California’s Gold Rush was a time of big dreams and big adventure, set against a beautiful landscape of blue-sky country in the Wild West. Folks from all over America (and abroad) traveled to the Sierra Nevada Mountains—creating and populating towns like Coloma, California—to find their fortunes. Now, with the help of Walt Disney Imagineers, guests at Hong Kong Disneyland will exclusively get to experience a slice of the “Gold Rush life” at the park’s new land, Grizzly Gulch—opening July 14. D23 talked with the Walt Disney Imagineers working on this project to get a first look.
Giving a tip of the miner’s hat to legendary Disney rides like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and lands like Frontierland, Grizzly Gulch is based on an original story created expressly for Hong Kong Disneyland. That’s right—it’s the only land of its kind anywhere in the world.
D23 recently spoke to Ali Rubinstein, Creative Director, Walt Disney Imagineering Hong Kong, who took time out of her busy schedule to fill us in about Grizzly Gulch. “Founded on August 8th, 1888—the luckiest day of the luckiest month of the luckiest year—Grizzly Gulch is a boomtown set in the great American West,” Ali says. “The story of [the land] was created by a team of Imagineers, lead by Joe Lanzisero and Robert Coltrin, [and] our show writer was Pam Fisher. We created a story with the theme of “Man versus Nature” that will transport guests back in time to the exciting period of the California Gold Rush.”
Even before breaking ground, Imagineers traveled all over the High Sierras to get a feel for the natural architecture. “I was lucky enough to be able to go on a number of research trips,” Ali says. She recalled one particular jaunt to Yellowstone National Park. “[The] most memorable moment of that trip was the last day, trying to squeeze as much as possible into the last minutes of daylight, when we ended at Artist Point. Coming around the bend and seeing the awe-inspiring sight of the falls and rocks lit by the sunset was astonishing and moving. It ultimately affected how we addressed the overall color palette for [the land].”
The cornerstone of Grizzly Gulch—Big Grizzly Mountain—stands watch over the land (and most of the park!) at more than 88 feet tall. It took a whopping 14 months to create the mountain, with a team of artisans from literally all over the world. “Each [artist was] remarkable in their talents as carvers and painters as well as their abilities to communicate in multiple languages… The language of creativity and artistry transcended the need to communicate with [words],” Ali explains. “The 14 months we spent creating Big Grizzly Mountain [were] the most inspirational of my career at Disney. Watching this extraordinary team of artisans grow the beautiful icon of our land was both humbling and awe inspiring.” More than 30 professional sculptors and 20 painters contributed to creating the landscape’s textures; additionally, Imagineers were tasked with finding plants that could thrive in Hong Kong’s climate while representing a realistic Northern California environment.
Rocketing through the mountain and around the entire land is the all-new, story-driven, multidirectional coaster Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars—which can hold up to 24 guests per ride. “We knew we wanted to create a story that would become an appropriate environment for an E-ticket terrain-style coaster,” Ali continues, “based on the Expedition Everest ride system at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.” Guests are wise to hold on tight while racing through the mountain’s caves, all while trying to avoid mischievous resident grizzly bears. “This attraction is a perfect thrilling experience in three acts,” Ali explains. “It builds from a pleasant rolling build-up of speed to the mountain drop, then a speedy [dash] throughout the land backwards… finishing with a powerful and surprising high-speed launch that sends the vehicle racing throughout the landscape… [That] launch is a surprise and a thrill—and the perfect blast to send us off to the finale of the runaway adventure.”
Big Grizzly Mountain isn’t the only attraction to experience in Grizzly Gulch; the colorful Mother Geyser will erupt without warning at Geyser Gulch, a water-based play area where guests of all ages can cool off. The inspiration behind Geyser Gulch also came from Ali’s trip to Yellowstone, where she was joined by several colleagues, including artwork directors Mamiya Tomohiro and Paul Duggan. “[We] spent two days looking at every geyser and rock formation the park has to offer,” says Ali. “Mamiya did all the driving—and he was relentless in his pursuit to see every last major attraction at the park. Dawn to dusk, we drove from one dazzling geyser field to another, each one more radiant and remarkable than the next… and all served as the inspiration for [Geyser Gulch].”
Gold Rush fun is around every corner at Grizzly Gulch… from the themed food and beverage offerings at the Lucky Nugget Saloon to the Wild West-themed entertainment at the all-new Welcome Wagon Show. You’ll also find several unique photo locations sprinkled throughout the land. “[One] key Wild West photo opportunity [is] at the Grizzly Gulch Jail—where guests can step behind the ‘Wanted’ posters on the wall, pick the outlaw of their choice, and put their face in the poster,” Ali explains. “The other is just across the street from the jail, at the Assay office, where there sits the ‘Lucky Nugget: The largest nugget of gold to be discovered in Grizzly Gulch.’ It stands at about [three feet] high… and guests can walk right up to it and have their photo taken with the shiny, sparkling hunk of gold!” And don’t be surprised to find Mickey, Minnie, Chip, and Dale (accompanied by their friends Koda and Kenai from Disney’s Brother Bear) visiting Grizzly Gulch, dressed in new Western finery!
Summing up what makes Grizzly Gulch a gold-plated addition to the legendary lands of Disney Parks and Resorts worldwide, Ali hopes guests will enjoy “a fully immersive environment that will transport [them] back in time—with rich storytelling, majestic scenery, authentic architecture, and of course, the thrill ride of a lifetime on Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars.”
By D23′s Courtney Potter