Disneyland, “The happiest place on Earth,” is known for its attractions, which transport people of all ages into a world of imagination. Park guests can voyage under the sea or even slide down a snow-covered mountain. One man to thank for this is Bob Gurr.
Gurr often quips, “If it moves on wheels at Disneyland, I probably designed it.” He is responsible for more than 200 motion projects throughout his career with 100 of those projects created for the Disney Company.
“I’m a little bit on the irascible side. That’s why my favorite character is Donald Duck,” jokes Gurr, but just like Donald Duck, Gurr is an honored part of Disney history. Gurr received a Disney Legend Award in 2004 for his extraordinary contributions to the Disney Company. He is also featured in the documentary “The Imagineering Story” streaming on Disney+.
Gurr attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and graduated in 1952. Hoping to avoid a career requiring mathematics, Gurr studied industrial design. In 1954, shortly before Disneyland’s opening, he joined WED Enterprises, now called Disney Imagineering, to design the park’s miniature Autopia vehicles.
When Disneyland opened to the public in 1955, park goers were instant fans of Autopia. “Kids were so enthusiastic about everything,” said Gurr. According to Gurr some people even ran up on to the track of the Autopia ride, pulling drivers out of their seats to commandeer the tiny vehicles.
As Disneyland’s success grew, Walt Disney looked to expand the park’s offerings, and Gurr continued to design ride vehicles, including the Matterhorn bobsleds. Although math was not his favorite subject in school, he could not avoid it at Disneyland. To ensure the bobsleds would slide down the Matterhorn without error, he had to learn trigonometry.
Perhaps the most iconic of Gurr’s designs is the monorail. Gurr recalls Walt Disney approaching him about the project. A German company was already building a monorail, but Walt Disney was unhappy with the design.
“I could see right away that the German train looked like a big, old street car,” said Gurr. “The front end was as gracious as the World War II German bombers. I could see why Walt didn’t like that one – not one bit.”
Inspired by the Buck Rogers comics, Gurr decided to design the monorail with a futuristic look that still holds up today. “The shapes were geometrically very simple,” said Gurr. “If you design shapes that are classically simple, they will endure.”
Gurr also helped create Disney’s first audio-animatronics human figure, Abraham Lincoln, featured in the attraction Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Gurr was tasked with not only making the Lincoln figure move, but also making him stand. The result was so realistic many thought an actor portrayed Lincoln.
Walt Disney required his employees to achieve great feats, but according to Gurr, Disney had a secret weapon for convincing his imagineers they could succeed. “Walt would walk away when he asked you to do something,” said Gurr. “Before you could say but – he was gone.”
The result: Walt Disney’s team explored how a project could work – not why it would not. “He had a sense of what you might be able to do even though you never did it,” explained Gurr.
In Gurr’s case, Walt Disney assumed he knew mechanics. “Well I didn’t,” said Gurr. “I just shut up and tried to learn everything I needed to.”
After a lengthy career with the Walt Disney Company, Gurr retired early in 1981 to launch his own company and went on to design projects for Michael Jackson, the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games, Universal Studios and Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas casinos to name a few.
Today Gurr continues to innovate new projects and is currently developing an updated electric mobility vehicle using SolidWorks, a 3D computer-aided design software. “I’m doing some of the niftiest, fun designing I have ever done in my life,” said Gurr.
For the man who makes things move, it is only fitting that at the age of 88, Gurr is not slowing down. Gurr said he wakes up every day ready to design. “There is no possibility of retirement.”
“The enthusiasm of going to the Disney Studios on that first day in October of ‘54 and what I do every day right here is exactly the same.”