Ruth Shellhorn and Walt Disney look over plans for Disneyland landscaping

Disney’s Underappreciated Landscape Architect

When the topic of Disneyland’s original landscaping comes up it’s always “Bill Evans, Bill Evans, Bill Evans” and sure, Bill and his brother Jack did a lot but why do we never hear about Ruth Shellhorn? Ruth was a modernist Landscape Architect who worked on 400+ projects over 6 decades—including Disneyland!

When Walt Disney first approached her she was hesitant to work on an amusement park but she soon realized this was something special. His enthusiasm was contagious! She later said of Walt…

“He was wonderful. Very appreciative. And always full of ideas, off in the clouds somewhere. His brother, Roy Disney, said ‘Don’t ever bother him with a problem. If you have a problem, come to us. Let him dream.'”

Ruth Shellhorn and Walt Disney study plans for Disneyland

As Disneyland was being built, Walt had various Landscape Architects helping out but he was worried that there was no cohesive plan. Ruth started in March of 1955 – only a few months before the park would open! At first she thought she’d simply act as a liaison between the studio and the site, offering suggestions. But when she spoke with the Art Director for Main Street USA, he threw up his hands and told her he had no time and she’d have to do it. She made a plan for Main Street and the Hub, presented it to the Art Directors and Walt and it was approved. Then each Art Director in charge of the various lands had her do site planning for their pedestrian traffic areas as well. In her brief but busy time at Disneyland Ruth advised on grading roads, supervised the digging of Sleeping Beauty Castle’s moat and decided where plants and trees would be placed to best go with the various themes.

bird's eye view of Town Square in Disneyland

Not unusual for the times, Ruth was the only woman on the team and her biographer Kelly Comras recounted that the men would pile into a pick-up truck and go off to have lunch together, never inviting her. “I think it hurt her feelings quite a bit.” Though some of the men had issues working for a woman and/or with her more formal style of working, the men on the engineering team and Walt Disney were grateful for her expertise. In an introduction to Bill Evans’ 1965 book Disneyland: World of Flowers Walt said…

“In giving credit for the landscaping at the Park, it is impossible to mention all who have contributed. Special plaudits are due to Ruth Patricia Shellhorn for her design of the formal Victorian plan for Main Street, the Town Square and the Plaza. The trees and shrubs she selected in the spring of 1955 are still used.”

Adventureland at Disneyland
Photo above by Ruth Shellhorn

Ruth Shellhorn’s work had a major impact on Disneyland’s style and still plays a part in the look of the park to this day!

Learn more about Ruth Shellhorn:
The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Library of American Landscape History
Jim Hill Media “Disneyland’s Floral Mickey: 6 Days Before Opening”
And hear from Ruth herself on YouTube

Photo below by Ruth Shellhorn
Photo by Ruth Shellhorn