During the construction of the park, dirt from the excavation of Sleeping Beauty Castle's moat was piled in an area between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. When the park opened, the area, dubbed Holiday Hill (and later Lookout Mountain), was improved with benches and pathways to encourage its use as a picnic area. After the opening of the Disneyland Skyway in 1956, Walt Disney conceived the idea of a toboggan ride on the mountain with real snow but the logistics caused vehement objections by Disneyland construction chief Joe Fowler. In this period, the hill began to be known as Snow Hill. By now, instead of picnicking, the hill had come to be used primarily as a nighttime lovers' lane, much to Disney's dismay. New wild mouse-style roller coasters got the attention of Disneyland executives who began to consider applying this emerging technology to the creation of a toboggan-themed coaster ride on an artificial mountain at the site.
The structure was also intended to act as a decorative overlay to camouflage the central pylon of the Skyway. Use of the Matterhorn, both in style and name, grew from Disney's extended vacation in Switzerland while filming Third Man on the Mountain. In a moment of inspiration, impressed by the beauty of the real Matterhorn, Walt grabbed a postcard of the mountain from a souvenir stand and sent it back to Imagineer (architect) Vic Greene with the message, “Vic. Build This. Walt.” This resulted in the merger of the toboggan ride concept with the thoughts of a bobsled coaster ride that would run around and through the structure. The peak was first shown in a conceptual drawing that was once on display at The Disney Gallery.
The view to the northwest shows a corner of the now-defunct Junior Autopia, which would be replaced by both the Matterhorn and the Submarine Voyage attraction the following year. One of three major new Tomorrowland attractions to open that year, the Matterhorn debuted on June 14, 1959. Built by coaster builder Arrow Development and WED Imagineering, it was the first tubular steel roller coaster in the world. It consisted of a wood and steel infrastructure surrounded by man-made rock.
Trees could be seen on its sides; by making the trees at higher altitudes smaller, the Imagineers used forced perspective to augment the mountain's height. Waterfalls cascaded down its sides and frequently sprayed riders. Inside was a large, open space through which the bobsleds traveled. The peak had numerous holes in its exterior through which the bobsleds exited and re-entered, though the space within was not elaborately themed, with the infrastructure being only minimally disguised as rock. The Skyway passed through the center of the mountain via a pair of holes on the Fantasyland and Tomorrowland sides. Skyway riders could see down into the Matterhorn's interior as they glided through.
In the early 1970s, the ride was officially made a part of Fantasyland, but this was merely a prelude to far more significant changes. In 1978, the Matterhorn received a major refurbishment. Most notably, the hollow interior space was broken up into a number of small, icy caves and tunnels with far more convincing theming. Some holes in the mountain's skin were filled in as well, including the two large openings at the top of the lift hill that had allowed guests to briefly glimpse the entire southern part of the park.
Another major addition was an Abominable Snowman, who had taken up residence in the mountain and was affectionately named "Harold" by the Imagineers. The creature exists as three similar Audio-Animatronic figures that roar at the bobsledders; the first is visible from both tracks at the point where they divide to take separate paths, while the other two are visible only from their respective tracks. Each track also features a pair of red eyes that glow in the dark shortly after the lift hill while its roar is heard. These roars can be heard from ground level as well, even over the recorded howling of the Alpine wind. The bobsleds themselves were also changed from the original flat, luge-like, multi-colored two-seaters to rounder, white cars decorated with orange and red stripes. The bobsleds also changed from a single car to two cars connected to one another to form a "train".
The Skyway continued to travel through the mountain, but its passageway was now enclosed in similarly themed ice caves. Following the closure of the Skyway in 1994, the cavernous holes through which the Skyway buckets had traveled were partially filled in. The holes in the Tomorrowland face remained mostly intact, and a grotto filled with glimmering crystals was installed nearby. An abandoned crate labeled "Wells Expedition" was also added as a tribute to Frank Wells, who had died earlier that year. The bluish glow of the crystals could be easily seen from the ground at night. But with the exception of the aforementioned filling of certain holes, the actual external structure of the mountain remained largely unchanged from its original construction.
The Matterhorn temporarily closed on January 9, 2012, for a 6-month refurbishment. The mountain was renovated by redoing the paint job throughout the outside of the mountain and some repairs on the inside. The vehicles were also changed to single seaters instead of the lap sitting, with three individual seats in each bobsled with two cars linked together for a total of six guests, similar to the trains used on Florida's version of Space Mountain. The new bobsleds are painted red, blue, and green. The Matterhorn reopened on June 15, 2012.
Part of the rehab included giving the entire mountain exterior a face lift. For only the second time ever, the first being when the attraction was originally built, scaffolding was erected all the way from the base of the mountain to the top for the rehab. The mountain had essentially been painted over and over again through the years, resulting in a mostly white, snow-covered Matterhorn mountain, but in 2012, the entire mountain was made bare again and carefully painted to be more realistic to what the actual Matterhorn looks like. This meant placing more snow on the northern side and less snow on the southern side of the mountain. For the first time since the Matterhorn's early days, the base of the mountain was mostly snowless.
The "snow" on the mountain's surface in the past was merely white paint, but for the refurbished ride, glass beads were mixed into the paint so that the snow actually reflects sunlight like actual snow does. Jim Crouch, Walt Disney Imagineer, served as field art director over the rehab project. The mountain climbers that used to climb the Matterhorn in the past on any given day also returned after the rehab.
The Matterhorn closed for a five month refurbishment on January 5, 2015, in order to prepare for the 60th anniversary of the park. The attraction reopened on May 22, 2015, with new special effects and updated animatronics. On the lift hills, a projected image of the Abominable Snowman is now visible through a sheet of ice. A newer animatronic version of the Snowman appears at the top, and improved sound effects help create the illusion that it is in pursuit as the train descends down the mountain.
Careen through a snow-capped mountain on a speeding alpine sled while avoiding the clutches of the mythic Abominable Snowman.