5 Facts About Disney and the Squaw Valley Olympics

by | Jan 15, 2018 | Disney History, Lists and Trivia

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, begin on February 8, the 23rd Winter Games to be held. For Disney fans, it is a chance to remember how Walt Disney changed the world of the Olympics forever in 1960, when he served as the Chairman of the Pageantry Committee. As we prepare for the new Winter Games, here is a look back with five facts about Walt Disney and the Olympics.

1. Squaw Valley

The games were the eighth Winter Games to be held, following the 1956 Cortinna D’Ampezzo Games in Italy. Alexander Cushing, the owner of a ski resorts in Squaw Valley, California and Wayne Poulsen, president of the Squaw Valley Development Company, began the push to get the small ski area in the Olympic Valley selected. Against all odds, Squaw Valley beat out cities like Innsbruck, Austria and Chamonix, France. The International Olympic Committee awarded Squaw Valley the Games on April 4, 1956.

2. Chairman Walt

Entrepreneur Prentis Cobb Hale chaired the Olympic Organizing Committee and asked Walt Disney to be Chairman of the Pageantry Committee. Disney produced the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics. He also organized the Olympic torch relay and designed the games’ medal ceremonies.
Among the innovations that came from the games were the first ever creation of an Olympic Village, the first sale of exclusive television rates (which went to CBS), and the first time that corporate sponsorship was used at the games (with each company sponsoring one of 30 steel flag poles placed in Squaw Valley).

3. John Hench

Imagineer John Hench worked as Decor Director for the Games. Hench designed a new Olympic Torch, along with 32 statues placed throughout Squaw Valley. The statues depicted athletes performing various winter sports. Thirty of the statues stood 16 feet tall, with the last two towering over visitors at 24 feet tall. The largest statues stood beside the Tower of Nations, also designed by Hench.

4. Entertainment for Athletes

Walt Disney brought in a mass of entertainers to perform for the Olympic athletes. The name reads like a who’s who of celebrities: Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Marlene Dietrich, Jayne Mansfield, Danny Kaye, and even the cast of the Golden Horseshoe from Disneyland (Wally Boag, Betty Taylor, Gene Sheldon, Henry Calvin, and Donald Novis).

5. The Opening Ceremonies

In true Disney fashion, Walt created an enormous opening ceremony event. Five thousand entertainers performed, and there were even 2,000 homing pigeons (used in place of doves) released during the event. Vice President Richard Nixon declared the games open. The ceremony also featured eight cannon blasts, one for each of the winter games that had been held.

The ceremony was not without its difficulties. A heavy blizzard started on the morning of February 18, hours before the ceremony was set to begin. In a bit of true Disney magic, the skies cleared in just time and the snow did not resume until after the ceremonies ended.