By Kevin Kern, Walt Disney Archives
Sometimes, the most memorable delights are those which are the simplest. Walt Disney’s Dumbo the Flying Elephant attraction has withstood the tests of time to become not only a beloved tradition for families to seek out when visiting Disney Parks, but also as a sort of “rite of passage” for many a high-flying guest. After 65 years of twirling into the hearts of fans around the globe, it’s safe to say that this not-so-pint-sized pachyderm has also soared into the very lexicon of popular culture, and has come to represent a truly quintessential Disney experience.
In his seminal work Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show (Disney Editions, 2003), Imagineer and Disney Legend John Hench outlined that “Disneyland was designed from the outset with the assumption that the popularity of the animated characters would make it necessary… to showcase them in appropriate representations of their film environments,” making the inclusion of the attraction’s fancy-filled flight experience a perfect fit for its debut in Walt’s Fantasyland on August 16, 1955. Chris Nichols, award-winning author of Walt Disney’s Disneyland (Taschen, 2018), recently observed for the Archives staff: “Dumbo just shows how everybody that worked to build Disneyland was committed to realizing this dream and made sacrifices to invent something that the world had never seen before.” The concept struck a chord with parkgoers, almost immediately elevating the attraction beyond just a “ride.” A quintessential image of Americana it has become, synonymous with the success of Walt’s family fun park.
There is an undeniable pull at the heartstrings of children the world over (or, at least the child in our hearts, no matter our age) who seem to gravitate toward this elephant’s lofty perch. The love and admiration shown to this attraction may have something to do with the communal frequency of the experience as many people’s “first” Disney Parks thrill. Imagineer Alex Wright astutely points out in his illuminating work, The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland (Disney Editions, 2008), that “Dumbo the Flying Elephant is often the first attraction visited by a new young Guest and is consistently one of the most popular rides in the Park for tots, even though the film upon which it was based was first released way back in 1941.” Joy, as it would seem, is bound by no age or time limit.
Since those earliest flights in 1955, Dumbo the Flying Elephant has gone on to twirl countless revolutions over the decades, with each spin making a fan of even the staunchest of profiles (former U.S. President Richard Nixon, for example, is one of those very riders). Due to this popularity, the attraction would spread its wings beyond Disneyland, landing as far away as Walt Disney World (1971), Tokyo Disneyland (1983), Disneyland Paris (1992), Hong Kong Disneyland (2005), and Shanghai Disneyland (2016), to the delight of Disney Parks fans the world over.
In honor of the 65th anniversary of an attraction that would spark a legacy of multigenerational memories, let’s take a moment to reminisce with some vintage Disneyland views from our art and photography collections here in the Walt Disney Archives—views that, in the words of Timothy Q. Mouse, can help to take us all “up and up and up!”