Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Look at the Man Who Created the Polynesian Waterfall: Fred Joerger

by Keith Mahne

From the amount of signatures and comments we received on our petition, its obvious to see there is a lot of love for the threatened Polynesian waterfall. What better way to keep the fight alive then to tell you a little about the Disney Legend that created it. Imagineer Fred Joerger did a lot more then just create the beautiful centerpiece of the Polynesian resort though, he helped realize Walt Disney’s visions by building three-dimensional miniature models of Disney theme park attractions, as well as motion picture sets and props, before they were brought to full-scale life. Continue after the page break as we take a closer look at a true Disney Legend...

Fred working on the scale model of the Matterhorn

Born in Pekin, Illinois, on December 21, 1913, Fred graduated from the University of Illinois with a fine arts degree in 1937. He then moved out to Los Angeles and joined the art department at Warner Brothers building models of movie sets. In 1953, as Walt began planning Disneyland, Fred joined the Company crafting decorative backgrounds for “Project Little Man.” This experiment featured a nine-inch tall mechanical man dancing on a vaudeville stage, and a miniature singing barbershop quartet. The animated figures were the first step toward creating the robotic Audio-Animatronics figures later featured in Disney theme park attractions, including Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

Project Little Man

Fred also built miniature sets and props for Disney motion pictures, including Mary Poppins, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, for which he created intricate models of the submarine Nautilus.

Fred was show designer for the Matterhorn

Fred once recalled, “I was given artists’ drawings of an interior set or a building and interpreted them into models. It’s very easy to make something like the Haunted Mansion look good on paper, but if you don’t get it into three-dimensions first, you may have a disaster. Well, my job was to create the model to avert disaster, which was fun, but a challenge.”

Left to Right: Fred Joerger, Walt Disney, Claude Coats, Ken Anderson

Fred and Disney Legends Harriet Burns and Wathel Rogers comprised the original “model shop” when Walt began developing Disneyland. As Burns remembered: “Most anything at Disneyland, Fred created as a model first. He constructed several versions of Sleeping Beauty Castle, for instance, changing each design, moving the turrets around, changing colors. Walt liked the model with the blue roof because he thought it would blend in with the sky, making the castle look taller.”

Fred Joerger and Claude Coats building the POC Attraction

In addition to his skills with models, which helped define projects in concept development, Fred established the standards for field art direction. He was responsible for assuring that shows ranging from Pirates of the Caribbean to Submarine Voyage achieved “the look,” as designed by Walt Disney Imagineering art directors.

Fred and Claude chatting it up on the deck of the pirate ship inside POC attraction

Fred’s unusual knack for creating gorgeous rockwork out of plaster led to his reputation as Imagineering’s “resident rock expert.” Among his rocky mountain highlights are the huge stones featured on the Jungle Cruise and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. In fact, he designed and constructed most all rockwork at the Florida theme park for its 1971 opening, including the breathtaking atrium waterfall featured in the Polynesian Village Resort. This waterfall has found a special place in the hearts of many over the years and has become the centerpiece of the resort. This is the reason we are fighting to keep it alive. If you want to join us please sign our petition here.

In 1979, after 25 years with the Company, Fred retired. He soon returned, however, to serve as field art director for EPCOT Center prior to its 1982 opening. Fred Joerger sadly passed away on August 26, 2005, in Woodland Hills, California.

We are still looking for a couple more writers to join Disney Avenue. If you are also passionate about Disney and the theme parks and have an interest in sharing your thoughts then Disney Avenue would love to have you join our team. You can contact us at Don't forget to check out and like our new Facebook page and never miss an article again.

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