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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I've Been Looking For This Photo For Years

Holiday Hill - June, 1958

Here’s a photo that I’ve been looking for for—well—years.  What is it?  This is a 20-foot hill that used to rest beside the castle (more-or-less where the Matterhorn is now positioned).  It was known as Snow Mountain or Holiday Hill or Disney Peak.  The hill had a lot of nicknames.  In 1954, when the land development team first started work on the Disneyland site, they piled up all of the excavated dirt from the castle moat and the castle foundation into a large hill.  Removing the dirt from the site would be expensive, so Walt had a fence placed around the hill, with the hill becoming part of the landscape of Disneyland.  For a while, the hill was mostly dirt.  But the loose dirt would be whipped up in windstorms.  Then Bill Evan’s grounds keeping team quickly landscaped the hill with some shrubs and a little sod, thereby keeping the dirt in place.  There’s a great story—for another day—about one of the gardeners secretly growing a crop of marijuana plants at the top of the hill—a crop that was then discovered by managers at Disneyland.  Likewise, this hill, on weekend nights, was prime make-out property for teenage guests.  Security used to regularly rout out local kids from beneath the trees.  During the day, guests used to hop the fence and climb to the top of the hill to view the entire park.  From there you could see the Mark Twain and the Moonliner rocket.  For a brief period (probably just a year or so), the park developed a path to the top of the hill, with a rail and steps.  I’ve seen pictures of the path before, but always the path was empty, usually with a chain or other barrier crossing the entrance.  In this photo you can see the path, the steps and a couple guests (in dresses, no less) atop Holiday Hill.  Holiday Hill was removed mid-1958 to make way for the Matterhorn.

I suspect some of you have seen other photos of Holiday Hill with guests hiking the trail.   If so, send a link my way.  I’d love to see them.

-Todd James Pierce

Friday, September 23, 2011

Painting the Matterhorn - 1959

I've been working on a couple short videos about the history of the park.  But I realize I haven't posted up anything for over a week.  This image is from May, 1959--just four or five weeks before the attraction opened to the public.  The Matterhorn is not quite finished.  The water system is not complete; trees are not yet in their planter boxes.  The track is already in place, but I suspect the team of Karl Bacon and Ed Morgan (of Arrow Development) are still working on the experimental brake system they designed for the ride.  But on a more interesting note, in the first few months of 1959, while still under construction, the Matterhorn received two paint jobs.  In the first scheme, the upper third of the mountain was coated with white paint, capping the mountain uniformly with a layer of snow.  Walt was unhappy with the mountain's appearance: it looked artificial, the uniform snowline belted across the structure.  Also, he didn't care for the exact shade of white once it was in place.  So he directed workmen to remove--or in places to darken--the upper cone of the mountain so that large sections could be repainted.  The result is far more realistic: a mountain capped with snow but patched with frost in its mid-regions.  The paint pattern in 1959 appears (in my opinion) superior to the present pattern, but as you might've already guessed I'm a preservationist at heart.  There's one more thing to take away from this story: the order to repaint the mountain at significant expense is yet another example of how Walt art directed Disneyland toward a standard of showmanship far above those of other amusement parks in the 1950s.  This is one reason why Disneyland survived and some other early theme parks--such as POP and Freedomland--faded away.

As always, you can click on the photo to see a larger view with better detail.  The photo is from my own collection.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Phantom Boats!

Phantom Boats
by Todd James Pierce

As long as we're on the subject of boats, I recently was going through a box of 1955 / 1956 Disneyland slides and found a nice never-before-published image of the shortest-lived attraction at Disneyland--the boats in Tomorrowland.  (By the way, as with all DHI images, you can click on the photo to view a substantially larger version of it, with sharper detail.)

These boats were housed in the Tomorrowland Lagoon, which is roughly where the submarine lagoon is now situated.  Originally called the Tomorrowland Boats, they opened to the public in July of 1955.  Designed as an attraction where young pilots could motor a boat around the lagoon--like an aquatic version of Autopia--the attraction soon proved problematic.  The fiberglass boats were poorly designed, particularly in the engine compartment.  The enclosed motors quickly overheated as young boaters tried for speed, with the boats then towed back to the dock.  To add to the problems, these motors also threw off a lot of smoke.  Overtime Disneyland formed two solutions to these problems: (1) engineers redesigned the backend of each boat, enclosing the motor (which limited ambient smoke but increased engine heat) and (2) park operations added an employee to pilot each boat to insure the boats didn't overheat.  The park also renamed the boats the Phantom Boats.  With this, the boat attraction became a money-loser for the park.  On peak days, the 14 little boats required 14 employees to operate them, with each boat carrying two or maybe three guests at most.  The Phantom Boats turned their final lap around the little lagoon in August 1956, a little more than a year after the park first opened.

This photo here is probably from mid-1956--with park guests driving each boat.  When the attraction first opened, the banks of the lagoon--as well as the island--were bare dirt.  So with the natural grasses in place, I'd say very late spring is a pretty good guess.  This photo clearly shows the original lap for the attraction, with guests puttering a single well-marked course around the islands.  Also featured here, a couple of boats recently broken-down.  They rest on the bank, with a park employee in a jon boat come over to fix them up.

I find the boats beautifully styled--especially with their bat-ray tailfins--but a beautiful vehicle design by itself is not enough to keep an attraction open.  The boats in Tomorrowland were the first attraction to be removed from Disneyland.  To put this in perspective, another troublesome Tomorrowland attraction, the Rocket Rods lasted nearly three years.  The Phantom Boats lasted just one. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Clowns in the Magic Kingdom

Clowns in the Magic Kingdom
by Todd James Pierce
So what do we have here? A clown, battery-powered model boats, and two-dozen Mousketeers. An odd event that would happen only once in the history of Disneyland.

In partnering up with outside companies, Disneyland opened its gates to many businesses during its early years—including K&O FleetLine Model Boats. Featured here is the one-and-only model boat regatta pitched just downstream from the Castle. This photo set is from early 1956. At first I thought this event was hosted on a day the park was closed to the public, but after scanning the pics, I learned that my theory was wrong. Now that the photos have been enlarged, you can easily see curious and confused guests peeking around in the background. The boat races could’ve been easily held over in the flight circle—where there was a pond set up for model boat demonstrations—but instead the races were held here, in the picturesque shadow of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

Here’s why I like these photos: In an era before all of Disneyland was carved up into firm walkways, guests could actually venture out into the greenery. (Notice the lack of fences!) Disneyland, then, held the community intimacies of a public park. As such, this little stream between the castle and the fort is an ideal place for a model boat race. In all likelihood, the Mouseketeers are on property to perform the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. Notice the clown prominently featured in these photos?

Now for the fun stuff: That clown is Bob-O, who not only appeared at the circus held at Disneyland but was a regular character on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show. In the early days of the Mickey Mouse Club, Bob-O appeared on the regular Circus Day segments which were part of each Thursday’s themed show.

Now you’ll need to roll with me down a strange path. Everyone over the age of 35 likely remembers that the original Mickey Mouse Club (either through the original airings or the subsequent revivals in the 1970s or 1980s) had two adult entertainers: the wide-grinned Jimmy Dodd and the old “Moose”-keteer, Roy Williams. You can even spot Jimmy in the riverside group photo, dressed as the circus ringmaster. But during the first two seasons, there was a third (and mostly forgotten) adult host: Bob Amsberry. Amsberry was the actor who played, among other regular characters, Bob-O the Clown.

During those months while the circus performed at Disneyland, Bob-O would wander through the park and talk to guests. As the character had appeared on TV and was now a minor celebrity, Bob-O would be immediately recognized by younger park guests. I’ve seen photos of Bob-O ambling through Fantasyland and posing out in front of the castle. But Bob-O wasn’t the only clown in the live Circus to get into the meet-and-greet act. Some of the other clowns got into the walk-around routine as well. Themed areas be damned, here’s one of the other clowns from the Circus posing on Main Street: . That’s down right horrifying, no?

But to get back to the photos posted here, Bob-O and the kids sputtered their boats through the water, with Disney cameras capturing the whole thing on film. (Bob-O “accidentally” put his batteries in backwards so the boat ran in reverse.) The footage was then edited into a short segment for the Mickey Mouse Club that was then aired in the spring of 1956. I’ve never actually seen the finished footage. As it was a sponsored segment to promote the 1956 line of K&O boats, it might’ve only been aired once. And well, 1956 is way before my time. But if you happen to have a copy of this footage, shoot me a note. I’d love to see it.