Chris Runco was the senior concept designer for the Grizzly Peak Recreation Area. His prior projects include the African-themed areas of Animal Kingdom, model maker for Big Thunder Mountain, special effects for World of Motion and the American Adventure. He was also the lead show designer for Typhoon Lagoon. specifically did you do at Disney’s California Adventure?

Chris Runco: I’m the senior concept designer for the Grizzly Peaks Recreation area, so the raft ride, the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, and the Rushin' River Outfitters.

LP: Grizzly Peak is a lot more elaborate than many expected it to be. Can you talk about some of the unique features of Grizzly Peak.

CR: The heart, of course, was in the spirit of this park which is celebrating California - the wonderful aspects of California. Grizzly Peak is a celebration of the California wilderness which, to a lot of us who worked on it, is very special and personal to us because we grew up going to the Sierras and going to the Redwoods on vacation, places we loved when we were kids, so it was a real pleasure to work on something about that same subject. And of course the research involved going to those same places and taking a closer look. We were actually out there with the painters and the sculptors and the rock work sculptors on a couple of the research trips like in Yosemite and walking around with paint chips taking pictures and holding paint chips of the redwood trees and to the rocks to get the colors to use on this.

Then we built it around another good California story, white water rafting. California has some of the best white water anywhere in the world between the Kern River, the American River, the Towe, the Klamath and the Trinity. So we went white water rafting. I took my family white water rafting, one of those vacations where I’m taking pictures constantly for work. It’s just amazing to do that, a wonderful thing to do. We tried, in the story to bring that back. The story here - this is contemporary - the story behind the raft ride which I think is a very unique aspect of it is it’s an abandoned gold mine, looks a lot like you find in gold country, and these rafting enthusiasts got together and started their own little rafting company - Grizzly River Rafters - and they took over this abandoned gold mine, did a little tweaking with the machinery, took the old ore chute that used to bring ore down the mountain and now they take rafts up the mountain to get to this great white water.

So you go into that old mine, then you go up through it and that just sets you off on your whole adventure on the ride itself with all the different effects that we’ve got. Another aspect of it, from a technical side, is that we started with an off the shelf ride, a raft system, a round raft that a lot of parks use is the core of it. But then we made it an eight passenger raft. We added the decoration we have there, the expedition with all the gear attached. Then we also invented a drop. Nobody ever put a drop on one of these rides before and we really didn’t even know if we could do it. A round raft, we didn’t know if we could send it down a drop and if it would work okay. We made a full size mock up after we came up with basically what we wanted to do. In our topography facility we built a full size mock up where we could hoist the raft to the top and then drop it down at various angles and came up with this drop and it worked out. When we got the right angle it just worked great. On the first drop, which is called Bear Claw Falls, when you get to the bottom there’s a huge wave of water that comes up in front of you. It does not drop in the boat. It just comes up to the front, very important. We said, this is great. It works really well. So then we incorporated it into the ride in two places and the second drop is even taller and gives you a little surprise because you go down and something catches on the raft and sends you spinning like a top. That’s a very unique feature for a raft ride plus, like I said, we took you through a lot of different kinds of environments. We believe it’s the tallest, fastest and longest raft ride anybody has ever built. There are the drops, in particular. and we also think we've got a whole lot of really fine elements along the way.

LP: My favorite, of course, is the spin you just talked about. Was that a difficult thing to do?

CR: The spin. Our engineers made it look easy. I should tell you this wonderful story about how we came up with it. The mock up I was telling you about with the straight drop. We had done that a bunch of times and figured an appropriate angle. We lift the raft up and drop it down. Originally we intended to do some kind of like circular drop to see if we could take you around a big spiraling bend or whatever. The mock up told us that wouldn’t work, that we could not do the right angle to make that happen. But we really loved the idea of getting some spinning action on the raft. And we noticed one day, just going down the thing, that something caught the raft and just made it - it started spinning and we said, "this is very cool. This is a lot of fun. Is there some way we can do this?" The lead engineer on it says "I have an idea" and he went up on the mock up. We pulled the raft up to the top the mock up with us in - this is Mark Sumner by the way - and he went up to the top and there was a tow rope on the raft to get it back to the mock up to the top each time, just a rope. He put a pair of gloves on, put a safety belt on around himself, strapped himself to the structure and he held onto that rope and said, "okay, let it go." And the guy popped the latch and that raft started plummeting and him holding on to one side. That thing started spinning like a top and he held on. Then he had to let go because it was taking his arms right off - not really - but he let go and in a few moments that thing started spinning and when we got to the bottom we said "we have to do this. We have to find a way to do this. This is too much fun." They went looking at it and figured out a way to do that mechanically so it recreates. We jokingly call the turn you do down there the "Half Sumner." You do a "Half Sumner" drop in honor of his heroic exploits making it happen.

LP: Are there ways to control how wet you’re going to get depending on day or night or cold or warm weather?

CR: We have a cool weather setting where we tone down the geysers and the leak stops. The leaky parts magically stop leaking so that it’s not so wet for people in cool weather like this. Summertime we’ll pour all it’s got.

LP: Are there some details people should keep an eye out as they're speeding by?

CR: There are a lot of details along the way. You’ll see some interesting graphics. You’ll notice when you get to the top, if you look over, you’ll see the Grizzly Summit sign of to the side, elevation 1401 [Imagineering officers are at 1401 Flower St.] and then you go whipping through the cavern. When you go through the cavern there’s kind of a rush of wind that becomes the roar of the bear, kind of the spirit of the mountain following you out. There’s some ancient petroglyphs along the way. We studied petroglyphs up north and looked at various places, so there’s a little touch of that. And if you look after you go on the ride there’s a rock out near the load area that has the legend, this little legend that we put together based on Native American characters that goes with the mountain. So you’ll see those petroglyphs along the way. And then there’s just a lot of little business here and there with the gold mining machinery that gives a lot of fun that we found in various places around the state and tried to use it here.

LP: Moving away from Grizzly, Disneyland has Tom Sawyer Island a vast kids’ play area. Was it important to have something like that here as well?

The Challenge Trail four months before opening
The Challenge Trail four months before opening

CR: We thought it was real important to have that kind of activity in this park too. All of Grizzly Peak at one time had that type of flavor until we put the raft ride into it and that worked out very well. But the play area was - again, we were looking for a combination, something that would be a great place for the whole family because we know at the different parks that works great. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids studio tour in Florida. DinoLand at Animal Kingdom and Tom Sawyer’s Island of course at Disneyland where it’s not just the kids but the parents get to go along too and do these things. So we said we really want to create a great play area and we want to theme it to California and we came up with the theme of the national and state parks and put them together. We did a lot of research at different parks and found elements that we really loved, like the net climbs are one thing and the bouncing log that you go through and the slides that work. Little bit of rock climbing area, the cable slides were a big thing, we really enjoyed that. And we said, okay, how can we put all these together into this story. That was at the heart of it. We got these elements. Here is what we want it to look like. How can we lay this out in layers and in the space we’ve got which is tight. We always have to be very efficient about the way we use space. This is what we came up with. This kind of over and under and around and through, up one bridge, down the other, down the slide, over and up the other tower and it’s gone over real well. I’m real pleased with it. My family enjoyed it very much too.

LP: Does this area have any room for expansion or is it pretty well filled out?

CR: There is a little bit of room, but not much to work with. I’m sure that we may find some room for some little additions and enhancements along the way but the hotel is pretty close and Soaring is right next door too.

LP: Other than the Grizzly Peak area what would you say is your favorite attraction in the park?

CR: I love the roller coaster. I think this is a wonderful roller coaster. It’s got great character. There’s roller coasters that have these superlatives like tallest, fastest, scariest, whatever, but this one is just fun. I really enjoy the music. I enjoy the pace of it, the various features, the camel backs, the loop is wonderful. It really makes you feel like you’re swooping upside down. Some loops seem like they happen so fast that you hardly know you went upside down. This one you really feel it. I took my sons and my dad on it. We all came off and said we got to go do it again. It’s terrific. I’d say that’s a highlight.