New Heights: A Matterhorn in the Anaheim Alps

Posted on Fri, 01/20/2012 - 06:00

Our Film of the Month for January has been called “the best Disney live-action feature that you’ve never seen” by film writer Karl Holzheimer. Although acclaimed as of the finest adventure dramas of its era, Third Man on the Mountain has never reached the status in the Disney legacy that it richly deserves. Disney historian and writer Jim Korkis illuminates on of the more permanent—and well-known—influences of this unjustly-neglected film. 

When Disneyland opened, there was not enough time nor money to do everything that Walt Disney wanted. In an area between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland was a large pile of dirt that had been named “Holiday Hill.” (Amorous couples quickly discovered that this out-of-the-way location was an ideal location for a possible “E Ticket” activity, which resulted in Disneyland memos to increase security patrols around the area.)

When the Disneyland Skyway opened on June 23, 1956, the hill became the home to a large steel tower, used to support the “buckets” that traveled from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland and back. That summer, Walt sat on the hill with Admiral Joe Fowler and talked about the possibility of transforming the hill into a toboggan ride with real snow. The good Admiral was aghast at the logistics of trying to get a working snowmaking machine to generate enough snow to accommodate Walt’s vision, and he steered Walt away from the idea by talking about all the other things needed in Disneyland at the time. 

In October 1957, Jack Sayers read an article in Funspot magazine about a “wild mouse” coaster that could make quick turns and sharp drops, and he passed the article along to Walt, who passed it along to Dick Irvine. By May 15, 1958, Bill Cottrell was talking at a meeting about converting Holiday Hill with “a pair of wild mouse bobsleds” with a little bit of artificial snow.

Once the concept was presented, it took another six months for the name of the mountain to be finalized. Possible names included “Mount Disneyland,” “Disneyland Mountain,” “Fantasy Mountain,” “Echo Mountain,” “Sorcerer’s Mountain” (after the mountain in Fantasia) and even “Magic Mountain” (“Magic Mountain” later became the name of another famous Southern California amusement park). As a joke, it was even suggested to call the mountain “Mt. Valterhorn” (to parody Walt’s name in a Bavarian accent).

In production at the time was the Disney live action film, Third Man on the Mountain, based on a true story of a famous mountain climber and a determined young boy attempting to climb the mighty Matterhorn. The author of the book (Banner in the Sky), James Ramsey Ullman, does a quick walk-on that most audiences miss, while clever Disney fans often notice an amusing cameo of a tourist asking for directions played by Helen Hayes, the mother of James MacArthur who plays the young boy in the movie. Walt went to the location for the filming. 

“At this time,” remembered director Ken Annakin, “Walt had taken a shine to Switzerland and everything Swiss. He used to go there on his summer holidays every year, and adored it, and this story; he felt would be the thing for all young people. No effort was spared to make it as entertaining as the holiday which Walt was taking in Switzerland proved to be for him.”

Harriet Burns even remembers Walt sending postcards of the Matterhorn back to them at WED with the implication of “build this thing at Disneyland.”

So in another great example of synergy, the new attraction at Disneyland became the Matterhorn (approximately 147 feet high compared to the actual 14,700 feet of the real thing), but it unfortunately did little to improve the box office performance of the film. It did, however, successfully hide the steel support tower for the Skyway that now went through Disney’s first theme park mountain. 

When asked why there were holes in the Matterhorn, Walt would smile and reply, “Because it is a Swiss mountain” (just as Swiss cheese has holes, so would a Swiss mountain).

The “Second Opening of Disneyland” in June 1959 introduced the very first “E Ticket” attractions: The Monorail, the Submarine Voyage and, of course, the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The Matterhorn Bobsleds are recognized as the first tubular steel roller coaster in the world, and was built by coaster builder Arrow Dynamics (who also suggested that the bobsleds hit the water at the bottom of the ride to slow the speed) and WED Imagineering. The two tracks have subtle differences that have been debated by Disney fans ever since the ride opened over 40 years ago.

In the beginning, it was never quite clear where the Matterhorn was actually located. Originally, it was considered part of the new attractions in Tomorrowland, yet the 1959 Guide to Disneyland lists it in one location as a Tomorrowland attraction, and in another says the attraction is located in Fantasyland.

Geographically, either location is accurate. Philosophically, it is a majestic and towering tribute to the fantasy of Walt Disney, and his ability to make those dreams become real. 

© Jim Korkis, all rights reserved. Published with permission.

JIM KORKIS is an internationally-respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of article and done hundreds of presentations on all things Disney for more than thirty years. He is the author of the acclaimed new book The Vault of Walt. His extensive expertise and knowledge, particularly in previously-unexplored areas of Disney history, has been utilized by many other researchers as well as The Walt Disney Company.

THE VAULT OF WALT is a highly-praised recently-published book featuring more than 450 pages of previously untold stories about Walt Disney, the Disney theme parks, the Disney films as well as many out-of-the-ordinary and forgotten stories of Disney history.

Third Man on the Mountain screens daily through January at 1:00pm and 4:00pm (except Tuesdays, and January 21 and 29). Tickets are available at the Reception and Member Service Desk at the Museum, or online by clicking here.

Images above: 1) Walt in 1955 atop "Holiday Hill," the future site of the Disneyland Matterhorn © Disney. 2) Walt and the scale models of the Matterhorn and Sleeping Beauty Castle, December 1958. © Disney. 3) Unknown artist's concept painting for the Matterhorn and Alpine Village, c. 1957. © Disney. 4) The majestic Matterhorn still towers over Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom today. © Disney.