Sunday, August 20, 2017

Walt's Mountains: Part I - The Matterhorn

By Jim Denney

Walt Disney fell in love with the real Matterhorn in Switzerland while filming the 1959 live-action film Third Man on the Mountain. Back at Disneyland Park, Walt decided to cover a forested 20-foot-high mound named Holiday Hill with artificial snow, add a toboggan run and rename it Snow Hill. However, Walt always dreamed big, and his "hill" grew into a 147-foot-tall "mountain." Join us today as we embark on the first in a series of articles on Walt's Mountains by Jim Denney, author of Walt’s Disneyland, and learn the incredible history of how the Matterhorn came to call Disneyland home...

Editor's Note: Please join me in giving Jim Denney a warm welcome to the Disney Avenue community. We are honored and thrilled to welcome Jim as he is one of the most knowledgeable and successful Disney authors around. I have no doubt that you will absolutely love Jim's articles and this first one on the Matterhorn is a real treat. Also, while you learn the amazing history of how the Matterhorn came to the Anaheim Alps, I highly suggest choosing the "Matterhorn Area Music" track by clicking on the playlist button located at the top, right-hand corner of the page and selecting track number 191 in the Disney Avenue Music Player above.
 If you are on a mobile device and would like to listen to the "Matterhorn Area Music" track while you read, please click HERE and choose track number 191. And now, here's Jim and Part I of Walt's Mountains. Enjoy friends!
- Keith Mahne

A few years after Disneyland opened in 1955, a Disneyland cast member noticed Walt Disney sitting on a park bench. He was looking off toward a patch of sky between Sleeping Beauty Castle and the Monsanto House of the Future.

She stopped and followed Walt’s line of sight. There was nothing to see but blue sky. “What are you looking at, Walt?”

“My mountain,” Walt said, pointing toward that patch of empty sky.

Walt was a visionary, with an almost mystical ability to see what was not there — and a magical ability to make it real.

Walt and Roy Disney stand beside The Dreaming Tree on a visit to Marceline with the former Disney family farm in the background.

Where did Walt get the idea for building a mountain at Disneyland? The inspiration came from his childhood. In 1938, Walt wrote a letter to the Marceline News in which he reflected on the joys of growing up on a farm just outside of Marceline, Missouri. In that letter, he recalled, “What fun I used to have on winter days going down the hillsides lickety-split on a sled.”

How did a sled ride on a snowy hill in Missouri morph into a bobsled ride in the Swiss Alps? For the answer, we time-travel to late-1954/early-’55. Sleeping Beauty Castle is under construction — the seventy-seven-foot centerpiece of Walt’s kingdom. The unfinished Castle is surrounded by scaffolding. Earth-moving machines gouge the earth in front of the Castle walls, digging the moat. 

Where does all that dirt go? The earth-movers pile it on a piece of ground east of the Castle, on the border between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. By the time Disneyland opens on July 17, 1955, this twenty-foot-high pile of dirt will be called Holiday Hill.

From Holiday Hill to Rock Candy Mountain

Walt’s botanist, Bill Evans, landscaped Holiday Hill with shrubs and grass. A fence stood guard to keep people out — yet young couples often hopped the fence, turning the hill into a Lover’s Lane. According to legend, one enterprising Disneyland cast member was caught cultivating marijuana on the hill.

When Walt looked at Holiday Hill, he thought of winters in Missouri when he was a boy, riding “lickety-split on a sled” down a blanket of snow. His initial plan was to bring in a snow-making machine, blizzard the hill with snow, and give his guests toboggan rides all year ’round.

One day in late 1956, Walt and his construction boss, Admiral Joe Fowler, sat atop Holiday Hill, looking out over Walt’s kingdom. Walt chose that moment to tell Fowler his idea of a toboggan run on the hill — with real snow. Fowler was appalled. Real snow in the broiling mid-July? The hill would turn to slush in minutes, like a snow-cone on a hot griddle.

For a brief time in early 1957, it appeared that Walt took Fowler’s advice and dropped the toboggan run idea. He assigned his Imagineers to a new project — turning Holiday Hill into a sixty-foot-tall Rock Candy Mountain...

Rock Candy Mountain concept art by Claude Coats

Rock Candy Mountain layout

The plan would have greatly extended the layout of both the Casey Jr. Circus Train and the Storybook Land Canal Boats. The Circus Train would loop around Rock Candy Mountain while the Canal Boats would explore caverns inside the mountain, with scenes from a proposed Disney sequel to The Wizard of Oz. Claude Coates created concept art, and John Hench started building a model based on Coates’ drawings. To save time, Hench decorated the model with real candy. The result, Hench later said, “was positively nauseating.”

Rock Candy Mountain model

The Rock Candy Mountain project was mercifully canceled. (For unrelated reasons, so was the Oz movie.) Walt returned to his original notion of a toboggan ride down a snow-clad hill. He began calling the project “Snow Mountain.”

A Mountain to Match Walt’s Vision

In October 1957, Disneyland executive Jack Sayers read an article in Funspot, a trade magazine for the amusement and recreation industry. The article was about a “wild mouse” roller coaster design (“wild mouse” coasters create thrills with small cars, sharp turns, and the sensation that the car might miss the turn and fly off the track). Sayers suggested that a wild mouse coaster on a hill with fake snow might be more exciting than a toboggan run on real snow.

Walt standing atop Holiday Hill where the Matterhorn will soon call its home.

Walt loved the idea. By the end of 1957, he decided to remove Holiday Hill in truckloads and build a mountain out of steel and concrete. But what that mountain would look like, even Walt couldn’t say. His right-hand man (and brother-in-law) Bill Cottrell contributed the idea of placing two wild mouse toboggans on the same mountain, to double the capacity. Imagineers kicked around an assortment of names: Disney Peak, Echo Mountain, Fantasy Mountain, Sorcerer’s Mountain, Magic Mountain, and even (as a joke) Mount Valterhorn in honor of the Boss,“Valter” Disney. Ironically, “Valterhorn” turned out to be closer to the final name than anyone realized. Walt’s Imagineers created drawing after drawing of snow capped mountains with wild mouse toboggan runs — but Walt wasn’t satisfied with any of these early concepts.

In the summer of 1958, Walt went with film director Ken Annakin to film Third Man on the Mountain, based on the book Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman. Walt had vacationed in Switzerland many times, but had never been to the Matterhorn before. Walt and Ken Annakin traveled by train to the Alpine village of Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn.

The moment Walt first beheld the Matterhorn, he couldn’t stop staring. Disney publicist Leonard Shannon was with Walt, and he recalled seeing the Boss gazing toward the Matterhorn. “He would stand and literally look at that thing for an hour or so,” Shannon said.

Walt Disney visiting the real Matterhorn in 1958.

Walt knew what he wanted when he saw it — and he wanted that mountain at Disneyland. He dashed into a souvenir shop, purchased a picture postcard of the Matterhorn, wrote a message on the back to Imagineer Vic Greene in Burbank — “Vic, build this!” — and mailed it.

The search for a mountain to match Walt’s vision was over. Now all he had to do was build it.

Disneyland’s Second Grand Opening

Vic Greene served as the Matterhorn’s art director. It’s amazing that Greene was able to convincingly re-create the Swiss Matterhorn on paper, faithfully rendering its crags, clefts, and cliffs. Greene had very little reference material to work with — just a photo layout from National Geographic, another spread from Life, and a handful of picture postcards Walt had sent from Zermatt.

Vehicle design genius Bob Gurr was tasked with envisioning the bobsled vehicles and track layout. “I had failed geometry in high school,” Gurr recalled, “and had to teach myself trigonometry to design the track.”

Harriet Burns turned Vic Greene’s drawings into three-dimensional models, so that the Matterhorn design could be studied from every perspective. She originated a technique of building the model in layers like a birthday cake, including the mountain’s outer skin and its steel skeleton. Constructing in layers enabled the model to be evaluated, structurally and aesthetically, as an assembly of components. One flawed layer could be replaced without scrapping the entire model.

Walt and Harriet Burns.

Ironically, Harriet Burns thought the Matterhorn project was “crazy.” She felt that Walt was trying to cram too many design features into the irregular, non-geometrical shape of the Matterhorn. Yet she was committed to producing the model Walt wanted. Once he saw the finished model, he could decide if it was a disaster or not.

“Nothing like the Matterhorn had ever been built before,” Harriet Burns later said. “Walt would bring in experts and engineers to advise him on the problems we were likely to encounter. He always wanted the very best advice he could get. But if the experts said, ‘This is impossible, this can’t be done,’ it rolled right off of him. He wouldn’t argue with them, he’d just smile. He had accomplished the so-called ‘impossible’ so many times in his life that the word no longer had any meaning to him.

“The experts told Walt that there was no way we could build the Matterhorn with two separate toboggan runs on it, plus planters for the greenery, plus water flow systems to operate the waterfalls, plus openings for the Skyway. The experts said that after we had installed all of this machinery, the structure would no longer look anything like the original Swiss Matterhorn. They insisted that what Walt wanted to achieve was simply impossible. And Walt had a simple response: ‘Just get it done.’ So we put our heads together, solved all the engineering and design problems, and we got it done.”

Vehicle designer Bob Gurr and Walt himself were the first two people to test the Bobsleds. The test rides ended with the Bobsled vehicles plowing into bales of hay. Walt emerged from his test ride laughing and wanting to incorporate the hay-bale “braking system” into the ride (the Imagineers later devised the water pool splash-down as a more effective and exciting way to slow the Bobsleds). Harriett Burns never rode the attraction due to acrophobia — acute fear of heights.

Pete Clark, an early WED licensee promoter for Disneyland, testing out the bobsleds.

Today, Walt’s Matterhorn is the first Disneyland structure you see as you approach the Park from Interstate 5. At 147 feet tall, it’s the tallest structure in the Park, and the second tallest at Disneyland Resort (after the 183-foot Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission: Breakout in Disney California Adventure).

The Matterhorn is a convincing 1/100th-scale steel-and-concrete replica of the 14,700-foot original. A stickler for accuracy, Walt wanted his Imagineers to exactly match the dimensions and features of the Swiss original. To recreate the irregular shape of the Alpine peak, Imagineers used 2,175 steel I-beams, each of a different length and weight, with no two alike — and they achieved this feat before the advent of computer-aided design.

Though the Imagineers took liberties with the lower half of the mountain, where the toboggan runs, waterfalls, and splash-downs are located, the upper half of the mountain is faithful to the original. Harriet Burns admitted, however, that her team exaggerated the uppermost “hook” of the peak to dramatize the shadow it cast. The Disneyland Matterhorn is oriented exactly like the Swiss Matterhorn, relative to the compass-points, so that the sun over Anaheim casts authentic-looking shadows. Just as the original European Matterhorn straddles the Swiss-Italian border, the Disneyland Matterhorn straddles the Tomorrowland-Fantasyland border.

The vehicles and tracks were engineered by Arrow Development Company, which had created ride systems for previous Disneyland attractions. Arrow engineers invented a patented new ride system that revolutionized the amusement park industry. The Bobsleds travel on tubular steel rails instead of railroad-type flat rails. Highly elastic polyurethane wheels hug the steel pipes, giving the bobsled an exceptionally smooth ride through twists, drops, and hairpin turns.

Walt Disney and Joe Fowler at the Arrow Development plant.

A chain hill pulls the Bobsleds to an elevation of about eighty feet. As the Bobsleds crest the hill, the Bobsleds are released — and gravity does the rest.

There’s a Fantasyland track and a Tomorrowland track. Each track has a separate queue. The Fantasyland track is slightly longer and features sharper curves, but the ride is about the same duration on either track — two minutes and fifteen seconds. The attraction accommodates about 1,500 riders per hour.

The Matterhorn Bobsleds opened, along with the Submarine Voyage and the Monorail, on June 14, 1959 (often called Disneyland’s Second Grand Opening). Disneyland’s Matterhorn is unique — there’s no Matterhorn at any other Disney park in the world. (However, the Matterhorn did inspire the 199-foot Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.) You can join Walt, the Shah of Iran and his wife, the Shahbanou, on a visit to Disneyland and a ride on the bobsleds back in 1962 in the video below...

(For your viewing pleasure, be sure to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player at the top, left-hand corner of the page prior to playing the video below if you are on a desktop computer.)

Echoes of Walt’s Memories

A little-known Matterhorn fact: From the mid- to late-1960s, the Anaheim Police Department positioned a patrol officer atop the Matterhorn to help manage traffic flow. From that vantage point, the officer could see for three miles in every direction. Using a two-way radio, he could help officers direct traffic and reduce congestion on the streets below. The improved traffic flow was especially helpful for peak attendance days at the Park.

The Matterhorn has undergone several major upgrades. I rode the Bobsleds as a boy, and I recall the hollow interior of the mountain, with its exposed beams and catwalks. A major renovation in 1978 encased the tracks in ice tunnels. An Audio-Animatronic abominable snowman (nicknamed Harold by cast members) was added that year to howl at passengers. Additional upgrades have been made over the years to make the ride, the scenery, and Harold more realistic. Take a behind the scenes look at the most recent update to the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Audio-Animatronic abominable snowman in the video below...

(For your viewing pleasure, be sure to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player at the top, left-hand corner of the page prior to playing the video below if you are on a desktop computer.)

The Matterhorn — Disneyland’s first true thrill ride — originated in Walt’s boyhood memories of sledding down a snow-clad Missouri hill, circa 1909. Walt once told Rush Johnson, a longtime Marceline resident, that he used to play on a huge pile of coal-mine tailings east of the Disney family farm — and Walt said that his slag-pile adventures also helped inspire the Matterhorn. The magnified echoes of Walt’s boyhood memories continue to thrill millions of Disneyland visitors to this day.

Walt reinvented the roller coaster in 1959. He was the first to combine high-speed thrills with majestic scenery and Audio-Animatronic effects to create a new kind of entertainment experience. The success and popularity of Walt’s Matterhorn led to yet another reinvention of the roller coaster — this time, a roller coaster through deep space, where no one can hear you scream...but that’s another story.

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon!


Jim Denney is a writer with more than 120 books to his credit, including the Timebenders science-fantasy series for young readers and a 2004 Disney biography, How to Be Like Walt, co-written with Orlando Magic founder Pat Williams. Jim has also written books with supermodel Kim Alexis, Star Trek actress Grace Lee Whitney, and Super Bowl legends Bob Griese and Reggie White. He is also a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Jim lives in California and blogs at and at His latest book, Walt’s Disneyland, is available from

You can find all of Jim's articles here.


1) Pat Williams, The Paradox of Power (New York: Warner Books, 2002), 12. 

2) Walt Disney, “The Marceline I Knew,” Walt Disney Hometown Museum, March 2, 2015, reprinted from the Marceline News, September 2, 1938,

3) Randy Bright, Disneyland: Inside Story (New York: Abrams, 1987), 87.
 Jeff Kurtti, “Walt's Unsung Star: Remembering James MacArthur,” Walt Disney Family Museum, November 2, 2010,

4) Disney Editions, Disney Insider Yearbook 2005 (New York: Disney Enterprises, 2006), 62.

5) Pat Williams, How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life (Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 2004), 225.

6) Brian Burnes, Dan Viets, and Robert W. Butler, Walt Disney's Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 2002), 34.

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