I know I've done and seen about everything when I see an elephant fly. And the truth is, I have—well, only at the Disneyland theme park courtesy of the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride, which was built shortly after the park opened 55 years ago this weekend on July 17, 1955.
Though it's easy to cynically write it off as a perennial cash cow for an entertainment empire, the theme park is indeed a culturally meaningful piece of Americana.
"Disneyland deals a lot with the idea of wish fulfillment and fantasy in American life and both of those play a role in the American psyche," says American History Museum curator of popular culture Dwight Blocker Bowers. And if that's the idea behind the theme park, Dumbo could not be a more apropos poster boy.
"The character itself represents the underdog," Bowers says. "He encounters unspeakable roadblocks and yet he triumphs. And I think that says something about the rags-to-riches undercurrent in American culture and that Dumbo’s journey from lowly circus animal to big top hero is a triumph of the American dream."
The Dumbo theme park attraction is based on the 1941 Disney film about a baby elephant whose unusually large ears incur ridicule from his fellow circus animals, but he learns that they give him the uncanny ability to glide through the air and he ultimately attains celebrity status.
The elephant-shaped gondolas were originally planned to be pink, recalling a scene in the film where Dumbo and his mouse pal Timothy accidentally imbibe a bucket full of champagne and experience hallucinations of neon-colored elephants on parade. However, this visual conceit was rethought and the actual ride has always sported the classically gray fiberglass pachyderms.
The Dumbo car on display at the American History museum dates to around 1956. "The reason we know that," Bowers says, "is that the first Dumbos designed for the ride had articulated ears and they broke very frequently and required constant repair. So they redesigned them to have permanently aloft ears. One of the things I had asked Disney was that if they had any of the ones with the articulated ears and they said, 'No, they all broke and we would not have kept anything like that.'"
And in spite of its age, the artifact looks pristine. "The amazing thing is that Disney did send a fellow to wax it and as he was waxing I said, 'Don’t make it look so new.' And how you can tell its age is if you see where the metal pole attaches to the body of the elephant, there are elements of rust that shows the age of the car."
Dumbo was donated to the Smithsonian by the Walt Disney Company in 2005 on the occasion of Disneyland's 50th anniversary and you can currently see him on the third floor of the American History Museum. Unfortunately, this one is for viewing only—you'll have to travel to a Disney theme park if you want to ride a flying elephant.