Disney Legend Bob Gurr on creating his Disneyland rides

Cheers to Bob Gurr, who both shaped my childhood and drinks my favorite adult beverage. (Photo: MiceChat.com)

My regular readers know that I am passionate about how the past is preserved. We, as a culture, are so obsessed with money that blow our heritage off all the time. That’s one reason I wrote a new article for Travel + Leisure about the original Disney attractions that Walt knew best.

The destruction of Walt Disney World’s Snow White’s Scary Adventures, which happens on Friday, distressed me enough for me to write a slideshow feature about the oldest Disney rides, and for it, I talked to Bob Gurr, an Imagineer who helped build Disneyland in 1955 and went on to be a crucial designer for the park’s most seminal rides.

That same passion for making details about our past available to everyone has inspired me to put Gurr’s full interview on this blog so that anyone can read his words. Magazine and Web articles can only put so many words into stories before people’s click fingers get itchy. But there’s no reason the words of someone as esteemed as Gurr should be left on the cutting room floor. (I also salvaged a choice nugget from an interview with Anthony Bourdain last year.)

Make sure you go to Travel + Leisure and read my whole piece — that will make everyone happy, including me. You can also buy Bob’s book on engineering and Disney History, Design: Just for Fun, at his website. You probably have a long emotional connection with his worth without even knowing it, since he shaped the vehicles of most of Disney’s most iconic ride systems from the Disneyland Monorail (a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark) to the Haunted Mansion‘s distinctive Omnimover (a name he coined).

I asked Bob to discuss a few Disneyland attractions that he had a hand in, and the way Walt Disney figured into their creation. Some of his recollections won’t be new to Mouseheads, but they are full of reverence for the process, and considering the cultural importance of the results of that process to American culture, it’s worth putting on the record anyway. Here’s what Bob said, in his words. 

Pirates of the Caribbean

The Disneyland Pirates of The Caribbean was the first really complex attraction that introduced a large number of sophisticated Audio-Animatronic characters in a thoroughly immersive show. Walt guided all the development of this attraction more than any previous project. He wanted to bring to three-dimensional life a complete story of pirate life in scenes that encompassed special lighting, sound, realistic fire effects, in a setting of pirate action in plunder and drunken antics.

He was intimately involved in the story telling nature of depicting rampaging pirates, from the earliest character and scene sketches to the full-size dimensional mock-ups at the WED Enterprises studio in Glendale California, near the Burbank Disney Studio. Walt seemed be at WED almost every day following all the details in development. Sadly, Walt passed away prior to the completion of the Pirates of the Caribbean, which was the last attraction that Walt had his hand on.

Matterhorn Bobsleds

Walt was in Europe during the filming of “Third Man on The Mountain” and was fascinated by the Matterhorn and Alpine bobsleds. He wanted his very own Matterhorn with bobsleds at Disneyland, That’s how Walt worked – take inspiration from a story or place, then build his own story or place.

Since Walt wanted it to open in just over a year later, along with a Submarine Voyage, a larger Autopia, and a Monorail, he asked if it could be built faster. He asked me to design a bobsled and two track layouts. He asked Arrow Development, Walt’s favorite outside manufacturer, to find a way. Arrow said bent up pipe would be the quickest way, thus it turned out to be the world’s first steel pipe coaster. See, Walt would know all about the various manufacturing possibilities and wound up inventing something new, just to get the attraction he wanted.

Jungle Cruise

When Walt Disney was planning which attractions Disneyland would open with in 1955, the Jungle Cruise was a logical choice. The Disney Studio had great success with the documentary series, Natures Wonderland. Why not give Disneyland guests a new adventure – sort of the very first “ride the movies” guest experience. Walt directed some of the same Disney Studio film and animation crew to design the Jungle Cruise. He knew how animals move realistically and sometimes would act
out a scene in animal motion to show the designers what he wanted.

The Jungle Cruise was a natural transition for Walt to advance from 2D movie making, using his talented Studio staff, to real life experiences developed by his future Imagineers, whose specialty would be 3D story telling. Walt made sure he personally chose a number of key artists and modelers who he knew were the folks who could jump from movies to Theme Parks.


One of the most popular early Disneyland attractions was the small car ride, Autopia. Walt consulted several of his Studio animators who knew both antique and amusement park vehicles. Rather than purchasing commercial ride vehicles, Walt wanted something that would represent the future in Tomorrowland. He took their advice and had a local automotive fabricator build a running prototype chassis of the kind of car he envisioned, then asked me to design a futuristic sports car body to
mount onto the chassis.

When the Disneyland Autopia opened in 1955, Walt had his very own unique car, quite typical of Walt wanting something no other amusement park had. As more vehicle attractions were added to Disneyland, Walt wanted every one to be Disney-unique. Before long, not only railroad trains, but streamlined trains, period vehicles, and specialized ride vehicles were engineered and built in the Walt Disney Studio shops.

Carousel of Progress

Most attractions that Walt Disney created for his first Theme Park, Disneyland, were based on well known historic storylines, such as Peter Pan, King Arthur Carousel, and Dumbo. But the Carousel of Progress exhibit that Walt and his Imagineers created for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was the first large attraction that would not be based on familiar fairy tales. It would actually be a living commercial for a line of company products.

The exhibit sponsor, General Electric, wanted to showcase it’s consumer products. So Walt devised a multi-part theatrical stage show that spanned from the early days just before electricity up to the present. This show featured a family over time who’s lives were improved by the use of General Electric appliances. By weaving General Electric’s products into a charming family scene, Walt created a ground breaking way to sell goods in a show business way – quite clever indeed.

It’s a Small World

Starting in early 1961, Walt Disney launched his WED Enterprises Imagineers on three big projects for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair; the Ford Magic Skyway, General Electric Carousel of Progress, and the State of Illinois Abraham Lincoln Exhibit. If this was not enough on Walt’s plate, he was asked in early 1963 by UNICEF to design and build a fourth project, It’s a Small World. This was barely a year before the NYWF was to open in April 1964. Walt knew his team could literally do anything, and on short notice too.

The Imagineers cleverly created a simple show using one design for all the hundreds of animated singing dolls, along with a simple but practical boat ride system that delivered very high hourly guest capacity. With original music written for the attraction, colorful scenes and actions, this creation was typical of Walt’s can-do approach to every new idea he had.

Read the whole article on Travel + Leisure by clicking here.