geology of disney

The Geology of Disneyland

Even before I finished my first geology class, I (jokingly) told people that I was going to be a Spanish-speaking geologist at Disney World. While the rocks of Disney may not exactly be real, we can still learn about the geologic formations they take their inspiration from. Here’s a look at a few of the geologically-inspired attractions at the Disneyland Resort in California and their real-life counterparts.

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The Matterhorn Bobsleds, Disneyland’s original roller coaster, is directly modeled after Matterhorn mountain of the Swiss-Italian Alps. The Disneyland version of the mountain employs forced perspective and is exactly 100 times shorter than the original Matterhorn (which is 14,700 feet tall!). The real Matterhorn mountain is composed of the metamorphic rock gneiss. The Matterhorn–along with the rest of the Alps–originated during the break-up of the supercontinent Pangaea 200 million years ago. 100 million years after Pangaea broke into Laurasia (containing Europe) and Gondwana (containing Africa), a part of Gondwana broke off and collided with the European continent to become the Alps. The classic pyramidal shape of the Matterhorn mountain is relatively recent and was carved by glacial erosion over the last few million years. The Matterhorn is one of the world’s best examples of a “glacial horn” or “pyramidal peak,” which is produced when multiple glaciers diverge from a central point.

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Radiator Springs Racers takes riders through the fictitious Cars city of Ornament Valley, scenically inspired by Monument Valley of Utah and Arizona. Along the ride you pass “Willy’s Butte,” which is modeled after “Mexican Hat” rock in Utah near Monument Valley. The rock resembles an upside down sombrero and the real version measures 60 feet wide across the top. From about 300 to 200 million years ago, the southwest was covered by shallow seas, and layers of siltstone, shale and sandstones were deposited. When the seas retreated and the area was uplifted, these sedimentary units were subject to erosion. The different hardnesses of shale and sandstone result in differential erosion–meaning rates of erosion will vary based on the different resistances of surface materials. Sandstone is more resistant–eroding away less quickly–and will form vertical cliff faces. Siltstone and shale are far less resistant and erode away faster to form gentle aprons of material. If a resistant rock like sandstone overlies a weaker rock like shale, the weaker rock will erode and undermine the rock above, resulting in these cool “upside-down” formations.

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Big Thunder Mountain Railroad takes riders through scenery inspired by the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Hoodoos are skinny spires of rock shaped like totem poles and are most commonly found in arid badland-like areas. Bryce Canyon National Park contains a greater concentration of hoodoos than anywhere else in the world, and many are up to 100 feet tall. The conglomerate, siltstone and sandstone rocks of the Bryce Canyon region were deposited from around 100 to 50 million years ago when an interior seaway covered the area. Once the seas retreated and the region was uplifted, the area experienced erosion. We can also thank differential erosion for the formation of these hoodoos, as they are composed of large layers of softer rock alternating with layers of more resistant rock. However, the primary weathering processes at work are freeze-thaw cycles. As water makes its way into vertical rock fractures, it will freeze and expand, further widening cracks. The repeated freeze-thaw cycles eventually causes portions to calve off, leaving behind tall totem-like spires.


Photo credits: Banner background [x] | Matterhorn Bobsleds [x] | Matterhorn mountain [x] | Radiator Springs Racers [x] | Mexican Hat rock [x] | Big Thunder Mountain Railroad [x] | Bryce Canyon hoodoos [x]

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