[I spent most of June 2004 in Europe, visiting people and places associated with Walt Disney. I also spent a couple of days at the animation festival at Annecy, France. I'm writing about that trip, which took me to Switzerland, Denmark, and England as well as France, in several installments. MB]
The Matterhorn, that most famous peak in the Swiss Alps, can be seen from many hotel rooms in the village of Zermatt, including those at the Daniela, the hotel where Phyllis and I stayed for three nights. (That's the view from our room just below.) At the Daniela, they told us about an American woman who had come to Zermatt and been shocked to discover that the Matterhorn is a real mountainshe thought it was only a ride at Disneyland.
Walt Disney and his family visited Zermatt on summer trips to Europe in the fifties, and he loved the town. It is in truth a lovable sort of place, its streets clean and free of cars, the people friendly, and the scenery a constant delight. Zermatt sits in a narrow valley, hemmed in by imposing mountains (see the photo below), and getting there is not especially easysince cars are forbidden, drivers must park miles away and take the train. I suspect that the difficulties involved in getting to this alpine Shangri-la make time spent there seem all the sweeter.
Zermatt was important to Walt Disney as more than a holiday destination. Third Man on the Mountain, one of his very best live-action films, is set in a fictional version of Zermatt, and much of the film was shot in and near the town in the spring and summer of 1958. Disney was in Zermatt for part of the filming. The Matterhorn bobsled ride, inspired by his visits to Zermatt, opened in June 1959, five months before Third Man was released. At the end of Disney's life, in 1966, when he was planning what would have been the Mineral King ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains, he envisioned it as being like Zermatt, which is a magnet for skiers in the winter.
As important as Zermatt was to Walt Disney, he is not particularly important to Zermatt. I wrote the tourist office in advance of my visit, asking for help in getting in touch with any residents who might have known him or worked on Third Man, but I never received a reply. When I got to Zermatt and asked about Disney at both the tourist office and the Alpine Museum, I drew blank stares.
The same was true at the Zermatterhof, the town's oldest and grandest hotel. I felt sure the Disneys had stayed there, and I was later able to confirm that with a British member of Third Man's crew. He remembered that Walt had annoyed his wife, Lillian, by dancing too enthusiastically at the hotel with the film's wardrobe mistress. (At last! A Walt Disney sex scandal!)
The walls of another old hotel were filled with photos of mountain climbers (along with an autographed photo of Sir Winston Churchill), but the young women at the reception desk not only did not know whether Walt Disney had stayed there, they had only a dim idea of who he was. If I had been a climbing buff at a Disneyana convention and had asked someone there about Edward Whymper (the Englishman who was the first to climb the Matterhorn, in 1865), I could not have gotten a more baffled reaction. Sic transit gloria, indeed.
At the Daniela, the staff took an interest in my quest and steered me to a young man in the bar. He remembered hearing that the faded lettering on a wall near the museum was a remnant from a Disney movie, presumably Third Man. I'd read that a corner of Zermatt had been spruced up to serve as the town square in Third Man and that, as John G. West Jr. has written in The Disney Live-Action Productions, "Zermatt town fathers liked the new village square so much that they promised to maintain it as a public park in Walt Disney's honor." When Phyllis and I went looking for the mysterious lettering, though, we found nothing.
We did find evidence, though, of how much Zermatt has changed in the almost fifty years since Walt Disney was visiting there. Tucked away on back alleys were old darkwood chalets in the "Walliser" stylethere's a photo of some of them at rightas well as barns raised above stone discs that kept vermin out. (Zermatt is in the canton called Valais or Wallis, depending on whether you're a French or German speaker; either way, the name means "valley," the valley in question being that of the Rhone River.) These traditional buildingssome like them can be glimpsed in Third Manwere very much in contrast to the sleek new stores and hotels that now dominate the town.
Like other resort towns, Zermatt lives in the present, save for the occasional bow to pioneers like Whymper. Most of Zermatt has been built or rebuilt since Disney's death, and a great deal of building is still going on. Geography limits how large the village can grow, but it hasn't reached those limits yet, and it's much larger than it was when Walt and Lillie were visiting. Walt would still recognize the Zermatterhof and other landmarks in the center of the town, like the churchyard filled with stones memorializing climbers who died on the Matterhorn. But only the mountain itself is truly unchanged.
[Click here to read the first installment in this journal, about Disneyland Paris, the second installment, about the Annecy festival, or the fourth installment, about Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens. Click here to go to the official tourist site for Zermatt.]
[Posted July 26, 2004; revised July 31, 2004; updated December 2, 2004]