The American West – How the Fantasy Lives on at Disneyland

An exclusive for the Friends of the Walt Disney Family Museum Facebook page – story and photos by Roger Colton

 

 

If you look back to the map of Disneyland as it opened in July of 1955, one can make the case that the largest portion of the Park was given over to Frontierland. “Tall tales and true” was a phrase used to tell the stories presented to guests here.

Given that the American population had been fascinated with the West since before gold was discovered in California, the decision to share a fantasized version of it at Disneyland was inevitable. With everything from pulp novels to radio, film, books and the latest fad of television, the call of the West was the siren song that so many people easily succumbed to.

Who as a child had not played Cowboys and Indians? And who did not know that the good guys wore white hats while the bad guys wore black? Disney had already seen television make good use of stories from the frontier with heroes such as Davy Crockett and Zorro. These were just the latest tales in the string that went back well over 100 years. With entertainment such as the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill Cody and others, imaginations ran wild with adventures that could be in store.

 

The Miller Bros. Real Wild West Show traveling by train around the country.

 

Of course, the reality of life on the frontier was often very dull. A character in the 1972 film, “The Cowboys” remarked that “There ain’t no Sundays west of Omaha.” A family story from the 1890s in central Nevada was life on the back of a horse, working as a ranch hand. Wearing the same clothes day in and day out, regardless of weather. Work was monotonous and entertainments basic when they existed at all.

 

Yet the fantasy of it all lived on. And it still does today. Everything from rodeos to re-enactors to trail rides (such as seen in the 1991 film, “City Slickers”) to competitions for trail-drive cooking – let’s face it, there is something for everyone. Even many little girls who fall in love with horses start out with the fantasy, but end up learning the realities of it all.

 

Just family at the entrance to Frontierland, back in the day.

 

A look back at Frontierland over the years gives an idea of some of the ways guests could enjoy their own Western amusements. There was the popular Indian Village where you could watch, and even join in, some traditional ceremonial dances. You could ride aboard a stagecoach, Connestoga wagon, the Rainbow Ridge Pack mules or a mine train into Natures Wonderland to take it all in. Or you could voyage down the Rivers of America aboard the Indian Canoes, the Mike Fink Keel Boats, the sternwheel steamboat “Mark Twain” or the proud sailing ship “Columbia”. With all of that taking up much of the western side of Disneyland, there was more than enough adventure waiting to be explored.

 

Times may have changed. While western stories may not be as popular as they once were, the tales of good versus evil still are popular. Many stories once set in the West, now have migrated to outer space. A good example is the Star Wars universe. The coming attractions as part of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge are set somewhere on the Outer Rim of that galaxy, a modern frontier if you will.

 

Getting ready to share new tales and experiences at Disneyland meant that construction along the Rivers of America and in the outer parts of Frontierland would have to be closed off from guests. 18 months have passed since those closures took place. But now Disneyland has returned a series of classic attractions back for guests to enjoy. Friday, July 28th, 2017 saw the proud sailing ship “Columbia”, the paddle-wheel steamboat “Mark Twain” and the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes all return to the Rivers of America.

 

 

Also returning along the shores of the Rivers is the DIsneyland Railroad. With plenty of new scenery along the Rivers of America and the railroads first left turn, the new route of the railroad offers plenty to see as the river was “plussed” with the addition of great surprises seen from the trains as well as from the boats on the water. It wouldn’t be fair to give away hints of what lies in store, but you can expect to see old favorites in new locations along the way, as well as some new items, too!

 

The sternwheel steamboat “Mark Twain” approaching the Frontier Landing.

 

To kick off the return of the railroad, the creative chief for Disney, John Lasseter wanted to honor two Disney legends who helped inspire Walt through their own love of trains. Both Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball owned and operated full size steam locomotives. Ollie’s “Marie E.” (named for his wife) came to Disneyland in 2005 for a few trips around the Park with Ollie at the throttle. Now owned by John and Nancy Lasseter at their Justi Creek Railroad (at the Lasseter Family Winery in Glen Ellen, CA), it was under steam, with John at the throttle, to lead a parade of trains over the newly constructed route. Ward and Betty Kimball’s “Chloe” once called their Grizzly Flats Railroad home. Now part of the Grizzly Flats collection at the Southern California Railroad Museum, “Chloe” and her summer coach number 7 were towed by the “Marie E.” Project Director Ken Mitchroney and Docent Beth Weilenman were aboard in homage to Ward and Betty for the festivities. This small train was first across the new rails, as a fitting honor to two gentlemen and ladies who did their part in inspiring Walt to have a train at the Disney theme park.

The Marie E. and the Chloe passing over the new trestle and rock work.

 

 

Following closely behind was the Disneyland Railroad’s own “C.K. Holliday” with it’s original freight train consist, full of Disney characters and cast members. Fireworks erupted as this 1955 original commemorated the past and launched the new era of steam train service at Disneyland.

 

 

Some other surprises await along the route of the Disneyland Railroad with some added touches to both the Grand Canyon Diorama and the Primeval World display. Nice touches to bring both a bit more into the current theme park world.

 

 

It’s fair to say that the West lives on at Disneyland. And with the future ahead for the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, it will continue for some time to come.

 

Roger Colton is a member of the Orange Empire Railway Museum, operating as the Southern California Railroad Museum, in Perris, California. For more information on the Museum, please visit http://www.oerm.org/

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