Snow White and her seven vertically challenged friends secured their place in the annals of Disney history decades ago.
The resounding success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first full-length animated feature film – in 1939 helped pave the way for all that has followed in the wonderful world of Disney.
Snow White was considered a groundbreaking achievement. Before Snow White, the only animated films to be shown on movie screens were short subjects. It was a huge gamble on Walt Disney’s part – but it paid off handsomely.
And in many ways, the relatively obscure area known as Snow White’s Grotto, located on the hillside near Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland, is, like the film, an important achievement.
In 1961, six years after Disneyland opened, Walt Disney received a rather unusual gift from an anonymous fan. The gift arrived at the Disney Studios in eight wooden crates, sent from Italy with no return address.
Inside those crates were beautifully detailed statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all carved out of pure-white Carrara marble.
There was one small problem, however. Snow White was the same size as the dwarfs.
Nonplussed, Walt Disney insisted that he wanted to put figures on display somewhere in Disneyland. He assigned the project to one his most trusted and respected designers, John Hench.
“I told Walt that we would have a perspective problem with the figures,” Hench said in his book “Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show [Disney Editions].”
Walt’s response? “Just figure it out.”
Placing Snow White side-by-side with the dwarfs was out of the question.
“I realized that if I could stage the statues vertically,” Hench said, “arranging them on a slope, with Snow White on top, I could solve the scale problem using forced perspective.”
The next problem was selecting an appropriate site at Disneyland.
Hench found a landscaped hillside right next to Sleeping Beauty Castle that met his needs.
He had an undersized deer sculpted to stand near Snow White and he placed them at the top of the hill.
Hench then designed a waterfall that started at Snow White’s feet – small at the top, then growing wider as it descended the hill.
“I added water to increase the volume of flow along the way down, in effect creating a forced-perspective waterfall.” That’s the reverse of what occurs naturally – waterfalls are wider at the top, narrower at the bottom. In this case, call it artistic license.
The seven dwarfs would be placed at or near the bottom of the grotto, along with some Disney-crafted woodland creatures.
Walt loved Hench’s proposal, with one caveat.
“You know people are going to see that water and they’ll want to throw money into the pool,” he told Hench, alluding to the fact that adventurous youngsters might end up diving into the grotto to retrieve the coins.
He suggested placing a wishing well nearby, where guests could toss in coins, make a wish and “kids wouldn’t be tempted to jump in.” [A wrought iron fence also served as a deterrent to overzealous youngsters.]
To this day, proceeds from the wishing well are donated to local children’s charities.
The finishing touch was adding the voice of Snow White singing “I’m Wishing” [actually, it was Adriana Caselotti, who provided the vocals for the movie and re-recorded the song for the wishing well].
“I was delighted to see guests bring their wishes [and their coins] to the well,” Hench said.
The Snow White Grotto opened on April 9, 1961, and remains an off-the-beaten-path attraction to this day. There’s no mention of the grotto in Disneyland guide maps; it’s just a pleasant surprise for guests as they stroll around the park.
Many guests pose for photos with the grotto as a backdrop.
The Snow White Grotto has been replicated at Tokyo Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland.
And to this day, the identity of the generous benefactor of the original figures remains a mystery.
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 Disney’s Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History, for Theme Park Press. He also has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.