Thursday, April 20, 2017

Walt Disney and the Opening of Disneyland's Alice in Wonderland

By Ron Baxley

The Alice in Wonderland dark ride is a Disneyland classic. The 1958 version of the ride, with sets adapted from the animated feature by Imagineer Claude Coats, had little in common with Lewis Carroll's source books. Instead it used various environments suggested by the film to create loud, garish, and somewhat nightmarish scenes reminiscent of some of Fantasyland's other dark rides and the portable dark rides found in traveling fairs and carnivals. In today's new article, let's travel back to 1958 and join Walt Disney at the opening of Alice in Wonderland with some rare footage and also learn the origins of the classic Disney film…

When Warner Brother’s 1971 titular film character Willy Wonka takes the winning children and their respective parents or guardians through his wondrous chocolate factory, after they encounter one of many zany rooms there, Mr. Salt asks, “What is this Wonka, some kind of funhouse?” to which Willy Wonka answers wryly, “Why, having fun?”

The funhouse comment, though non-Disney-related, rings true when it comes to the original 1958 Alice in Wonderland dark-ride in Disneyland. The ride, before two refurbishments occurred, was basically a funhouse. It had an up-side down table unlike the one with the Drink Me Potion and Eat Me Cakes which was right side up, for example. (The topsy-turvy table may have been a reference to Alice falling down the rabbit hole and seeing furnishings there upside-down as she spun mid-air, however.) Also, according to Sam Gennaway’s book “The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream”, a large convex mirror in the 1958 version of the dark-ride would turn riders’ reflections upside-down – another fun-house aspect.

According to the Walt Disney Company’s official Disneyland website, Disneyland’s Alice in Wonderland, in its old or new form, cannot be found anywhere else but the theme park in Anaheim. The Fantasyland attraction premiered on June 14, 1958, nearly three years after Disneyland opened.

The older version of the dark ride was loosely based on Disney’s animated feature film Alice in Wonderland, which was released July 28, 1951, and the new version adheres more closely to it. In 1984, the painted cut-outs of the original attraction were replaced with three-dimensional sculpted characters which had movement (some three-dimensional figures were in the first version according to some sources). New lighting and special effects were also added, including, in the 2014 refurbishment, projection effects from various animated scenes in the film.

Other online sources concur that the original 1958 Alice in Wonderland dark ride forced perspective on the ride-goers, making them feel like a shrunken Alice with oversized props. The riders felt as if they had just drunk the Drink Me potion from the table Alice encounters in the book and film but are never shown that scene. Therefore, the detachment from the aforementioned shrinking scene made riders feel all the more like they were in a funhouse.

Whether people in the late 50s had fun on the classic dark ride may be true. There are promotional photographs of adults and children in late 50s clothing staring in awe at the attraction, and those were mostly from postcards. Some sources have stated that Walt Disney himself actually disliked the original ride. He did not live to see the two refurbishments. According to Gennaway’s aforementioned Disneyland book, Disney did not like the designer’s original idea of having the ride vehicles be decks of cards, so they were changed to caterpillars. Others have stated Disney did not like the ride overall. According to, Disney did love the Lewis Carroll books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, though.

Walt Disney said, “No story in English literature has intrigued me more than Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It fascinated me the first time I read it as a schoolboy, and as soon as I possibly could, after I started making animated cartoons, I acquired the film rights to it.”

His love for the Wonderland books was so much that it took 30-40 years for him to fulfill his vision of adapting them fully to film. Early on in his career, Mr. Disney had been thinking about doing another Alice in Wonderland-themed short or film based on Lewis Carroll’s work after one of his earliest projects, which combined live action film with animation, “the Alice comedies”, in the 1920s.

Again, according to, Disney purchased the rights to the John Tenniel illustrations of the Wonderland books in 1931 (the first illustrations from 1865 and 1871). He at first wanted to do a live action/animation version of the “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” book, starring Mary Pickford as Alice. In 1933, some color screen tests of Ms. Pickford as Alice were made. Disney shelved the project then because Paramount Studios did a live-action adaptation in 1933.

Five years later, Disney registered the title with the Motion Picture Association of America. A story-reel was finished in 1939, but art director David S. Hall’s drawings resembled Tenniel’s drawings too much, which Disney assessed as being too difficult to animate. Storyboard artist Al Perkins’ scripting was found to be too grotesque and dark, a criticism (which I have observed) some have of Tim Burton’s modern “Alice in Wonderland.”

According to and other online sources that concur, the movie needed revising, and because of World War II in the 1940s, the project was put on hold. Disney started back up with the movie in 1947. He assigned British author Aldous Huxley to re-write the script, but this script too was revised again to focus on comedy, music, and whimsy because Disney did not like Huxley’s literal interpretation of Carroll’s work. Disney did, however, like the designs of background artist Mary Blair, whose work can be seen in other films such as “Peter Pan.” Her work even features in theme park attractions such as “It’s a Small World” among many others. Disney liked Blair’s use of bold colors and that her illustrations were less sketchy than Tenniel’s. Bold colors would eventually be used in the theme park attraction based on the film.

14-year-old British actress Kathryn Beaumont, who eventually provided the voice of Wendy Darling in “Peter Pan”, was selected to be the voice of Alice and was also shot in an Alice costume during many weeks for live action footage the animators could use to draw the character. (As I found, Beaumont is important not only for her part in the film but also for the dark ride. Around 1983, a new recording was made for the ride with Beaumont providing the voice of Alice.)

Kathryn Beaumont, dressed as Alice on set, reads a Cold War era newspaper. (Source:

The film the ride was based upon was released in 1951, and some audiences found that it lacked the charm and intellectualism of Carroll’s work. Walt Disney himself, after release, stated that the film lacked heart and had too many characters. He may have felt the same way about even the original dark ride because it had a plethora of characters and no real heart to the story behind it – just random scenes.

The first Alice in Wonderland dark ride was finished in 1958, seven years after the theatrical release of the film. Walt Disney was there for the ribbon-cutting, but Kathryn Beaumont would have been approximately 21 at the time – perhaps a little too old to portray Alice in costume as she did for live action segments the animators animated for the 1951 “Alice in Wonderland” film.

Instead, along with the mostly cloth-based costumed Mickey and Minnie Mouse and White Rabbit, young Mouseketeer Karen Pendleton of the popular 50s black and white “Mickey Mouse Club” television program appeared dressed as Alice with Walt Disney. She was handed a gigantic key (presumably to the ride as in a symbolic key to the city or perhaps a key to that giant door into Wonderland in the ride) by the White Rabbit as shown in one archival photo. Walt Disney appeared at her right-hand side.

According to, the sets of the original Alice dark ride were adapted from the animated feature by Imagineer Claude Coats. Coats, who was responsible for many backgrounds and work in classic Disney animated films and was pulled from studio work by Disney to work on rides for Disneyland in the 50s, was alleged to have later contributed to the darker facets of the Haunted Mansion ride and advocated for a scarier version of that particular ride, which eventually balanced humor with some scary elements.

Gennaway in the aforementioned “The Disneyland Story” states that Coats “… was assisted by Colin Campbell, Blaine Gibson, and Ken Anderson on the attraction. Like many of the Disneyland attractions, this one (the Alice one) started out as a walk-through. Instead (in its original location), it was decided to build a two-story ride above Mr. Toad.”

According to, many people assume that the original Disneyland rides were all built by Walt Disney Imagineering. While they were designed by artists brought over from the studio, “Arrow Development, then located in Mountain View California, engineered, built, and installed six rides; Mad Tea Party, Snow White’s Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, King Arthur Carousel, Dumbo Flying Elephants, and the Casey Jr. Circus Train. Every one of these attractions have operated continuously since opening day 1955, albeit with periodic improvements and re-locations.”
The aforementioned author Gennaway states, “Bob Gurr stepped in to help with the engineering. He purchased car frames from Arrow Development and added the caterpillar bodies.”

Coats, as a designer, contributed greatly to the original Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride ride in Disneyland, and it is this ride that the original Alice in Wonderland dark ride can have its greatest comparison drawn from – particularly because of its use of two dimensional figures.

As multiple sources attest to, the original Alice in Wonderland dark ride had loud and garish scenes depicted with painted plywood cutouts. The scary scenes were very much reminiscent of those found in carnival ride fun-houses. Guests climbed into a caterpillar-themed vehicle after walking through a line of enlarged plants and flowers (still present today).

Gennaway stated in his book that the caterpillar vehicles were longer than the other dark rides’ vehicles before them, allowing for two rows of seats, and moved four feet per second because they were heavier. He stated, “Gurr installed the lowest gear ratio he could use to get the caterpillars up the steep incline to the second floor. The 16 cars rode along a 764-foot guide rail with 38 volts. They were powered by a one horsepower motor.”

Riders ventured in their caterpillar-shaped vehicles (just like today) long after leaving the mushroom-shaped ticket booth (still present today and a nod back to a time when Disneyland sold individual tickets for different sets of rides, etc.) and oversized plants in the queue.

Alice in Wonderland mushroom-shaped ticket booth

Coats wanted to come up with a more elaborate line set-up than other dark rides. His initial ideas included having a scene in the English countryside of the line like the one that Alice, her governess, and Dinah visited or the cottage Alice visits and eats left-over Eat Me cake in and becomes a giant. Had this cottage been depicted in the line as Coats envisioned it, Alice’s feet would have been sticking out of it just like in the film. Nevertheless, gigantic stylized blades of grass and giant flowers were chosen for the queue and still remain in the modern one.

As in the modern version of the ride, guests plunged down the rabbit hole in their caterpillar vehicles. Next, in the 1958 version, they approached a doorway painted to look like a huge keyhole. In contrast, the anthropomorphized doorknob from the film is found in the modern version and speaks via audio-animatronics. Unlike in the modern version, a plywood cut-out figure of the Cheshire Cat then appeared, laughing crazily and randomly toward the beginning of the ride.

The Garden of Live Flowers and the Tulgey Wood scenes were next with oversized versions of the flowers and eventual three dimensional figures, etc. (The talking flower scene in the film was taken from “Through the Looking Glass,” not “Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland… Disney combined both books for the film.)

Gennaway stated in his book in a chapter regarding the 1958 Alice dark ride, “Tulgey Wood was filled with eye candy. In this room, the caterpillar cars rode on top of the Mad Hatter Tea Party table. There were fully dimensional Horn Birds, an Umbrella Bird, a Birdcage Bird, and an Accordion Owl.”

The tea party scenery dwarfed riders as they went through.

A series of strobe light flashes imitated the film’s exploding unbirthday cake, some voices yelled, and then the guests were released on to a winding track. This winding track ending was later added to by other versions. The tea party scene was moved forward past the winding track in later versions, and other scenes were shown as seen in the video featured in my past article which you can find HERE.

There are a number of random characters in the 1958 Alice in Wonderland dark-ride and random occurrences and scenes with no real heart or story, so one can begin to see why Disney was dissatisfied with the ride just like with the film. It took 26 years before the Walt Disney Corporation made changes to the Alice in Wonderland dark ride. Whether that was because of nostalgia, economics, or both, the reader can discern.

And now, let's travel back to 1958 and join Walt Disney at the opening of Alice in Wonderland in this rare footage...

(For your viewing pleasure, please be sure to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player prior to playing the video below.)


S.C. native author and former 15-year educator Ron Baxley, Jr. has visited Disney World since he was three in 1978. His mother, Marleen Baxley, was originally from Jacksonville, Florida and had family there who facilitated going to Disney World. Ron has been invited as a guest author at Oz festivals and science fiction cons since 2010 and was recently awarded the honor of a lifetime membership by the International L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Foundation in Chittenango, New York, birthplace of L. Frank Baum, in June for his lifetime Ozian achievements. Within the past year, Ron posted a social media article with photographs entitled simply “Dad and Disney” in which he compared a lifetime of experiences in the Magic Kingdom in Disney World with his Dad including his first-time experiences in Disneyland after attending as an authorial vendor at OzCon in San Diego in 2015. From having a plush Mickey Mouse as his favorite, earliest toy to watching Disney films, Ron has been a Disney fan as long as he has been a fan of “The Wizard of Oz.” If he is not occasionally traveling to the closest Disney Store outlet in Concord, N.C., he enjoys yearly trips to the Disney Parks and collects different types of Mr. Potato Heads there and elsewhere.

Ron recently went on board with Mad Hatter Adventures Company, a travel agency that specializes in Disney destinations, as a part-time outside sales contractor selling Disney vacation packages. Contact Ron at for more information on Disney vacation packages and visit his Mad Hatter Adventures Facebook Page here.

Ron is an Oz, fantasy, science fiction, children's, and young adult author of 25 years and part-time correspondent/reporter for the Orangeburg “Times and Democrat” in Orangeburg, S.C. He has most recently had an article on Eugene and Eulie David, former M.G.M. Wizard of Oz “Munchkin” actors and brothers who lived in his hometown of Barnwell, S.C. published in the August - October 2016 issue of the glossy national magazine “Filmfax” after it appeared in three newspapers. He placed this article and a fictionalization of it as well as stories which followed his previously published Oz books in a brand new Oz fan-fic collection, After Th’Oz, available from Amazon. A full listing of his Oz, co-written Oz/Wonderland, fantasy, and science fiction books (some of which were traditionally published from Maple Creek Press) can be found by clicking here and information on his other projects and updates can be found at his author page, here.

You can find all of Ron's articles here.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, David! That means a lot coming from a Disney scholar such as yourself. Cheers!