Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Disneyland’

Be a Reader like Walt Disney

The birthday (publication date) of my wife, Jackie Azúa Kramer’s, second children’s picture book, reminded me of how important the activity of reading is, not only for children, but for adults.

As a result, I was also reminded that all of you who are reading this post and the hundreds who’ve read my past posts are taking time out of your undoubtedly busy day to read. In fact, many of you have followed my Blog. That means that there are people out there who have chosen reading my post as an important part of your day. I’ll get back to this later, but I want to focus on reading.

I wouldn’t call myself an avid reader. But I am a regular reader. My literary tastes run the gamut from Sci-Fi/Fantasy to Biography, Mystery, Humor and yes, Disney related books. I recently finished Three Years in Wonderland: The Disney Brothers, C.V. Wood and the Making of the Great American Theme Park. It’s heavily researched and presents

CV Wood & Disney

Disney, C.V. Wood & Bud Price

a view of the many difficulties encountered as Walt willed Disneyland into existence. The figure of Wood figures prominently in the Disneyland creation story in a way that the Disney company has never promoted. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Wood was more instrumental than people like Admiral Joe Fowler or Roy Disney in getting the park open on that memorable and hot day in July 1959. Either way Wood’s story, and how his particular talents for promotion and salesmanship may have made Disneyland possible, is a fascinating read. There are some unique insights into how much the park meant to Walt,by people who were there, and what he was willing to do to make it a reality.

ink-and-paint-departmentI’ve talked before  in a post Inspired by Walt to Get Creative about the amazing book Ink and Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation. For fans of Disney history, especially, the animated films, this book is a must read. And read you will. This coffee table sized book is meticulously researched and filled with personal accounts of the talented, dedicated and creative women who worked in anonymity, advancing the art of inking and painting cels. The book pulls back the curtain on the lengths that Disney was willing to go to make his animated films the best there ever was. None of us takes for granted the skill and attention to detail it takes to color thousands of individual cels.

Ink and Paint PinocchioThis book adds levels of detail around, paint color creation, special effects (real blush used on Snow White’s cheeks), or how the women managed to keep those bubbles in the Cinderella floor cleaning scene all looking the same. Yes, animators created the illusion of life, but the women of the Ink and Paint Department helped bring those drawings to life in glorious color and detail with pens, paintbrushes and other tools in ways that were just as creative as the men who got most of the credit. Find a comfortable chair and a flat surface to put this book on and become immersed in the Disney era that defined animation to this day. If you get tired of reading, there are hundreds of great photos.

Have I successfully whetted your appetite to read? Sneaky, huh? Are you someone who says you don’t have time to read? With smartphones and tablets, you can read just about anywhere. Stuck in line at the Market? Open up a Disney biography like Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas or The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier and read a few pages. If you like reading about Disney history, like me, Disney During World War II: How the Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War by John Baxter (see my post Working Through a War for a taste). Love the Parks, take a look at another large format book by “The Imagineers”, Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real. Really, whatever particular Disney joy you might have, I guarantee you will find something fun, interesting or revealing to read.

mickey tablet

First Mickey Mouse Merchandise

Walt and the Disney Company have a long history of book publishing and many books have been created using Disney characters or other intellectual property. Many talk about how Disney revolutionized film and character merchandise. Putting Mickey Mouse’s image on stuff started in a rather inauspicious way when he appeared on a simple writing tablet in 1929. The book with a Disney copyright book featuring Mouse titled, “Hello Everybody” was published the very next year. Since that first book Disney and the many Disney imprints have continued to publish children’s books for decades. Not only was Disney a strong proponent of books and reading, but many of the films, animated and live action, produced in his lifetime were based on works of literature.

First Mickey Book

First Mickey Mouse Book

David McKay Publications became the first to publish a whole line of books under Walt’s authorization in the 1930s. I have two of these in my Disneyana collection.

All of us Baby Boomers grew up reading or having Golden Books read to us. Golden didn’t publish only Disney character books but the Golden Books library included, wonderfully illustrated stories about Mickey, Chip n’ Dale, Snow White, Dumbo, Donald Duck, Pinocchio and our favorites from cartoon shorts and feature-length animated movies.

Today, Disney continues the tradition of book publishing through many imprints including Disney Publishing Worldwide and Disney Hyperion.

Walt has been quoted as saying,

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.”

Treasure IslandWalt oversaw the production of 35 films whose stories started as books. Certainly stories stuck with him, were inspiration, like Snow White and Treasure Island. A consummate story teller himself, biographies refer to him reading constantly in his years as head of his Studio. He did research, he read scripts, story treatments and was likely inspired by books, newspaper and magazine articles on a variety of subjects.

Here Walt can be seen in his research library at the Burbank studio with a collection of National Geographic magazines. Much of the research went into Disney’s True Life Adventure series. But, I’m sure all that information found its way into other films as well.

Disney Nat Geo collection

Storybook_land_poster_largeWalt’s Disneyland was filled with literary influences. Tom Sawyer Island can be traced back to Walt’s love of Mark Twain, The Mad Tea party comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jungle Cruise probably came from writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is drawn from the 1908 children’s novel The Wind in the Willows, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, while based on Disney’s film, the story that Walt read was from the Grimm’s Brothers. It’s not surprising that Walt included an attraction called The Storybook Land Canal Boats in his opening day roster.

Study after study has shown that reading to children and encouraging them to read as they get older, not only improves their reading comprehension, but stimulates their imagination, encourages them to ask questions, increases their curiosity, improves language development and stimulates brain activity rich with visualization. Children who are read to early are more likely to be readers themselves. Aside from these benefits, reading to your child is an opportunity for quiet times together that can help parents form lasting bonds.

Walt and other celebrities lent their name and photos in 1959 for the second year of a National Library Week, to give more attention to libraries and stem the tide of reductions in book readers who had turned to movies and TV for entertainment. The campaign and programs continue today in the month of April. Those who prophesied the end of Libraries in the digital age couldn’t have been wronged. If your library is like mine, it has re-imagined itself as a community center where adults and children can find all kinds of activities from book clubs to yoga film showings, music and oh, yes, book – physical and eBooks. If you haven’t stepped in your local library recently, you’d be surprised what you might find. How about free museum or local attraction passes, banks of computers for use, and printing. You might even find a cafe or at least you can bring in the beverage and snack of your choice.

World Read Aloud DayAnyone looking for ways to influence their kids or any kids to read can pick from a wide range of activities. My wife and other authors participates in World Read Aloud Day.  If you have no local library, or even if you do, you can support or build your own Little Free Library, which is a standalone lending library, usually in an easily accessible location supported by the community, a group or an individual. Check out their website for examples, building plans and success stories. Books in school libraries and classrooms are always in short supply. If the school you attended is still in business, consider a donation through the PTA and support not for profits like Behind the Book, whose mission is to inspire NYC Public School students to love reading by bringing accomplished authors into the classrooms.

Examples of community Little Free Libraries

Getting back to my earlier topic of reading my blog. Over the last couple of months I’ve had an uptick in new followers. In my own way, I’d like to think that I’m encouraging people to read. Thank you all for your support and the encouragement I get from the thought that I’m not just talking to myself. (Although I have been known to amuse myself for hours with my rapier wit) I write because I have something I want to share and it’s a great feeling to know that you find my creative outlet worthy of your time. Thanks!

Now, go read a book!

Walt and reading

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Pirates Change with the Times

Last week we celebrated the anniversary of the opening of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean. In my post, The Pirates Paradox, I offered my opinion on the enduring popularity of an attraction that, technically, pales in comparison to some of the more recent Imagineering efforts like Mission Space or Soarin’. And certainly, doesn’t offer the thrills of attractions like Rock ‘n Roller Coaster, Space Mountain or Expedition Everest.

There have been many changes to the U.S. Disney theme parks over the years. Many of my posts have discussed change.  I’ll have more to say about that later.

Spoiler alert. For those who want to be surprised by the changes to the Pirates attraction, please Page down at least two times.

pirates_skulls

For those who have not heard or seen, the change to the Pirates attraction involves the scene where the pirates are bidding on captured women. They shout, “We wants the redhead.” For reasons which, as usual, Disney will not comment, they’ve have modified the auction scene so instead of women being auctioned, our old friend, the redhead who’s encouraging her fellow pirates to buy chickens, rum, paintings, etc. It’s not the first time that the Imagineers have tinkered with Pirates. Earlier they turned the chase vignette around by having a woman with a broom chasing a pirate around, instead of him chasing her.  Then we had the more recent “plussing” with the additions of the Pirates movie characters. I don’t recall to many reactions to the first change and there was definitely some to the second.

 

If you skipped down, thanks for sticking around. Now where was I? Oh, yes, change.

There’s seems to be a very mixed reaction to changes to the Auction scene of Pirates of the Caribbean at the two U.S. theme parks.

Potc Auction Scene GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

As a technologist, I have worked on projects or helped others plan for and realize change-717488_1280changes in their critical business systems and applications. Most of us have gone through changes in our lives, jobs, neighborhoods, even the stores where we shop. I think it would be fair to say that no change is easy. It often involves planning, hard choices, compromise, sometimes, and significant extra work. In some cases, it’s my experience, that last one that often sinks the effort.

For the most part, I think the Disney Company and the Imagineers have been capable and talented stewards of Walt’s theme park legacy. They have tried, and I think, succeeded, in maintaining the primary reason Walt had for building Disneyland – Create a clean environment where children and their parents could enjoy themselves, together. We’ve seen the addition of thrill rides like Tower of Terror for older “kids” at the same time Disney has expanded and enhanced Fantasylands for the younger set. Imagineers have also continued to offer seated or theatrical options like the Legend of the Lion King, Fantasmic and Finding Nemo the Musical for guests who need a rest or change of pace. At each of the Parks, there’s something for everyone. Even if all you want to do is sit on bench and enjoy people watching. The change to Pirates highlights three different points of view when Disney changes a popular theme park attraction.

pongo boredThe first group probably includes visitors who have tired of an attraction and are ready for a change. Perhaps they never liked the attraction in the first place or they feel they’ve outgrown it or their just ready for something new. It may be that they have so many favorites that they don’t miss one missing or having been changed. As someone who doesn’t like change, but eventually embraces it, I think this group gets a bad rap. They are often portrayed as being disloyal or not really loving Disney, because they are looking for something new.

The second group doesn’t want see a hair changed on the head of a single doll in SmallTui World. They want to come and enjoy the same attractions and shows time and time again. They like things just the way they are. These are the people who might be perfectly happy with the Matterhorn as the only thrill ride in Disneyland or Mr. Toad instead of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Or maybe they would like to sit through Mission to Mars or have parents and kids wait in the blazing Florida sun for a few spots on Dumbo.

Kronk-listening-to-his-shoulder-devilThe third group, probably overlaps the first two groups. This includes people who want their friends, children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews to experience the same things they enjoyed. I would have been disappointed not to see my kids eyes and smiles if they never had a chance to ride Small World or Alice in Wonderland. This group doesn’t mind change. So long as it doesn’t involve their favorite attractions. Do away with A Bug’s Land, just don’t touch Stitch’s Great Escape. Of course, it means that any change Disney makes is going to distress of anger a significant portion of their customers.

I think I fall into all three groups. I definitely don’t want to see the parks become irrelevant museums. Look, but don’t touch.

don't touchHowever,. . .

There’s nothing wrong with keeping some of the past. I would be very unhappy if they had just done away with Pirates or changed Small World into a 3D experience. But, can you blame Disney’s Imagineers? It would be like telling a Boeing engineer he couldn’t use the latest lightweight metals in the new design. In the face of the significant competition in theme park industry, I think the Imagineers have shown great restraint. But, audience tastes in entertainment change. And technology offers options that were not available ten years ago or in some cases yesterday.

I’m sure many of you, myself included, would love to have taken a ride on The Stagecoach that took guests along the shores of Disneyland’s River of America fromStagecoach opening day until 1959. But, how many of you would be willing to wait for hours in the sun to get on a ride that could only accommodate a small number of guests, took a long time to load and broke down (yes, believe it or not, the horses did not always cooperate). I hear people complaining about waiting in air conditioned comfort twenty minutes get on an attraction.

I am not an advocate of change for the sake of change. It’s usually expensive and the danger of not pleasing everyone can make the risks high, particularly for Disney who wants to maintain their preeminence in the theme park industry. My earlier comment about work often being the roadblock, has not seemed to have deterred Disney from doing big things like redoing Fantasyland or building Galaxy’s Edge or Toy Story Land. Nor have they shied away from changes that are consequential among their fan base. (See Journey into Imagination, again).I’m sure there’s some in Group two who would still trade to have Mr. Toad back in exchange for some of the new goodies that Disney has given us.

I would admit that not all the changes have been to my liking (See redo of Journey into Imagination, The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter and Stitch’s Great Escape). And, I CoP scenewould be very unhappy if I couldn’t enjoy The Carousel of Progress or watch people laughing on the Tea Cups (not one of my favorites). Along with my long time and sentimental favorites, it’s wonderful to have something new to be excited about trying for the first time. If Disney doesn’t come up with new things for people to come to the theme parks for the first time or come back for again, then they will surely go to other parks.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, Walt was constantly tinkering with Disneyland. When he passed away, he still had a lot more plans in Anaheim and an unlimited amount for PoTC pigsFlorida. If he hadn’t been driven to change things for the better, then there wouldn’t have been the Lincoln Audioanimatronic and Pirates would have been a walk through wax museum. I haven’t seen the new Pirates scene, so I hesitate to offer my opinion. On the one hand, some would say that Disney has continued to sanitize the attraction of anything that might offend anybody. On the other hand, with the events of the last year, the #MeeToo movement and the on-going struggle for women to be seen as equals in all aspects of life, it might be that the Imagineers recognized the need to let ’em run things.

I understand the deep regard that fans of Pirates have for the way the attraction was. Most change is messy and hard. Instead of being able to sit back and watch the scenery, when Imagineers change Disney park attractions, they make us look closer, explore our emotions and, in many cases, rediscover and enjoy attractions all over again. I think Walt would be pleased. Although, I’m sure he would have had some ideas of his own.

walt with pirate heads

February 3, 1966: Walt Disney with some of the plastic heads for the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride opening at Disneyland. In 1966, four new additions were added to Disneyland costing $20 million dollars – three million more than the cost of the original park. The four new sections are: Its a Small World, The Primeval World, New Orleans Square and The Pirates of the Caribbean. Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library. Copyright Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library. Photographer unknown. FOR FROM THE ARCHIVES BLOG.

 

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.

BatbBroadwayLogo

 

 

1993

Lion King Bway logo

 

 

 

1997

Aida_Broadway_logo

 

 

2000

mary poppins Bway logo

 

 

2006

Tarzan_musical_Broadway

 

 

 

2007

The_Little_Mermaid_Musical

 

 

2007

Aladdin the Musical Broadway

 

 

2011

newsies-broadway

 

 

2012

Frozen poster

 

 

2018

 

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.

IMG_5578

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.

My Connection to Walt Disney Through his Signature

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:

walt_secretarial

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.

DISNEYLAND-OPENING-DAY map

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.

sputnik

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

TomorrowLand

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.

Frontierland

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

Imagineers Still Tell Stories

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.

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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.

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – HELICOPTER SHOT – DAY

A white snowscape races toward camera … the MAIN

TITLE quickly recedes, followed by a roll-up.

Episode V:

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK …
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.

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – HELICOPTER SHOT – DAY

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

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – DAY

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

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – SLOPE – DAY

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

EXT PLAINS OF HOTH – SLOPE – DAY

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.

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – LUKE’S POV – DAY

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
Disneyland

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.

Jungle-Cruise-Walt-Disney

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

Keep an eye out for the next in this series.

Inspired by Walt to get Creative

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Many of my posts mention or are about Walt’s creativity. Story was at the core of Disney films, television and theme parks. A story for a film had a strong theme, was written for and created with his audience in mind, all with a heavy dose of emotion. But, Walt didn’t stop there. What set Disneyland apart from other amusement parks wasn’t just the quality and attention to detail, but that Walt created a park filled with attractions based on stories.

The Disney Company has continued that tradition more than 50 years after his death. Attractions like the Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, Rock ‘n Roller coaster, and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, to name a few, are all enjoyable because Imagineers like Rolly Crump, John Hench or Joe Rhode started with a story they want to tell. They tell that story using the path we take through the design, music, sound and set dressing of the queue then finish it with the actual ride experience itself as the final chapter. Think how different the Indiana Jones Adventure, Expedition Everest, or Space Mountain would be without all of those elements. I go to other amusement parks (I pause for the expected shock). Their rides (not attractions) start with hours long queues winding through what looks and feels like a parking lot. The only thrill is the ride itself, which typically lasts a couple of minutes or less.

Writing this Blog is a creative outlet for me. I’ve written for work and pleasure for a good part of my life. This year, I am going back to a challenge that I haven’t tried for several years. I’m going to join over 300,00 participants in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) program and write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

nanowrimo logo

What started out as a dare by a few people in 1999 has become a not-for-profit organization that organizes a worldwide event. The organization is committed to “. . . a world that celebrates diverse voices, and encourages everyone to tell their stories. Their mission statement “National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page. They also go into schools, libraries and communities through their young writer’s program. If you are interested in learning more, offering support or participating, I recommend checking out their website, Nanowrimo.org. Your local library or community center may offer support for writing participants.

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NaNoWriMo Night of Writing Dangerously, San Francisco

I look forward to the challenge with both excitement and a certain amount of anxiety. I’ve done this twice before.  But knowing what to expect from a month of intensive writing, almost every day, doesn’t make it any less daunting.I tell you all this not because I want applause or a pat on the back (although any support is welcome). But, to be a “winner” I need to write 50,000 words in November (that breaks down to 1,667 words each day).

This effort will probably not give me much opportunity to write my usual, weekly blog. (As I wrote that, I could actually feel the disappointment across the wires of the Internet.) Fear not, oh faithful readers of the Disney Connection. While I may not do a regular Blog post, I am thinking of providing updates on my progress and my experience following in Walt and his master storytellers giant footsteps.

castles.jpg

Choices are always difficult

inkandpaint coverI am spending this week doing some preparation by building a basic story and getting to know the characters that will populate it. I don’t have a title as yet, but the inspiration for my story was the book “Ink and Paint, The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation” and will be set at Disney Studio in the early 1960s.

No one who participates in NaNoWriMo publishes their 50,000 word work without considerable editing and rework. But, hundreds of NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. I hope that my story will eventually be worthy enough in my eyes for me to share it with all of you. For those of you who challenge yourselves to create, I wish you happiness and success in your field of endeavor. And remember “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible”. For those of you who haven’t yet made the leap, “If you can dream it, you can do it. The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

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