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Disneyland Article
Disneyland And Imagineering Part 11

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride
ID:
TMS-3497
Source:
MickeyMousePark.com
Author:
K
Dateline:
March 12, 2017
Posted:
March 12, 2017
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Current
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The Storm before the Storm

It was becoming increasingly clear that the year-long struggle to get the park opened was wearing on everyone involved. No one was more affected than Disney himself. Many around him had noticed a change in his behavior. He seemed uneasy and unsure of himself. His wife Lillian was worried that with previous warnings from his doctor about stress, the pressure would lead to a nervous breakdown. Tension between himself and his brother Roy were increasing to the point where Roy bluntly told him during an argument for more funding, he replied, "enough is enough." But Walt's worries weren't just internal. He became caught in the crossfire of a strike by the plumbers union, also having the IATSE artists stepping in to assist the less artistically skilled Orange County workers as well. The latter proved to make for an uncomfortable working environment. To be fair, a project of this size needed all hands available, but having artists required to complete more specialized tasks show up and integrate with men who had been working overtime for months would be difficult even without direct conflict.

By mid-June, designers and construction crews alike were working at what Herb Ryman described as a "frantic, frantic pace." Over in Adventureland, Harper Goff created a plywood model of a river boat and attached it to the top of a jeep. He drove the jeep through the river bed channel to aid in marking where the track path should be as well as checking at just what water level the boat should track. As well as the technical aspects of the ride, the crude but effective setup also helped determine where the jungle animals should be placed. Farther back in the park, Joe Fowler was struggling to come up with the right combination of sealant after he had witnessed the river slowly drain and disappear upon the first attempts to fill it. Before he discovered a mixture of sealant and clay, reinforced with a type of rebar as the solution, he experimented with soil stabilizers and lining the bed with plastic. He knew he wouldn't get multiple chances to fill and refill the river. If that wasn't enough to contend with, he too was having problems with controlling the level of the river in relation to other areas, such as the Jungle Cruise. The dark water system, like many of the creative ideas in the park, were new and as such, untested.

The Land Where Dreams Come True

Disney's trips to Griffith Park with his daughters, sitting on a bench, watching them ride the carousel, thinking about a themed park for families to enjoy together has been well documented. This bit of history is always given the credit for the creation of Disneyland. What is often overlooked was that this was the age of fan clubs and pen pals. There was a significant amount of mail going to fan clubs associated with different Disney productions such as Davy Crockett and the Mickey Mouse Club. Walt himself received letters from children asking if they could come to visit Mickey at his "house" as well as Minnie, Pluto, Cinderella and other characters from Disney films. It was this input that helped shape the idea to have the characters roaming the property visiting with the guests. Disneyland, as it evolved, was to incorporate a main area that revolved around bringing many Disney films to life, which ultimately came to be known as Fantasyland.

The Oxymoron that Sold the Show

Although Disney had a disdain for a large majority of amusement parks, he did not deny their roots. Although many new concepts were introduced when Disneyland opened, there was a crucial element that was carried over from the old amusement park model. Historically, one of the original attractions in the first structured amusement parks was the dark ride. Going back to The Haunted Pretzel in Bushkill Park to Disneyland's The Haunted Mansion, which reigns supreme as one of the best dark rides, they are a mainstay to the amusement park experience. Unfortunately, The Haunted Pretzel was destroyed in 2004 by flood, while the The Haunted Mansion is approaching its fiftieth anniversary. I know as a kid, regardless of the quality of the amusement park, I always asked, "Where's the Haunted House?" Dark Rides traditionally tend to lean toward the scary or, at least, frenetic. There were variations of the dark ride ranging from The Funhouse, The Tunnel of Love, to the notorious, Haunted House. The darkness creates its own walls, giving a feeling of claustrophobia and disorientation. One of main components in Fantasyland would be a number of dark rides utilizing a relatively new effect, black light. William Byler, a chemistry and physics graduate from the University of Central Missouri was working with luminescent materials, and in 1935 was given credit for inventing the black light. As a light source it had been around since the early part of the twentieth century. It became increasingly popular in the 60s and 70s during the "psychedelic" era with the introduction of the black light poster. Even as that era died out, dark rides, whether backyard or high tech, all use that simple source for atmosphere.

In relation to dark rides, black light had previously been limited in use. Disney wanted to bring many of his films to life in the form of dark rides. Combining black light with fluorescent paint, characters would appear to "glow" in the darkness. Although these were first generation attractions in the park, they were not thrown together. Initially there would be meetings to discuss general concepts for a ride, with Imagineers breaking up to work individually. It is conceivable to assume that from the outset, Imagineers would appear to work in a team environment. But Disney didn't want that for the core work. It was the park overseers and planners like Davis, Irvine, Martin, Ryman and Fowler that would meet collectively. He would then match artists, writers, and engineers and assign them to a project not always knowing what the final outcome would be. It would then be the goal of the Imagineer to refine the project to Disney's exacting ideas. As far as large teams of artists, there were exceptions like the Model Shop, but in many cases artists would be given assignments, with Disney going from artist to artist checking on their progress. He would encourage them or suggest that they refocus if he didn't like something. As a project went through development, artists would be integrated together as the attraction neared completion. Our next two Imagineers were key developers in the Fantasyland dark rides.

Walt Disney has always been generally perceived as a smiling, father-like figure. From his appearances on television, he came off as a self-effacing teacher. As a businessman, he was intensely serious; focusing on connecting with his artists he could become impatient and frustrated, but he intuitively knew his staff, listening intently to learn all that he could. With some more than others he took great care in how he interacted with them. Our next Imagineer was one such artist and has often been referred to, affectionately, as Disney's "gentle giant."

Lumiere Artist Extraordinaire

Claude Coats, a San Fransisco native, relocated to Southern California and attended the University of Southern California. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture and Fine Arts. The following year, Phil Dike, a friend and employee at Disney's Hyperion Studios, suggested Coats bring his portfolio over to the studio for an interview. With his experience and passion for watercolors, he was hired and began apprenticing as a background artist. The studio staffed less than 70 artists at the time, and with Claude's physical stature, he even beat out John Hench, towering over the rest of the Imagineers. But his height belied his actual nature. He wasn't demonstrative in his actions or voice like some of the staff. When supervising, if he felt a design or sketch wasn't going as it should, he, like Disney, would gently suggest a different direction, rarely speaking in negatives.

Animated shorts were growing out of infancy into more mature projects. That was one of the keys to the success of the Disney Animation Studio. Disney was not content to make the same film over and over or use the same skill set repeatedly. The company was moving quickly from short subjects to feature films. Even before features, Disney had his artists improving and advancing the story by creating more mood and dimension created in the background, and that's where Coats came in. Like John Hench, Claude Coats worked with color, creating backgrounds that established mood in projects like "The Old Mill," released in 1937. Although short in length, it is an excellent example of mood setting and was considered a "rehearsal" for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Prior to its release, Coats had met Evelyn "Evie" Henry who worked in the Ink and Paint Department at the studio. Dispelling the ridiculous accusations over the years that Disney had a dislike for hiring women, the Ink and Paint Department is an excellent rebuttal, being primarily staffed by women, and I haven't even gotten to the first of several gifted female Imagineers. Claude married Evelyn Henry just prior to the release of Snow White, meanwhile continuing his work on 1938's, Ferdinand the Bull. Although dark rides are most effective with as little light as possible, Coats was experimenting with light intensity as well as color in his layouts. Creating shadow of varying degrees, he continued to refine lighting effects to create atmosphere in the overall layouts, and give dimension to the characters in those layouts. He worked on the first Disneyland projects and continued on for over forty years, earning a well deserved reputation as one of the best dark ride planners in the amusement park business.

A Real Character Builder

Claude Coates was one of two key developers of the Fantasyland dark rides, Ken Anderson being the other. Born in 1909 in Seattle, Washington, he attended the University of Washington, graduating with a Masters in Architecture and earning a scholarship which allowed him to travel to Europe. He traveled through Germany and France studying European architecture, and like Claude Coats created beautiful watercolor cityscapes. He returned to Southern California beginning his career as a sketch artist for MGM. As the Depression bore down on everyone, Anderson was laid off, supposedly, temporarily. However, newly married and living at poverty level, and with no reassurances on the horizon, he took an unexpected long shot. In the fall of 1934, while driving past Hyperion Studios, at the suggestion of his wife Polly, he applied for work. It was one of those "what have we got to lose situations", but Anderson, although he was ready to work, was ambivalent about working at an animation studio. He didn't feel his skill could be used or appreciated. But, once again, Disney, upon looking at his work from Europe, saw something that Anderson did not and hired him. He himself had traveled to Europe with his family and Disneyland planners looking for conceptual ideas, and the portfolio Anderson presented contained images that Disney could relate to and utilize. In fact, before the end of the decade, a major attraction would be added to the park which was a result of Disney's travels abroad. Ken Anderson's first assignment was Goddess of Spring, one of the Silly Symphonies. He went on to serve as art director for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. With his skill in architecture, he built models of the dwarfs' cottage to help better conceptualize the structure for the other animators. In addition to Snow White he also served as art director for Pinocchio, So Dear to My Heart, Cinderella, and the Pastoral sequence from Fantasia. He made significant contributions to technology that helped blend live action and animation for Song of the South. In 1951, Disney approached Anderson with a unique offer. He wanted to take him off the studio payroll, instead paying him out of his own pocket, giving him several assignments that would lead to the creation of a first generation Audio-Animatronic figure called Project Little Man. He continued working on feature films, his work on the 1953 film, Peter Pan playing an important part in the layout of the Peter Pan's Flight attraction.

The Three D's

Overall layouts for the Fantasyland area had been done by Herb Ryman, with Bill Martin assigned as Art Director. For both Anderson and Coats the timing was perfect. As the rush to get the gates open, and their accomplished skills for creating character, mood, and dimension in the films at the studio, they moved over to the park to work on the three original "D' ticket attractions: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Peter Pan's Flight and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Both Anderson and Coats began transforming concept sketches into dimensional models for the Fantasyland dark rides and began laying out each attraction. The attractions incorporated space optimization which is the cornerstone to creating an effective dark ride. From an artistic perspective, the idea was to take the available space and make it appear to have much more physical depth than was actually there. Creating this effect was done by utilizing different techniques, diminishing perspective being extremely important. Although the three original rides were restricted to the confines of the dark ride, they are each uniquely different, especially given their limitations. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was scary, with tension building as the ride progresses right up to the very last scenes. Mr Toad's Wild Ride is, for search of a better word wild. Employing weaving motion, switchbacks in the track layout and numerous gateway doors from scene to scene, the ride aims to be a nerve-wracking, disoriented journey to hell and back literally. Peter Pan's Flight is the most ambitious of the three, rewriting the definition of the dark ride.

Of the three rides, Snow White required the least amount of preproduction. Bill Martin designed the track layout and several fa├žade sketches for the building's exteriors, which were originally medieval themed. While Roger Broggie assisted with the mechanical issues on all three attractions, a large portion of the ride mechanics including the ride vehicles were supplied by Arrow Development Company, which specialized in ride design and creation. Since Ken Anderson had been the Art Director on Snow White, he was assigned to create the storyline and pick the scenes that would be created in three dimension. In all three rides, "flats," or plywood cutouts were painted and decorated with props to give them more dimension. To emphasize shape further, some objects and characters were created in half and full sculpture to enhance the feeling of actually being part of the story. Most people don't realize that in the original Snow White attraction, the rider is supposed to be experiencing the ride from Snow White's point of view. The thirteen electric cars are guided by a single track. Through the use of black light, breakaway doors, sharp turns, lightning, and speed variation, the ride is effective, moving continuously through the storyline. Sculpted characters and architecture were employed sparingly, mostly because of time constraints. With the Wicked Witch as the protagonist, the ride was designed to build scares as the ride progresses, becoming increasingly dark in tone. As the riders see glimpses of the Witch though the ride, it builds to a close confrontation with her standing at her cauldron. We make a narrow escape through the dark forest filled with large lurking trees with faces painted in bright fluorescents, only to have one final attempt by the Witch to stop us by prying loose boulders from above our path before we escape into the daylight.

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was located in the same building as Peter Pan's Flight which was one of two prefabricated Soule' buildings that had yet to be installed. Consequently both rides were pre-constructed on a Disney sound stage back in Burbank. Anderson and Coats worked together on designing the murals and flats. As with Snow White, Bill Martin designed the track layout and Arrow Development supplied the vehicles. Given the fact that the ride was under some strict space constraints, this fact was built into the storyline. One of the first considerations was the length of the ride, time-wise. That helped in timing the effects and gags that were used. The storyline is a morality tale based on the The Wind in the Willows and begins with the rider entering the home of J Thadeus Toad. Crashing out of Toad Hall, we join Thadeus and Cyril, his companion, on a wild ride through the countryside and the streets of London. Because of the space limitations, the shortest turn radius that could be used helped shape the ride by employing numerous sharp turns and English bobbies trying to stop the mayhem. Lighting effects, explosions, bumps in the track, a cacophony of sounds overlaid one on top of the other help enhance the mayhem. As fast as the ride moves along, there is a lot of detail on the flats, the library in Toad Hall being a good example of the attention to detail used, rather than settle as a lot of amusement park owners had done. The story was more linear than Snow White, following the events from the film closely, although "edited for time." The story elements were more loosely structured on Snow White, presenting familiar characters, imagery and songs, and drawing the rider's emotion from that. This is in part due to the fact that Snow White is a more familiar movie to children than The Wind in the Willows. Also to note, as the ride concludes, we end up taking a trip to Hell, which, because of the lighthearted handling, is more funny than scary.

Peter Pan's Flight was the most ambitious of the three dark rides, in that rather than follow a traditional track layout on the floor, at an early planning meeting, Bill Martin made a joke regarding creating a suspended ride which, however it was intended, made this dark ride an immediate favorite. Herb Ryman's 1954 layout included two elements: a rainbow and a Mermaid Lagoon, not in the opening attraction. A second layout was submitted later in the year by Marvin Davis utilizing a "Peter Pan Fly Thru" with scenes that included a Hangman's Tree and Crocodile Creek. In both layouts the boats traveled in a clockwise direction, which was reversed in the final attraction. A test track was built at the studio by Bob Mattey and other Imagineers, including Bob Gurr. Anderson and Coats painted the flats for the attraction like the others, however the flats in Peter Pan were mostly limited to the first scenes in the Nursery and the rooftops as the boats exit the Darling home. Early track mechanics were supplied by the Cleveland Rail Company, which had previously created overhead conveyor systems. These systems were utilized in the work environment to move materials with the track system suspended from the ceiling. The motor assembly for the attraction's boats included a one horsepower electric motor, a trolley assembly and a gear box, which were installed above the mast to be obscured from view as much as possible. To move the boats smoothly the wheel assembly incorporated friction drive and used a pinch drive wheel to smooth out the ascent and descent of the boats throughout the ride. In the loading queue wooden cutouts were painted to match the scenery and used to obscure the track. Each boat traveled along the track which was divided into electric "blocks". The ride starts at just under 9 feet rising to a height of almost 17 feet at its maximum. Anderson and Coats were working overtime, literally. The attraction had a large portion of the scenes and props sculpted completely in three dimensions. These included the elaborate Never Land Island and Skull Rock. Traveling in an "S" pattern over London town, small models are built in both diminishing and reverse perspective and placed on the attraction floor. Moving traffic, and sculpted willowy clouds suspended from the ceiling complete the effect. Scrims are also used to diffuse imagery or conceal effects. As far as the storyline goes, it is slightly less structured than Mr. Toad, but more so than Snow White, following the events from the film fairly closely.

In the next part, we'll discover the crown in the Fantasyland courtyard and rejoin the construction crews as months count down from weeks to days and finally, Black Sunday.
 
Attractions Referenced

Haunted Mansion

Jungle Cruise

Mark Twain Riverboat

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

Peter Pan

Snow White's Adventures

 
Lands Referenced

Adventureland

Fantasyland

 
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