Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

disney logosThe Disney company gets a tremendous amount of media coverage, much of it focused on financials and movie products.

As someone who cares more about products like animated movies and theme parks, I’m concerned that as the company continues to diversify, coverage of those topics will become diluted. I’ll expand on that, but first I want to talk about some recent coverage that inspired this post.

I still get most of my news from print media. In national papers like the NY Times, a typical mention of Disney is usually related to review of a movie, an acquisition or financial reporting. To my surprise, this week there were two NY Times articles related to Disney that were not about movies. One was on Disney Springs and the other was a cruise on the Disney Magic. It‘s interesting that while the subjects of the articles are focused on very different parts of the Disney World, I think there’s a common underlying point of view.

disney-springs logoThe Disney Springs piece which you can read here is part of the Times “52 Places to Go” series. There was a sincere attempt to be evenhanded by breaking down the article into highs and lows. I’ll leave you to form your own opinion of whether you agree with the reviewer. I definitely differ with the  characterization of Disney Springs as a 4th attempt at a shopping and dining area. It makes the previous versions sound like failures. Would it follow that the local mall that got a face-lift and brought in new stores was a failure after being around for decades? Redoing the underlying story of the area breathes new life into the large retail and dining area. The reviewer sounded somewhat disappointed that there were no costumed characters or attractions. If you have the option, I think there’s nothing wrong with some down time on a vacation, particularly a Disney vacation, when visitors are very much on the go.

The reviewer strays from discussing Disney Springs and, for some reason, comments on the difficulty and cost of getting into Animal Kingdom. It’s a little unclear, but it sounded like she paid $120 dollars and expected some kind of VIP treatment. All she wanted was to ride the most popular ride on the property right now, Flight of Passage, and eat a churro. Not being offered instantaneous access to either, she gave up. Strange that a travel reviewer had done no research to insure that she would be able to get the story she wanted to write.

Then there’s a section spent on a hotel near Disney Springs. Seems she failed to make a reservation and was unable to get a room at either the Poly or AKL. So, rather than find a room at another Disney resort, she gives us a review of, what I’m sure is a very nice hotel near Disney Springs. Not sure what that has to do with Disney Springs itself. The excuse was that the three days at “Disney” were being used to also plan for a more complicated trip to South America. I would have said, then don’t present the article as a review. There’s a difference between a visit someplace and a stopover.

This is being written by someone who has traveled to 52, sometimes very exotic, places around the world, and she thought it wouldn’t be an issue to show up to one of the premier vacation spots in the world and find a room available in a premium resort hotel. Perhaps she was trying to show us how not to get the most out of any part of a Disney theme park vacation.

The other sections include statements from one guest, that since there’s alcohol being served dancing, and the Edison is adults only after 10pm, then the area is only for adults. Nothing like taking one point of view and using as a blanket for all opinions. The reviewer adds that what she thinks makes a trip to Disney Springs worthwhile, is not restaurants, shopping or entertainment, but the adult energy. She doubles down on this idea by saying that Disney World is for two kinds of people, annual pass holders who come in groups to drink and be merry and families who have been planning their trip for months, even years. How did Disney Springs become all of Disney World?

She finishes up the review by stating that her best food experience in the area was a food truck somewhere outside of Disney Springs. No mention of her food experiences in Disney Springs, other than dropping names of chef’s who have restaurants there. I guess she couldn’t get in without a reservation.

The reviewer, who up front said she didn’t like Disney Springs, is the kind of diluted coverage I alluded to at the top of this piece. It would have been fine to do a review of the new Disney Springs. Many people have done it already. But, by trying to make it about “Disney” the reviewer has oversimplified what a Walt Disney World vacation is about for many people. Disney Springs is a part of the overall Disney World resort. But, as I said in Disney Banks on Broadway, Disney is  trying to make money.  Keeping people in the vicinity of the resort means they capture more vacation dollars. Disney Springs was designed by Imagineers in the same way they design the parks themselves. But it was designed as a shopping and eating destination, not as a theme park. No one should confuse one with the other.

The second review of a cruise on the Disney Magic, uses “stressful” in the title and statesDisneyMagic at Port that it was written by a “cruise skeptic”. That’s like having a vegan review a steak house. Expectations are already low. And they don’t get any higher when he feels his worst fears are borne out when he finds the ice cream machine empty before the ship leaves the dock. Sure, that’s not something that should go in the plus column, but, it hardly seems like a harbinger of doom. He seems to have been forced on the cruised by bad weather where he lives and his Disney “obsessed” daughter. That seems like a tough word to use for a 5 ½ year old. Most children that age are preoccupied by something. I’m sure that had they not gone, his daughter would have continued to enjoy Disney and not gone into a deep depression. Children are often more resilient than adults.

While his “worst” fears, he says, were realized, his daughter proclaimed it her best trip ever. Part of his problems seem to stem, like the previous review, from a lack of planning and understanding of what things might cost. For example, he did schedule a visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. But the appointment time was right before they went to Castaway Cay. So, he felt the money was wasted because the girl had to take everything off to enjoy the water. That doesn’t seem like a Disney created situation. Another crisis arose when he had not done enough research to find that a pirate costume party would be thrown. Instead of finding something thrifty at a local party store or making something, he moaned about having to shell out big bucks for something bought on board.

I don’t care who’s cruise company it is. Everything’s more expensive once you are a captive audience. Disney is just adhering to well practiced supply and demand, free market economics. The comments about every activity ending with an upsell, is no different on any type of resort vacation. We’ve gone to reasonably priced Club Meds where photos taken during the day are prominently displayed near the dining rooms each night. Disney may have invented or perfected the gift shop at the end of the ride. But, every, I mean every spa in the world offers the products they use on you for sale as you pay. Nothing specific Disney here.

Later in the review he admits that he likes some parts “Disney” , but is “unnerved” by the company’s ubiquity. Like the previous article, this reviewer strays from the vacation he’s supposed to be reviewing to comment on the Disney as a company. Perhaps he should have done a financial piece. There is some detail given for each day including short reviews of restaurants and ports of call. Finally, at the end of the cruise, it seems he was finally enjoying himself.

I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion. I don’t agree with all reviewers on any topic. I enjoy a good debate. Even if I convince someone to come around to my point of view, I’ve usually learned something from them. But, you can’t convince me if you’re all over the place with your arguments.

My problem with both of these pieces is not that they didn’t enjoy their Disney experience. But, in the final analysis, both pieces didn’t stick to the topic they were supposed to be reviewing. Part of their problem, I think, is that they look at their topics through a wide angle lens that includes everything in the Disney universe. I think that makes it difficult for them to make a case for or against either experience.

Spaceship Earth Death StarI encounter many people who have the same reaction to anything Disney. I’m concerned Disney is playing into the hands of people like these reviewers. For decades, Disney has been the gold standard for entertainment products. But, the more they gobble up, they more they run the risk of having Spaceship Earth look like the Death Star to some with Disney as the evil empire. Success can bring out the competitive nature in people. Everyone would like to be number one. But, once you’re there everyone is either trying to take it away or fault you for everything with which you’re associated.



Disney Banks on Broadway

disney pixie dustI wonder whether Walt Disney, who made his fortune  first in film, might have foreseen a time when his company would be one of the world’s most prolific and successful producers of theater musicals?

Walt certainly had theater in his thoughts when he went to work on Disneyland. But, more on that later. In the meantime, Disney is about to open its new production of Frozen on Broadway.

I’m a big fan of live theater. Unlike movies or television, a theater experience is unique in that each performance has the potential to be a different experience, for the audience and the performers. Stage actors have to give a polished performance eight or more times a week. In order not to get bored and loose the energy that each audience expects, good actors try to “be in the moment”. Yes, they know their lines and where they are supposed to be at different points of any scene. But, each time through, actors will try not to simply duplicate their performance. They listen to the other actors and react in real time, not changing the words, but often changing how the words are spoken. One night, perhaps a line is said in great anger. Another time, that same line might sound merely annoyed. I can tell you as a former actor that there is nothing more exciting and satisfying as finding yourself “in the moment” on stage when something organic happens in a scene that hasn’t happened before or doesn’t happen all the time. Theater not only makes the actors think, but often challenges its audiences to do the same.

DTP_logoAny discussion of Disney Theatrical Productions (Disney on Broadway) has to include the impact that it’s had on New York City. Following the success of of Beauty and the Beast in 1993, Disney jumped in with significant energy and money. They not only produced their most successful Broadway musical, The Lion King. But they agreed to 99 year lease on a theater that no one wanted and to give a share of the profits back to the City. They they completely restored it to its early 20th century glory. Many would argue that Disney’s investment, not only paid off for them, but led to a commercial and tourist renaissance for the Great White Way, which runs from 42nd street where Disney’s New Amsterdam Theater sits, up to 53rd St. and includes Times Square.

I wrote about a D23 event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Disney’s New Amsterdam restoration in Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event. Here’s before and after  some photos of this beautiful theater

amsterdam restoration

Let’s remember, that as much as we’d like to see Disney as the benevolent doer of good, it’s still a hard driving, money making operation, beholden to stock holders and under constant scrutiny by everyone from Wall St. to blogs like mine and millions of fans around the world. The fact that Disney has accelerated and increased its investment in live musical theater, must mean that it does two things – Makes money and promotes the brand. To date, Disney has produced nine musicals on Broadway.





Lion King Bway logo









mary poppins Bway logo













Aladdin the Musical Broadway








Frozen poster





According to the New York Post, only 1 out of 5 Broadway musicals turns a profit for investors. For those of you who are math challenged, like me, that‘s a paltry 20% success rate. Of the nine Disney musicals that have premiered , five have turned out to be critical and/or box office successes (success being measured by profit or length of run): Beauty & the Beast, The  Lion King, Aladdin, Newsies and Mary Poppins. Frozen is scheduled to open this March. Using the properties current success on film, theme parks and merchandise, I think it is safe to say, barring unusual circumstances or a complete failure of marketing, that Frozen will be added to the list of successes. That would make six out of Nine or a 66% success rate. Not even in Walt’s day did the studio make money on that many animated features.

To Disney’s credit, if you go back and look at the timeline, Aida was a failure and there were two failures in a row, Tarzan and Little Mermaid. Since the Lion King has become the most successful production and continued to run, they could have quit there and walked away with lots of money. But, they didn’t. Not only did they continue to develop Aladdin and Newsies. They also pushed ahead with development and production of versions of The Hunchback and Pinocchio.

I’m sure money has been a driving force behind increased attention and activity in Disney Theatricals and could easily dissuade naysayers. Because, Disney’s best selling property is not in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. It’s not even a film. Most Broadway musicals last a year or less. The Lion King, in its 21st year has generated just under $8.1 Billion in revenue. It is the highest grossing entertainment property in history. To put it in perspective the next biggest is Phantom of The Opera, with $6 billion. The biggest film is Avatar, at just (just!) $2.8 billion. Lion King on Broadway has made more money than ALL the Star Wars movies combined.

So, with money pouring in from not only Lion King, but successful runs of Aladdin and Mary Poppins what about brand promotion? Not everyone gets to see a show in NYC.  Lion King, Mary Poppins and Aladdin all have touring companies across the US and elsewhere in the world. An evening in any city brings in adults and children who will leave re-watching or buying the original movies and more merchandise. And, of course, based on the success of the current Beauty and the Beast live action film, Disney will continue to promote and make money from all the live action versions currently in the works of many of these same properties.

I look down my nose at those who look down their noses at Disney theatricals. I think anything that gets people and kids into theaters to experience the exciting immediacy of live theater is a good thing. And, while Disney, other than Aida, has stuck primarily to recognizable Disney stories, they have not shied away from taking chances in ways that live theater excels. Beauty and the Beast allowed the actors portraying transformed objects to be seen, yet used inventive costuming to add the element of urgency. The costumes became more objectified as the show went on and they edged closer to being objects forever.

B&B costumes.jpg

And, for those of you who did not see it, the Beast’s final transformation was nothing short of magical.

Disney took an enormous chance tapping director Julie Taymor for The Lion King. She had an off-Broadway reputation for using puppets and not playing it safe. But, the inspired use of puppetry, masks and staging has been an inspiration to those who believe a musical can be a success without big name stars.

In some ways, I found the stage version improved on the original. The actor’s physicality and their interactions with the other performers brought new insight and characters layers to the story.

the-lion-king-intl-tourEven, Tarzan which was a critical and box office failure, did not just try to move the story from screen to stage. It used innovative sets, staging and movement to recreate the jungle and the familiar family of gorillas.

I also appreciate that they don’t just lift the films and recreate them on stage. They redevelop the stories and characters, add new ideas and news songs. “Songs like Human” Again for Beauty and the Beast,

“Proud of Your Boy” in Aladdin

and “He Lives in You” for Lion King are all worthwhile additions to the stories.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I am altogether pleased with the all the direction that Disney Theatrical is taking. For one thing, Disney has not produced a single new property designed specifically for the stage. Sure, it’s a risk, but who do we know that took risks and built an entertainment empire. Let me see. . .Why Walt, of course. Disney certainly has the deep pockets to take a few risks. I think it would be great if Disney were seen as a leader again in an art form, instead of a recycler. It’s not only an opportunity to be creative, but it could inspire new generations of young people who might find the stage more inviting than film.

I’d also like to see Disney do something other than a musical. Sure, musicals sell. But, comedy or drama is what has historically been an opportunity for playwrights and directors to challenge our way of thinking or confront us with a different way of looking at our world. No, it would not bring in the megabucks. But, it could change people’s perceptions of Disney. And, it could reverse the direction for remakes, going from stage to film as was often the case decades ago. The Disney name could bring recognizable names to the stage, if necessary, and in combination with the Disney stamp of approval, I’m sure audiences would follow. I’d still like to see some new talent, but, I think some trade-offs are going to be necessary. Walt always stressed not talking down to kids. They will rise to meet the challenge. Many might find an evening of entertainment without the image of a toy or music, would be just as much fun, for them, and the adults.

Theater is an art form that brings people together to celebrate, challenge and yes, sometimes, provoke through the telling of stories. Theater is unique, since you see transformation right in front of you, in the moment. At the theater, what you see in any moment is unique and only you and the audience of which you’re a part. In film, the director uses the camera to focus our attention where he or she thinks is important. Watching a live theatrical performance is like walking into a room where a party is going on. You might focus on one conversation or a piece of art on the wall. Theater lets the audience choose what’s important and why. Then the writer and director asks us to make decisions, in real time about the language and action mean. It’s not a passive art form and deserves to be paid attention to.


Walt & Roy Disney

Walt understood audiences. He understood the importance of story . By all accounts, he was one of the entertainment industry’s best story tellers. Growing up, film was in its infancy. But, no doubt he would have attended live entertainment. Travelling theater companies were quite common and circuses and parades are forms of theater. According to those who knew, he liked to play act. It’s not hard to imagine that theatricality was something he understood.


Walt used film approaches in the design of Disneyland. And, cast members could refer to either film or stage. But, it’s no accident that he asked cast member to refer to “on stage” when they were in the presence of guests and “backstage” when they were out of sight. Those are theater terms. Walt always seemed to know what his audiences wanted. So it’s no surprise that there was live entertainment. Several shows a day were presented at the Golden Horseshoe Revue. And we mustn’t forget the many performances given every day since then by the Skippers on the Jungle Cruise.

Between the theme parks cruise ships and existing theatrical properties, Disney designs and produces a great deal of theatrical experiences every day, all over the world. The Disney company could use it’s success, influence and experience to pump new life into theater all over the world. The ages old tradition of having audiences attend live performances has proven to be invaluable in entertaining, educating and informing societies for ages. Disney would be continuing a long and valuable service and still make money.

pinocchio posterThere is something special about the second full length Disney animated film, Pinocchio, released 78 years ago, that is easy to forget as you get caught up in the story and characters.

There’s a critical element that makes characters like Pinocchio, Gepetto, Jiminy Cricket, Honest John, Stromboli and the detailed backgrounds so beautiful to watch. Walt recognized a key advancement in movie making before most of the film industry and it would revolutionize, not only his animated films, but all movies. . .



Seems Obvious, right? As I wrote about in Ahead of His Time . . .Again and other posts, Walt had an uncanny ability to see into the future and make decisions that others were too afraid or lacked the foresight to consider. I’ll get back to that thought.

It’s easy to understand why we take color for granted. Most of us have grown up in a world of color. Television, movies, newspaper comics, our smartphones and computers are, and have, used color for decades.

hyperionBut, let’s travel back in time to 1930. The recently created Technicolor three strip process was unproven, expensive, required specialized equipment and extremely bright light that needed to be balanced for every shot. The major studios were not  prepared to take on the cost to retool their equipment and experiment with the new technology. Imagine what a risk it was to Walt and Roy’s fledgling studio, huddled into overcrowded buildings on Hyperion Avenue. Even with the success of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, Roy was understandably nervous, since their current contracts would not pay them additional money to offset the costs of producing in color.

Of course, Walt was undeterred, both by the technical obstacles and that other nasty annoyance – Money – or so it might seem. A couple of paragraphs back I mentioned Walt’s foresight. In most books I’ve read about Walt, he was more interested in quality and innovation than what it would cost to achieve his goals. But, don’t for a minute think that he wasn’t business savvy.

Flowers and TreesThe Technicolor people were so desperate to prove their process that they would have financed all of the changes necessary for Disney to retool for color animation. Walt was so convinced that color would make his animation more realistic and more entertaining that he decided to stop production on the Silly Symphony short Flowers and Trees and start over in color. He had the back sides of the black and white cells washed to remove the gray shades and had the Ink and Paint department redo them in color. And instead of taking that silly money from Technicolor, Walt made a deal for two years exclusive use of the Technicolor process.

Flowers and Trees, now in color, was a huge success and even rivaled Mickey Mouse in popularity. For his people’s efforts, Disney was awarded the first Academy award for an animated short in 1932. Proving color could work with Forest and Trees was more than just a stunt. Walt was now confident that he could began the process to develop Snow What. The films success enabled Roy to get new, desperately needed bank financing. Plus, Walt now had a two year head start using and learning about color over any other studio. And learn they would, throughout the rest of the Silly Symphonies releases.

In a previous post Inspired by Walt to get Creative, I mentioned the book Ink and Paint, the Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, as inspiration for a novel I am writing. I highly recommend the book to anyone whose interested in learning the back story of what it took to get Animated films through production. Flowers and Trees utilized about 400 different color shades.

Getting back to Pinocchio, the shades ballooned to about 1,500 shades to complete, what might be the finest hand drawn animated film ever made. That number doesn’t include special effects like water above and below, bubbles, the Blue Fairy glow and other important film elements.

Live action films have the advantage of actual colors to shoot. For hand drawn animation, the Disney Paint department had to deal with issues like colors shifting after drying or being under the not camera lights, as well as a need for wide ranges of shades depending on the action in the context of the film. The Disney Paint people ended up designing their own colors and paints to meet the increasing demands of the films. Disney hired chemists and built an entire department to create, manage and distribute paint as needed.

I chose Pinocchio as the focus of this post because I think it might be the apex of what Disney artists, including animation, background, and painting created in those early years of feature films. Keep in mind, this one only feature film #2 for the Studio and it’s an artistic masterpiece. The backgrounds are of quality found in museums around the world. The use of color not only fills the screen, but adds to the film’s mood through the use of shadows and details that might not register fully when screening the film.  But upon closer inspection the completed work reveals subtle and complex intricacies.

I believe that there are some films that are better because they are in black and white. If, for example, you watch a noir film that has been colorized, the loss of shadows and the heightened color seems to mute the overall tension common in films like The Third Man, The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. There’s no doubt that color afforded so many possibilities to the world of Disney animation. After the richness of Pinocchio, Disney artists explored many different styles. Fantasia was a mix of realistic

rite of spring

Rite of Spring


toccato and fugue in D minor

Tocata and Fugue in D Minor

traditional animation humor

Dance of the Hours

Dance of the Hours

and Classical


Pastoral Symphony

Bambii takes us into the realistic world of landscapes and animals.

bambii art

And, Sleeping Beauty, perhaps one of the most visually experimental and stunning films, can be seen as an end, not only of the golden age of hand drawn animation, but of the use of artistic drawing and painting styles in Disney Animated films.


Jiminy_Cricket_standing_up_to_LampwickOverall, it’s hard to imagine any of the films, starting with Snow White, any other way, but in glorious color. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, even if Walt had gone ahead with Snow White in black and white, it might have been considered a good, maybe ground breaking film. But it would not have had the impact that the color added. It almost certainly would not have encouraged Walt to continue to explore and expand on the use of color in Pinocchio, both in character design (27 different colors were used to bring Jiminy Cricket to life) and detailed backgrounds.

Walt Disney never described himself as an artist. He didn’t draw as well as others, he couldn’t paint and he had no training in the use of color. He did, however, recognize how much color would bring to the films he was making. As with other great leaders, he surrounded himself with people who could do those things. The list of great animators, artists on all of the films during Walt’s lifetime, both conceptual and actual production is lengthy. Walt not only took advantage of their skills by constantly challenging them to do more, but he encouraged their continued growth by providing training. We’ll never understand how, but somehow, Walt could see the finished product in his mind’s eye. By any means at his disposal, like taking a leap of faith on Technicolor, he found a way to realize those dreams and ideas.

walt oscar forest and trees


1939 child's easel

1939 Falcon Toy from my collection

As I wrote about in my post Hooked on Collecting, collecting has been part of my life for a long time.  After years of collecting antique magic books and ephemera, I changed gears and began my collection of Disneyana.

Because my blog is about my connection to Walt Disney, I’ve often written about him as a mentor as well as a motivator for my creative work in this blog, my playwriting, and the current novel I’m working on.

I was born in 1960 and by the time I was old enough to understand who Walt Disney, the man, was, he was already gone. Over the years I have come to understand that while Walt quickly gave up drawing, and never directed a single live action film, his creative contributions were no less important to his Company’s success. But more about that later.

The closest I can come now to “meeting” Walt is to have something that he had in his hands. Objects, unless they are one of a kind, like his Oscars and other awards, are nearly impossible to find on the open markets, and, thankfully, are available for everyone to see in the Disney Family Museum and glimpses into the Disney Archives.


So, the what’s left are items that he signed.

Anyone who’s done research on Disney signed items has found, sometimes the hard way, that the history of Walt’s signature is very complicated, making authentication difficult — even for experts. Aside from his actual signature, there are at least four different Disney Company sanctioned signatures.

There are ones done by his secretaries. I found this on Big Cartoon News:


There are pieces signed by Disney artists Hank Porter and Bob Moore (from the same web site):


There are fan cards done by many different Disney artists like this 1930s version from my collection:

Donald Duck Fan card

Finally, there’s the Disney corporate logo of Walt’s signature:

disney corporte logo

I was fortunate to have purchased most of my Disney signatures back in the 70’s and 80’s, when you might find them priced in the hundreds of dollars. If you’re in the market today, you’ll probably find many autographed pieces over $1,000. And, if you come across an autograph that relates to a significant event or time period in Walt’s life, the prices will go up dramatically. I have one of those pieces in my collection from early in Walt’s career. I promise to share it in another post.

I found these two items on Nate D. Sanders auction website and are offered for price representation purposes only. This signed, first edition book sold in 2015 for about $15,000.

disney signed first edition

This signed letter sold for about $1,300

disney signed letter about machine

To insure that the signatures in my collection were authentic, I turned to an expert, Phil Sears. For 25 years Sears has been the world’s only autograph dealer specializing in Walt Disney autographed items.  He has consulted for virtually all of the world’s major auction and authenticating firms including Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and many more. I have taken advantage of Mr. Sears’ free, preliminary authentication opinion to at least be somewhat assured of the signature’s authenticity.

This classic posed photo is from the 1940s. Walt may be holding a storyboard from Snow White, which premiered only a few years earlier.

Disney signed portrait

Photo signed circa 1940

This one from the 1940s was probably signed on a page taken from a book.

Disney signed Bambi card

This autograph has been professionally framed with a period picture of Walt. It’s an example of his signature in the 1930s.

Disney picture with signature

This letter, unfortunately in poor condition and, as yet, not authenticated, was signed from Walt and Mickey Mouse.

Disney signed letter

I find this one interesting. First, it is signed Walter E. Disney. Second, since the date is February 2nd 1935 and it’s made out to Bell and Howell, it’s possible that this was related to the filming of Snow White.

Disney check

My love of books makes this one a favorite of mine. It’s a 1953 first edition published by Simon and Schuster.

Lady & the Tramp book

Why have Walt’s signatures and autographs gone up in value? First, because many of his signatures were done by artists or secretaries, there are many inauthentic ones out there. Many have even been sold in error by reputable companies. Second, Walt’s signature changed over time. So, what looks like a scribbled forgery on the book above, is actually real and verifiable based on the date it was signed. But it might have been discarded by someone uninformed.

disney and mickey on disneyland tv

Walt & Mickey on Disneyland TV Show

Finally, I don’t think he become the publicly identifiable figure of “Uncle” Walt, until he was at least a year into the Disneyland TV series which premiered in 1954. Only then did he become really known to the millions who tuned in every week until his death in 1966. So, there was only about a decade where someone as famous as Walt would have been hounded for autographs, other than ones he might have done on a thank you note or a letter, contract, etc. Finally, his life was cut short, so he didn’t enjoy a slowdown typical of the end of famous people’s lives where he might have had down time to meet and sign things for fans.

Because Walt actually handled these items, at least to sign them, they hold special places for me in the collection. As I said earlier, Walt never did all that much drawing for the animated films he produced. In the future, I’d love to add at least one piece that includes a Disney character drawn by Walt.

I alluded to a piece in my collection from early in Walt’s career that I will happily share at a later date. It has a drawing, but not of a character from the well known Disney canon. As they used to say in the newspaper biz, “Watch this space for future developments”.

disney signing at disneyland

Flipping Disney’s Lands

With all the changes happening in Disney theme parks I’ve been thinking about the lack of change in Frontierland and Tomorrowland.

I think Walt would have seen the cultural and scientific changes that continue to happen and he might have though about thematically and artistically swapped them around.

Yes, that’s easier said than done. And if there was someone around who had just a bit of Walt’s forward thinking creativity, perhaps they would have made some changes already.  Yes, I know that everything is comparatively more expensive and complicated than it was 60 years ago. But, I will get back to that challenge later.

Walt made Disneyland more than just an amusement park by offering guests the chance to make some of our fantasies come true. He couldn’t really send us to Mars or have us ride a flying elephant. But, with a little thought, some story telling and a bit of cleverness, he made us feel as if we had. Walt also knew time wouldn’t stand still while he thought up new attractions. But, he was ok with that. He always said that Disneyland would never be finished as long as there was imagination to fuel ideas.

Walt in front of castle color

There have been many changes to Disneyland and Disney World since they were opened. All of the changes to the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland have been within the existing footprint of Walt’s original 1955 Lands. And that was just fine for a while. But, maybe not any longer.


In retrospect, the mid to late 1950s was one of those historical eras on the cusp of major cultural, social, political and technological change. TV was in it’s infancy, the civil rights movement was about to become front page news, the youngest president in our short history would be elected and by the end of the decade, the space race would be in high gear.

Walt’s generation grew up with Western movies and stories. Wars with Native Americans went on until the early 1920s. Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912 and much of the land east of the Mississippi was still largely uninhabited and wild. Brave cowboys, wooden forts, stagecoaches and looking for gold were not the stuff of ancient history and were still being used by Hollywood producers well into the 1960s. Taking a steam locomotive through that kind of countryside or riding in a mule train would have been a dream of many.

Many of the most popular TV programs kids would have been watching were westerns, including Roy Rogers, The Cisco Kid, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Gene Autry and yes, Zorro and Davey Crocket. It must have been a tremendous thrill to shoot a rifle, ride riverboat or paddle a conoe.  Walt and the Imagineers would continue to add more to Frontierland, including a Fort, mine train, and a Native American village. Much of the west around California was still the frontier and those who lived in big cities still yearned to feel what pioneering was like.

The other hot topic of the day was the Space Race and the technology strides that were taking place to make putting men in space a reality.


disney mechanical birdWalt was fascinated with technology, gadgets and the future, both to entertain as well as to improve people’s lives. The Enchanted Tiki Room started with Walt finding a small mechanical bird on a vacation trip. The Monorail and the Peoplemover were Walt’s attempts to prove there were better ways to provide public transportation. Since the end of World War II, the country had seen tremendous advances in computers, home appliances and, medicine.

Walt was mining his childhood for entertainment ideas to which Americans in the 50s responded. Both of the Lands in Disneyland were, of course, huge successes. As were Fantasyland and Adventureland, but I’ll get to why I think these other two lands have managed to stand the test of time in a minute. (I’m not including Main St. USA, Critter Country or New Orleans Square)

So, what do I have in mind for Frontierland and Adventurland? You know those horror movies where the brain of some creature gets swapped with a man’s? In the case of the two Lands, I want to swap the artistic approaches and back stories so both could be more in line with 21st century entertainment.

young frankenstein


tomorrowlandFrom the day Walt opened Tomorrowland, I’m sure he realized that it was quickly going to become outdated. He would have been right. Rocket to the Moon attraction became a reality in 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface. Later, Mission to Mars would become outdated as powerful telescopes and unmanned landers gave us a view of the real red planet. The Monsanto House of the Future, which showed what people could expect in a home in 1986, obviously had a built in end date. Walt didn’t live long enough to realize just how fast the future would come and keep coming.


frontier land gifThe wild west, on the other hand, became very un-wild. The mystique of the pioneer hero and the cowboy roaming the range were displaced by astronauts, TV urban police detectives and situation comedies. If Tomorrowland has become Yesterdayland, then Frontierland has become a quaint remembrance of a time we remember with fondness, but no longer has appeal for today’s generations.

Timeless Lands

fantasylandTo get back to my earlier point, the reason I think Adventureland and Fantasyland are still as vibrant as they were when Disneyland opened is because they are timeless. Fantasyland was already a place where elephants fly, animals are our friends and animated films come alive.  It’s the Land that comes closest to a traditional amusement park. The nostalgic feel of the Carousel and it’s music and the bright colors help to put us in a fantasy mood.

adventurelandAdventureland was always played as much for laughs as it was about helping us connect to the natural world and its animal inhabitants, which are still as exciting as ever. The Swiss Family or even the Tarzan tree house are flights of pure fantasy which, even when they were introduced, were seen just that way. There are still parts of the world that haven’t been explored, and men and women who take their chances learning about them. But, the rapid shrinking of untouched areas makes us yearn for them even more. So no matter what new attractions are added or removed, they seem to fit in to either the comic world of Fantasyland or the lush green of Adventureland.

Land Transplants

What I propose, then, is to swap the stories of these two Lands. Since tomorrow will always be coming, why not approach Tomorrowland the way it was done at Disneyland Paris. Make it a throwback to an era where science was just beginning to try and crack the mysterious codes. When Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were fantasizing about things that would one day be real.

I could go either way with the steampunk approach they took with Disneyland Paris. But, I think just the idea of designing around that 19th feel would be just as cool. New attractions could follow the pattern and older ones like Buzz Lightyear in Disney World could easily be retrofitted. Buzz Lightyear, is already throwback toy to an earlier time. Even Monster’s Laugh Floor, which is a pure fantasy world, could be modified inside and out. Rocket Jets and Astro Orbiter would be easy fits. And the car attractions could have their surrounding scenery adjusted without changing the basic ride functions.

I’ll admit, the new personality of Frontierland will be tougher. It might be possible to treat Frontierland like the new frontier that the Tomorrowland presented. Exploration of some of the more extreme parts of the planet, popular on many cable channels is very popular. Existing attractions like Mine Train and Splash Mountain wouldn’t require much or any alteration. Disney has already taken steps in this direction. In Disneyland, to make room for the new Star Wars “frontier”, they have already mothballed some of the Western style areas.

star wars galaxies edge model

Think of the possibilities of the dusty Red Planet as part of an attraction, or even other types of planets with unusual geography. Instead of just exploring the future, Imagineers could look at some of the more forbidding parts of the earth, like deserts, mountains and oceans as new frontiers to be explored.

I’m not an artist, so I can’t offer samples of what these new Lands would look like. I’m hoping that you can use your Disney imaginations to imagine what this would all look like.

Getting back to the challenges I alluded to earlier. Yes, there will be a cost. Yes, it will take time, considerable planning, and smart choices. Yes, there will be complaints from those who want everything to stay the same. But, I don’t necessarily hear people complaining a lot about Toy Story Midway Mania, or the planned Tron Coaster. That coaster would have fit nicely into the redesigned “New” Frontierland as an exploration of the insides of computers. I believe a well designed and executed attraction eventually trumps all desires to dip the Disney theme parks in bronze.

The same kind of effort and expenditure is going into Star Wars:Galaxy’s Edge. Even though it takes place “A long time ago. . .” many Star Wars scenes takes place in locations that could be in the style of the current Frontierland. Star Wars also includes technology that we can only dream might someday become real.

I’ve had fun taking a hypothetical journey to new Lands. I don’t hold out too much hope that my vision would ever be considered. On the other hand, not too many people, myself included, saw Toy Story Land or Star Wars:Galaxy’s Edge coming. Or, for that matter, all the changes planned for EPCOT. As I said in Should Disney Have Opened Pandora’s Box? or rethinking the entire Disney Studios story.Disney is not above radical and unexpected creative surprises.

And, I try to always follow Walt’s lead and continue to imagine and dream. Because that’s where the future lies. Not necessarily in what we have already done, but what we will do.

walt with carousel aa

This is the first in an occasional series on highlights of attraction Imagineering

Disney Imagineering bookI’ve been reading a large format book called “Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Scenes Look at Making More Magic Real”. I’m fascinated by the all aspects of the work Imagineers do to heighten our theme park enjoyment. It’s a very long title for a book that doesn’t actually require very much reading. The book is broken down in to sections of 2-4 pages, each focused on a specific element of the visible or behind the scenes work that goes into the creation of a Disney theme park attraction or park element, like signage, plants, colors, etc. For theme park geeks aficionados, like myself, the numerous pictures, drawing, paintings and photos may be worth the price of the book. The book covers aspects of all the parks including the recent Shanghai Disney from major attractions like Space Mountain to buildings like those on Main St. USA or the various Castles around the world.


The book has a section on how theme park attractions are storyboarded long before any plans are drawn up. This approach to story was, of course, pioneered by Walt for movie making and has been adopted by the Imagineers. This inspired me to think about the attractions I think Imagineers have used story, a topic I’ve covered before in “Why Writers Matter”, to enhance our ride experience, from the moment we approach the attraction entrance. My personal experience is with Disney World and Disneyland, so I’m going to limit my opinions to only those parks. And, since Imagineered story telling begins as soon as we approach the attraction I want to focus on appearances and queues, rather than the ride portion which receives a lot of attention.

In this post, I want to look at 2 of my favorite story telling attraction that are in both parks. While some of the physical approaches are different, I think they are excellent examples of the Imagineer’s work.


Pirates of the Caribbean

In an earlier post, “The Pirates Paradox” I discussed the continued success of the last attraction for which Walt had direct input. Approaching the attraction, the differences in the story are immediate. In Disneyland, Pirates is part of New Orleans Square. So, the building architecture reflects the antebellum style and takes us to the Gulf of Mexico, where Pirates surely must have made use of that great port.

Disneyland Pirates EntranceThe leisurely, winding queue with a large tree and evocative lantern lights, gives us time to admire the facade and finally brings us up on the porch as a guest of the house.


Once inside, we hear the parrot, we see the skull and cross bones and the treasure map right away the pirate and water themes begins to take shape.

Pirate treasure manp

I did say I wasn’t going to discuss the ride itself, but in this case, I think, due to Disneyland space limitations, the Imagineers continued the story telling prologue as our boats glide silently through the Bayou, complete with fireflies, the songs of toads and the lazy strumming of a banjo. By the time we make it to the first waterfall, we are completely immersed in the sensual language of the Bayou’s sights and sounds and the smell of water, in a time when Caribbean pirates terrorized coastal cities and enjoyed the spoils of their plunder.

Pirates View from BlueBayou

In WDW, the entrance evokes the Spanish built forts that dotted the islands of the Caribbean. The reddish, clay, Spanish roof tiles are very prominent as are the Moorish, arched doorways, the yellow, stuccoed, exterior walls and the tower.

The arched doorways beckon us forward, inside the darker and damp interior of the fort. Just above the large wooden doors with wrought iron handles the familiar PotC skull and crossbones and just a snippet of the song we’ll hear throughout most of the boat ride written above.

pirates interior entrancePirates WDW doorsOn the other side of the turnstile, we see heavy chains and large, wrought iron lanterns, and the airy high ceilings give way to a closer feeling of stone walls and lower arched hallways. Wooden barrels, a crow’s nest and other tall, ship items are found around every corner as the hallway narrows and gets darker. Ominous background music is heard, and voices echo as we pass cannon and cannonballs, and skeletal remains of pirates, until we reach the loading area.

pirates wdw queue entry

pirates wdw cannon

pirates wdw chessBoth versions maintain the kind of cinematic feel with which Walt so carefully crafted into most of his successful Disneyland attractions. Those of you who have seen a written screenplay, can see how either description above could be the opening camera shots of a movie. If you’ve never seen a screenplay, here’s an example of the opening to “The Empire Strikes Back”, which, like Disney theme park attractions, sets the scene with no need for dialogue.


A white snowscape races toward camera … the MAIN

TITLE quickly recedes, followed by a roll-up.

Episode V:

After the destruction of its
most feared battle station, the
Empire has declared martial law
throughout the galaxy.

A million worlds have felt the
oppressive hand of the Emperor
as He attempts to crush the
growing rebellion.

As the Imperial grip of tyranny
tightens, Princess Leia and the
small band of freedom fighters
search for a more secure base of
operations …

The roll-up disappears into the black horizon.


The camera tilts down bringing into view a small
figure galloping across the windswept ice slope.


A closer panning shot reveals a bundled rider on a
large gray snow lizard, called a TAUNTAUN.  Curving
plumes of snow rise from beneath the speeding paws
of the two-legged beast


The rider gallops up a slope and reins his lizard to
a stop.


He pulls off his protective goggles.  It is LUKE
SKYWALKER.  He notices something in the sky and takes
a pair of electro-binoculars from his utility belt.


From LUKE’S POV, we follow a bright object as it falls
to the ground.  On the distant horizon, an explosion
marks the point of impact.

The queues are very different in each Park. In Florida the Imagineers had the luxury of more space to let us wander the inside of the “fort” and get a feel for how long the Pirates have been gone. In Disneyland, they focused on the journey the Pirates would have taken over water. It’s hard for me to pick one I prefer over the other so I’ll let their merits speak for themselves.

Jungle_cruise_disneyland_posterJungle Cruise

One of my other favorite story intros is the Jungle Cruise.  In both parks, Imagineers were given limited space to set the stage. The queue areas help us understand a number of important story elements. First, and foremost is time and place.

WDW jungle cruise entrance

Walt Disney World

As we progress through the winding queue of offices and storage areas, there’s a variety of travel posters, camping and safari equipment, shipping boxes as well as period furniture. Almost everything looks old, worn, dusty and rusty.

In the Disney World Jungle Cruise queue there are jokes and puns everywhere.The soundtrack is a jazzy music set of tunes that is not always recognizable, with many interruptions from the music announcer “Albert Awol”. The announcements focus on the ineptness of the tour company with pleas for new skippers and many safety warnings. The overall impression is slightly slick, kind of professional radio station.

Since this version is a “copy” of the original in Disneyland, I think there was a charm sacrifice with more attention paid to the humorous side of the attraction.

In Disneyland, the building looks like something out of an old movie serial about safaris in Africa.

disneyland jungle cruise entrance

The signage sets the stage for the touring company story, including this very cinematic looking title card.

Disneyland jungle cruise sign

There are less jokes overall in the original attraction. The focus when Walt created it was to take guests on a “realistic” boat trip to far off exotic lands.

In Disneyland, during the queue walk, the sound of a 1930s radio station plays period, popular music interspersed with a DJ providing humorous announcements on the Global Broadcasting System “The Voice of Civilization”. The messages play  up the “dangers” that lie ahead. The announcements, which are fewer in number, are actually coming attractions (foreshadowing) of what guests will see and encounter on the ride itself. The overall feeling of the background soundtrack is more of an amateur short-wave radio broadcast.

Both queues are contained within the tour company offices and storage areas. Once in the queue I find I forget that just a short distance away is a paved road and lots of other activity. The sounds of boat engines and the calls of the skippers pulls our attention toward the water like a director’s camera pulling us into the story. As you inch closer (depending on the crowd) you get glimpses of the boats with their familiar design and name plates. Both soundtracks make jokes about the weather being hot and humid, which, in Florida, is exactly what it feels like at certain time of the year.

Both Jungle Cruises use cinematic techniques, required by Walt in many of the original Disneyland attractions, to set the stage for the actual attraction ride. In typical Imagineering fashion, they don’t skimp on giving us a treat for our sense of sight and sound to provide the story introductions. These are the elements of storytelling that continue to set Disney theme park attractions apart from its competitors. It’s why, like Pirates, even though the basic technology of the attractions still dates to the 50s, I and many others continue to enjoy the experience over and over.


What are some of your favorite theme park, attraction stories the Imagineers have told?

Keep an eye out for the next in this series.

After more than a year, I decided to revisit this Blog’s mission statement. So, I went back and reread my About Brad’s Blog . Happily, I found no reason to change the tenets which prompted me to write about Walt’s legacy. While, I have strayed, from time to time, from writing specifically about how we can still find a lot Walt’s influence in Disney products, I continue to try to focus the thoughts and opinions I share with you.

Today, as a nation, we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King. I do not want to suggest that Walt’s work in the entertainment industry has had the far reaching impact that Dr. King’s civil rights continues to have on people all over the world. Nor do I want you to think that I believe a free trip to Disneyland or viewing a Disney movie will solve the problems and divisions in our complicated world.

I am still inspired when I hear or listen to the last part of Dr. King’s, now famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, written 55 years ago:

“. . .when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963

mlk speech

My first thought is often – if we all thought about those things everyday, instead of just once a year, perhaps, we could change things for the better.

When Walt dedicated I’ts a Small World at Disneyland in 1966, as water from more than 15 countries was poured into the Small World river, he said:

“We wanted to foster a better understanding among nations of the world by showing the dress, the customs, the language, the music and a little of the culture of our neighbors around the world, and we wanted to show it to be a very happy one. I think it’s safe to say that having fun has universal appeal.”

Walt Disney – 1966

Dedication its-a-small-world-disneyland

So, maybe, the next time you take a ride on It’s a Small World;

MKSmallworld exit

Sample the cultures in Epcot’s World Showcase;

worldshowcasemapWalk through the Harambe Market in Animal Kingdom;

Harmabe Market at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Or watch movies like Mulan, Brave, Cocoa, Moana and even Mary Poppins;

You’ll remember the message hidden in all of the fun, and take a moment to remember what Walt and the Sherman Brothers were reminding us.

“There’s so much that we share,
That it’s time we’re aware,
It’s a small world after all.”

I think that message is an appropriate way to remember and honor Dr. King’s belief that we are all capable of treating each other with kindness and respect.

small world finale

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