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Monday, June 20, 2016

Walt Disney's Original Imagineers Share Their Memories on Disneyland

By Keith Mahne




1955: Minimum wage shot up to $1.00, the electric stove made its first appearance in kitchens across the country and, of course, Disneyland opened to America and the world. The creation of Disneyland stands out as a shining moment in the history of popular culture. Walt Disney made good on his promise of a place where "parents and children could have fun together." Although six decades have blurred by since the "Happiest Place on Earth" first staked its place in the hearts of Americans, the park's history is kept alive in the memories of its creators. Those creators being Walt's original Imagineers whose collective talent helped transform an anonymous orange grove in Southern California into a true Magic Kingdom. Join us today as we hear from past Imagineers as they share their memories creating Walt's dream of Disneyland...




Walt Disney stands by a plan of Disneyland and shares a laugh with his Imagineers - 1954




The stories you are about to read come directly from the original Imagineers, the ones who were lucky enough to be handpicked by Walt to build Disneyland. Sadly, many of them have passed, however, their stories, told throughout the years, keep Disneyland's history alive for generations to come. Below you will find a collection of their memories building the Park. I hope you enjoy...








"It's funny to think that we've lived long enough to be history," observed the late, legendary Disney sculpture Blaine Gibson, who helped create the three-dimensional look of Disneyland's early attractions. "It was one of those things that we took very lightly in that day, you know, like, 'well, this is fun...' We never realized that all these years later, we'd still be talking about it."




Blaine Gibson (right) and Walt Disney discuss a likeness of Abraham Lincoln that is one of the best-known sculptures of Gibson's career.




The original Imagineers were a tiny group of former motion picture artists hand-picked by Walt Disney.

"Our backgrounds helped us out in creating Disneyland," recalls the late John Hench, an Imagineering genius. "We knew how to create continuity between scenes, and we used those film making techniques at Disneyland; as guests progress from land to land, even the ground color changes."




Walt and John Hench (left) tour the original Tomorrowland during the initial re-construction phase for the upcoming New Tomorrowland - 1966




Despite the cinematic skills they brought with them, Imagineers still faced an enormous learning curve. Almost everything they worked on, especially during the first decade, was a "first" of some kind, and they had to use all the ingenuity they could muster.

"When we built the first little model for the Matterhorn, (which was added to the Park in 1959)," remembers the late Harriet Burns, model maker extraordinaire "I made it like a birthday cake, with layers in it, so if I boo-booed, we could just take out a layer and put in a new one. We didn't have much information, just the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a few postcards somebody sent Walt from Zurich. We had so little to go by, it was hilarious."




Harriet Burns “figure finishing” a Tiki Bird.




The late Fred Joerger, another Imagineering model maker, built larger, subsequent versions of the Matterhorn model.

"Nobody had ever built a model with a ride in it," recalled Fred. "The problem was, neither Harriet nor I liked mathematics. One afternoon, I was reading off elevations, and Harriet was checking them for track clearance, so we didn't knock somebody's head off. Heck, I'd say the elevation was 110, and she'd say it should be 54. This went on for over an hour, and we were both tearing our hair out. Suddenly, we realized I was reading the directions from east to west, and she was reading them from west to east!"




Fred Joerger working on the scale model of the Matterhorn's interior




Bob Gurr, whose first big job was to design mini-cars for the Autopia, was another Imagineer who was "trained by fire."

"One day," says Gurr, recalling an incident involving preparations for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, "Walt showed me this terrible pile of junk that was supposed to be Abraham Lincoln. Apparently this machine had failed a day or two earlier as the red hydraulic fluid squirted all over this guy's shirt. Walt had a lady friend there, and she was so mad, she thought it was terrible to reenact the killing of Lincoln right in front of her. That's how I was invited to do animated figures, even though I was a vehicle designer," he explains. "Walt said to me, 'I want this thing to weigh half as much and have twice as many motions.' Boy, did I learn quick!"




Walt Disney tests out a new Autopia car as Bob Gurr (pictured center with glasses) looks on.




The creation of the flexible "hot-melt" skin for Lincoln was also a result of intense experimentation conducted while designing for a "land" that never materialized.

"I brought in my own little 'Fry Rite' electric cooker," the late Harriet Burns once recalled, "and we heated the components in it. We put the color right into the stuff as we mixed. We were going to have a Chinatown at Disneyland, and we had made the skin for a Confucius-type character. We had everything ready, when Walt changed his mind. This is part of his genuis. He was so cool and simple-talking. He said, 'San Francisco and L.A. have Chinatowns, there's no need for one at Disneyland. But why can't we use what we've learned to create one of the presidents?' That's how the Chinese head became the beginning of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln."




Walt Disney sits beside his brand new audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln




The late Sam McKim, one of Walt's top sketch men, recalls that developing Disneyland "was a marvelous adventure, because we took it seriously, but unseriously, too. It was 'let's try this,' or 'let's try that,' because it had never been done and we really didn't know what we were doing, and Walt didn't either! He would walk around and say, 'Well, this would be fun...' 'Let's add this, what do you think about that?' It was a wonderful time."




Sam McKim inspired many a Disney film and theme park attraction with his imaginative drawings.




Disneyland was considered by many to be an impossible project from the very start. Just before it opened, a Newsweek cover story titled "A Wonderful World--Growing Impact of the Disney Art," described the new park as "a big, though quite calculated, risk" because Walt Disney was ignoring an ominous trend: "In the last few years, Coney Island and Luna Parks from coast to coast have been darkening their strings of Mazda bulbs, shuttering their merry-go-rounds, and draining their 'Old Mills' and 'Tunnels of Love.' In all this time, however, Disney kept stubbornly in mind his plan for the most fantastic park of all."

The late Bill Martin, the architect for Fantasyland, once remembered, "We made a presentation to the nation's amusement park owners, and oddly enough, there was only one person who told Walt he was doing the right thing. Everybody else said we'd go broke right away."




Walt and Disneyland Art Director Bill Martin in Frontierland during construction of the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train in early 1956.




Citing one reason for the skepticism, the late Disney illustrator and Imagineer Marc Davis, who, although not initially involved in the Park, is famous for the humorous touches he brought to many later Disney attractions, once said, "You have to remember, there were no freeways. oing down to Disneyland, you had to know your way around. I had to go through some pretty tough neighborhoods in East L.A., and it took hours to get down there."




Marc Davis drew every scene in Pirates of the Caribbean as an animator would for a film




"At first, Disneyland just seemed absolutely too fantastic for words," recalled Marin Davis, the late WED designer who helped create the Park's master plan after sketching 136 different schemes for Walt. "I really didn't think it would come to fruition, but the closer we got with it, and the harder we all worked--God, I never worked so hard in my life!--the more real it became. It's proved to me that if you've got enough guts and intelligence and drive, you can accomplish anything."




Marvin Davis developed the master plan for Walt Disney’s latest dream, Disneyland.




According to the Imagineers, any doubts they had disappeared the moment they caught hold of Walt Disney's enthusiasm.

"When Walt talked about the Park," says Bob Gurr, "there was a mischievous twinkle in his eye that gave a strong signal to those around him, it made us think, 'God, this is neat.' There was this pervasive, can't-wait-to-get-this-up-and-running feeling that everybody had."




Bob Gurr in a early prototype vehicle




"Walt had this wonderful instinct for what people would like," remembers the late Wathel Rogers, one of Disney's artistic and technological pioneers. "When we did the final scene in the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk-Thru, I had all the effects going, the birds flying, the music building, the moonbeam sparkling. But Walt felt there was something missing. He dais, 'Make her eyelids open as she's waking up.' Well, her eyelids were only about an eighth of an inch wide, but we did it. I stood in the shadows watching the guests, and they never said a word about the birds or other effects. To their delight, they did notice her eyes actually opening."




Imagineer Wathel Rogers was the man to call whenever inanimate objects needed to come to life in grand Disney fashion.



"If I told you the biggest challenge in creating Disneyland was the budget, it wouldn't make good reading," stated the late Bill Evans who, along with his brother Jack, designed the distinctive landscaping for Disneyland. "But it really was. We ran out of money pretty soon. We were planting smaller, and fewer, trees as we got around to the end of the berm. We knew we were really desperate when Walt told me to start putting botanical labels on the weeds."




Bill Evans, designed the distinctive landscaping for Disneyland. He retired as director of landscape design at Walt Disney Imagineering in 1975 but has worked as a consultant until he passed in 2002, at the age of 92.




Unfortunately, that wasn't the only, or even the first, landscaping problem the Imagineers encountered. According to a past quote by Marvin Davis, when the property was being cleared of orange trees during construction, "We tagged the trees we wanted to save with green ribbons, and the ones to be cleared with red. We went down there to see how it was going, and my God, most of the trees we'd marked green were gone! I was just fit to be tied, because you can't replace some of those trees, they were 50 to 100 years old. It turned out the bulldozer operator was color-blind!"




An aerial view of Disneyland after the orange trees were cleared out.




The problems didn't disappear with opening day, which was, according to some, appropriately dubbed "Black Sunday." "There were mechanical breakdowns all over the Park that day," remembers Bob Gurr. "My shins were black and blue from trying to kick-start the parade cars. Walt came by, introduced me to an actress and her two little boys, and said to her, 'Bobby will babysit your boys for the day.' Son of a gun, I had these sticky-handed little boys in either hand while trying to keep the cars running. The kids wanted to ride the Autopia," Bob continued, adding that at that time, Autopia didn't have a center guide, subjecting it to the delight of kids who loved crashing into one another. "The boys recognized a short black guy with an eye patch in one of the cars, and screamed, 'Git 'em, git 'em!' We bumped that guy so hard his car went off the track and into the bushes. I felt bad, but the kids made me do it. The next morning I saw a picture of him in the paper--it was Sammy Davis, Jr.!"




Sammy Davis Jr on the Autopia on Disneyland's opening day




The success of Disneyland is a miracle of human determination, a real tribute to the men and women driven to challenge the limits of their considerable talents by a man unwilling to recognize any limits at all.

"Disneyland brought magic to this country that was long missing," once recalled the legendary animator and Imagineer Marc Davis. "And you know, it felt good knowing we were giving pleasure, making people laugh. This was very special, and I am awfully pleased to have been a part of it."




Children run toward Sleeping Beauty Castle on Disneyland's opening day, July 17th, 1955




"The design of Disneyland is so reassuring," recalled the late John Hench. "All you have to do is come through the gates and you have a temporary respite from the next week's problems and last week's hurt. And the message is, we made this place just for you, our guests. You are who we were thinking about when we built Disneyland."















And in the end, attempting to sum up countless volumes of experience in just a few words, John Hench likes to attribute Disneyland's success to "Walt's attitude toward people. He really liked and respected people. Or he would never have worked so hard to give them the absolute best. Walt's enthusiasm was infectious. And you know, we were just as bad as he was."










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Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.


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