The works of Walt Disney aren’t limited to movies, television and theme parks. The Walt Disney Company and the man himself have been a part of a lot of world events.
One contribution that’s particularly notable is to the Winter Olympics in 1960. The event has a fascinating history, especially for Disney fans. Here’s a little background on the seminal events that happened in a little town named Squaw Valley.
1. How it happened
Walt Disney had a lot of interest in winter sports prior to the 1960 Winter Olympic Games. He was an uncredited producer on the 1958 live action movie Third Man on the Mountain, which told the story of a man in Switzerland trying to conquer the mountain that killed his father. The experience making the film inspired the creation of the Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction that arrived in Disneyland in 1959, and is likely the reason Walt jumped at the chance to to chair the Pageantry Committee for the 1960 games, the first Winter Olympics to be held on the West Coast. His responsibilities would primarily be handling the Olympic Torch relay, the victory ceremonies and opening and closing ceremonies.
2. The Disneyland connection
Once he had the job, Walt Disney quickly invited friends and previous collaborators to join him on his new venture. People he hired that readers of Theme Park Tourist would likely be interested in include Art Linkletter, the television star who hosted Disneyland’s live opening, Director of Customer Relations at Disneyland Tommy Walker, and Tommy Walker, who was largely responsible for Disneyland's parades and fireworks.
The most important person Walt hired, though, is Imagineering legend John Hench. As the Games’ Decor Director, he created 32 magnificent snow sculptures for the Olympic site at Squaw Valley, depicting athletes of various winter sports. The idea was suggested by Walt, inspired by the ancient greek custom of making marble sculptures for Olympic champions. Thirty were sixteen feet tall and placed in the Avenue of the Athletes. The last two statues were a staggering twenty-four feet tall and stood next to the Tower of Nations, which was also designed by John Hench. Hench also designed a new Olympic Torch. 1960 was the first time the Olympic flame would ever be flown over the North Pole, which inspired both Walt and John. The Olympic Torch Hench designed failed to disappoint; it has had a major influence on all Torches that have followed it.
3. The roadblocks
The 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics came with a number of obstacles. They were all overcome, thankfully, but it’s amazing how much had to go right for the Games to be as well thought of as they are today. Here are some of the troubles that came along the way to the extremely memorable event.
The location of the 1960 Winter Olympics, Squaw Valley, was an odd choice to host the Games. It was an obscure, struggling ski resort with just one chair lift, two tow ropes and a fifty room lodge. Alexander Cushing, the owner, meant his bid simply as a publicity stunt but ended up the host of the 1960 Olympics. After the location was officially announced in Spring 1955, there was a big rush to make roads, bridges, hotels and restaurants, along with a lot more winter sports attractions.
Officials in Melbourne, Australia, which hosted the Olympics in 1956, were less than accommodating. They refused to share their technique fueling the Torch throughout the Games. Disney employees ended up creating their own unique fuel mixture.
Walt wanted doves to be released at the opening ceremony, but there were protestors who feared that the doves would freeze to death. Homing pigeons were used instead, but then the person in charge of the ice rink feared the birds would make a mess. They ended up rescheduling events to ensure that the ice rink stayed pristine.
On February 18th, 1960, the opening day of the Olympics, everyone in Squaw County woke up to a blizzard that threatened plans for the ceremony. The events were scheduled to begin at 10:00am, but snow on the roads made it tough for both guests and network crews to get there. The musicians also didn’t dress for the conditions, ending up freezing cold, and pigeon wranglers insisted that the weather was dangerous for the birds. Vice President Richard Nixon (who himself has a fascinating history with the Disney parks) had to drive to the Olympics because the weather stopped his helicopter from being a travel option. At one point staff was considering a smaller indoor ceremony. According to Art Linkletter, Walt was calm during the chaos, simply saying that he hoped the weather would improve. Miraculously, it did, and the events proceeded only a little later than scheduled.
4. The innovations
True to Disney's style, he introduced a lot of really innovative, game changing ideas that would change the Olympics themselves forever. Here are some of the things introduced at the 1960 Olympics, many thanks to the contributions of Walt Disney and friends.
Previously, Olympic athletes and guests stayed in local hotels and homes. That wasn’t possible in Squaw Valley because of its remote location, which required the building of the first ever Olympic Village.
So much new technology was used at the 1960 Olympics that The Walt Disney Family Museum described the Games as “EPCOT on ice.” Artificial ice was first used there, they used new timekeeping equipment, and for the first time waste heat from the refrigeration plant heated the buildings.
Television rights were sold for the first time, to CBS for just $50,000.
Walt Disney came up with the idea to plant thirty steel poles for the flags of all the nations participating in the Squaw Valley Olumpics. Each was sponsored by a company included a plaque from Walt thanking them for their contributions. The flagpoles were sold from a range of just $500 to $600. This was the first time corporate sponsorship was utilized at the Games.
5. The Disney magic
The opening and closing ceremonies were widely acclaimed, thanks to the work of Walt Disney and friends. At one point Olympic officials protested the high costs of his very elaborate plans, but Walt declared, "Either we're going to do it the right way or Disney will pull out.” Everyone who was there to experience those ceremonies and everyone who watched on television is surely grateful that the officials gave in so that we got a very special piece of Disney history.