Monday, August 8, 2011

The Matterhorn Bobsleds!

The Matterhorn Bobsleds!

The first memory I have of Disneyland is going with my grandma and mother when I was about 3 years old. Grandma was in her mid 70’s and could not ride the big rides but she enjoyed the rest of the park just as much as I did. Fantasyland was her favorite spot with Peter Pan being the ultimate ride for her. For her anyplace to people watch was good place to be. She sat on the bench near the exit of the Matterhorn and waited for my mother and I to get off. (We had the front seat that ride!!) She was there waiting for me to tell her all about it. I remember I started yelling as the car rolled to a stop even though I could not see her yet. I kept yelling as I ran up to her, “It’s a blast! It’s a blast grandma!!!” Today almost 50 years later I still come off yelling “It’s a blast! It’s a blast!!” and then I look for grandma’s smiling face. I can see her in my heart and mind. I know she is waiting for me to tell her all about that ride!

The Matterhorn Bobsleds opened June 14th, 1959. For a 51 year old ride she is still a beautiful big thrill. The story goes Walt wanted to build a perfect scale model of the real Swiss Matterhorn. He had the mountain built on a 1/100th scale of the real Matterhorn Mountain. He had been there filming “Third Man on the Mountain” and fell in love with the beauty and wanted it in his park. Once he decided that he had to figure out what exactly to do with it when it was in his park. You can’t have a huge mountain sitting in the middle of your park just taking up room. Originally the Matterhorn Mountain was just a way to hide the third pylon on the Fantasyland/Tomorrowland Skyway. Walt decided he wanted a Bobsled roller coaster in the Matterhorn but that was a big problem. At that time roller coasters were built on scaled down train tracks. This style of track could not make the sharp turns required to navigate the inside and around Matterhorn Mountain. Walt put the challenge to his Imagineers and they came up with the first tubular steel roller coaster design! Only tubular steel tracks allowed the cars to safely navigate the sharp turns needed to build this coaster at a speed that would thrill the guests, and Uncle Walt.

The history of the Matterhorn is rich. Over the years there have been many changes to the Matterhorn. The exterior has remained largely unchanged, with the exception of the Skyway entrance hole being closed in 1994. A yeti came to visit in the 70’s. At first a footprint was found on the mountain and then guests started seeing the yeti as they rode the ride in 1978. He is still there today. There is a ½ court basketball court inside near the top that was used for cast members on break. Over the years during spring and summer many mountain climbers have made the ascent to the top proud to be able to say they climbed Disney’s Matterhorn. Mickey and Goofy can sometimes be seen climbing the mountain with the aid of other climbers. Tinker Bell has leapt off the Matterhorn to delight the fans to light the nighttime sky with fireworks. I still remember the original Fantasy in the Sky fireworks that did not go off until Tink flew by and waved her wand to set them off. There was the Skyway between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland that ran through the big holes in the side of the mountain from the building of Matterhorn until 1994 when the ride closed and the cavern entrance holes were sealed. The Skyway opened in 1956, three years before the Matterhorn and the mountain was built right in its path making the holes necessary.
Until 1978 the inside of the mountain was largely unfinished. The supports were covered in false rock but the shapes were not truly hidden. In 78 a major remodel of the Matterhorn was done. The inside of the mountain was broken into small “ice caverns”. Large openings in the outside were closed and the Skyway pathway through the mountain was incased in a tunnel shaped “ice cavern”. Harold the Abominable Snowman, a yeti was “found” on the Matterhorn during the remodel. During the remodel they placed a casting of the Abominable Snowman’s footprint was displayed to build anticipation of the reopening of the ride. The remodel also included new cars. Instead of a single car holding four people a new double car system that holds eight.

There are two tracks in the Matterhorn. The lines start on either the Fantasyland or the Tomorrowland side of the mountain giving them their names. They are slightly different but overall there is not much difference between the two tracks. For those of us nuts enough to have ridden the ride hundreds of times you start to prefer one side over the other. I happen to like the Fantasyland side best but still enjoy the Tomorrowland side. The Fantasyland side track seems to me to be little faster and smother than the Tomorrowland. That is just my opinion. Both tracks start out together and split at the top of the lift hill. At the top of the lift hill you get your first look at Harold, the yeti as he roars at you when you roll past. After the lift hill the tracks run through different caverns and sometime run together seemingly racing each other through the mountain at a top speed of 27 MPH. Harold pops up once more for each side at different places. Each side also gets a look at his red glowing eyes. You also pass through an ice cave where some expedition gear has been abandoned. There is a crate with “Wells Expatiation” on the side. This is in honor of Frank Wells who died earlier that year.
This ride is still a favorite of mine after all these years. My mother turned 80 a few years ago. The big gift my mother wanted for her 80th birthday was to ride the Matterhorn with the family. It was fun to see my daughter ridding with my mother and to hear my mother yell out, “It’s a blast!” as we shot through the mountain. It was even funnier when her wig few off and I caught it as it went whizzing past!

You can’t compare the Matterhorn with the modern roller coaster. It is the first of its type and is the granddame of the modern tubular steel mega thrill coasters. Without the Matterhorn Bobsled you could not have those speeding monoliths. It is like comparing a classic car to a Lamborghini. Both are wonderful and have their place in history and in our hearts.

At this time the Matterhorn is down for a major remodel. Why Disney chose to do this during the busy summer months is a mystery to me. They usually have it closed sometime between September and November for a month or two every year. I’ve heard rumors that the change is being made because the lawyers are pushing for safety changes. The lawyers don’t like the “honor system” seat belt so it is being removed and a lap bar is being added. To accommodate this new sleds had to be made. I’ve seen pictures of the new sleds but have not seen them myself. I hear each person will have their own seat so no more cuddling while being chased by Harold. IMHO this is going too far.
New Blue Blue Bobsleds and the old Orange and White
There have been at least three deaths on the Matterhorn in the entire 50+ years it has been running. All of the deaths were because a guest did not follow the rules and stay seated. Yes, the lap bar will keep guests seated but is it necessary? Thousands of people ride this ride every day, Millions will ride it in a week and billions of people have safely ridden it as it was. Once again the few foolish people ruin a good thing for many.

I will give an update on the Matterhorn and the feel of the new bobsleds when it reopens. I will also share how handi-capable it is. I have a friend who may no longer be able to ride the Matterhorn because the lap bar may make it so she can’t board.

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