Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Snow White's Grotto - The Sculptures

2007 image courtesy of Robert Miller.

Secluded Tranquility...

It was at Disneyland 52 years ago today, April 9, 1961 that Walt Disney dedicated the area known as Snow White's Grotto. The garden-like setting, designed by WED Imagineer John Hench, sits along the side path from Sleeping Beauty Castle, between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.

The four-tiered grotto includes Echo Falls and the Wishing Pool. Snow White stands at the top with an undersized deer by her side. At her feet are song birds--sometimes two, at other times just one, and on occasion none at all (as seen in the photo above).

On the second level, Grumpy blocks the entrance to the mine. Then from left to right is Sneezy, a rabbit, a squirrel, and Doc. Tier three has the log bridge with Happy, Sleepy, and Bashful. Dopey is placed below at the edge of the pond where three fish swim in a circle and squirt water from their mouths. There's also four squirting frogs.

In this particular John Hench concept piece, we see the figures and the four tiers of the grotto but no frogs.

The certificate of authenticity for a 1987 limited edition lithograph reproduction of the artwork. The same concept art appeared on the first page of the April 1961 Disneylander, a cast member newsletter published by the Disneyland Recreation Club.

COA courtesy of Kevin Hicks. Disneylander courtesy of Matterhorn1959 at Stuff From The Park.

These vintage shots convey the secluded feel of the setting. They date from the early to mid 60s, courtesy of David at Gorilla's Don't Blog.

Circa 1960s

The location of the Grotto in relation to Sleeping Beauty Castle is shown in this contemporary scale model on display at the Disney Galley, Disneyland.

Close-up of photo courtesy of Natalie Niemi.

Most guests find the serene environs of the Grotto a nice reprieve from the frenetic pace so common elsewhere in the park. Couples have used the "seclusion" as a place to propose marriage as well as to actually wed.

Image courtesy of Matterhorn1959 at Stuff From The Park.

Note the original-design of the railing above, circa 1960s, and the railing as it appears today.

Image courtesy of Mouse Encounter.

The bridge railings, then and now.

1966 pic courtesy of Gorillas Don't Blog.

2011 Image via Disney Parks Blog.

The Not-So-Unexpected Gift...

The tranquility of the spot resonates throughout the day with the singing Wishing Well (see next Archive entry), but it's the sculpted marble figures of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that have added to its mystique. The often told story is that the statues were an unexpected gift from an anonymous Italian sculptor. It was said that he used a set of European Snow White soap bars as his reference, and as a result, Snow White was mistakenly carved the same size as the dwarfs.

In a recent MousePlanet article, Disney historian Jim Korkis sheds light on this Disneyland myth...
Never in a million years would I have suspected that a really great story by a legendary Imagineer told for more than 40 years was pure hokum. I always loved the Snow White Grotto addition to Disneyland. I remember being in a group of folks as Disney Legend John Hench told the following story as an example of how when you worked at Disney, you had to come up with innovative solutions to challenging situations. Fortunately, I don't have to use my notes because Hench retold the story in his book Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show (Disney Editions 2003).

"We encountered a special challenge when Walt unexpectedly received a gift of statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs carved from pure-white Carrara marble, which arrived in wooden crates from Italy with no return address or any other indication of who might have made and sent them. Walt called me down to the studio warehouse to look at them, and told me he wanted them somewhere in Disneyland. I had to tell him that we would have a perspective problem with the figures. The sculptor had carved Snow White the same size as the dwarfs. 'Just figure it out," said Walt."
Hench's clever solution was to put the Snow White figure at the top of a cascading waterfall, next to an undersized deer and bird, and the dwarfs much lower and closer to the guests so it created a forced perspective situation where Snow White seemed in the right proportion.

In another Hench concept piece, we see how the waterfall was designed to increase in width the closer it got to the pool below, thus adding to the forced perspective illusion. (Note that in the artwork, a frog has been added along side the pond, plus next to Dopey is a turtle, which never made it to the park.) Also included here is a vintage photo from July 1961, just three months after the Grotto opened.

Vintage photo courtesy of David at Gorillas Don't Blog.

John Hench passed away in February 2004. Some time after, we learned the truth about his tale of how the statues came to Disney. In recent years, guests have been enjoying visits to Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California, (as part of an Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic Tour). Mary Jo Collins, a columnist at WDW Fan Zone, participated in the tour and shared what she learned about John's story...
After his death, his secretary found a file titled “Snow White.” Upon careful examination of its contents, it was discovered that the Walt Disney Company had in fact commissioned an Italian artist by the name of Leonida Parbla to design and create the marble statues. Hench’s Snow White file included correspondence between him and the sculptor discussing the company’s discovery of the proportion issue with the statues. In one letter, Hench asked the sculptor how much it would cost to re-create Snow White. Parbla’s response was that it would cost $2000. Hench subsequently wrote back that the price was too much and the company would just work with what they had.

The legend of the statues has taken on a life of its own in Disney folklore over the years. It seems that Hench himself constructed the story. He even propagated the tale in his own book. However, with the momentous revelation of the letters, one would think that the story has now been re-written. Unfortunately, the answer to this mystery will probably never be solved. In spring of 2011, Imagineers went to find the letters to settle the quandary once and for all. To their dismay, the letters were missing. No one knows where the letters are to this day.

Although the "unexpected and anonymous gift" aspect of John's story was nothing more than a classic Imagineer fabrication, the Snow White figure was indeed fashioned too small in comparison to the rest, though at 39", she is still 8" taller than the dwarfs.

In regards to the animals, there still seems to be some unanswered questions. Disney definitely created the undersized deer, but who sculpted the others? Jim Korkis has heard it told both ways: 1) the Imagineers created all of the animals; 2) they commissioned the Italian sculptor to do them when they discovered the Snow White mistake. If anyone knows the real answer, please chime in.

The Haunted Grotto...

A night shot from April 1966. Spooky?

Image courtesy of David at Gorilla's Don't Blog.

At first glance, fans of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion might not find too much to write home about as they pass through Snow White's Grotto. But appearances can sometimes be deceiving. Take a look at this early piece of ballroom concept art by Claude Coats.

Occupying the darkness to the right are a host of ghostly faces and floating skulls.

Now in this contemporary photo courtesy of DaddyB at Visions Fantastic, we gaze across the Sleeping Beauty Castle bridge to Snow White atop her waterfall perch. Scroll down to see her reflection in the water.

A Claude Coats phantom face, alive and well in the castle moat! This discovery comes from HBG2 at Long Forgotten.

Dopey's Fishing Pole...

In the original 1961 setup, Dopey was given a fishing rod which he held in his left hand with a line cast out into the pond. This photo form 1963 clearly shows both the pole and line.

Close-up of photo.

Today, however, Dopey no longer has a pole. Dave DeCaro pointed this out in a 2011 Daveland blog post. The change probably occurred during the 1983 refurbishment.

Originals Replaced...

Before Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983, the statues were removed from the Anaheim theme park so that copies could be made for the new grotto in Japan. The Snow White size discrepancy was going to be corrected, but the Oriental Land Company wanted their princess just as she was; no changes were implemented.

It was also during this time that a decision was made to warehouse the original figures. After more than 20 years of exposure to the elements, the Carrara marble was showing signs of wear. So another set of duplicates was created and placed at Disneyland. These are the statues we see today.

The replicas are probably molded from a durable resin. The marbling is a painted-on effect. Depending on what year you visit, the appearance can be quite different. The following photos also come from Daveland. The grayish line patterns were shot by Dave in 2008, the brownish markings in 2010-11.

Snow 2008, grayish pattern. Note the absence of song birds.

Snow 2010, brownish marbling. The two birds have returned, one sits more upright than the other. Both have their wings resting at their sides.

The original marble sculptures were stored away--apparently forgotten about--until someone driving a forklift dropped a crate with Snow White inside. The accident seriously damaged her arms, but she was successfully repaired. Now all the statues are protected and on display in the Maquette Room at Walt Disney Imagineering.

When we zoom in on the birds at Snow's feet, we see that one of the originals was sculpted with wings pointing up.

Both of Snow's arms appear to have been repaired at the elbows and wrists.

WDI Images from 2010. Courtesy of Wondering What's Next.

More Refurbs...

Upkeep to the Grotto, like any area in the park, occurs when necessary, with larger scale refurbishments scheduled periodically as well. The weathered entrance to the mine, for example, is often in need of a new coat of paint.

2011 image courtesy of Loren Javier. Creative Commons License.

One noticeable closure happened in 2004 in preparation for Disneyland's 50th anniversary the following year. Photographer Alex Stroup snapped this shot for MousePlanet of a deserted backdrop. All of the figures had been removed, except for the deer. The waterfall was shut off, the pond drained, and a blue tarp was erected at some point too.

Screen capture from video posted by infaMOUSEproject.

The latest refurbishment occurred between September 4-24, 2012. A green tarp was erected, but the walkway was still open.

Only one bird at Snow White's feet this time around.

2012 Refurb images copyright Andy Castro via MiceChat.

Other Parks...

Snow White Grotto opened with the rest of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983.

Image via DisneyWiki.

Image courtesy of Behind.Grey.Eyes.

Part of the Easter celebrations at the park have included the temporary "transformation" of the dwarf figures into egg shapes.

Egg photos courtesy of DF'82.

Hong Kong Disneyland also included the Grotto when it opened in 2005.

Image courtesy of Disney Dan.

Image via DisneyWiki.

Image courtesy of Moments of Endearment.

Special thanks to Jim Korkis for his assistance with this Archive entry and to all the bloggers and photographers who graciously shared images from their collections.

Tune into the next post for Snow White's Grotto Wishing Well.


  1. Fascinating!! Who knew there was quite so MUCH history associated with this delightfully sequestered corner of Disneyland...?

    1. Yes, quite a bit of history for such a small piece of real estate. And we're not done yet. The Wishing Well has it's own set of anecdotes. ;)

  2. Fantastic post about one of my favorite areas of the park!

  3. Thanks for this splendid commemoration of the grotto on its anniversary!
    The night shot is a knockout; the camera even picked out some sparkling gems in
    the mine behind Grumpy.

    1. You're right Raimundo. I hadn't noticed that before. Cool!

  4. Wow, excellent post! Thanks for pointing out so many details - ones that I probably would have missed, knowing me.

    1. Thanks Major. Glad you liked it. And muchas gracias for the photos.

  5. Yes, excellent post....so incredibly thorough! I had been wondering if the figures we see today were the originals....now I know. And who knew that the story about the anonymous donor was just Disney propaganda? Wow!

    1. Thank you Tokyo. Be sure to check out the next post. You'll probably recognize a photo or two. ;)