Have you ever spotted the towering dinosaur that stands on the side of Echo Lake at Disney’s Hollywood Studios? It always catches my attention whenever I’m on that side of the park because I love “California-crazy” architecture. There’s just something that makes me smile when I drive past a building that’s topped with a 20-foot-tall donut or a fruit stand that’s shaped like a giant navel orange.
However, this dino, which houses Dinosaur Gertie’s Ice Cream of Extinction, has often made me wonder…why a dinosaur? If Disney was going to build an over-sized animal in one of its theme parks, why not choose, I don’t know…a giant mouse?
It turns out that this monstrous dino is actually a tribute to Gertie the Trained Dinosaur, who was one of the first popular animated characters in the history of film. The character was not developed by Walt Disney, but by newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay, who was later considered by many (including Walt) to be a pioneer in early animation.
In 1913, McCay released a 12-minute short called “Gertie the Dinosaur,” starring the hand-drawn character. The film combined animation with a vaudeville-type performance that made the cartoon appear to be interactive, during which, McCay appeared onstage in front of the film’s projection screen and followed scripted lines “directing” the animated brontosaurus to do tricks, including raising her feet and rolling over. The grand finale of the performance involved McCay disappearing behind a screen and “reappearing” in animated form in the film and riding off on Gertie’s back.
Walt, who was only 12 years old when “Gertie the Dinosaur” was released, later had McCay’s performance recreated to include in a segment called “The Story of the Animated Drawing” to air on his “Disneyland” television series in 1955.
During the segment, Walt explained the significance of this character to the history of animated film, saying, “Winsor McCay’s Gertie and other animation novelties stimulated a great public interest and created a demand for this new medium. This, in turn, encouraged other pioneers to creative efforts that in time, led to the establishment of the animated cartoon as an industry.”
In 1989, Walt Disney Imagineers honored Gertie and the role she played in the history of animated film by constructing this over-sized tribute to her at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, a theme park that serves as the ultimate tribute to movie history.