Opening the Matterhorn Bobsleds

Story and photos by Ken Conner

It was 1957. The Cold War was lingering on. In October, Russia had startled the world with Sputnik. Yet, there was upbeat news about a new place out in California touting itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth.” I learned more about it from a college friend, Keith Kittle, who had worked there the summer before!

1958 Disneyland entrance with Matterhorn under construction.

By February 1958, I had decided to take him up on his offer to join him on his return to California and hopefully, also find, a summer job at Disneyland. With the semester’s end at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, we said goodbye to our parents and headed west to Anaheim and the Magic Kingdom.

Holiday Land from the Air.

I remember thinking that the employment office on West Street was rather small, but the staff was cordial and efficient. My first interview brought me the good fortune of being hired to stab papers & clean up things for two days at the other land, “Holiday Land.” It was a huge tent intended to serve corporate picnics. It was just outside the berm, near the employment office. The story from staff was that they were waiting for previous employees to arrive from schools and reapply for work.

I returned to HR and was given a new part-time assignment of doing “Crowd Control” at the Golden Horseshoe for a couple of days. What a treat! Then, on the next visit to HR, they assigned me a job as a ride operator on the Midget Autopia, and… as permanent part-time status for the summer. Hooray!

Ken Conner on Midget Autopia.

Thus, the summer of 1958 was my indoctrination to the sights, sounds & smells of the Magic Kingdom. And yes, even on the “Midget” we had celebs show up. One night, Lucille Ball walked up with her real children, little Desi and little Lucie Arnaz, and we sent them down the electric highway like everyone else.

Construction well on its way

So how ya going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Pluto? I really did grow up on a farm in Nebraska’s fertile Platte River Valley. But Orange County’s citrus heritage and her bikini-dotted beaches convinced me that I had a new home! I decided to stay in California and continue with school at Fullerton College. My buddy Keith decided to stay as well.

Bobsleds on the track.

In the spring of 1959, I applied for summer work at that same little building on West Street. Lo and behold, I was hired to be a ride operator again, this time on the brand-new Matterhorn Bobsled ride. 1959 was a dynamic year for Disneyland. Not only was the Matterhorn new, but so were the Monorail and Submarine Voyage. The year before it had been fascinating watching the construction progress on all three attractions.

Mary Eason in the center. Know anyone else?

The Matterhorn Bobsled Ride is the world’s first tubular track roller coaster. It was also unique in that it was confined to a cone shape. Our first season crew got to be guinea pigs every morning before we opened by ride/testing the bobsleds. The ride was such a hit with the public that at times, the two lines would surround the mountain and meet in the back.

Matterhorn mountain climbers.

One day while on a break, I took my camera and climbed the inside route to the top of the mountain. The hidden floor there is like a volcano’s mini caldera, and you had to stay low to not be seen. Quick peeks over the edge resulted in some nice pics including the official “climbers” working their way up from below. Later that year on a day we all had off, my Matterhorn friend, Al Hackworth, and I joined the climbers for some repelling fun up in the Malibu Mountains.

A view from the top.

In the spring of 1960, I again checked in with HR and was delighted to learn that I had joined the Disneyland Navy! Operating the Submarines was an upstanding assignment both physically and socially. (Skippers actually stand to operate the vessel). The Subs were guided by a track so all you had to do was turn the electric rheostat handle for forward or reverse. The recorded spiel was in segments in case we needed to change speed.

Control Tower

Fast forward a few months when I discovered that my Disneyland Navy experience did not prevent the Selective Service Commission from drafting me into the US Army! Fortunately, my two-year active-duty obligation was fulfilled in 1964, just as the Vietnam War was accelerating. While still in the Army, I had debated what to do when I was discharged. Since I was a Military Policeman, I could easily have gone into civilian law enforcement.

Control Tower training.

However, I finally decided that I would be happiest with a career in sales, so I attended STI, a sales training school in Seattle. Then, fresh out of the Army, I chose after my second job interview, a career in the world of office products, office furniture and printing. I became an outside salesman calling on corporations large & small. After 30 years in the industry, I retired from Eastman Inc. in Long Beach which was acquired by Office Depot in 1993.

Operations in the Control Tower.

Lastly, after my discharge from the Army in 1964, I returned to Anaheim, CA and moved in with Curt Kittle, the brother of Keith who had introduced me to Disneyland in the first place. Curt was working at D Land Merchandising at the time and happened to have a Birthday party on August 12.

Well wouldn’t you know it? Likable Curt had several Disney friends who brought a non-Disney friend or two. One of those non-Disney ladies was a cute girl from Long Beach named Judy Ennen. Two years later, we were married! In our wedding party there were four grooms and four maids of honor, all of whom were former Disney cast members.

Ken and Judy

55 years later, we have from our two beautiful daughters, four wonderful Grandchildren.

Thanks for the memories, Uncle Walt!

September 29th, 2021