Walt Disney World Chronicles: Tri-Circle-D Ranch and Owen Pope

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the August 7, 2018 Issue #985 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor’s Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Tri-circle-D Ranch Sign

If you’ve ever visited Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground at Walt Disney World, you probably stopped in at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch. But you may not know the ranch’s background, or the important role it plays in current Disney World operations.

Tri-Circle refers to the three circles that make the famous Mickey Mouse head silhouette and, of course, “D” stands for “Disney.” Some Disney fans get confused and think the name refers to the ranch in the The Adventures of Spin and Marty serials for the original Mickey Mouse Club television show. That ranch was actually called the “Triple R.”

The Tri-Circle-D Ranch has two sections that are located roughly a mile apart. Horseback riding takes place at the Trail Blaze Corral located just inside the main entrance of Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground next to the Outpost area. Guests can take the reins for a 45-minute guided trail ride through the resort. The remaining Tri-Circle-D Ranch areas with the Draft Horse Barn, Blacksmith Shop, Carriage Rides and Pony Rides (the ponies are adults and weigh on average 500 pounds; pony riders have to weigh less than 80 pounds and be under 48 inches tall) are located at the Settlement area, next to Pioneer Hall at the rear of the Campground. To get to this area, there are buses that run from the Outpost Depot at the Main Entrance parking lot to the Settlement Depot. Or guests can take one of the boats from the Magic Kingdom or Wilderness Lodge.

The Tri-Circle-D’s roots trace back to a man named Owen Pope. Who was he?

Pope made the first harnesses for the horses at Walt Disney World when he was living in and working at Disneyland. Yes, LIVING IN Disneyland.

At the Magic Kingdom, a window on the Car Barn proclaims “Owen Pope. Harness Maker.” Like the windows on the second floor of Main Street U.S.A. that honor those who contributed to the making of Walt Disney World, there are other references to real people scattered throughout the park — this particular window is one of those references. Pope’s contribution to both Walt Disney World and Disneyland is much, much larger than just making gear for horses.

Owen Pope Window at Walt Disney World

Owen Pope and his wife Dolly made their living exhibiting horses. In 1950, at the suggestion of Imagineer Harper Goff, Walt Disney caught one of their shows at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. He was especially impressed by their galloping small ponies that pulled a miniature stagecoach (built by Pope himself) around the arena at breakneck speed. In March 1951, Walt asked them if they would be interested in training horses for Disneyland.

A week after Thanksgiving that year, Pope moved his 30-foot long trailer onto the Disney Studio lot. The Popes became the only people to ever live at the Disney Studio in Burbank, California, where they built 10 stalls for the horses. The Popes stayed at the Studio for about two-and-a-half years, with Walt visiting them every day to ask questions.

Once the horses were moved to Disneyland, Owen trained the horses to get used to the expected crowd noise and gunshots (due to the shooting galleries) by setting up loudspeakers cranked up to the highest volume. In addition, Pope supervised the building of Frontierland vehicles like the stagecoach and Conestoga wagon. As work was beginning on the construction of Disneyland, one of the houses on the land was moved to a 10-acre location behind Fantasyland dubbed the “Pony Farm” (known as the “Circle D Corral” since 1980). The house had belonged to the Witherills who were walnut growers on Harbor Boulevard.

The Popes moved into the house three days before the opening of Disneyland and were the first and only people who actually resided in Disneyland. At one time, the stray dog that was the live-action reference model for Tramp (from the animated film Lady and the Tramp) lived with them as well.

In January 1971, Pope and his wife moved to Florida, where Owen helped supervise the building of the Tri-Circle-D Ranch. The Pope House at Disneyland became the administration offices for the Pony Farm. It was relocated to a parking lot off of Ball Road in 2016 to make room for the Star Wars: Galaxy Edge expansion.

Pope’s legacy lives on at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch. In fact, an authentic example of one of those original 1971 antique harnesses by Pope is on display at the Draft Horse Barn at the ranch in a small one-room museum called “Walt Disney Horses,” devoted to Walt Disney’s love of horses.

Horses at Tri-Circle-D Ranch

Generally, 80-90 horses are maintained at the ranch. Roughly 30 of them are draft horses, which can get to be 18 hands tall (or 72 inches). They weigh approximately 2,000 pounds each. The horses that are chosen to work in the Disney parks go through a probation process, during which they are observed as to how they interact and whether they are comfortable around people and activity.

When Walt Disney World opened, there were four horse-drawn trolleys and it cost a dime or an “A” ticket to go one way either up or down the street. Today only one operates and soon after the 1 p.m. trolley show it is pulled off the street to avoid the congestion of the parades and crowds. Just as in Pope’s day, the chrome and brass on the show harness for the trolley horse is cleaned and polished every day it is used. The carriage harnesses are wet down as needed during the week before a cleaning.

The staff at the ranch (approximately 30-35 cast members) names the animals. When you visit, you’ll notice that all these horses have their names on big nametags on their stalls. But the horses are now considered service animals, so guests are asked not to pet them without supervision. Horses are naturally curious, so fingers too close to a mouth sometimes are reminiscent of carrots and the horses may want to take a nibble. Also, while the horses enjoy the attention and petting, too much can be overwhelming. Cast members have tried to be considerate of that fact.

Did you know you can adopt a Walt Disney World horse when it retires? There is an application process that is intensely scrutinized and the waiting list is very long. Disney is very particular who the horses go to, including investigating whether the person is financially capable of taking care of the animal, and Disney will take back horses if they find out that the horses are not being well treated.

As stated above, the Draft Horse Barn at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch is a small museum decorated from floor-to-ceiling with black-and-white photos of Walt and horses. There’s one of Walt on top of the Disneyland stagecoach and another of him riding one of his polo ponies. One wall has photos of the horses at Walt Disney World over the years in a variety of events.

No FastPass or MagicBands are needed to enjoy these hidden treasures at Fort Wilderness, although guests often forget that Walt Disney World was designed to share many memorable experiences that were not in the parks.

Owen Pope, Harness Maker, was instrumental in making sure that the Tri-Circle-D Ranch at Fort Wilderness provides many of those memorable out-of-park-experiences.

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RELATED LINKS
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Owen Pope and Main Street USA

The Happiest Horses on Earth

Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground Fact Sheet

Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Jim Korkis

Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, Korkis has used his skills and historical knowledge with Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of several books, including his newest, Secret Stories of Disneyland, available in both paperback and Kindle versions.

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Editor’s Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.