Bob Gurr: Celebrating The LGBTQ+ Disney Imagineer Who Worked For The Studio Since The 1950s

Bob Gurr talking in front of Matterhorn and Monorail in The Imagineering Story
(Image credit: Disney+)

In the history of Disney there are some great talents whose influence on generations to come cannot be understated. When it comes to film, Howard Ashman changed Disney Animation forever during the Disney Renaissance. Landscape Architect Ruth Shellhorn's influence on Disneyland has been echoed through the decades since. Likewise, many of Walt Disney’s original Imagineers who built Disneyland should be celebrated. Many of them are no longer with us, but one who is, is Disney Legend Bob Gurr.

Gurr was in the first generation of Disney Imagineers. He worked directly with Walt Disney and helped build Disneyland. His contributions to themed entertainment are without question. He’s a man worthy of the Disney Legend status he has received and a man especially worthy of note during Pride Month.

Bob Gurr sitting with an Autopia car in The Imagineering Story

(Image credit: Disney+)

From Automotive Designer To Imagineer 

Bob Gurr was born in 1931 in Southern California. As with many people who grew up in the early days of the mass adoption of the automobile, he was fascinated with cars from an early age. He studied industrial design at the Art College Center of Design in Pasadena, CA on a scholarship he received from General Motors with plans to go to Detroit and design new cars.

Gurr did move to Detroit, but according to Leslie Iwerks’ The Imagineering Story, he didn’t care for the city and was only ever given menial tasks, so he left town, believing his dream of designing cars would be over.

In 1953 Gurr was back in Southern California and catching up with an old high school friend. The friend was Don Iwerks, the son of Ub Iwerks, who co-created Mickey Mouse with Walt Disney. Ub told Bob about what Walt was doing at the Disney Studio and Ub, who would eventually become an Imagineer himself, recommended Gurr for a position in what was then called WED Enterprises.

He may never have designed cars in Detroit, but his automotive expertise would be of key importance at WED. One of Walt’s attraction ideas was a scale version of the freeways that were only then beginning to take over Southern California. It would be called Autopia, and Walt needed somebody to design the ride vehicles. In The Imagineering Story, Gurr explained… 

They wanted somebody to design a body for that little car. So my knowledge of cars and my interest in cars eventually paid off. By golly, I’m over at the Studio and we’re going to design cars for Disneyland.

Gurr was a designer, not an engineer, so while he knew how to design the outside of the vehicle, how the inside would work wasn’t his area. He educated himself on what he needed to know in order to get the job done, eventually going from a contract employee to a full-time Imagineer.

Opening Day at Disneyland is known as Black Sunday by many, due to all the things that went wrong. Autopia was ground zero for many of the issues. The attraction had no guide rail at the time, the vehicles were free to move about the track, and kids were going as fast as they could. This meant collisions were frequent and hard. The aluminum bumpers were getting smashed. 

According to Inventing Disneyland, many teeth were lost when mouths hit unpadded steering wheels. Gurr spent most of his time at Disneyland after opening simply trying to keep as many vehicles in working order as possible so the attraction would stay open.

Bob Gurr hosting the Bob Gurr show on YouTube

(Image credit: Fandom Productions)

Working For Disney As A Gay Man In The 1950s

In many ways, Gurr was just like all the other creative people designing Disneyland, but in one key way, he was very different. He was gay. As a young man in his 20s in the 1950s, Gurr admitted to VOA that general perceptions of homosexuals made it clear that his sexual orientation was something he would need to keep hidden, though he rarely had any personal issues over his orientation, despite the fact people likely knew. In his words…

When I was very young we had to keep ourselves invisible and all of us thought we were the only one. Occasionally, they would inquire. ‘Bob, we don’t see you with a wife. Is that your friend? Is that your boyfriend?’ Just little suggestions, but at no time do I recall any unkind word directed to me either in the company or outside the company.

He didn’t come out as gay until the 2000s, but he says now that, while there was never any specific discussion of his sexual orientation, there were many within Disney who knew the truth. If there was ever anybody who disapproved, he never knew it. He told GoWEHO in 2014 that everybody was too busy doing their job to worry about such things. Gurr does think Walt knew, and that he just didn’t care. As long as Walt got the results he wanted, he generally didn’t bother anybody. Gurr added…

In the middle of that working at Disney studios, everybody was so focused on getting what Walt wanted done, nobody was interested in anybody else’s sexual orientation. They just weren’t. Walt certainly was never interested. The only time he was concerned was if a guy came back from lunch after three martinis and they weren’t doing too well on a storyboard, then he would say something, but other than that he was just not interested.

Gurr certainly got his job done, and his success with Autopia would make him one of Walt’s go-to Imagineers when the next phase of Disneyland was being designed, and he was given even more responsibility.

Bob Gurr sitting on Monorail looking at Matterhorn in The Imagineering Story

(Image credit: Disney+)

Bob Gurr Built Disneyland’s First Roller Coaster And The Monorail 

There were no thrill rides at Disneyland originally. The Jungle Cruise was considered the park’s big “E-Ticket” experience. Walt felt that thrill rides were something that traditional amusement parks used to draw in visitors, and Walt wanted his park to be something different. The late Disneyland operations manager Dick Nunis, however, believed the park needed something exciting, and eventually Walt relented.

Gurr was given the task of designing the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The job was especially difficult for two reasons. First, because it required a level of mathematical skill Gurr didn’t have at the time, forcing him to teach himself trigonometry. Second, he didn’t like roller coasters. In The Imagineering Story he explained…

If I am designing an Autopia car, I am designing machinery. But in the Matterhorn, I am designing physics.

A second project that was being designed at the same time would be arguably even bigger than the Matterhorn mountain. Walt Disney had fallen in love with monorail trains during his frequent trips to Europe and wanted one in Tomorrowland. Gurr would design that as well, again, with no previous knowledge of what he was doing. He told Leslie Iwerks in The Imagineering Story that getting Walt’s approval was, at least, pretty easy… 

I had never seen a monorail in my life, other than the hanging type…Within two weeks I had come up with just enough of the design of the vehicle, based upon the little Viewliner train, which we had done two years before. I literally made one external drawing, we showed it to Walt and he said ‘Can you build that?’ And I said ‘Yes,’ and the meeting was over.

Today, while not every attraction designed by Gurr is still in the parks (the Disneyland Flying Saucers were a flop, twice) he is still responsible for some truly iconic attractions. Even his original Autopia is still there, though the attraction is in line for a major upgrade, with the cars set to be transformed from gas to electric vehicles, a move Gurr himself fully supports

Bob Gurr retired from Walt Disney Imagineering in 1981 and was named a Disney Legend in 2005. While the fact he was gay may not have been public knowledge for decades, today he’s seen as an icon by many LGBTQ+ Disney fans. He’s also, by all accounts, just an incredibly nice guy, and a man worthy of celebration during Pride Month, or any other, for that matter.  

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian, Dirk began writing for CinemaBlend as a freelancer in 2015 before joining the site full-time in 2018. He has previously held positions as a Staff Writer and Games Editor, but has more recently transformed his true passion into his job as the head of the site's Theme Park section. He has previously done freelance work for various gaming and technology sites. Prior to starting his second career as a writer he worked for 12 years in sales for various companies within the consumer electronics industry. He has a degree in political science from the University of California, Davis.  Is an armchair Imagineer, Epcot Stan, Future Club 33 Member.