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Secrets and history behind Dumbo The Flying Elephant at Magic Kingdom
Giving children control is the apparent key to the ride’s historic success
Bay Lake, Fla. – Out of the roughly 16 opening-year attractions still at the Magic Kingdom, Dumbo The Flying Elephant may seem like the simplest. After all, creating a carnival spinning ride doesn’t appear to be an inspired feat of Imagineering, but there’s more to Dumbo than meets the eye. The reason goes all the way back to the early designs for Walt’s original Magic Kingdom, Disneyland.
First sketched by Imagineer Bruce Bushman as a ride based on Dumbo’s hallucination of “Pink Elephants on Parade,” someone wisely decided younger guests might prefer flying with Dumbo himself.
While Disneyland was intended to be an upgrade over sideshows and seedy carnivals, Walt and his team listened to advice from some of those operators, most notably Dave Bradley, owner of Bradley’s Beverly Park in Los Angeles, who collected older rides he felt had enduring appeal. Bradley advised Bushman that a good ride showcases the customer. In the case of Dumbo, that means allowing children, often told what to do, to have control of how high or low Dumbo soars, selling the appealing idea they were each flying their own elephant.
Dumbo was immediately popular with Disneyland guests in 1955, and is one of the few attractions available at all of Disney’s locations around the World. While many celebrities have taken a spin, it is said that former United States President Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, refused to ride on Dumbo in 1957, because elephants are, of course, a Republican symbol.
As usual, much thought went into the design of the ride.
Originally, the ears on each Dumbo were designed to flap as the ride went up and down, but the effect never worked properly. That wasn’t the only early mishap. Walt tapped animator-turned-Disney-sculptor and Disney legend Blaine Gibson to craft Dumbo’s friend Timothy Q. Mouse “conducting” the elephants with a whip (later changed to a magic feather).
According to the Disney Archives, while the original sculpt was drying, it cracked because someone wanted a premature peek. Gibson later learned the identity of his enthusiastic co-worker.
“It was Walt (Disney) that came in, but he didn’t know quite what the art of keeping it sealed was. It didn’t bother me.”
Hard to stay mad at the man who signs the paychecks. Gibson repaired “Timothy” in time for the ride’s 1955 debut.
Above is a shot of Walt Disney World’s original Dumbo under construction in 1971. Like Disneyland, it opened with 10 “flying elephants” able to pilot at one time. Tokyo’s version still features 10 Dumbos. Florida’s version expanded to 16 with a new ride mechanism installed in 1993, but you may notice the 1971 version is missing something: the Dumbos aren’t wearing hats.
Somehow, the missing hats reappeared before the shot above was taken in 1973. Look closely and you can see a copy of Timothy Mouse cracking the whip on top. One reason for the ride’s popularity was undoubtedly its original location in the heart of Walt Disney World’s Fantasyland, behind the Carrousel and in front of the far edge of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride’s lagoon. That spot is now home to one of the new castle walls added on the border of New Fantasyland’s “Enchanted Forest”
That’s because Dumbo has remained so popular over the decades, it was given its own mini-land called “Storybook Circus” when New Fantasyland was built. In fact, since 2012, The Magic Kingdom is the only Disney park to feature dueling Dumbos. A new copy of the ride was installed next to the one relocated from “old” Fantasyland. The new one is the only Dumbo in the world to spin clockwise.
With 32 elephants now available to fly at a time, the lines generally move much faster. Additionally, Storybook Circus added a blessing for parents: an air conditioned indoor play area where kids can blow off some steam while waiting in a virtual line, though that has not been in use since the pandemic’s reopening.
To help cool off the little ones, not far from the dueling Dumbos is another unique-to-Florida feature. Casey Jr.’s Splash and Soak Station features characters from the 1941 animated feature.
It’s not quite a “hidden Mickey” -- but each “train car” in the splash pad area features a number: 1971, 1982, 1989 and 1998 -- the years each of Walt Disney World’s major theme parks opened. So what is the enduring appeal of what, on paper, is one of the simplest rides in any Disney park?
In The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland, Imagineer Alex Wright praises simplicity, the appeal of the character, and putting young guests in control: “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.”