Disney’s Decades Long Near Obsession with Dinosaurs

In the make-believe world of a pre-school boy, there’s one thing that’s pretty much a sure thing.

He’s obsessed with dinosaurs. And the Walt Disney Company has had a big hand in that.

These “bouncing baby reptiles,” as Walt Disney called them, made the long journey from New York City to Disneyland after the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair closed. [The Walt Disney Company]
Yes, the multi-billion-dollar Disney company was founded on the scrawny shoulders of a cartoon mouse.

And yes, along the way, dogs, cats, deer, ducks, chipmunks, cows, horses, birds, wolves, pigs and an assortment of other woodland creatures have shared the big and small screen in Disney’s many animated endeavors.

Indeed, Disney films have relied heavily on walking, talking [and usually clothed] wild critters starring in movies, television shows and theme park attractions.

But there is one segment of Mother Nature’s vast animal kingdom who remain popular along a broad spectrum of Disney enterprises, despite the fact they haven’t walked the Earth in millions of years.

And that would be dinosaurs.

It turns out that Disney has amassed an entire stable of dinosaurs over the decades.

A scene from the Rite of Spring segment of Disney’s “Fantasia.” [The Walt Disney Company]
It all began in 1940 with the release of the groundbreaking Fantasia animated feature.

Fantasia was a bold experiment, blending stunning classical music with brilliant visual images.

The Walt Disney Studio began work on Fantasia in late 1937. The idea was to incorporate a series of separate sequences, each with their own unique story, each accompanied by a classical score.

Disney recruited Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to help select the musical works to accompany each animated segment. And the Disney Studios’ top animators were given the task of bringing the concept to life.

According to Ben Sharpsteen, the film’s production supervisor, “This was the birth of a new concept, a group of separate numbers, regardless of their running time, put together in a single presentation. It turned out to be a concert – something novel and of high quality.”

Most people are familiar with some of those segments within Fantasia, including “Ava Maria,” “The Nutcracker Suite” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

One of the more controversial sequences out of the eight shown in Fantasia was Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

The animated “stars” of “Rite of Spring” were dinosaurs.

According to a Fantasia souvenir program, “Walt Disney had been intrigued for years by the power and the savagery of prehistoric creatures.”

Walt decided that “Rite of Spring” would depict the scientific conception of the beginning of the universe, from molten lava, to the evolution of primitive creatures, right up to and including the extinction of dinosaurs.

The star of the sequence was the Tyrannosaurus Rex, with his carnivorous appetite.

Walt Disney poses with one of the stars of the Magic Skyway attraction at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. [The Walt Disney Company]
Disney dinosaurs would resurface during the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair inside the Ford Magic Skyway pavilion.

Unlike the dinosaurs in Fantasia, the prehistoric World’s Fair creatures were life-size, three-dimensional … and looked quite menacing.

The premise of the attraction was to take guests – all comfortably seated in Ford Motor Company vehicles – on a journey through time, from the dawn of man, through the Jurassic period’s Primeval world, and finishing with a glimpse into what the future might look like.

At one point during the trip through the world of dinosaurs, narrator Walt Disney introduced guests to a family of triceratops, including some “bouncing baby reptiles,” as he called the young hatchlings.

Disney’s creative team spent years crafting the Ford pavilion’s dinosaurs.

Audio-Animatronics was still in its infancy, so creating life-like creatures that moved in a realistic manner was quite a challenge … one which Disney’s creative team conquered convincingly.

Guests in a Ford convertible view a dinosaur scene during their journey along the Magic Skyway. [Associated Press]
Walt Disney went as far as to call these folks “a new type of artist … who use a blow torch and slide rule instead of a pencil and brush.”

Unlike much of the New York World’s Fair, which was unceremoniously torn down after it closed in 1965, the Disney-created dinosaurs [as well as the It’s a Small World dolls, the Abraham Lincoln figure and the Carousel of Progress family] avoided extinction and were packed up and shipped to Disneyland.

A large new diorama section was built along a section of the Disneyland Railroad, between the Tomorrowland and Main Street stations, where some of the World’s Fair dinosaurs found a permanent home.

The Universe of Energy attraction, which opened with the rest of EPCOT in 1982, was an extension of the World’s Fair dinosaur presentation … but they were bigger, bolder and more realistic. And there were far more of them scattered throughout the second half of the ride.

Plant-eating dinosaurs chow down on foliage inside the Universe of Energy pavilion at EPCOT. [The Walt Disney Company]
The Universe of Energy employed cutting-edge ride technology to take guests on a journey back millions of years to prehistoric times.

Guests took seats in what appeared to be a giant theater. After a preshow, the seating units separated into four smaller clusters, with each one moving slowly into the main attraction: A trip back to when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

Each life-size Audio-Animatronics dino display was more stunning than the next, ranging from the docile brontosaurus, chomping on foliage, to the fearsome T-Rexs, chowing down on smaller creatures.

Although the attraction lasted about 45 minutes, it gave us a thorough look into the heretofore forbidden world of dinosaurs.

In 1989, the Disney/MGM Studios opened, showcasing all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

Gertie’s Ice Cream of Extinction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. [The Walt Disnety Company]
Inexplicably, right in the middle of the new park, to the left of Hollywood Boulevard, was a dinosaur sitting on the shoreline of Echo Lake.

It turns out it was a replica of Gertie the Dinosaur, which housed the Gertie’s Ice Cream of Extinction stand.

Why a dinosaur, you might ask, in a park themed to the movies and television?

Gertie was an homage to Gertie the Trained Dinosaur, a brontosaurus who happened to be one of the first popular animated characters in film history.

The original Gertie helped take film makers into the world of animation.

Gertie was created in the early 1900s by newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay, who was recognized as an animation pioneer.

McCay, in fact, released a 12-minute short film in 1913 called “Gertie the Dinosaur,” which combined many forward-thinking concepts and ideas into an entertaining production.

Walt Disney was impressed with McCay’s creativeness and included a segment on him and his early works during one of his “Disneyland” TV shows in 1955, called “The Story of the Animated Drawing.”

“Winsor McCay’s Gertie and other animation novelties stimulated a great public interest and created a demand for this new medium,” Walt said. “This, in turn, encouraged other pioneers to creative efforts that in time, led to the establishment of the animated cartoon as an industry.”

Disney’s next foray into the world of dinosaurs was a television sitcom series that aired from April 26, 1991, through Oct. 19, 1994, on ABC-TV.

The show, titled Dinosaurs, was initially conceived by Muppet master Jim Henson before he passed away. All of the show’s characters were portrayed by puppets, and all were designed by Henson team member Kirk Thatcher.

The show featured a family of anthropomorphic dinos – the Sinclairs – set in the year 60,000,003 BC.

Earl, the family’s father, held down a 9-to-5 job, which was to push over trees for the Wesayso Corporation with his friend and coworker, Roy Hess. They worked under the supervision of their boss, Bradley P. Richfield.

Interestingly, all three of those surnames – Sinclair, Hess and Richfield – were also the names of oil companies in the United States.

Rex, the less-than-ferocious Tyranasaurus Rex, made his screen debut in the first “Toy Story” feature. [The Walt Disney Company]
On the heels of Dinosaurs came the release of the breakthrough Disney and Pixar film Toy Story … and the introduction of Rex, the shy, less-than-intimidating toy Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Rex, who sported a toothy smile rather than a menacing visage, was voiced by veteran actor Wallace Shawn.

In 1998, Disney took a giant step and gave dinosaurs their own land inside a theme park when DinoLand U.S.A. debuted with the rest of Animal Kingdom.

In keeping with the park’s overall theme of “edu-tainment” – educating guests while still entertaining them – DinoLand U.S.A. featured a major thrill attraction [Countdown to Extinction] as well as areas where guests young and old could learn about the prehistoric creatures who roamed the Earth millions of years ago.

At the entrance of the land, would-be paleontologists were greeted by Dino-Sue, a replica of the largest T-Rex ever unearthed.

Nearby, next to the cleverly-named Olden Gate Bridge, was The Boneyard, an enclosed area where youngsters could go on “digs” of their own in search of dinosaur relics.

Also in the park in the months after it opened was the 1998 Dinosaur Jubilee and the Fossil Preparation Lab, where you could interact with dinosaur experts as they worked on actual artifacts.

A menacing dinosaur startles guests during the Countdown to Extinction attraction [now known as Dinosaur] at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. [The Walt Disney Company]
In Countdown to Extinction, guests boarded a vehicle known as the Time Rover to travel millions of years back in time to save an imperiled iguanodon from an asteroid-created “nuclear winter.”

Along the way, Time Rover passengers encountered some of the most ferocious Audio-Animatronics dinosaurs ever conceived by Disney’s creative staff.

Interestingly, Countdown to Extinction was renamed DINOSAUR after the release of the Disney feature film Dinosaur in 2000.

Dinosaur, a live-action/computer-generated movie, follows the story of a young iguanodon named Aladar as he battles natural disasters [notably a meteor shower] and menacing predators [hungry carnotaurus] while leading his band of prehistoric misfits to their nesting grounds.

The creative folks at Walt Disney Imagineering have been crafting realistic-looking dinosaurs since the days when Imagineering was known as WED Enterprises … but they were all stationary.

On August 28, 2003, the Imagineers stepped up their game.

Lucky the Dinosaur pulls a cart along a path at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

That’s when Lucky the Dinosaur, the first Audio-Animatronics figure to walk freely and interact with park guests, debuted.

Lucky was first introduced to park guests at Disney California Adventure. Those guests were understandably amazed as Lucky appeared to be walking on two legs as he politely mingled with them. Lucky stood nine feet tall, was 12 feet long and pulled a cart of flowers [the cart was a clever way to hide a power source].

Lucky, who took five years to develop, made appearances at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in 2005 and later at Hong Kong Disneyland.

In 2015, Disney ventured into the world of prehistoric creatures again with the release of the computer-animated feature film The Good Dinosaur.

Arlo, aka “The Good Dinosaur.” [The Walt Disney Company]
The basic premise of the film was that non-avian dinosaurs never became extinct. The plot centers around a family of apatosaurus, who live on their own plot of land and grow corn to sustain them.

After the father’s untimely death, Arlo, the youngest and most timid of the three offspring, becomes separated from his family and reunites with an orphaned human boy he calls Spot, who had been raiding their food supplies.

The two embark on a dangerous journey to reunite with Arlo’s family. In the end, Arlo makes his way back to his family and Spot is adopted by a family of cave-dwellers.

Speaking of dinosaur-themed movies, Disney Legend Bob Gurr – who was so instrumental in the development of Audio-Animatronics figures in the 1960s – served as a consultant on the original Jurassic Park movie, which was released in 1993, and launched the popular franchise.

Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist who has covered all things Disney since 1984 in both print and on-line. He has authored or co-authored seven books on Disney, including his most recent, “The Beat Goes On,” for Theme Park Press. He has written a twice-monthly blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.

Chuck Schmidt, bitten by the Disney bug at an early age, remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for The Staten Island Advance. Chuck has written or co-authored seven books for Theme Park Press, including Disney's Dream Weavers, On the Disney Beat, An American in Disneyland Paris, Disney's Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History and The Beat Goes On. Chuck has shared his passion for all things Disney in his Still Goofy About Disney blog on AllEars.Net since 2015. He resides in Beachwood, N.J., with his wife Janet. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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