ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Bob Gurr wants his fans to know that he is doing well despite being stuck at home because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Before the shelter-in-place orders, the octogenarian Disney legend was a common sight at various theme park-related events, social mixers, and around his Los Angeles neighborhood. He hosted a Walt Disney history bus tour. He participated in autograph signings and visited various non-affiliated Disney and theme park industry events all across Southern California.
However, when the coronavirus forced nonessential businesses to close, limited mass gatherings, and caused people to shelter in place, Gurr, 88, holed up in his home in Tujunga for the past several months.
But he said since the pandemic, he has found himself busier than ever and learning something new every day.
“People assume an old guy all by himself is lonely, but I’ve been doing podcasts, live TV, and being an elderly Zoom vlogger,” Gurr told Spectrum News 1. “People are so used to a ‘Bob Gurr’ sighting at a park or a grocery store. They all got to get a piece of Bob.”
Disney fans will continue to get a piece of Bob but in a different format. His management team at Fandom Productions has many virtual events planned for Gurr in the coming months and hope to keep the former Disney imagineer busy. It is exactly what Gurr wants to do to keep in touch with his fan base.
“We normally offer a popular monthly Disney history-themed bus tour where Bob is the tour guide, however that is on hold until 2021,” said Ernie Alonzo, Gurr’s manager and founder of Fandom. “We'll be offering a limited amount of 30-minute Zoom call sessions for fans with Bob beginning in September. We're also working on producing a virtual version of the Waltland bus tour.”
Gurr has many stories to tell about his time at Disney and other works, Alonzo said, adding that fans will have a chance to ask Gurr about his career during the Zoom calls.
In Disney and theme park industry circles, Gurr is a living legend and one of the last links to the wizard himself, Walt Disney. Gurr is the only living former Disney Imagineer (the company’s term for engineer), who worked with Walt Disney and helped build some of the original attractions at Disneyland.
In his nearly three-decade career at Disney that began in 1954 when he was 22 years old and more than 40 years in the theme park industry, Gurr has helped develop more than 100 attractions. They include the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Haunted Mansion, the Abraham Lincoln animatronic, as well as the Monorails that zip across Disneyland and Walt Disney World. When he left Disney in the early 1980s, Gurr went on to design attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood, including a 30-foot tall King Kong animatronic and the UFO that appeared in the closing ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games.
Among his other achievements, he developed the sinking ship that was part of the nightly pirate show in front of casino magnate Steve Wynn’s Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas.
In 1999, the Themed Entertainment Association, an industry trade group, awarded Gurr the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Five years later, in 2004, the Walt Disney Co. cemented Gurr’s status by presenting him with the Disney Legend award, an honor that recognizes individuals who have made an extraordinary contribution to the company.
And to this day, Gurr is not done designing. Even at his age, Gurr said he is learning how to use SolidWorks and QCAD, a pair of computer design programs. He is also consulting for a mobility scooter design company in Florida and working on a new limited edition collectible that honors his 1977 Bobsled design.
For Gurr, a kid who grew up in Los Feliz and briefly worked at the Ford Plant in Detroit before returning home and working for Disney, it has been a surreal life.
Who knew, he said, that Disneyland would be the grand monument it is today and that he would receive this kind of admiration from people – just for doing his job?
“I’m still trying to get used to this kind of adulation,” Gurr said. “I realize why people do that, but at the same time, I was just there doing the stuff that Walt wanted. I loved him and his crazy ideas that I would jump on and loved doing. It was like that for all of the Imagineers.”
Gurr said before Disneyland was built, many skeptics questioned Disney’s motive for creating an amusement park in the middle of Anaheim. Reports at the time called Walt Disney’s $17 million Disneyland gamble as “Walt’s Folly.”
“You also have to bear in mind when we were designing and building Disneyland, none of us recall that this would amount to anything,” Gurr said. “It was a big experiment. There was a lot of naysayers. So we never had in our mind that we were creating something that had an enduring quality to it. It was a fun place. It was a pretty place. It was different and not like a typical carnival.”
Gurr added that it never struck his mind that “we were building a famous monument. We were just building Disneyland.”
Gurr said he feels blessed for having worked personally with Walt Disney. It was Walt who tasked him to design the Autopia cars and Matterhorn bobsleds and to figure out how to place a monorail at Disneyland and, eventually, Walt Disney World.
Bobby, as Walt would call him, even piloted Walt Disney and then Vice President Richard Nixon and Nixon’s family on the Monorail’s first ride around the park in 1959.
While many revered Walt Disney as a true visionary, and rightfully so, Gurr said, Walt was just an ordinary guy.
“I remember seeing people approach him, and their lips would quiver,” Gurr said. “For the people that worked with him, he was a simple, ordinary guy. No grandstanding of any kind but incredibly observant, curious, and smart. Everyone who ever worked there, he did little stuff to make sure to show you that he was not above you, that you were working on the same ideas together. I would see him deliberately rumple up his shirt and loosen up his tie and sometimes slam a hat on his head and wouldn’t even rearrange it. It was setting a subtle signal that he was just one of us.”
Though Gurr is still grappling with his own Disney fame, he gets it, and he enjoys chatting with Disney fans from around the world about his life experiences. He has written books about his designs and has previously spoken about what it was like being a gay man in Walt Disney's inner circle.
Although he is stuck at home, he is still doing 12-mile bike rides on a stationary bike and hops on his XPlane flight simulator. He is not afraid of the coronavirus, he said, because he is taking all of the necessary precautions to keep himself safe.
Gurr said sometimes he looks back at how far he has come and still can't believe it.
"Sometimes when people approach me and ask about Walt, I sometimes look up in the sky and wave and say, 'You never told me about this [fame] part,'" Gurr said. "We never sought this out."