Inside the Mountainous Upgrades to Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsleds

The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland is an attraction that has been constantly updated, but the best and most spectacular upgrades might have been saved for its most recent refurbishment.


When the ride, the first tubular steel roller coaster in the world, first opened in 1959, it was built for practicality just as much as entertainment value. Yes, it was a thrilling race down a fictionalized version of the famous Swiss mountain (Walt became enamored with the real Matterhorn while filming Third Man on the Mountain, which ended up opening the same year the Matterhorn debuted) but it also had more down-to-earth reasons for existing. Primarily, it was used to capitalize on a large mound of dirt that had been piled behind Sleeping Beauty Castle (it was a wayward picnic area) and hide a large steel beam that was used for the now-defunct Skyway attraction.


When the attraction was moved from Tomorrowland to Fantasyland in the ‘70s (a move that made much more sense on a thematic level), it also received a major overhaul: in 1978 much of the inside of the mountain, which had up until that point been hollow, was filled in with smaller show scenes. Maybe the most memorable addition during this refresh was the Abominable Snowman, who roared at passing bobsledders and had fearsome, glowing red eyes. In 1994, when the Skyway closed, holes in the mountain were filled in and a scene featuring ominously glowing crystals was added. In 2012, more lifelike snow was added to the exterior of the mountain, the loading area was refurbished and parts of the mountain were entirely overhauled. Somewhat controversially, new bobsled ride vehicles were also introduced.


And now it’s 2015 and it’s time for yet another revision for the Matterhorn Bobsleds, just in time for the park-wide 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebration.


These might be the most significant updates since 1978. The Abominable Snowman figures have been replaced with more menacing figures (his glowing red eyes remain), and a pair of new show scenes have been added: there’s a nifty projection-mapping moment when your bobsled ascends the mountain and a scene that replaces those twinkly cave crystals. Instead of an oddly peaceful moment to gaze at beautiful rockwork, it instead reinforces how terrifying this creature is, as you look on in horror at a pile of disused ride vehicles and other miscellanea from the attraction’s past. (You’ve got to see that one for yourself.) The new additions are really thrilling and inventive and make the ride even more exciting, whether you’re new to the attraction or have ridden it fifty times before.


One note: those recent ride vehicles remain. If you want a smoother ride, we suggest doing the left line, which is slightly shorter but much easier on your backside. If you want a scarier experience and don’t mind a few extra bumps, then the right side is for you.


We got a chance to chat with Jeff Shaver-Moskowitz, Producer for Walt Disney Imagineering and Ray Spencer, Executive Creative Director for Walt Disney Imagineering. We talked about the philosophy behind the Disney’s New Magic initiative, the importance of projection mapping, and who would win in a fight: the Matterhorn Bobsleds’ Abominable Snowman at Disneyland or Expedition Everest’s Yeti from Walt Disney World.


What precipitated this idea of a new Abominable Snowman and adding these show scenes?
Ray: We thought that it would be a really good thing to expand the story and introduce the Snowman to our guests earlier in the attraction and then carry the storyline throughout: that you’re being followed by this amazing creature. That and with that desire to plus attractions as the technology becomes available to us and as time passes to keep them fresh. We thought that in conjunction with the Diamond Celebration would be a really nice way to do that.


How do you decide which attractions to add the New Magic to?
Ray: It’s not so much about choosing one attraction and manifesting updates to those over and over again. It’s about keeping the classics refreshed and spreading the refreshments around enough to keep them elevating in their contemporary storytelling.
Jeff: Just to add onto that: another thing we were looking at from the very beginning was doing this one-foot-in-the-past, one-foot-in-the-future tribute to Disneyland. We really tried to focus on those classic Disneyland attractions that we would bring some new technological magic to and pay tribute to the DNA of classic Disneyland.


The Abominable Snowman intro uses projection mapping, as does the Hatbox Ghost. How important is this new technology to Imagineering, especially when thinking about adding that extra layer to the attractions?
Ray: With the miniaturization of components and the ability to program with digital means to control the shows, it’s been huge for us. Because we’ve been able to create animated sequences strictly through projection and projection mapping and create the illusion of reality without strictly building dimensional figures and dimensional sets. But the ice wall sequence, the beauty of that is we have the marriage of the physical environment, which is this amazing ice wall that creates amazing refraction and what you would see looking through an ice wall but with the projection behind it’s a great marriage. It makes the projection a seamless part of the environment and what we always want to do is make that projection, as a technology, invisible but as a storytelling device very visible.


The hoarding sequence, where the ice crystals used to be, pays tribute to Disney’s past. Can you talk a little bit about that show scene?
Ray: Sure. It’s interesting because we’ve now incorporated Disney’s history and the history of the attraction into the Matterhorn. Knowing that the sky buckets used to pass through the Matterhorn and knowing that there were sleds and ride vehicles that have changed, knowing how things have changed since 1959 when the ride opened, we have represented all of that in that horde. They say apes like shiny things and the Abominable Snowman is no different. He’s collected these things over the year and here we have a little homage from the first sky buckets, we have another, later version of the sky buckets, and we have a couple of early bobsleds represented. There’s some history there and it’s buried in a little bit of ice. The Snowman doesn’t have malicious intent to tear these things up, necessarily, but he’s collected them and puts them in the one spot and that’s where we find them.


Who would win in a fight: the new Matterhorn Abominable Snowman or the Expedition Everest Yeti?
Ray: Well of course the Matterhorn Abominable Snowman because the Forbidden Mountain yeti is inoperable.
Jeff: Good answer, Ray.
Ray: He’s big and ferocious and scary and with ours, in the confines that we’re operating with, we cautiously had to be concerned about scale. However this is a much bigger Snowman than you’ve seen in the past, but he can still occupy the same space that the originals did. I think we bridged the gap in the sense that he’s a little bit more in your face, but still respecting the space that was available to us.


Have you taken a wild ride on the new Matterhorn? If so, tell us your thoughts in the comments!

Posted 6 years Ago
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