The Tale of Cinderella's Golden Carrousel

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Fletcher Markle: “Where did you originally get the first notion for Disneyland?”

Walt Disney: “Well, it came about when my daughters were very young and Saturday was always Daddy’s day with the two daughters. So we’d start out and try to go someplace, you know, different things. I’d take them to the merry-go-round and I took them different places and I’d sit while they rode the merry-go-round. Sit on a bench, you know, eating peanuts. I felt that there should be something built where the parents and the children could have fun together. So that’s how Disneyland started.”

That famous quote is from the September 25, 1963 episode of the television series Telescope hosted by Markle for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

That famous merry-go-round that inspired Walt still operates today in Griffith Park. However, Walt was probably quite familiar with other carousels from his youth as well as the two merry-go-rounds at Dave Bradley’s Beverly Park (a small kiddie park on the corner of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards in Los Angeles) where he also took his daughters on Saturday and the gorgeous enclosed carousel at the Santa Monica Pier.

For me, the most magnificent carousel at any Disney theme park is the one at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World.

Every day, unsuspecting guests at Walt Disney World ride a genuine antique by mounting a horse that might be valued at more than $100,000 and decorated with 23 karat gold leaf. For two minutes, they are transported to the joy of their youth or a royal fantasy where they heroically ride round and round through a land of enchantment. Ironically, that experience was originally valued at just an “A” ticket, the lowest price for any Walt Disney World attraction. Today, it is free.

To help Disney fans better appreciate the experience and true history behind this well loved but usually forgotten treasure, I am going to attempt to share some stories that apparently I am one of the very few left who know.

Most historians have stated that the birth of the carousel began in the 1100s when Italian and Spanish crusaders watched Arabian and Turkish horsemen play a very serious game on horseback (actually a cavalry training preparation exercise) that the crusaders dubbed “little battles” or “little war”. In Italian, that is garosello and in Spanish carosella.

The French adapted this game into an extravagant display of horsemanship replacing jousting called carrousel (with two “r”s). Both the riders and the horses performing choreographed routines were elaborated costumed for the entertainment of royalty. One of the activities was a man on horseback using his lance to spear a small ring dangling from a tree limb or pole.

Roughly 300 years ago, the French built a rotating device that moved up and down and featured carved horses and chariots suspended by chains that radiated from a center pole. It was designed to train young nobleman for the event without tiring their horses.

By the late 1700s, there were numerous carousels (powered by men, mule or horsepower) scattered throughout Europe built solely for amusement at fairs and special venues. In the 1860s, Gustav Dentzel was the man who pioneered the modern carousel in America inspiring other talented craftsmen.

The American carousels were bigger and more elaborate. The horses and chariots were extravagantly decorated in keeping with the tradition that this was an event for the entertainment of royalty. American carousel horses are much more active than their European counterparts with expressives eyes, tossed manes and extreme poses of movement. It truly is an art to bring the illusion of life to a piece of wood.

Technological advances allowed for a stationary circular platform for people to walk on and stationary animals (standers or prancers) to be added, with bevel gears and cranks to give the up and down motion to other animals around a center pole.

During the Great Depression, the decline of amusement parks resulted in many carousels being abandoned or destroyed as the few remaining companies producing them shifted their manufacturing focus or went out of business. Carousels were now considered just a children’s ride rather than something to be enjoyed by adults. With a huge interest in collecting the carousel animals as antiques in the 1970s, many of the remaining carousels were dismantled to sell the individual figures for a huge profit of thousands of dollars.

Slightly more than 100 carousels built during the Golden Age before the Great Depression still exist intact today. (It was estimated that during the Golden Age there were more than 4,000 operating carousels.)

The sole Disney craftswoman who supervised and maintained the Walt Disney World carousel from its installation for more than two decades, was a delightfully talented woman named Isle Voght. Roughly 10 years ago, Disney removed her from that responsibility but fortunately, I got to visit her many times in the late 1990s at Central Shops and see her at work. She was always eager to share information with me about the history of the WDW carousel and about her job. I watched in awe as she worked her magic.

Unfortunately, today, much of that information seems to have been lost.

Voght composed a memorandum dated September 18, 1990 detailing the history of the WDW carousel and sent to multiple recipients, including Disney University, so that the true story could be saved and documented. At the time, Voght was involved with the carousel for EuroDisneyland (now Disneyland Paris). For that carousel, the outer ring had new wooden horses carved by an artist in Ohio, while all the inner rings had fiberglass horses that had been cast from molds of the wooden horses on the Walt Disney World carousel. As she did with Imagineer John Hench for the WDW carousel, Voght was in charge of the color selection for each horse.

Two of the paragraphs from her two-page single-spaced memo have been excerpted for publicity during the last 20 years, with those same small bits repeated over and over while the remainder of the information has seemingly disappeared along with that document.

In this column, I will attempt to share what I learned from Voght in the hopes that having the true story out there will enrich the experience for those, like me, who love the WDW carousel.

During the Golden Age of American Carousels, there were three primary styles: Philadelphia style (inspired by the work of Dentzel and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company), Coney Island style and County Fair style.

Voght wrote: “The Walt Disney World Carousel in the Magic Kingdom was produced in 1917 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, which created some of the most beautiful horses of the era. It was carved by German and Italian carvers to express the patriotism that was prevalent in the United States after the First World War. The carousel was named Liberty, and was one of the largest carousels ever built, being some sixty feet in diameter.

“The first home of the Liberty Carousel was at the Detroit Palace Garden Park where it stayed until it was rehabilitated in Philadelphia in 1928 and set up in Olympic Park in Maplewood, N.J., for the next 39 years.”

The Liberty Carousel originally had 72 horses and two chariots (not four as is reported in some articles). The distinctly American horses were black, brown, gray, and white. Their saddles included items that celebrated the American frontier. Carved figures of Lady Liberty holding shields that featured a red, white and blue flag emblem decorated the interior top circle. There were eighteen landscape paintings of American scenery. Just below was a running board decorated with golden American eagles. Over the years, less skilled craftsmen would slop paint and lacquer over the horses, eventually obscuring the intricate and uniquely engraved features underneath.

The Philadelphia Toboggan Company only built 89 carousels before 1929 and the Great Depression. The Liberty Carousel is o. 46 and one of only a dozen or so of those classic originals from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company that still exist and operate today.

Olympic Park closed in 1965. By that point, the Liberty Carousel had fallen into a state of disrepair and was slated for almost-certain demolition. Antique carousel horses are in such demand that it was planned to sell them and the decorations off individually. Studies have shown that when an entertainment venue sells off or removes its carousel that the venue usually closes permanently within a year and a half.

By 1967, Disney had located and acquired the antique masterpiece for the Magic Kingdom.

Voght wrote: “All of the horses were shipped to Disney Shops, where craftsmen were surprised by the detail and artistic grace uncovered when all the years of paint and grime was removed down to the gleaming Maplewood of the horses. Months of Disney artistry went into the rehabilitation. The chariots were removed and the carousel was filled out to the present number of 90 horses when Disney purchased some antique horses that were made by two other well-known producers of carousels: the Dentzel Co. and the Parker Co.”

The horses were sanded down carefully to the original wood so that no detail was lost. Sanding down to the actual wood could have resulted in damage and loss of detail,so, today, they are only sanded down to roughly the level of primer and no further. Then the horses were primed and painted white.

The horses are white for two reasons. First, since it is Cinderella’s carousel, the white horses reference the white horses that pulled Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. Second, one of the things Disney discovered with the King Arthur’s Carousel at Disneyland, was that when people rode a carousel, they first tried to get on a white horse because it was considered the “hero” horse. For more than a decade or so of operation, the Disneyland carousel featured horses of different colors until Hench made the decision to make them all Arctic white. The decision was made that at a Disney theme park, every guest no matter what their size gets a chance to be a hero. Walt also wanted every guest to have a “jumper” rather than a “stander” so some horses on the Disneyland carousel were refitted into running horses.

For the WDW carousel, Hench and Voght selected the unique color palette for each horse. Each horse’s tack has a different color scheme and is numbered on its bridle. One time, Voghttried to test my color awareness and asked me to look carefully at the saddle she was painting and tell her what color it was. I immediately responded that it was blue, a dark royal blue. She laughed and pointed out that I was not looking carefully enough because not only was it blue but it had a touch of red in it. Not enough red to turn the color to purple but enough so that it was different from another blue saddle horse she showed me nearby. Once she pointed it out, it was very obvious.

One of my many regrets is that when I knew Voght, I was transitioning into a different job and assuming new responsibilities so I wasn’t able to spend as much time visiting with her as I would have liked. She told me that she and Hench had determined the sex of each of the horses (no, you do not look underneath) and whether they were a young horse or a more mature horse. She was planning to teach me how to tell the difference between male and female and young and old but I never followed up on that opportunity.Voght  might still have that documentation somewhere.

She was also going to teach me how to determine whether the horse was wood or fiberglass. All the horses are wood, but Disney made molds of some of the antique wood horses so that about 11 fiberglass horses were created (and painted in the same process as the wooden ones) as “understudies.” These understudies replace horses on the carousel when they are pulled off for repair and repainted. The horses do suffer wear and tear from the guests. Usually a complete row of five horses at a time are pulled. Voght  indicated that knocking at the right location on the upper chest near the neck was one of the ways of determining the difference since fiberglass is hollow while the wood is solid.

A “row” of horses on a carousel does not go around the carousel, but goes from the outer edge of the carousel toward the center of the carousel. On the WDW carousel, a row is five horses deep with the largest “A” horse being on the outside and the smallest “E” horse being on the inside.

Since the “A” horses are the ones facing the crowd, they are more elaborate in their design and detail. The horses progressively get less intricate as they move toward the center. In addition, the side of the horse that faces out toward the audience whether it is “A” or “E” is more elaborate than the side that faces the center and is known as the “romance” side. It is very similar in concept to the set of a play or a movie. While the differences between the two sides of the smaller “E” horses are not as noticeably significant as the much larger “A” horses, the difference still exists.

Voght told me, for a class I was teaching in 1998: “Each year between 50 to 60 horses are completely redone at a cost between $2500-$3,000 to refurbish each horse. All the horses are hand painted and everything that looks like gold really is gold. Only 23 karat gold leaf is used along with silver, copper and aluminum leaf. The antique wood horses of the Walt Disney carousel are valued between $20,000-$100,000 depending upon size, intricacy of carving and age.”

The smaller horses can take two to three days to do, but the more elaborate “A” horses can take a week or more. In addition, when the Disney Company obtained the carousel, almost all of the original wood working parts were replaced by metal, but the horses, decorations and band organ (from one of Italy’s most famous factories) were saved.

While the Magic Kingdom was being built, Walt’s brother Roy O. Disney was walking and inspecting the area. At the train station, he looked down Main Street and saw through the castle gate opening that the carousel seemed off center. Subsequent measurement showed he was right and the ride was re-centered. According to legend, the carousel had only been off a foot or two.

When the Carousel opened, it was an “A” Ticket attraction. It was called Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel (with the two “r”s to reference the French word for the original as well as the fact that it was the French version of the Cinderella tale that inspired the Disney animated feature). On the sign are the two mice, Gus and Jacques perhaps waiting for the Fairy Godmother to return and transform them again into white horses. Or perhaps it is a playful reminder that those magnificent white steeds may be mice.

Ten years ago was when the urban myth that there was a “Cinderella horse” started to appear as cast members tried to create magical moments for guests. At the time, I asked Voght if there was a Cinderella horse and she laughed. She assured me that it was never planned for Cinderella to have a special horse. She never rode one in the animated feature. Remember, the horses on the carousel were all American steeds. If a Cinderella horse was desired, they would have created a special one or did extensive surgery on an existing horse so that there would be details (like Cinderella’s crest on the saddle) to define it.

In addition, the horse with the gold ribbon on its tail is a “B” horse and certainly Cinderella would be riding a much more elaborate “A” horse where she could be seen clearly by her subjects, not hidden in the second rim on a less elegant steed.

However, like most Disney urban myths, this myth persists with such intensity that it now sadly appears in officially approved Disney books and Websites. Those readers who are familiar with the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may understand my resigned frustration about the situation.

Also, did anyone else question that Jim Shore’s “Carousel Cinderella: Princess of Dreams” limited-edition stone resin statue from Enesco has the princess riding a carousel horse that does not have a ribbon on its tail nor is decorated the way the horse is on the WDW carousel? If Cinderella has an official horse, shouldn’t she be riding one that looks like the one on the carousel in merchandise like statues and pins?

At Disneyland, there is a “Julie Andrews” horse called “Jingles” on the carousel. It does feature an elaborate emblem on the saddle (including Julie’s initials and a silhouette of a flying Mary Poppins) and is one of the “A” horses where it can be clearly seen and found.

Fortunately, Voght was still working when there was a “happy ending” story for Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel. When the carousel was being prepared for Walt Disney World, the two authentic chariots were removed so that more horses could be installed for guests. As often happens, those chariots disappeared and Voght was unable to locate them years later.

Times change, and it was felt that very young small guests or guests with mobility issues might enjoy riding in a chariot. There was some discussion about creating fiberglass replicas based on some existing photos and artwork but Isle was adamant that she wanted the originals since everything else on the carousel was original. She posted pictures in her work area and tried everything she could to try to locate the chariots, including contacting as many people as she could.

In 1996, a cast member who was a friend of  Voghtand familiar with her hunt was walking through one of the Disney warehouses in California looking for something else. For some reason that he is still unable to explain, he decided to look up and behind where he was standing. There stored in the rafter area was what looked like one of the chariots, unlabelled and apparently “lost” on the books. He took a photo and sent it to Voght who immediately confirmed it was one of the missing chariots.

It was quickly recovered. Hench was involved in selecting the color scheme for it and it was repaired, painted, and finally installed on the WDW carousel in 1997. When I asked Voght if she would use this original as a mold for a fiberglass model for the other side of the carousel, she looked at me firmly and said, “Only originals.” She felt that the other chariot would still pop up somewhere in one of the many Disney warehouses.

“After all, it only took 25 years to locate this one,” she joked. The chariot took up the space of four horses so the carousel has 86 horses now but is greatly enjoyed by the guests.

The merry-go-round in Griffith Park in Southern California has a similar rich history. Located in Park Center between the Los Angeles Zoo and the Los Feliz park entrance, the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round has been a family attraction for more than five generations. It was built in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company and is the only Spillman built carousel still in existence. It has most of its original parts and paint.

Originally purchased by the Spreckles family for use in San Diego's Mission Beach, the pier was a victim of the Depression and the carousel was moved to Balboa Park for the Exposition. At its close, the carousel was purchased by Ross Davis and moved to its home in Griffith Park in 1937 where it has operated since then. (Davis helped Walt obtain and refurbish a carousel for Disneyland.)

The merry-go-round boasts 68 elaborately hand carved horses, everyone a jumper. All four rows of horses boast jewel-encrusted bridles, detailed draped blankets and are decorated with sunflowers and lion's heads. In addition there are two chariots supposedly depicting Adam chasing Eve and one of them features a plaque stating: “Restored in memory of Walt Disney through the generosity of the Walt Disney Family Foundation.”

A Stinson 165 Military Band Organ, claimed to be the largest band organ accompanying a carousel on the West Coast, plays more than 1,500 selections of marches and waltz music.

In 1984 the merry-go-round was purchased by Rosemary West and Warren Deasy and they began the enormous and painfully slow task of restoration using the profit from the carousel to pay for the restoration. The ravages of age are very evident on this vintage attraction.

At the Disney Gallery at Disneyland, against the wall in the front entrance of the Main Street Opera House, sits a green wooden park bench. A plaque on the bench reads "The actual park bench from the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round in Los Angeles, where Walt Disney first dreamed of Disneyland."

The bench is on loan from Imagineer Tony Baxter's personal collection

Very sadly for a number of reasons, I feel that the Disney Company has very, very foolishly decided to rename Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel to Prince Charming Regal Carrousel with this new storyline that is pure hokum. I wrote this column so that true Disney fans can remember the true history and story of the carousel. Judging by the comments on many of the Disney Websites, others agree with me that this change is unnecessary.

For historical purposes, here is the new Disney storyline for Prince Charming Regal Carrousel:

“Following their fairy-tale romance and happily ever after wedding, Cinderella and Prince Charming took up residence in Cinderella’s Castle. With peace throughout the kingdom, Prince Charming had time to practice for jousting tournaments. In the countryside near the castle, he built a training device of carved horses, on which he could practice the art of ring-spearing, a tournament event in which a knight rides his horse full speed, lance in hand, toward a small ring hanging from a tree limb, with the object of spearing the ring. This event was known by various names throughout the lands, but generally came to be called “carrousel.”

“The carrousel device drew the attention of the villagers, who wanted to take a turn on this amazing spinning contraption. So Prince Charming had a second carrousel constructed closer to the Castle, where everyone could take a spin on this wondrous invention. Instead of a working knight’s training device, however, this new carrousel is more befitting its regal location in the Castle Courtyard—its rustic training horses replaced with ornately decorated prancing steeds adorned with golden helmets and shields, flower garlands, feathers and other festoons. Prince Charming invites one and all to test their horsemanship skills and to enjoy their own happy ending.”

For me, it would truly be a happy ending if they would just keep the name and the horses the same. I’m not against change but not all change is good.