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Disneyland Article
Disneyland And Imagineering Part 1

Pirates Of The Caribbean
August 10, 2014
August 10, 2014
There's no I in Team, but there are three in Imagineering.


Well, it's not quite as long as the title from that 60's Mixed-Up Zombie movie, but it's close, and in my mind a lot more entertaining, and there's no corn or cheese here.

Growing up a railroad kid, spending time with my father when he would go to work in the freight house or, even more exciting, the roundhouse, I can identify easily with Disney's lifelong love of trains. Not only did I frequent the rail yards with my dad, but he brought his work home with him for me in the shape of a Lionel train set which, 45 years later, I still play with. Saturdays were my favorite, sometimes spending the whole day "working" with my dad and visiting all the men and women he worked with who were all a part of my extended family. And, of course, having a movie theater within walking distance, I saw more than my share of Disney features whether they be animated, live, or combined. "Mary Poppins," "Peter Pan," "Bambi," and one of my very favorites, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," from which I spent most of my 4th grade art class trying to sculpt the "Nautilus" out of clay. The film sequence of that incredible iron-cast menace cutting through the water, illuminating it in a green tinge with large menacing globe-like eyes of some unseen monster, is still as fresh in my mind as the first time I saw it. For my devotion and tenacity, I can say I now have a 1:1 scale, 4-foot replica of the effects sub sitting in my back showroom. I can't say exactly when I got interested in film, or much more specifically, technical effects, but I know it was some time prior to my 13th year, because by Christmas of 1972, at the premier of "The Poseidon Adventure," I was asking that ageless question, "How did they do that?" But, backing up, I realized it really started at the end of the summer of 1969 and it wasn't in a movie theater. It was a very warm day and extremely crowded as we stood in line in front of a large, 4-column Antebellum Mansion, cream white with forest green trim, waiting to enter the newest attraction in the Magic Kingdom.

Disneyland is always being added-to and re-invented, but after the opening of "Pirates of the Caribbean" three years prior, the breakthroughs in engineering and the inception of cutting edge electronics were ushering in a new age. So, it would seem difficult to top such a multidimensional attraction. Story, sound, lighting, engineering, electronics, costume, all coming to an intersection. This was the beginning of the most creative time: huge advancements in ride creation blending engineering and creativity in one entity. But, ironically, as Disney's staff was piqued to perform and outperform themselves, his own life was at an ebb, but he was not going out quietly. There was no doubt that he and all of those attached to him were working overtime.

But this was not the actual birth of Imagineering, the term, or even the company that adopted its name. We have to go back to the '40s to the eastern side of the country, particularly New York City, where Alcoa, the largest aluminum producer in the United States, has its major production factory located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Alcoa will always get credit for coining the term, but this is one of those rare situations where another company adopted the name after-the-fact and breathed life into it, giving it significance infinite times more than its predecessor.

In order to succeed in the business world, whether it's car production or amusement parks, even an idealist must be highly competitive, working in the present, looking back at the past to learn, to guide him/her into the future. Disney knew this very well. His head wasn't in the clouds as a lot of his detractors thought. In fact, he was a very grounded businessman with an even more bottom-line brother right next to him, overseeing the bulk of the tedious financials. But that was part of the formula that worked. More significantly, I would classify Disney as an enigma, a man more "centrally-hemisphered," rather than predominantly guided by the right or the left side of his brain. He had the creativity, ingenuity, and analytical ability to bring both halves together to form something symbiotic, very special and even more rare.

The Early Years

It stands to reason that Walter Elias Disney will always hold the title of "First Imagineer." And, not to take anything away from him, but you know what they say, "When you consider a child's upbringing, look at the parents." Disney was no exception. Walt's father, Elias, had worked in Chicago as a laborer on the World Columbian Exposition of 1893, and it was no coincidence that he had lots of stories to share with his son. So this, to me, is easy to consider as a beginning or jumping-off point for one of the biggest, and definitely best, showmen of all time, rivaling Barnum for some very important reasons. It wasn't just that Disney was a showman, but the best (and by best I mean to make an experience more than just a temporary memory). Ask yourself, if you visited a circus, a carnival, and Disneyland, which of the three would leave the most lasting memory? Which would you most likely visit again, and which would you enjoy with not only your peers, but older and younger members of your family? An experience so exciting, that when it's time to leave, it makes you sad as you drive away and, weeks later, you can't stop thinking about how much fun it was. That, I think, is what makes Disneyland and the men and women who brought it to life so special. The attention to detail, which includes cleanliness and keeping everything functioning at its maximum capability and safety, sometimes upwards of sixteen hours a day. It's the feeling of constant activity and evolution. Though the "landscape" of the park may change from time to time, it is always for the better, or, with something new and innovative. Attractions never languish; they are transformed and reborn into something better, something we've been waiting for.

The Mouse House Opens For Business

On October 16th, 1923, Walt and his brother Roy founded Disney Brothers Cartoon Studios. The iconic symbol, Mickey Mouse, didn't come into being until 1928. He was not the original character Disney penned, but a rabbit by the name of "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." However, his luck was short lived, and a series of unfortunate events ended with Disney losing "ownership" of the character. Times were difficult and the studio was short on cash. But, fortune that rivals the Blue Fairy was to intervene, and as a result the most important symbol for the company came into being. Most who are familiar with Disney lore are familiar with the 1928 milestone introduction of Mickey Mouse in "Steamboat Willie," with Disney supplying his voice until the late 1940s. Now this was Disney the animator, but what about Disney the innovator, the inventor? Walt visited the 1939 World's Fair in New York with a Mickey Mouse cartoon in hand, and attended the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition. He was particularly interested in exhibits that involved miniatures of many types and varieties - anything that focused on intricate detail and expert craftsmanship. Not long after, on a trip to the doctor, he was advised to find something therapeutic to protect his health, so he took to crafting miniatures similar to what he had seen before.

But 1928 was just the beginning for filming at the fledgling studio, and just nine years later Disney would release the first, and one of his best animated features, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," which garnered an honorary Oscar for Disney, and a nomination for best musical score. In 1989, the film was added to the National Film Registry as one of the top 100 American Films. This achievement, technically, financially and, of course, creatively, was just the beginning. Now everyone was starting to sit up and take notice. A creative force that had been working his way into mainstream films was coming into focus and it was the financial push that he needed to move forward into the next decade. Disney was setting his sights on combining several aspects of entertainment and experience to draw a more emotional feeling from his audience. Indeed, I don't think even he realized the full magnitude of what was beginning to blossom and would come to fruition via his company that no one has ever been able to duplicate.

Although "Snow White" gave Disney the much needed capital to build a new studio in Burbank, consequently, he and his brother Roy put down a deposit on 51 acres upon which to build the studio, and the venture capital for "Fantasia" and "Pinocchio." The next ten years were considered to be one of the toughest decades ever. For some, that might seem hard to believe, given the classics released from 1940 to 1950 that still remain today and, most likely, forever. First, there was "Fantasia," which is now appreciated more than ever and has more than carried itself, lending to the Disney company in more ways than one (I'll get to that later). Although the Walt Disney Animation Studio was completed in 1940, it was only the beginning of the decade, and the rest would not be without one challenge after another. The harshest criticism was directed at "Fantasia," which was considered a massive financial failure. It was a huge loss for Walt, personally, on many levels. It was something he believed in strongly, and in a sense he was thinking out-of-the-box and ahead of his time, simultaneously. Anyone who's seen Fantasia can understand this with so much abstract surrealism woven throughout the film.

Contribution For The War Effort

For all the energy he was devoting into getting his studio off the ground, we were in the middle of World War Two. Consequently, his company, like many others, had been converted to full- or part-time service for the war machine and on December 8th, 1941, the Disney company joined those ranks. Every business capability was used in a variety of ways. For the Disney studio it was to boost morale and to catch the attention of government officials at home and abroad with respect to allied powers. But Walt wasn't so much hurt by the military commitment as he was by his own staff. Many who have worked for the company commonly use the word "family," or refer to the atmosphere they work in as "family-like." So it was surprising that this early in the studio's history it was to be split during an animators strike in 1941. It was so distressing for Walt that he became physically ill to the point where his immediate family and friends became seriously concerned. But his determination was stronger than ever and in 1943 his studio released the propaganda film, "Victory through Air Power," based on the 1942 book of the same name by Alexander P. de Seversky. Disney had read the book and subsequently financed its production. Like King Midas' touch, even in those tense times Disney still reaped a handsome reward on different levels. The film was nominated for, and won, an Oscar for "Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture." Additionally, Disney is often credited with being the innovator of educational films which are still popular to this day and, of course, have an educational significance in different settings such as prep-schools, military academies and instruction in the workplace. For me, I remember those class times where the projector was set up in the back of the classroom. Imagine, getting to watch movies in school. When I was a kid, watching films during class time was rare. That made it exciting and was always a great distraction. Of course, educators probably didn't look at it with the same type of enthusiasm that we did, but I think you get the idea.

Even though the European markets, at least early on, were non-existent, Disney still managed to release the above mentioned "Victory through Air Power," and under that propaganda umbrella, "Donald gets Drafted," "Education for Death," and "Der Fuehrer's Face" (the latter two, hardly Disney-sounding titles). Others more well-known and recognizable were, "The Reluctant Dragon," "Dumbo," "Bambi," "Saludos Amigos," "The Three Caballeros," "Make Mine Music," "Song of the South," "Fun and Fancy Free," "So Dear to My Heart," and "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad." Most of these titles are familiar to the large majority of the population, whether Disney enthusiasts or not, they are, and no doubt will always be, considered classics, not just within the studio's filmography, but in general. When adults and children alike talk about these stories, it's more-often-than-not they conjure up the images represented by Disney films. With a list of quality titles this long, one would have to ask him/herself, "This was a bad decade?" The one extremely bright spot that was developing simultaneously was the beginning of Disney's biggest venture to date.

A Dream For All, Imagined

There is the commonly known tale of Walt's visit to Griffith Park with his daughters, but no one can be sure when the initial spark was first envisioned by Disney: a park not only for children, but their parents as well. A place for the old and the young to share together. But it is known that on August 8th, 1948, Disney issued a memo to Dick Kelsey laying out his plans for a park known as "Mickey Mouse Park." In that same year, Walt attended the Chicago Railroad Fair and it was shortly after this he, along with Harper Goff and Roger Broggie, began construction on a 1/8 scale model steam engine based on the design of the Central Pacific Railroad, which was running in the last quarter of the 1800s. The construction of the "Lilly Belle" was overseen by Broggie, who would become an integral part of major contributions to projects all over the park. The train was constructed at the studio and then moved to Walt's Holmby Hills, California residence. He introduced the Lilly Belle Steam Engine on the Carolwood Railroad in December of 1949. The train ran through a match-scaled environment on a track roughly a 1/2 mile in length. The "Lilly Belle" was basically a prototype for what was to become the "Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad" which is classified as a 3-foot narrow-gauge railroad with an original estimated cost at approximately $250,000. This was one concept that was a constant in every idea involving park design: that it include a train surrounding the perimeter. It was not by accident, or coincidence; Walt said it and saw that it eventually was present from the very beginning and remains to this day.

Five Short Years Away

Nevertheless, the decade ended and a new one began in 1950 with the release of "Cinderella" and one of my favorites, "Treasure Island." Walt had different concepts active at the same time that he had been considering, going all the way back to 1940. One idea was to have a traveling theme park, of sorts. The name at one point was "Walt Disney's America," then alternated with "Disneylandia." It wasn't so much of how we think of Disneyland today, but more of a kind of Americana tour with scenes similar to the future park attraction "Carousel of Progress" format. In late March of 1952, Walt Disney made the first public announcement of his intention to build a family park named "Mickey Mouse Park," but would eventually become "Disneyland." It would adjoin his studio on Riverside Drive in Burbank and occupy approximately 1/5 of the original land purchased, with an estimated cost at $1,500,000. One of Disney's studio artists, Harper Goff, another train enthusiast and close friend, created the illustrations that visualized the park design. He went on to design the Nautilus for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

For purposes of this and subsequent articles in this series, 1952 would be the most pivotal year. During that year, Walt had created Walt Disney Incorporated to manage his personal finances and working capital, and future plans to design his multi-themed park. He already had Walt Disney Productions handling his feature films and future television ventures which would gain momentum shortly after Disneyland opened. He was definitely working in a multitude of media formats and now he was planning to open a physical location where his audience could actually "step into" his dream in three dimensions. A lot of what you see in the different areas of the park are either times and places in history or themes and attractions that represented ideas and concepts that were in his everyday thoughts, and that often- times were very close to his heart. It was never a question of if he could make it all happen as he had planned, it was just a question of how he would make it happen. Confidence was key.

Personally, I have always found it a wonderful place to visit that I can identify with on different levels and always enjoy on every one. As this series continues, one name change before the close of 1952 and Walt Disney Incorporated is off and running!
Attractions Referenced

Pirates Of The Caribbean

Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad

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