The Matterhorn Bobsleds has been one of Disneyland’s most iconic attractions since it first opened in 1959. Arguably, it is just as recognizable as Sleeping Beauty Castle, as no other Disney park in the world has a Matterhorn mountain dominating its skyline.
Over the years, the Matterhorn has seen many changes, the most notable coming in 1978, when Imagineers filled in the mountain, creating icy caverns, show scenes, and a new resident moved in – the Abominable Snowman. You kids old enough to remember certainly recall the company’s very successful “What’s Gotten Into The Matterhorn?” marketing campaign that was on television ads, billboards, and in print. Those Disneylanders born in the ’80s, ’90s or after, the Abominable Snowman has always just been there. Regardless, the monster (lovingly referred to as “Matterhorn Harold” by Cast Members and fans alike) in the mountain is one of the most popular and well-known attraction-based characters at any Disney park. And, he’s undergone a huge change in the past several weeks.
In the shadow of other Disneyland 60th Anniversary components, especially the new Paint the Night, Disneyland Forever, and World of Color – Celebrate! shows, the Matterhorn’s recent rehab/renovation has gone virtually unnoticed on everyone’s radar, despite the fact that the entire show inside the mountain has been changed. Even the long-anticipated return of the Hatbox Ghost at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion has completely eclipsed what’s taken place inside the Matterhorn. The ride is no longer exactly “kid-friendly”, nor is it your daddy’s Matterhorn anymore…
The latest enhancements made to the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland take a dramatic turn away from being child or young family-friendly when it comes to the show surrounding the Abominable Snowman. Walt Disney Imagineering created a new Snowman (with the help of Garner Holt Productions, which did a knockout job), decidedly more terrifying than its previous incarnation, which was originally sculpted by the great Blaine Gibson all those years ago. For this new show within the Matterhorn, Imagineers opted for a much darker story, and some really intense encounters with the monster.
At this point, I am going to go into specifics (that means SPOILERS); if you don’t want spoilers, bookmark this story and come back to it after you’ve ridden the Matterhorn yourself and compare your notes to mine.
One of the earmarks of the Matterhorn for the past several decades has been the Abominable Snowman’s chilling howl, which was heard throughout Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and down Main Street, when the breeze conditions were right. The beast would scream and howl at guests as they raced past on their bobsleds. The howls were very loud, and instantly told guests waiting in line or passing by that something spooky and menacing lived inside the mountain. That isn’t the case anymore; Matterhorn Harold’s vocalizations have been completely re-recorded and are much more contained in the scenes where you encounter the beast during the ride. Guests walking by or waiting in line can hear some sound bytes from within the mountain, but nothing close to what the yeti has sounded like in the past. This is a slightly deceptive trick – because at face value, you’d think a loud howl would indicate the presence of a monster and the intensity of the show to come; a quieter mountain would appear to be more serene and perhaps family-friendly. That couldn’t be further from the truth of the matter now!
A quick technical lesson so that it’s easier to understand what I am talking about in the paragraphs to follow. Matterhorn Bobsleds has two different tracks/layouts, and they are referred to as A and B Side. The easiest way to remember them apart is that “A” is on the Autopia side, and “B” is on the bathroom side of the mountain; that is how it was taught to me when I worked in attractions at Disneyland in the late ’80s, and it’s stuck in my brain that way ever since. Hopefully, it’s easy word association that you can rely on, too!
As your vehicle ascends within the Matterhorn, the first new show moment comes where the “snow/blizzard” beat was before. Now, there are large walls of beveled ice on the outer sides of the tracks. When the bobsleds pass, riders are startled by a loud, guttural vocalization and we see the yeti appear behind the wall of ice, its brow furrowed and its lip snarled, exposing its canines. It lumbers and follows the bobsled upward, initiating a pursuit of sorts; as the visual ends, the monster roars – and for those listening carefully, you can hear the old Matterhorn Harold howl mixed into the new growl; a nod to the past, for observant fans!
The ice wall effect is really well done, and is night and day better than the dim snow/blizzard scene it replaced. The beveled texture of the “ice” distorts the image of the Abominable Snowman beautifully as he begins to stalk riders up the interior of the mountain. A Side has a bigger, more impressive ice wall show beat, and you see more of the Abominable Snowman than you do on B Side; B Side is smaller, and riders really only get to see the Snowman’s face. If two bobsleds are ascending at the same time, whichever side reaches the ice wall first determines which side the show moment will be; they do not run simultaneously, because that wouldn’t make sense. During the Disneyland Diamond Celebration media event, I had the opportunity to marathon ride the Matterhorn, and I did so – more than 30 times in about 90 minutes, rarely leaving my bobsled as it was cycled again and again. Though I never saw it, I was told by one of the Cast Members that if two bobsleds are dispatched at exactly the same time and hit the ice wall scenes precisely together, that a special show beat is triggered where Harold bounces back and forth between the sides. I can neither confirm or deny this; if it is there and you have seen it, consider yourself very lucky – because it’s super rare, apparently.
Once the Abominable Snowman pulls himself away from the ice wall and vanishes into the darkness, audio takes over, and your vehicle is surrounded by the sounds of the lumbering beast crashing through the ice and snow all around you, growling angrily as it pursues you. B Side is definitely the best for this moment, as the tunnel is completely dark; you see only darkness, but are surrounded by the sounds of the monster giving chase – it’s truly frightening! This show moment occurs on both A and B Sides, but B Side is the only track where you’re truly in the dark. In days past, this is where you saw Harold’s glowing red eyes light up and heard him growl; the eyes are gone, and the new audio in the tunnels is very loud and absolutely terrifying!
As the sleds begin their run down the mountain, they come into a scene that is best described as the Snowman’s “hoarding room”. Riders come across a tangled mess of old ride vehicles – bobsleds and even Skyway buckets from years ago! The vehicles are smashed and tangled, half-buried in a snow bank with enormous footprints leading up to the collection. This is where the crystals and Wells Expedition Crate scene used to be – more on that at the end of the story.
Disneyland fans will get a kick out of seeing the old bobsled vehicles and different versions of the Skyway buckets that used to pass through the heart of the Matterhorn before they were permanently closed in 1994. This scene in particular confirms the direction of storytelling that WDI has gone with for the Matterhorn; the vehicles within this icy chamber have been violently destroyed – there is no trace of their occupants, but we can’t assume they’re enjoying a churro in Critter Country, by the looks of things.
B Side offers the best vantage point of this scene, bringing riders very close to the heap of old vehicles as the bobsled banks and follows the curve of the scene. A Side riders see it too, but not as close, and not for as long. That said, both sides do see the show beat long enough to get the idea – that they’re in the domain of a meaner, more aggressive Abominable Snowman.
Once the speed picks up a bit and A and B Sides split off to begin their descent down the slopes of the Matterhorn, they encounter the yeti in all of his glory for the first time, just as it’s been since 1978. The Abominable Snowman is very different in appearance than its predecessor. I think it looks like a really pissed off version of Bigfoot from Harry and the Hendersons. He is white, with gunmetal blue skin on his face and enormous hands. The figure has amazing hair that moves in the breeze, as well as when it lunges at your bobsled. Fantastic figure finishing work by Garner Holt Productions on Harold – it looks incredibly lifelike and the hair/fur work is superb! Unlike the original Snowman, this one is much larger in mass/scale, so we only see it from the midriff up, which is also the case at the end of the run, where we encounter Harold for the second and final time.
The new Abominable Snowman figures are full-blown audio-animatronics, and they are really smooth. They are pneumatic, meaning they are powered by air as opposed to older AA figures, which are usually always hydraulic in nature. You can’t (at least not easily or cost-effectively) run a bunch of hydraulic hoses up into the Matterhorn, so WDI opted for pneumatic operation in this case. Without getting too technical, Garner Holt’s pneumatic technology has come so far, that with newer figures such as these, it’s often very hard to tell the difference between air and hydraulic fluid-powered movement.
Wait – did I say the Snowman lunges at your bobsled? I sure did. Harold knows which track has a bobsled on, and lunges and roars at passersby accordingly! It’s very quick, but very sweet – he looks incredible, with internally-lit eyes that look three-dimensional and highly-detailed. Most guests won’t notice the fine bits here – but when you ride the Matterhorn 30+ times in a row, you have time to notice and make mental note of these things!
The sled run itself remains the same; unfortunately, when the new ride vehicles were introduced following a lengthy rehab in 2012, guests found them to be extremely uncomfortable to sit in, making the mountain’s already-rough run much more challenging to enjoy; plus, riders now sit alone, removing the charm of a “date night at Disneyland ride” or the ability for a parent to ride with a child in the same seat. Since the Matterhorn has come up, one of the first questions Theme Park Adventure is asked by fans is if the vehicles are different. Sadly, the answer is no, they are the same as they have been since 2012. Sources at WDI and at Disneyland confirm what everyone knows – that the new vehicles are less than acceptable. Here’s hoping that in the near future, the ride vehicles themselves can be re-evaluated and re-imagined, and that the Matterhorn bobsleds are once again fun to ride in. Here’s a tip I can and will share with you – the front seat of each set of bobsleds features a bit more wiggle room for legs and feet; I actually sat with my legs kind of crossed in the front seat during my marathon. While I was certainly feeling it days after the event, I can say that the front seat is absolutely much more doable than any other and I highly recommend requesting it, especially for our taller readers.
The second and final encounter with Matterhorn Harold is intense, and even more frightening than the first! Again, we only see the creature from his midriff up, but he springs from an opening in the dark, icy tunnel toward riders in a fluid motion that is really spectacular. Again, this is very easy to miss and will be lost on most riders, but the AA figure really moves in this final scene and is incredibly well done. B Side offers the best version of this final encounter. It happens later in the run toward the end of the ride, whereas A Side’s encounter comes sooner; and the layout of track lends itself to actually seeing this moment happen much better than on A Side, which kind of swoops down into the tunnel as the creature springs and screams, as opposed to B Side, which offers a decent straightaway approach to the monster. Both moments feature some really cool audio that follows you out of the tunnel, creating an ethereal noise that sounds like it dissipates in the wind as you emerge from the mountain at its base.
The overall experience is truly frightening – you are actually stalked by the Abominable Snowman now, with jarring story beats that actually elicit screams from riders! It’s exciting, absolutely not young child-friendly, and a whole new take on a Disneyland classic attraction that has fans raving!
One of the things I did notice on my many rides down the Matterhorn, was that the Wells Expedition Crate has been removed completely from the attraction. Frank Wells served as President of The Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 1994, and was responsible with Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg (Team Disney) for literally saving the company from complete implosion and failure. Wells was an avid and accomplished mountain climber, and loved skiing. While returning from a skiing trip on Easter Sunday 1994, Frank was killed in a helicopter crash. Following the horrible accident, the WDI team at Disneyland placed a memorial to Frank in the crystal caverns section of the mountain – a crate with the words “Wells Expedition” stenciled on it; it has remained there ever since. I noticed during my rides that the crate has been removed – something that many other fans have noted as well since the attraction has come back up from rehab with the new show. This was greatly disappointing and very concerning to me, considering the importance of Frank to Disney’s success and history. To be blunt, there likely wouldn’t be Imagineering today if it weren’t for Frank, Eisner and Katzenberg coming together in the ’80s and literally saving the company from hostile takeover and dissection at the hands of corporate raiders. I questioned the Matterhorn Cast Members about it and they too, were saddened and surprised that it was gone. It is a memorial, you know?
Here’s where the story lightens up and has a Disney happy ending. Theme Park Adventure has been assured by someone close to the project that the Wells Expedition crate is receiving some touch-ups and will be returned to the Matterhorn in a short time! This is fantastic news, which could have been a serious blemish on an otherwise stunning re-Imagineering of a Disneyland classic. Where the crate will return to is anyone’s guess; there isn’t any room in the “hoarder” scene; there are however, numerous alcoves and nooks along the run where it would fit just fine. It would even fit into the overall story on a lower ledge of the mountain or even near the station. The bottom line is, WDI has said it will return soon, and that makes us extremely happy. It will remain a tribute to a man that played a major role in saving The Walt Disney Company, only to have his life cut short so sadly, and serve as a source of inspiration for all of those who remember, and for those younger fans curious enough to ask and learn about his legacy on their own in the years to come.
Of everything that has thus far, been unveiled as part of Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebration, the new Matterhorn Bobsleds show is by far, my favorite! Huge kudos to everyone involved on the project – it’s really fantastic in every way, and I think the shift from family-friendly to mildly intense and terrifying is a smart move, ratcheting up the thrill factor to be on par with stories such as the Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest, and Alien Encounter from back in the day!
The next time you visit the Disneyland Resort, be sure to take a ride on the Matterhorn Bobsleds – something new has gotten into the mountain… and it’s waiting for you!
– Rick West