I can only imagine the creative path that Walt was on when he came up with this one. “OK, I want a big finish to the Grand Circle Tour of the Disneyland Railroad. It needs more than just a trip around the tracks. Something gargantuan…like the Grand Canyon! We’ll do a big mural…put some dead animals in front of it…put a rousing piece of music behind it to pump in some extra emotion…and then in 8 years…we’ll add some dinosaurs, okay?” Well, maybe it was SOMETHING like that. What I do know is that in 1958, Walt produced the film “The Grand Canyon” that was shown with “Sleeping Beauty.” The music of Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” accompanied the 29 minute film and was the perfect companion to the natural beauty of this Arizona landmark.
Disney won an Oscar for best live action short. At the same time, Disney decided that the Grand Canyon was just the finishing touch that Disneyland needed for its railroad as it completed its full-circle trip at the Main Street Train Station. Claude Coats, known as a background painter, was drafted by Walt to manage the project.
Like many others at the studio, Coats was against plopping the Grand Canyon between the Tomorrowland and Main Street Stations. Coats didn’t see the connection, and thus suggested a diorama based on science. Imagineer Marvin Davis suggested a Diorama tribute to ALL the National Parks. Not surprisingly, Walt wouldn’t budge. He wanted the Grand Canyon and that was that. And you know what? The damn thing really does work. Somehow, it just seems natural with the narration and Ferde Grofe’s music (the “On The Trail” portion of his “Grand Canyon Suite”) to enter a tunnel showcasing the Grand Canyon. Not much different than entering the tunnel between Frontierland and Fantasyland and seeing the singing animals of Splash Mountain on the Riverboat!
Here are 2 vintage color views, showing the Eagles and the Bighorn Sheep:
The first thing you see when you enter the tunnel are the amazing vistas of the 305′ long by 35′ high painted diorama, based on an original concept illustration by Claude Coats. The painting of this huge backdrop took approximately 4800 hours of labor , 300 gallons of paint, and cost $367,000.
The animals that you see in the Grand Canyon are not audio-animatronic models; rather, they are real animals that were prepared by a taxidermist. Reportedly, Claude Coats made only one trip to the taxidermist shop to see how things were progressing; the smell of the boiling meat and flesh was so revolting that he never went back. The rest of these images are presented in the order that you’d see them while riding the Disneyland Railroad.
Apparently, Walt was concerned about the turkeys. Coats went to the actual Grand Canyon site to research what types of wildlife were actually there, so that the Diorama could be as authentic as possible. Walt did not believe that there were turkeys in the Grand Canyon. It took a follow-up call to a park ranger to convince Walt that the turkeys should stay.
And a recent shot of the Bighorn Sheep that provide the finale for the Grand Canyon Diorama:
Is it a little corny? Sure…and a little hokey, too. But again, somehow it all works and provides a wonderful finish to the “Grand Circle Tour” of Disneyland. Guests realize when they leave the tunnel that they have just seen the end of the show and that it’s time to disembark at the Main Street Train Station. 50 years later, the painted Diorama still looks beautiful and Grofe’s music evokes the wide-open spaces of one of nature’s most amazing landscapes.
Stay tuned for the next column as we explore the Primeval World! See you at Daveland!
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