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Napa roller coaster story goes viral: Disneyland designer reaches out to Napa inventor
in the spotlight

Napa roller coaster story goes viral: Disneyland designer reaches out to Napa inventor

After Napa’s LaRochelle family finished building their own mini-Matterhorn roller coaster in their backyard during the COVID-19 lockdown, they probably thought the project was done.

Oh, how wrong they were.

Word of their incredible creation quickly spread via a Napa Valley Register story, and the news of their roller coaster went “viral” — delighting readers around the world, including one very special man.

The Nov. 8 Register story got picked up by ABC affiliates across the U.S., “Good Morning America,” TMZ, Fox, People magazine, “Inside Edition,” House Beautiful, the UK’s Daily Mail and more. Sean LaRochelle, one of the inventors of the coaster, was interviewed by CNN and other outlets.

After the Register story ran, “I ended up getting a bunch of emails and calls from a lot of different outlets,” Sean, age 28, said. “It was kind of a domino effect.”

“We thought this was just a local thing,” said Sean, who is now studying at Clemson University in South Carolina for his masters in architecture.

“I didn’t expect this type of explosion” of interest, he admitted. “I have to pinch myself” to believe it’s real.

Readers have been inspired by the family’s COVID-19 project, he realized. “That’s been really, really cool and positive to hear.”

But the best call by far came from the person who designed the parts of the original Matterhorn at Disneyland – a man by the name of Bob Gurr.

Now 89, Gurr is said to have designed most, if not all, of the ride vehicles of the classic Disneyland attractions, including Autopia, Haunted Mansion, the Disneyland Monorail, the Submarine Voyage and the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

Sean said he was blown away by the fact that Gurr wanted to contact him.

“He took an hour of his time to talk to me,” said Sean. “He told me about how he built the original (Matterhorn) and how it was not so different how we built ours, funny enough.”

Sean also got to talk to Gurr about Disney Imagineering, the research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company. “He shared some keen insights into that,” said Sean. “That was really cool.”

Gurr, who lives near Los Angeles, said he first heard of the Napa roller coaster via a story in the U.K.’s Daily Mail tabloid.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve seen people do little stuff but this guy is building a towering piece of stucco and engineered a track that works. I gotta talk to this guy.’”

“I’m fascinated by the creativity and smarts and gumption people have and Sean has all of that,” said Gurr.

“He’s going to have a great career no matter when he goes,” Gurr predicted. He has the smarts, the intelligence, the wisdom. Those attributes will fit any line of work and industry. He’s going to do really, really well,” said Gurr. “I sense that about Sean.”

In a bit of a twist, Sean’s brother Michael, the co-creator of the backyard coaster, was completely unaware of all of the hoopla. That’s because Michael is in the seminary in Nebraska and he’s “off the grid” most of the time. However, Michael happened to call home after Gurr and his brother talked, and Sean was able to relay the incredible news.

“He just started flipping out,” said Sean with a laugh. “I can only imagine what the priests said. He was going crazy.”

As a result of all the stories, Sean also heard from a recruiter at Walt Disney Imagineering.

“She told me that I had caused quite a stir over at Imagineering,” said Sean. “She gave me a lot of really great resources.”

“’We want to keep our eyes on you,’” she told Sean. “That was also really, really exciting,” he said. It would be a dream of his to work as a designer for Disney.

Sean’s father, Jacques LaRochelle, the man who kindly let his children build a roller coaster in his Carneros backyard, said he thinks the project is a good example of what you can accomplish as a family in spite of a worldwide pandemic.

“Let’s face it, 2020 just stinks,” said Jacques. “It’s nice to have some sort of uplifting story that maybe people can look at and say ‘that’s cool’ in spite of all the other stuff going on,” he said.

“Holy cow, I just did not think this many people would be inspired” by what they built, said Sean. But it feels great, he said.

“This world needs more joy and the fact that so many people are interested, it just lifts my spirit.”

He hopes to build more roller coasters, Sean said. “I know my brother wants to a do another one. So we’ll definitely collaborate again.”




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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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