Gertie the Dinosaur, or Dinosaur Gertie’s Ice Cream of Extinction as this Walt Disney World ice cream stand is officially known, is awesome. It’s one of the cool details at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that help make the park special, and is seemingly out of place but fits perfectly. The park catches a lot of flak and is usually ranked as the #3 or #4 park by most Walt Disney World fans, but there are some bright spots despite its many shortcomings. Today we’ll take a look at one such bright spot, and one of my favorite details of the park…that is, if a huge apatosaurus can be considered a detail. I’ve captured dozens of photos of Dinosaur Gertie over the years, so I thought it would be fun to share a tribute post with some information about Gertie, plus photos and commentary. Since Dinosaur Gertie’s only serves regular soft serve ice cream, a full blown restaurant review doesn’t seem appropriate.
Why do I like Dinosaur Gertie so much? It’s time for a little exercise I like to call, “get to know some weird dude from the internet!” through which you get to learn more about me. If I had to rank my top 5 favorite things on earth, the list would be as follows: 1) dinosaurs, 2) ALF, 3) America, 4) ice cream, and 5) beef jerky. Rounding out the top 10 would be Mater Topiary and I guess things like family, friends, mashed potatoes, and other stuff like that. As a dinosaur shaped ice cream stand, Dinosaur Gertie nails two of my top 5, and qualifies as one of the most awesome places in the world.
Unfortunately, it’s just a little too awesome. Much like the sinkhole that probably closed Horizons, prevented Beastly Kingdom from being built, precluded the building of a 5th gate, stopped Country Bear Christmas from running, and ate the corpse of Jimmy Hoffa, the levels of awesomeness produced by an operating Dinosaur Gertie’s Ice Cream of Extinction are dangerous. It’s now only permitted to be open a few days each year to keep these contagious levels of awesome in check. Kudos to Disney for adhering to the #1 Key to the Kingdom: safety. It would be an awful thing if Disney actually operated its prominently located establishments rather than just letting them sit, unused, most of the year.
In the last five years, we’ve seen Dinosaur Gertie’s open twice, and we’ve stopped there each time to get ice cream. It’s my understanding that at one time the “Ice Cream of Extinction” in the name was literal, as Disney served rare types of ice cream from around the world at Dinosaur Gertie’s. I don’t recall ever experiencing this myself, and the practice reportedly ended by the mid-1990s. Today, when open, Dinosaur Gertie’s is basically just a place to get soft serve ice cream and a few other items. I’m a sucker for soft serve ice cream, so that’s enough for me.
The ice cream stand is in the style of California Crazy architecture, which was an eye-catching and tacky style of larger than life objects set up on roadsides in California attempting to lure travelers to stop. These designs were a unique form of marketing and commercialism that never really caught on outside of the West Coast. Most of these stands were shaped like animals and were places to grab fast food from mom and pop establishments in the era before chain restaurants. Los Angeles historian Jim Heimann is the leading authority on these, and his book California Crazy & Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architectureis a fascinating look hundreds of these long-forgotten stands. (There’s not much reading to it and it’s an interesting slice of Americana–if your local library has it, check it out!)
The dinosaur is named “Gertie” as a tribute to trailblazing animator Winsor McCay. Gertie the Dinosaur was his 1914 animated short film that McCay used before live audiences as an interactive part of his vaudeville act. The film was only about 5 minutes long, but it contained over 10,000 drawings all done by McCay, by hand! McCay would stand to the side of the screen, while the childlike Gertie did tricks seemingly at his command. This was one of McCay’s first animated films, and was revolutionary for its time. It’s widely cited as an inspiration for the next generation of animators, including Walt Disney, as it was one of the first animals depicted in animation with personality.
Personally, I think it’s pretty cool that Disney chose to use this ice cream stand as a tribute to McCay. (It also works to use a dinosaur due to the mostly discredited theory that an ice age led to the extinction of dinosaurs.) Even before it was called Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the Studios has always drawn heavily on Californian architecture, so the California Crazy style would’ve fit regardless of what type of animal or object this stand was. By designing it as Gertie, it doubly fits into the landscape of the park that’s all about Hollywood, as the architecture fits and it serves as a way to introduce guests to someone long forgotten by most, but who played in pioneering role in animation. Most guests probably quickly pass by the placard explaining the inspiration for Dinosaur Gertie, but it’s a nice touch for those who slow down to read it.
Another interesting touch that I didn’t notice for the longest time when going through this area is that there are Gertie tracks leading into Echo Lake! They’re fairly obvious, but for some reason it took me the longest time to see them. I guess sometimes details hide in plain sight.
What’s most interesting to me is how well Disney accomplished this style of architecture that is admittedly tacky. Businesses that embraced California Crazy were typically mom and pop shops that were decidedly low budget, and their stands usually didn’t have a whole lot of artistic merit, besides with present day historians who look back on them with an interest in their kitsch and the cultural oddities that have grown in California, rather than examining them as a serious form of architecture. Despite this, I can’t recall ever hearing serious criticism of Dinosaur Gertie by the scholarly park fan types. (Perhaps such critiques are out there and I just haven’t stumbled upon any).
This is really interested given that a couple of decades later, when building Disney’s California Adventure, Imagineering again incorporated California Crazy into a park. The Route 66 area of the park in Paradise Pier featured its own large dinosaur (Dinosaur Jack’s Sunglass Shack) and a giant cheeseburger (Burger Invasion, a McDonald’s). The reaction to that use of California Crazy was widely critiqued and outright rejected by fans, and a little over 5 years after the park opened, it was gone. Likewise, when Disney incorporated a roadside carnival into Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the concept was similarly met with scorn by fans, and continues to this day to be the most divisive land in any United States Disney theme park.
Dinosaur Gertie succeeds while these other lands have failed in part because it manages to embrace an inherently tacky style in isolation and at a high quality of execution. More importantly, because it’s an idealized and “best case” take on California Crazy. Comparing Dinosaur Gertie to New Orleans Square (arguably the best land Disney has ever created) would be a strong comparison, but the idea is sort of the same. Had Disney gone for a wholly authentic portrayal of New Orleans, it likely would not have been as well received by guests. New Orleans is a beautiful place, but it also has sharp contrasts to that beauty, with plenty of seedy elements and real world grime. Most of Disney’s lands that use real world inspiration do this to some degree or another. That’s why Disney is often described pejoratively as being a “fantasyland” or a sanitized version of reality. I’m not so sure why this is such a terrible thing; real world, warts and all, is great in the real world, but what’s so bad about perfection in an escapist environment? But I digress…
In any case, Dinosaur Gertie presents an idealized version of California Crazy in much of the same way that other successful aspects of the parks convey their theme in thoughtful, detailed, and even sometimes insightful ways. They add to the body of work from which they draw inspiration, rather than simply ripping it off, or presenting a dumbed down take on it. Rather than presenting a cartoonish and cheeky version of California Crazy (as was the case with Route 66), Dinosaur Gertie would probably be the nicest and most dignified version of California Crazy ever built if it were a real world establish. Just comparing Dinosaur Gertie and Dinosaur Jack side by side should demonstrate that. At least that’s my theory. Like I said at the outset, I love dinosaurs and ice cream, so pretty much any establishment that combines these two things is bound to receive praise from me.
It’s a bit of a tangent in an article that’s a tribute about Dinosaur Gertie, but to me, this demonstrates that even concepts that are inherently tacky can potentially be done in a manner that will work in a Disney theme park. Perhaps there’s hope for Chester and Hester’s Dinorama yet?!
Hopefully you learned something about Dinosaur Gertie’s Ice Cream of Extinction, and if not, at least there were some unique photos, right?
Do you remember what Dinosaur Gertie served back in the day? Do you have any interesting stories about Gertie? Do you agree that this is one of the coolest “details” of the Studios, or do you think it’s just an ordinary dino? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments!