Walt Disney’s College of Knowledge: Walt and Disneyland’s Great Outdoors

Every Disney fan knows that there’s always more to see, more to read, and more to learn about Disney and the fascinating person behind the name, myth, and maker of the magic: Walt Disney! So sharpen your Number Two pencil and get out your college-ruled paper because class is about to begin at Walt Disney’s College of Knowledge!

Often overlooked in the discussion of Disneyland is Walt’s fascinating transition from a “filmmaker” to his mastery of a completely disparate medium.

“At first consideration, the two mediums—indoor movies and outdoor entertainment—seem incompatible,” International Ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering Marty Sklar wrote in 1964.

Sklar then quoted an unnamed Disneyland art director who explained, “The basic premise of everything that went into Disneyland was participation, involving people in an experience, and—through that experience—evoking their emotions and stimulating their imaginations. Entertainment is basically an act of communicating with an audience, whether that audience is a theater full of people or a mother and daughter in a pirate galleon flying over Peter Pan’s moonlit London town.”

The grove land of Anaheim was a new “blank page” for Walt to fill, and although the story was now dimensional and experiential, Walt did not have to reach very far to find his fundamental stories. Moreover, much of his success with Disneyland grew out of the visual and design vocabulary of film.

  1. Disneyland presented a lot of “nature.”

    The “great outdoors” of Disneyland could represent a variety of far-flung environments in which not only the living characters of fairy tales and animation could greet an audience in person—even the amazing wildlife of the world could be on display.

    “No one can have a well-rounded education without some knowledge of what goes on in the physical world around us,” Walt said. “He must have some orderly information about the earth and its multitude of animal wayfarers. They have helped define our culture, our arts, our behaviorism and, indeed, the fundaments of our human civilization.”

    Within Disneyland, Walt saw an opportunity to showcase this philosophy in an innovative way, by bringing the principles of his award-winning True-Life Adventures from the screen to “true life” in Disneyland’s Jungle River Ride. But zoologists soon convinced him that using live animals in his attractions was impractical, and he turned to his Studio Machine Shop to create the elephants, crocodiles, and hippos that he would need to make a credible jungle adventure.

    Exotic animals from other continents weren’t Walt’s only interest, though. He was aware that twentieth century America was changing at a fast pace, and much as he wanted to remind Disneyland Guests of old-fashioned Main Street, U.S.A., and the frontier towns of the Old West, he also recognized that nature itself, and the relationship of the average American with it, was changing.

    “You don’t realize it, but you could find moose, elk, and bear around, you know?” Walt said. “Well, it’s part of America. You don’t want to forget that it wasn’t like it is today . . . I mean that’s only a little over 100 years ago, you know? I think it’s vital that we don’t forget that.”

    While, stories of the Jungle Cruise are often told, it is now little known that the first several of Walt’s True-Life Adventures films inspired a huge and ambitious Frontierland attraction enhancement just five years after Disneyland opened: Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland.

  2. A seven acre attraction was based on hit films.

    A poster for an attraction in Frontierland called "Nature's Wonderland." The poster shows 4 separate landscapes and animals within separated by a graphic of a train track. The area labeled Beaver Valley shows a beaver perched on a log. The area labeled Olympic Elk shows an elk in front of a mountain. The area labeled Bear Country shows a family of bears in front of a tree. The area labeled Living Desert shows a desert catch perched on a rock formation.
    The original attraction poster for Nature’s Wonderland. © Disney.

    A 1.8 million dollar, seven-acre Frontierland expansion premiered in May and June of 1960, subsuming the earlier Rainbow Ridge area and attractions, and the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train ride. Promotional text from the opening explains: “The series of films we called True-Life Adventures have provided the inspiration for Disneyland’s newest addition, Nature’s Wonderland.

    “During the years that our naturalist-photographers were filming these absorbing stories of unspoiled nature, the idea grew that this same theme should be a part of Disneyland,” the text continues. “Those who remember Beaver Valley, Bear Country, The Living Desert, and the others of this series about wildlife on the North American continent will be pleased to renew old acquaintances in our Disneyland ’60 attraction, Nature’s Wonderland.

    “We have ‘stocked’ our preserve with over 200 amazingly realistic animated animals and birds—including almost every specie still roaming the North American continent. Here, in a primitive setting that duplicates the remote wilderness country, you may watch beavers, busy as always, on home-building and tree-cutting chores; coyotes and mountain lions; clown-like bears, romping without a care in the world; Olympic Elk engaged in battle for survival, just as it is enacted daily in the natural wilderness.”

  3. A real-but-faux place, inspired by four documentary films.

    A black and white photo of a man in slacks and a striped polo shirt walking along train tracks in a makeshift desert, with one hand on his hip and the other flinging his coat over his shoulder
    Walt “walks the tracks” in The Living Desert. © Disney.

    Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland (which was replaced in 1977 by Big Thunder Mountain Railroad) was a marvel of cinematic vision carried into a real space. Firstly, it created a credible place that helped to “suspend disbelief”—one of the filmmaker’s fundamental goals.

    Then, as was frequently the case in Disneyland, Nature’s Wonderland put the Guest in a “front row seat,” able to immediately ascertain close-ups, medium shots, and long shots, just as if they were seated in a movie theater.

    Then, as a movie production designer would, the Imagineers created an overarching design palette that incorporated shape language, texture, color, and lighting elements that represented the American West, Pacific Northwest, and desert Southwest.

    Within these show sets, 156 distinct types of plants and 200 of the earliest Audio-Animatronics Figures became the “show,” performing a series of tableaux, limited animation, and accompanying sounds that was narrated either by the live on-board “engineer,” or through a recording by veteran voice actor Dallas McKennon.

    After departing the train station in the little mining town of Rainbow Ridge, the trains entered a tunnel and emerged in Beaver Valley, and proceeded through Cascade Peak, Bear Country, the Living Desert, around Rainbow Mountain and into the subterranean Rainbow Caverns (actually an indoor “dark ride” style show much like its Fantasyland neighbors); a ten-minute excursion that featured spectacular views of newly-constructed “natural” wonders, and Frontierland landmarks such as the Rivers of America and Tom Sawyer Island. Spectacular mountainsides and waterfalls, desert hoodoos, precarious balancing rocks, and a spectacular rock archway could be viewed both at close view and spectacular setting as the train made its way across picturesque trestles and around craggy mountain curves.

  4. Walt had “a warmish feeling for animals.”

    Walt looks over the elaborate model of the Beaver Valley area of Nature’s Wonderland. © Disney.

    Along the way, Walt was able to showcase the forms and behaviors of a variety of birds and mammals in appropriate settings and actions, in his effort to portray a wild America that he knew was swiftly vanishing, in many cases because of the “progress” that he loved equally.

    “I would say that Walt had a warmish feeling for animals,” director Ken Annakin said, “But his real love of animals was what they could do for him. What he could use animals to entertain rather than just . . . making pictures—because he was a great animal lover. I think he felt very much that they were—if he observed them well—they were wonderful instruments for him to make entertainment.”

    And this “warmish feeling” didn’t just apply to the motion picture and television media. In his desire to display these amazing natural wonders for his visitors to see, and understand, and appreciate, Walt showed that the talents of his craft in design, staging, character development, and even humor could translate skillfully and effectively into amazing “true-life” environments in Disneyland’s own “great outdoors.”

By Jeff Kurtti

JEFF KURTTI is a leading authority on The Walt Disney Company, its founder, and its history. He is the author of more than twenty books, a writer-director of award-winning documentary content, and a respected public speaker. A Seattle, Washington, native, Kurtti worked as a production coordinator on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, followed by two years as the assistant to the president of the California Institute of the Arts. For several years, he worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Since 1995, Kurtti has enjoyed a career as an author, writer, and consultant in the motion picture, theatre, and theme park entertainment industries. He was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and a producer of The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, a critically acclaimed documentary about the famed songwriters.


Care for an insider’s perspective? Check out legendary Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar’s Disney Editions book Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms.

Posted 8 years Ago
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