general manager of the Disney Institute, who proudly announced to the opening staff that Mickey Mouse would never again set foot on that property after the opening day ceremony because the Disney Institute was a serious, prestigious, educational experience.]

On September 13, Today announced that the Grand Canyon was the No. 1 spot on its "America the Beautiful" series.

"Adventures by Disney" offers a "Southwest Splendors" tour that includes Sedona, Monument Valley, Moab and the Grand Canyon. Including some Disney history about the area might make those magnificent locations even more amazing for Disney fans who are taking these tours.

It is amazing how just about every place that "Adventures by Disney" visits has some Disney connection, but the Grand Canyon has several interesting connections.

Walt loved the outdoors and was afraid that the frontier was vanishing and that children of the future wouldn't know about the joys and wonder of nature. So he started a series of shorts under the title "True Life Adventures" to remind people of the beauty and mysteries of the natural world.

Walt's connection with the Grand Canyon, in particular, has been showcased in Disney films and Disneyland. In fact, how amazed might guests on "Adventures by Disney" be if the guide started the tour by telling them that they wouldn't be seeing the original Grand Canyon but a remarkable recreation. It's true, at least according to a classic Disney animated short.

In 1954, Donald Duck completely destroyed the famous location in a Disney short entitled "Grand Canyonscope." Donald is visiting the Grand Canyon as Ranger. J. Audubon Woodlore is sharing with tourists the beauties of the Canyon. This was Disney's first cartoon in Cinemascope so at one point, the Ranger tells the tourists: "Spread out a little folks. This is Cinemascope."

The reason the cartoon was made in Cinemascope was to accompany the Disney Cinemascope feature film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and to provide the movie going public with an experience they couldn't get for free from television at home.

Anyway, Donald is the typical annoying tourist from bothering the Native American sand painters, to causing a small rain storm when he dons a traditional rain dance outfit, to getting into an argument with his own echo. However, the action really heats up when he blinds his burro with a flash from his camera and ends up encountering a legendary mountain lion who has roamed the Canyon since the Civil War.

The wild chase between the lion and Donald succeeds in completely destroying the landmark, reducing it to a flat landscape. The Little Ranger gives the culprits shovels to return the landmark to its original state. They must have done a great job because today the Canyon looks exactly as it was.

Directed by Charles Nichols from a story by Milt Schaffer and Nick George, this cartoon features animation by John Sibley and Julius Svendsen and backgrounds by Eyvind Earle.

For two years, beginning with "Grand Canyonscope," Disney filmed its cartoon releases in CinemaScope. However, since not all theaters were equipped to show the widescreen format, Disney had to do the labor intensive and very expensive process of filming the same cartoon twice. This required two sets of backgrounds (to compensate for the different aspect ratio) with the actual animation remaining the same.

In the case of this particular cartoon, it even necessitated a change in dialog. In the non-CinemaScope version, the Little Ranger says "Spread out folks, it's a big canyon."

Four years later, in 1958, Walt took a more serious approach to the Grand Canyon when he produced "Grand Canyon," the Oscar winner for the Best Live Action Short Subject. Scenes of the Grand Canyon—from sunrise to sunset, including thunderstorms, and many of the different species of wildlife that inhabit the canyon—were set to Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" that was originally recorded in 1929.

The film took more than a year to make and the photographer worked with a portable record player to play the "Grand Canyon Suite" in order to get the best shots that might represent the music. The final film has no narration, just the music background.

This 29-minute film is not part of the True Life Adventure series, although it was directed by James Algar who worked on that series so many Disney fans think it was a part of the award winning nature series.

The Grand Canyon Diorama was added to the Disneyland theme park on March 21, 1958. It was inspired by that short "Grand Canyon" film. A 96-year-old Hopi Indian chief, Chief Nevangnewa, blessed the trains on the diorama's opening day. Walt Disney and Fred Gurley, chairman of the Santa Fe Railroad, wore railroad caps and proudly smiled by a sign proclaiming the entrance to the attraction.

The addition of the Grand Canyon diorama in an area that was once a long tunnel through a backstage service area necessitated a change in the train cars. Instead of facing forward, the new benches now faced right so that the passengers could better enjoy the diorama.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, one of the railroad cars was named the "Grand Canyon Passenger Car." It was later transformed into the very special and very private "Lilly Belle" Passenger Car for VIP guests at Disneyland who rode the train.

Painted on a single piece of seamless, handwoven canvas and representing the view from the canyon's south rim, the rear of the diorama measures 306-feet long, 34-feet high, 45-feet wide and is covered with 300 gallons of paint. The cost was $367,000 and took more than 80,000 labor hours to construct.

Within the diorama it's possible to find a mountain lion, porcupines, skunks, a golden eagle, rattlesnakes, rabbits, deer, crows, wild turkeys and plenty of sheep, surrounded by aspens and pine.

All of the animals were real taxidermied animals, so instead of seeing artificial animals that move like on the Jungle Cruise, here are real ones that don't move.

The scenery changes from snow through a storm (complete with rainbow), a sunset, and baking desert to the music of Grofe's "On The Trail" segment from his "Grand Canyon Suite."

Imagineer Marvin Davis suggested that it should be a diorama featuring all the National Parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. However, Walt was adamant that it would be just the Grand Canyon.

When other Imagineers said it made no sense to have a train leave Tomorrowland and then go into the Grand Canyon, Walt replied that the train ride needed a grand finale before returning to the Main Street station.

Immediately after the Grand Canyon, you'll see the Primeval World dinosaurs from Walt Disney's Ford Magic Skyway pavilion from the 1964 New York World's Fair. This section was added in 1966. Although the narration says that the dinosaurs are part of what the Grand Canyon was like millions of years ago, they were actually inspired by the dinosaurs in the animated film "Fantasia."

Walt Disney World even has a Grand Canyon connection.

Mary Blair was a Disney Legend and her design work is evident on many Disney projects from "Three Caballeros" to "Song of the South" to "Cinderella." She is the artist who designed "it's a small world" for the 1964 New York World's Fair and later Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

She also designed the 90-foot high mural that is part of the Grand Canyon Concourse at Disney's Contemporary Resort hotel at Walt Disney World that opened in 1971.

She was commissioned to create a towering mosaic mural using the theme of the Grand Canyon. What she came up with is the world's largest hand made mosaic featuring modernistic southwest themes. Her designs of Southwest Indian children were originally used throughout the resort, in the lobbies and in each of the hotels rooms.

Featuring stylized birds, animals, flowers, and American Indian children, the mural consists of 18,000 hand-painted tiles and is 90 feet tall depicting Indian children and flowers, birds and trees from the Southwest.

The giant mural shows Native American Indian Children (like in the "It's a Small World'" designed by Blair) standing along the slopes of the Grand Canyon. On the west-facing mural, facing the monorail platform, there's a goat with five legs, up near the top. Blair did that to honor the culture of the Grand Canyon Indian tribes who felt that artwork could not be "perfect" but had to have an imperfection it in.

While Blair saw the finished tiles laid out on large tables in sections before being fired in giant kilns, it didn't prepare her for seeing the completed version. She told one interviewer that "I walked into that giant concourse. My reaction was 'Oh, wow!'" It was her last work for the Disney Company.

One of the first things displayed at Blair's own house was a portion of tile mural that was given as a gift to Mary from the crew that made the huge mural for the Grand Canyon Concourse. It was composed of six large tiles depicting two Native American children.

These are just a few of the examples of the Disney connections to the Grand Canyon and similar Disney connections can be found for other "Adventures by Disney" vacations as well. For me, those connections would be a nice little additional touch to those already well-received vacations.