The Lake District in North Patagonia is an enchanting collection of blue lakes, lush forests, tiny islands, snow-capped mountains and volcanoes that stretch between Argentina and Chile with the Andes cutting through the middle. Bariloche (Argentina) and Pucón (Chile) are prime Lake District stops that could easily double as Swiss alpine villages, but Los Arrayanes National Park on the banks of Nahuel Huapi Lake in Argentina is of particular interest to film bluffs. Per Argentina-Patagonia.com, “A small house built in the middle of the forest and the deer living in the area … were the inspiring muse of the famous Walt Disney for his cartoon Bambi,” while ForestNation.com wrote, “The forest inspired Walt Disney so much that he modeled forests in his film Bambi on the [forest of] Arrayanes.”
How could any self-respecting American skip Bambi’s Forest when already in nearby Bariloche? I had to go. I took the 80-minute bus voyage to Villa La Angostura, a tiny town nicknamed the Garden of Patagonia mere miles from Los Arrayanes National Park.
Los Arrayanes, declared a national park in 1971, is a compact forest about eight square miles in size on the Quetrihué Peninsula jetting out into Nahuel Huapi Lake. Arrayanes actually resides inside Argentina’s oldest national park, Nahuel Huapi, established in 1934, but the second designation was given to Arrayanes to further protect its gorgeous forest of rare, fragile arrayán trees. A person can easily access the park by land, but I opted to take a tourist boat 45 minutes down the Arrayanes coastline to the tip of the peninsula and then hike the eight-plus miles (with side trips) through the park back to town.
The southern tip of the peninsula contains the highest concentration of arrayán trees, a relative of the Chilean myrtle, and the forest (Bosque de Arrayanes) itself is largely made up of tall and lanky 300-year-old trees (some twice that age) stretching 40 to 50 feet into the sky, sometimes at strange angles. The arrayán produces small-yet-fragrant green leaves and white flowers that only slightly change the tree’s dominant color profile, which is a cinnamon-like orangish-brown with occasional white stripes where pieces of bark came off. A guide on the boat talked to the hikers about the park and the trees, but after we arrived at the forest, I had one more question before heading off into the woods.
“I have a quick question,” I said, stopping the guide before he got back on the boat. “Did this forest really inspire the setting for the movie Bambi?”
“No, it did not,” said the guide, followed by silence.
“I’m sorry if that was a weird question, but I asked because I read that several times before coming here, and you even have businesses in town that have the word Bambi on it.”
“We were all told that growing up,” said the guide, realizing he would have to give me the full story. “It isn’t true. Maybe the claim started as an attempt to promote tourism. Visitors who grew up in Argentina sometimes get mad at us, saying they were lied to as kids, but I was told the same lies. I believed it, too.”
The origin of the lie is difficult to pinpoint, but the inspiration for it is not. By the end of 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II, but the year started with a State Department-commissioned goodwill tour of South America. At President Roosevelt’s request, Walt Disney and 16 of his animators—nicknamed El Grupo for the tour—traveled to Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru for 10 weeks to meet the people and discourage the rise of Nazism and fascism. El Grupo included Disney rock stars like Frank Thomas who helped animate films like Pinocchio and Snow White. The early Disney films were already popular around the world, including South America, and the artists could do sketches and sometimes the characters’ voices for local South American kids.
El Grupo visited Argentina in early 1941, Bambi came out in August 1942, and the animated forest certainly does bare a striking resemblance to Los Arrayanes National Park. Moreover, the park is home to south Andean deer (or huemul) and the pudu, one of the world’s smallest species of deer. It seems possible the association between the high-profile trip and the famous film might have simply been an errant assumption, but the guide implied it was a tourism-related gimmick without giving more detail.
“Yes, Bambi came out the next year,” the guide said, “but the film was already in pre-production when Walt Disney visited Argentina.”
In fact, active pre-production started in 1939 after years of delay. At one point, Disney intended to make Bambi his second film release, following Snow White. (More random trivia: Bambi initially opened to mixed reviews from the critics and lost money in its first theatrical release.)
Samba music, colorful Brazilian birds and other elements of South American life did inspire the Disney team, but the animators did not visit Los Arrayanes. Rather, they were more interested in the gaucho (i.e., South American cowboy) lore and history. In fact, when a group of Argentine cartoonists hosted a barbecue for El Grupo, 39-year-old Walt arrived dressed as a gaucho cowboy attempting to twirl a lasso. The Disney character Goofy would later reenact this visual in a cartoon. The trip actually inspired several cartoons and had a positive impact on the South American population, but the Bambi forest was already on the drawing board at the time.
After briefly discussing the Bambi myth, the guide recommended several stops on the four-hour trek through the forest, including the Cascada Inacayal waterfall, a panoramic viewpoint overlooking Nahuel Huapi Lake and a beautiful lagoon at which to have lunch. To protect the vegetation, a timber boardwalk was constructed throughout the park, which also helps keep people from getting lost. Toward the end of the hike, I came upon an old teahouse once called—wait for it—Bambi’s House. Built more than half a century ago, the wooden cabin serves sandwiches, sweets and hot and cold beverages to visiting hikers. These days, however, it appears Bambi’s is now simply called the Tea House.
So, was there an inspiration for Bambi’s forest? Early Disney animator Maurice “Jake” Day, who passed away in 1983, drew the deer in Bambi and contributed to the overall look. Before production, he spent considerable time in the forests of Vermont and Maine taking pictures and making sketches, and spots like Baxter State Park and the Katahdin region in north-central Maine do resemble scenes from the film. For a look at the flora and fauna that likely inspired the film’s visual setting, the best bet would be the national parks in the interior of the Pine Tree State. However, for those who want to see what the South American trip really did inspire, look no further than 1942’s Saludos Amigos and 1944’s The Three Caballeros. The films, which both premiered in Latin America, combined for five Oscar nominations.
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Editor-in-Chief of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.