Disneyland's Most Memorable Rides
One evening in the 1990s, Disneyland cast member Chris Perley was working the control console of Gadget's Go Coaster in Toontown.
"As the guests loaded in, a mother got my attention and quietly let me know it was her daughter's 18th birthday," he recalls. "I dispatched the train and over the ride's PA system, I directed the queue's attention to the young lady in the first row and got the entire line to sing 'Happy Birthday' to her as the coaster zipped around above them. She had the biggest smile on her face when the ride was over. And as a birthday gift to the entire train, I sent them around for a second time."
Creating moments like these was what Perley loved most about working at the Anaheim theme park. Since Disneyland's opening on July 17, 1955, its rides and attractions have become sites for countless makeout sessions, birthday celebrations, Dapper Days and wedding proposals. Sometimes, it's the smallest moments that have the most impact.
Hana Noble will never forget sitting in the passenger seat of one of the old timey automobiles during a turn on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in the 1990s. "I was 'driving' and when we crashed through the first doors, my mom told me I broke the doors and I was a bad driver. She was kidding, of course, but I was 5 or 6 and devastated," Noble says.
Andrew Dimpfl's fondest Disneyland memories include teenage trips on Snow White's Scary Adventure. "As a rebellious teen, the Snow White ride was always fun because we would sneak off the ride and steal the stupid plastic apples out of the witch's hand. I must have had five of those apples," Dimpfl says.
For more than a year, the magic of The Happiest Place on Earth (™) has been in short supply, quashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But brighter days are ahead. On April 30, 2021, both Disneyland and California Adventure Park are scheduled to reopen. What better time to celebrate some of its most beloved rides, past and present?
Disney historian Kevin Perjurer, creator of the popular YouTube channel Defunctland, notes that Disneyland sprang from a long American tradition of amusement parks and carnival attractions. Before its opening, Walt Disney spent years touring parks and speaking to owners, designers and guests.
"A lot of the showmanship of Disneyland came from Coney Island but by then, Coney Island was run down and Walt wanted to create the anti-Coney Island," Perjurer says. "It was so planned and researched. He went around the country and took the best ideas and then used his resources to create something that was a conglomerate."
Disney also drew on influences closer to home. He could often be found sitting on a bench in front of the historic carousel in Griffith Park as his children rode round and round. He spent time at the famed Beverly Park and Ponyland, a no-frills attraction for kids at the corner of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards (where the Beverly Center now stands). It was popular with Angelenos from all walks of life.
"It was called 'the daddy park' because that's where all the famous movie stars who were divorced took their children on the weekends when they had them," Perjurer says.
According to Perjurer, what set Disneyland apart was the single gate concept and the unified theme throughout the park, designed by a team that had worked on the hit 1954 movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
"It's a movie set, that's what it really was. This is some of the most amazing set builders that they have in Hollywood making a giant set," Perjurer says.
Then there are the rides. Disney's engineers took standard county fair attractions, fed them growth hormones and transformed them into immersive narrative and sensory experiences.
"The story should start when you see the facade and it should end when you're away from it," Perjurer says of the ideal ride. "The Haunted Mansion is a great example. The facade of the Haunted Mansion, the house, tells a story. You go experience that story. Then, when you exit, you can turn around and see things on the façade almost conclusively, like you've experienced that story."
Top of the World
Disneyland's most distinctive landmark, the 147-foot Matterhorn Bobsleds, has, for generations, been a beacon calling to children from around the world.
"The Matterhorn was a very special ride because my mom and dad explained only big kids could go on that ride," Disney enthusiast Michael Fritzen says. "For years, I would ask my parents if I was big enough to go on the ride. One year, they said yes. [It] lived up to all my expectations. It was thrilling, fast, exciting, exhilarating and it was my ticket to being a big kid."
According to Richard Snow, author of Disney's Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World, Disney had already begun envisioning the ride shortly after the park opened:
"One of his lieutenants, crossing between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, came upon him in an unusual posture of repose, sitting on a bench staring into empty air. The man knew his boss well enough to interrupt his reverie: 'What are you looking at?' 'My mountain.'"
Soon after, Disney saw the real Matterhorn on a trip to the Alps. He sent his employees a postcard of the mountain with two words scrawled on the back: "Build this."
According to Snow, the site chosen for Disney's Matterhorn was Holiday Hill, a 20-foot dirt pile created during the construction of Sleeping Beauty's Castle. The hill had recently been used by a gardener to grow marijuana and was also known as a lovers lane where couples could slip away to picnic and canoodle.
A scale model of the mountain was created by Imagineer Harriet Burns. The rollercoaster nestled within the finished steel-framed mountain (then the tallest structure in Orange County) was the first tubular steel coaster in the world, designed with the help of the DuPont Corporation.
"It was a totally new kind of roller coaster. You're in the ground, you actually feel like you're part of the earth," Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar told Snow.
It cost more than $1 million dollars to build, a princely sum a that time, but the Matterhorn finally opened in June 1959. According to Snow, after the Matterhorn was finished, the head of construction, Admiral Joe Fowler, said to his boss, "The next time, Walt, we have to build a mountain, let's let God do it."
From opening day in 1955, Disneyland promoted a brand of capitalistic optimism ideal for the post-WWII era. Starting in 1955, Monsanto sponsored many attractions in the park's Tomorrowland including The Hall of Chemistry, which promoted the company's biotech advances. As cultural historian Margaret King argues in The Journal of Popular Culture, Disneyland represented "traditional values in a futuristic form."
By the late 1960s, Tomorrowland had so many sponsored attractions, employees jokingly called it "Corporation Land," according to Perjurer. One of the most popular, 1967's Carousel of Progress, was sponsored by General Electric.
"Every time I use Siri, I think about the Carousel of Progress," Disney enthusiast Nobel says. "It was my dad's favorite ride and I always think about the last scene, with the talking microwave that went wrong. What a prediction for all the robots in our homes now."
That same year, the wildly popular Adventure Thru Inner Space, sponsored by Monsanto, opened in Tomorrowland. The first attraction to use the patented Omnimover system, it featured the iconic "mighty microscope," designed by Imagineer George McGinnis. It also featured a script by multi-talented animator and Imagineer X. Atencio, and it included Perjurer's favorite line, "What compelling force draws me into this mysterious darkness?"
The ride, which took guests on an adventure through the molecules of a snowflake, was a hit. "It scared so many kids because they actually thought they were going to get shrunk. It was such a convincing illusion," Perjurer says. The dark ride also became a popular make-out destination for teenagers.
But Adventure Thru Inner Space, and Tommorowland as a whole, faced a reckoning during the turbulent 1970s. According to Perjurer, as Monsanto's involvement in the Vietnam War, particularly the production of Agent Orange, was revealed, their corporate dollars became less desirable to Disney. In 1977, their contract with Disneyland ended. Adventure Thru Inner Space limped along until 1985. Two years later, it was replaced by George Lucas's Star Tours.
The shift to a more fantastical future has proved a safer bet for Disneyland.
"This whole, 'We'll all hold hands and corporations will walk us into our bright new future,' is no longer believable. So they said, 'Well what do we do with Tomorrowland?' Tomorrowland has always been the biggest companies telling us what happens next in the future. The solution they came up with was to stop imagining tomorrow [and start] imagining tomorrows that never happened," Perjurer says.
It's A Big World, After All
For Autumn West, whose father worked for Disney, there was nothing more exciting than a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean when she was a child.
"I loved the atmosphere of Pirates, getting into the boat and starting through the swamp with the musty smell and mist in the air. It was exciting and enticing and also frightening and humorous. I was super scared of the battle scene and always feared that someone might load the cannons with real ammo so I would duck down and cover my head during that part," West says.
The Pirates of the Caribbean experience, which opened in 1967, was made possible by Disney's new audio-animatronic technology (Walt Disney had initially imagined the ride as a type of wax museum), which was introduced and displayed at the New York World's Fair. Disney offered four experiences at the fair including General Electric's Progressland (later opened as the Carousel of Progress), Ford's Magic Skyway and It's A Small World, a tribute to UNICEF presented by Pepsi-Cola.
"It was a very forward-thinking fair, and it was a big deal for Disney Imagineering. It proved that Disney could work with companies and corporations to communicate their ideas," Perjurer says.
After the fair closed, It's A Small World was moved to Disneyland. It was designed by pioneering Disney animator Mary Blair, who worked on Disney films including Cinderella and Alice and Wonderland. Disney seamstress Alice Davis sewed 300 costumes, using" silks for the saris of India to fine wool for the Scottish bagpiper." Its famous peace anthem theme song was written by the Sherman Brothers, who wrote scores for classic Disney movies Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Amid the upheaval of the Civil Rights era, the ride strove to present an animatronic vision of world peace. But as scholar Stephanie Malia Hom notes in the essay "Simulated Imperialism," "It's A Small World reveals an idealized world to be one erased of all difference in favor of a white, English-speaking and culturally American utopia." Hom sees Disneyland as an introduction to Western imperialism:
"As children, we dashed between teacups and tiki rooms on a quest to experience every ride. At the end of the day, exhausted, we felt as if we had mastered the park, domesticating its characters and conquering its every land. We were imperialists in a Disney empire."
Over the last few years, Disney has attempted to rectify some of the most problematic aspects of its rides. In 2018, Pirates of the Carribean was revamped and the notorious "wench for a bride" auction was transformed into an animal and dry goods auction. There are also plans to revamp the Jungle Cruise that will eliminate harmful stereotypes of indegenous people, as Disney tries to move into a more inclusive future.
The Real Movers and Shakers
While Disneyland strives to make guests feel like Princes and princesses, guest autonomy only goes so far. The park's biggest failures have typically been rides and attractions, like the short-lived Phantom Boats, where guests are in charge.
According to Disney historian Chris Strodder, the boats often stalled mid-ride and experienced so many maintenance issues that a cast member was assigned to make sure the occupants on the boats remained safe.The stress of keeping the guests safe, while not not being able to control the machines they were in, was unsustainable.
For Perjurer, the real movers and shakers aren't the rides, they're the park's thousands of employees, known in Disney parlance as "cast members."
"They're the most important because it's just a bunch of nothing without people behind it. My best memories at the park are not riding a ride. It's always an interaction with one of the people working there," he says.
Former cast member Perley, who worked at Disneyland for a decade, landed a job there in 1988, while he was still in high school. "While most of my friends were getting restaurant or retail jobs, I was driving submarines. It was my first job but it didn't seem like work," Perley says.
Over the years, Perley would work on 14 attractions including the monorail. "There was prestige about it. Even within the Park, there was a reverence about driving those trains. It was one of Walt's favorite accomplishments. The driver could have up to five guests sit in the nose cone with them. It gave you a nice opportunity for some one-on-one interaction with the guests, which wasn't possible on other attractions," he says.
He also loved working Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes. "It was hard physically. No tracks, no motors, no breakdowns. Just you, your partner and 20 guests on a three-quarter-mile river. While being the most demanding attraction, it was one of my favorites," he says.
The Land of Tomorrow
During the pandemic, Disneyland has faced serious criticism for its treatment of its staffers. Thousands of cast members at all the parks were laid off while Disney executives continued to rake in millions in bonuses. According to the San Francisco Gate:
"The optics haven't been good — even by the standards of the Disney family. When the Financial Times story broke, Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Walt's brother and Disney co-founder Roy Disney, tweeted a series of outraged replies. 'The real outrage…' she said, '...is those bonuses. All 1.5 billion of them… That'd pay for three months' salary to the front-line workers. And it's going to people who have been collecting egregious bonuses for years.'"
"Those are the people who really make it possible. So that's going to be the challenge, to bring them back and make them feel valued after letting them go for stock purposes," Perjurer says.
There are also concerns about how a reopened Disneyland will handle safety in the age of COVID.
"I am excited for Disneyland to reopen, because this means many of my friends will be going back to work," Perley says. When he returns, his top three must-see attractions will be Indiana Jones Adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion — but he's not going right away. "I think I'm going to wait a bit to see how the new safety protocols work out."
For thousands of Southern Californians, the April 30 reopening can't come soon enough. "I am over the moon about opening day and, at the same time, a little bit nervous because it’s definitely going to be different," says SoCal native Diane Laurino, who plans on going opening day. "When I walk through the gates on the first day back, I’m just going to soak in the sounds and the excitement of the crowd. I don't have to rush to any particular ride. If I get on them, that’s fine. If I don't, that's also fine. Just being inside the gates will be a flood of emotions I'm sure."
Disneyland also recently announced it intends to expand and reinvigorate the park, presenting vague proposals to the Anaheim City Council. New and reimagined attractions like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Jessie's Critter Carousel could be in the works while the upcoming Avengers Campus has set Disney lovers' tongues wagging.
"We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things," Walt Disney once said, "because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."