From the publisher of The Unofficial Guide books comes The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream by Sam Gennawey, the story of how Walt Disney’s greatest creation was conceived, nurtured, and how it grew into a source of joy and inspiration for generations of visitors. Here is a brief excerpt:
More than virtually any other attraction in the park, it was Fantasyland’s dark rides that set Disneyland apart from other parks. Before Disneyland, the typical dark ride would be something like the Tunnel of Love, where boats followed each other through a canal. Coats felt “the big improvement we made over what had been done before was the way we left people with a little two-minute experience within a certain story that they had known from our animated films. Now they got to see it in a more dimensional way, and these were interesting ways of doing it.” Walt wanted each ride to represent a different emotional experience. He wanted drama, humor, and beauty.
The process started with the source material, the animated films. The Imagineers used the original 4-by-8-inch storyboards and concept sketches. Claude Coats credits Ken Anderson with finding a way to make it work. Anderson drafted storyboards that highlighted key elements of the story but focused more on creating the right mood. Then Ken Anderson and Claude Coats designed the interior sets. Fortunately, both Anderson and Coats worked on the films and knew the material well. Once they finished, Bill Martin would make modifications to fit the shows inside the buildings.
Imagineers pioneered the use of ultraviolet paint. At the time, black light was considered a novelty. When it was used at an amusement park, it was usually limited to scary rides. Since the spaces within the dark rides were not very large, the use of black light created a better illusion than incandescent light. Working at the Burbank studio, Claude Coats and Ken Anderson applied black light paint on plywood flats.
Bill Martin was proud of what his team created for Fantasyland. “Ours were the first dark rides as such. It’s my feeling that our first three rides in 1955 were original and kind of breakthrough. When we went back East to visit all those amusement parks, all we saw were the ‘iron rides’ and midway attractions, but no dark rides like we were planning, using ‘black light.’”
Peter Pan and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride were mocked up at the Studio first while the ride show buildings were still under construction. Snow White was an exception. Since they were just trying to copy the film, the look and the key scenes had already been established. Bill Martin did the track layout and Ken Anderson started to paint the theatrical ‘flats’ himself. Guests would travel through Snow White in little mining cars; since the cars would be moving quickly, there was very little animation.
Fantasyland’s dark rides share many elements. For each, guests queued up in front under a shaded canopy with a mural previewing the attraction. The murals were created by Anderson and Coats, who could execute the paintings quickly since they worked on the source films. Walt was big on giving people previews.
All the Fantasyland dark rides shared another trait: The guest was supposed to fulfill the role of the lead character. For example, when a guest rode Snow White, they were supposed to be Snow White. The attraction was designed with that point of view in mind. You were the girl that was being threatened. At one point, George Whitney reported to Joe Fowler that guests were getting confused because they did not see the main character. He suggested that the image of the featured character be added to the rides. His advice was set aside for more than 25 years.
The rides were also all illuminated with incandescent light instead of black light for the opening and closing scenes. For example, Peter Pan starts off in the Darling children’s bedroom and Mr. Toad in the grand hall of his home. This made for a more natural transition from the outside.
The most dramatic and scary dark ride was Snow White. In Snow White, guests boarded 1 of 13 mine cars that were built by Arrow Development. They were meant to look like ore cars hand carved by the dwarfs. They ran along a single-rail guide track. The cars had no lap bar, just a rope hooked across the door of the vehicle.
Guests traveled through the Dwarf’s mine, past Dopey as he opened the jewel vault door with precious gems glowing, and then deeper into the mine. The Witch made an appearance before guests were confronted with a choice: to head for the cottage or go to the castle? With vultures looming over the cottage, the ore car turned toward the castle. Suddenly, the guests were being chased by the witch. Claude Coats remembered, “We got some letters about the witch scene in that ride. Walt never seemed to mind. He thought that children would sometimes have to learn that things were scary, you know.”
Guests frightened by Snow White found reprieve in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, where humor was in abundance. Inspired by the Wind in the Willows segment in the 1949 animated film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the ride featured J. Thaddeus Toad, who was described as “a disturbing factor, a reckless adventurer, having a positive mania for fads while never counting the cost.” The ride would become the closest thing to a thrill ride at Disneyland until the opening of the Matterhorn Bobsleds in 1959. In fact, Bruce Bushman’s original idea for the Mr. Toad ride was a roller coaster with the cars following a downhill track towards obstacles that would move out of the way at the last minute. Walt thought it might be too rough and suggested it be toned down.
It was decided that the Mr. Toad ride would be best served not by telling the plot of the film but to focus on Toad’s motor mania as he might have experienced it from behind the wheel. Once again, the guests were asked to take an active role and to become the lead character.
While Claude Coats and Ken Anderson were working on the content, Bill Martin was busy working on the layout. He knew the size of the floor space available and that the ride was supposed to last about a minute and a half. This helped him determine how many cars he could fit on the track and the interval of loading. From there he could figure out the timing and spacing of the bumping doors.
The vehicles had a minimum turning radius of 4 feet, which was very fast. Initially, only some of the swinging doors between scenes were automatic. They were closed as the car approached, and it looked like you were going to hit them. When the ride first opened, sometimes you actually did.
While drafting the layout for Mr. Toad, Martin was limited in the amount of space he had to work with. Peter Pan was placed along the long side of the building while Mr. Toad was pushed into the end of the building. That limited the number of cars to only nine compared to Peter Pan’s 11 boats. There was even less space out front, which Disneyland visitors experience to this day.
Once the track configuration was determined, the team would meet and talk about gags. Martin said, “I remember the meeting when we thought of the ‘train coming at you’ idea. That was a ‘catch-on’ gag, the last effect at the end of the ride that sends you to Hell. That idea of going through the Devil’s mouth, through the Jaws of Hell, was okay with Walt at the time, too.”