Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Imagineering’

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – Inseparable

walt and mickeyWe recognized some major calendar milestones in the months of November and December. The birth of Mickey Mouse in November as well as the birthday and anniversary of the passing of his creator Walt Disney. Walt was, without a doubt, always the creative driving force behind all the Disney successes and failures during his lifetime. But, the idea of Mickey and the amazing animators and artists who gave him life were not responsible for his meteoric and continued success. For that, Walt left nothing to chance and imprinted himself on the character.

Mickey and Walt are forever linked. Mickey was created out of an act of business


Earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse

survival. Losing Oswald the Rabbit to a sneaky film promoter, which, while it might have led to the end of Disney brother’s company, lit the fires of Walt’s imagination, leading to the creation of the mouse that still roars. It’s likely that the spark of creation that was Mickey Mouse would keep the character close to his heart for many years. It’s not surprising that Walt couldn’t find a suitable voice for the character. And, he didn’t relinquish the role until 1946. Even though, by then he was incredibly busy overseeing many films in development and production, he knew he was the only one who could give voice to a character that was really an extension of himself – an alter ego, perhaps.

Early Mickey Mouse

It isn’t surprising, then, that the many of the early shorts are full of many settings and situations that show Walt’s fingerprints. Farms and farm animals are well represented in shorts like The Barn Dance, The Plowboy and Musical Farmer.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that trains, something close to Walt’s heart, figured prominently in Mickey’s Choo Choo.

And, while Walt never showed any particular musical abilities, the films make judicious use of music, to drive the action and the gags. Anything became an instrument from animal teeth, spaghetti, train tracks, boat and train whistles, even ducks, chickens, animals and more traditional instruments. Walt clearly understood the importance of music and he continued to use to maximum effect in all of his films.

We can be assume that since Walt probably approved every script and frame of the early shorts, it’s interesting how the early Mickey had many of Walt’s personality characteristics. Like Walt, Mickey is forever optimistic, whether he’s trying to build and fly do-it-yourself airplanes, courting Minnie, or cheering her up after rescuing her from the ocean. Mickey’s also a problem solver. Many of the problems he encounters are of his own making, but he always finds a way to get things done. Walt was always creating problems for himself and his staff, creatively and technologically. Many of the difficult situations arose because Walt was always pushing the limits of what could be accomplished in the mediums of animation, film and theme parks. But, he always managed to match the right person to the difficult tasks whether it was making X Atencio a songwriter or recognizing Bob Gurr’s wizardry with wheeled machines.

Walt also instilled Mickey with his own brand of small town, childish humor. Many of the shorts include situations that involve cow’s udders, Minnie’s bloomers, and the use of outhouses. I’ve read that, even though he gave a kind of buttoned up image, Walt was very fond of what we would call today, bathroom humor. Other accounts told of him adding many of those kinds of gags to early animated shorts, much to the chagrin of some of the other creatives on the staff.

In his own way, this early Mickey is a take charge guy who doesn’t hesitate to ask Minnie to get on stage and play an instrument, or want to drive the steamboat. All accounts describe Walt as someone who wanted things his way or not at all. Even though the company started out in 1923 as Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, in 1925 Walt informed his partner and brother that the studio would henceforth be called Walt Disney Studio. He said that it was his name that they were building the company around. I don’t think he wanted any audience doubt about who was in charge. The lack of credit accorded to the people doing the heavy lifting part of the work was the reason why his long time friend and collaborator Ub Iwerks left him to work elsewhere. Given how important Iwerks was to the fledgling Studio’s success, many in Walt’s shoes would have done anything to keep such a valuable asset. But, Walt hardly missed a beat.

As Walt got further away from hands on work with Mickey, you can see changes in the character that practically built the Studio. The changes may have been due to others taking over primary responsibility for story and character. Not only did Mickey’s look change, certainly approved by Walt, but he began to mirror more of contemporary society.


No longer the chaos creating scamp of the early shorts. Mickey settled in as a more dapper and conventional man of the 40s and 50s. Pluto is the ever present man’s best friend and we often see Mickey in more indoor settings. Instead of stealing kisses from Minnie by scaring her with loop the loops in a plane, he courts her with flowers and gallantry. It’s possible Walt thought that the symbol of his company should be more accessible and politically correct. But, it’s also possible that Mickey had a personality transplant.

The image of Mickey today is that of a corporate ambassador. He’s someone you want to hug or expect to obediently ride atop a parade float rather than execute a practical joke with him. With the occasional excursion into something more like the old days as we recently saw in Pixar’s Get a Horse.

Mickey is a model citizen showing off a very large wardrobe at the Parks and other public appearances. There’s nothing wrong with the Mickey that recent generations have come to know and love. We may not want to admit it. But we all age and slow down.

In the wake of the spectacular success of the animated features, by the 1040s Mickey was no longer starring in his own shorts. Fantasia had originally been considered as a feature that would star Mickey. Walt changed direction and created a ground breaking art piece. But, Walt kept Mickey in there. And, as his last contribution to the legend of Mickey Mouse, he left us with what may be one Mickey’s most iconic images – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with his oversized robe and the wizard’s hat. That Mickey lives on in many forms including being adopted as the mascot of Disney Imagineering.


It’s only natural that future generations may gravitate or identify more with characters in the Marvel and now 21st Century worlds. I think everyone will still have a soft spot for the Mouse that started it all, even if they don’t understand the important role that Mickey played in making everything we associate with Disney in the 21st century possible. I do hope that as long as Mickey is the symbol of the Disney Company, we will continue to be reminded of Walt Disney himself.



Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Disney Muse Gone?

shutterstock_194759198Frequent visitors to The Disney Connection may have noticed I missed my usual Sunday night post last week. Setting aside some personal and professional craziness that has caused disruptions in the Land of Brad, I’ve had a hard time finishing a post over the last couple of weeks. I can tell you I made several starts which all seemed very promising, including one about the passing of Marty Sklar, improvements needed for the next D23 Expo, my thoughts on The Great Movie Ride and something about Imagineering. I would be kidding myself and all of you if I “wrote” off my creative block as a failure to find anything that clicked and would meet my own personal standards of quality and applicability to the Disney Connection’s mission. The truth is, I couldn’t get my creativity on track. I was blocked, even though I set out to write about something I love.

shutterstock_325327667One part of me wanted to post something. The other part of me was unable to come up with something I felt I could be satisfied to share with you. I’ve published 30 posts on this blog, at a pace of nearly one per week since January of this year. I’d like to thank the hundreds of visitors who regularly read my thoughts, opinions and ramblings about how Walt Disney, who has been gone 51 years this December, still impacts the Disney Company, people like me and maybe you. Many weeks I’ve been completely stunned by the traffic, many likes, comments and number of people who are now following the Disney Connection blog. Thank you all for supporting my work and giving me the satisfaction of knowing that I’m not talking only to myself. So, since I consider you all fellow Disney lovers, I hope you’ll keep reading if I take a tangential trip into CreativityLand, slightly afield from my usual posts.

Over the years, I have tried my hand at various writing projects. I participated in NANOWRIMO , National Novel Writing Month, (an amazing not-for-profit thatnano_12_winner_detail encourages people of all ages to write, including kids) and completed 50,000 word drafts of three novels. I’ve written several full length plays and dozens of shorter theater pieces and had privilege of hearing my work performed by professional actors at public staged readings here in NYC. I’ve written technical white papers and many reports for the customers who I have worked with in my day job over the last 20 years. Those of you who write regularly, particularly for work as I do, may have found that it’s often easier to write when someone else is setting the deadline and determining the topics.

I have always enjoyed writing. But for some time, I had only written professionally. So, I started writing this Blog as a kind of test to see if writing was going to continue to be part of my life. I’m happy to say that writing for the Disney Connection has offered an opportunity for me to rediscover the joy of writing. I take pride in publishing posts that I believe are interesting, amusing, timely and, perhaps, thought provoking. I have no advertisers who are expecting eyeballs on pages, so the only motivation to put hands on the keyboard is that I have a topic which appeals me. I write this Blog because I want to, not because I must.

Anyone who has put pen or brush to paper, hands to clay, a hammer to stone or raised their voice in song can attest that the creative spark is a harsh mistress who can both satisfy and punish any artist. I was just at the D23 Expo and sat very close to Imagineers like the late Marty Sklar, Tony Baxter, Rolly Crump, and musicians Richard Sherman and Alan Menken and others who have somehow managed to be consistently successful in using their skills, imagination and vision to not just be creative, but prolifically creative under financial, deadline, and global fan pressures. They have carried on the work of a man who German philosopher Schopenhauer would have described as both an artist, someone who can hit a target no one else can hit, and a genius as someone who can hit a target no one else can see.

I try to keep my goals for the Disney Connection modest. I do think I occasionally reach some level of artistry in my work on this Blog. Inspiration can be found everywhere. So, it is frustrating to wake up and find one’s muse has taken an unexpected leave of absence. Walt Disney is one of those rare people who was an artist and a genius in everything from animated and live action films to theme parks and education. I remain in awe of his accomplishments and will continue to be inspired by him as an example of what can be achieved. Everyone’s time is valuable and there are plenty of places on the internet, TV, movies and the world that you can all spend it. The more I’ve worked on the Disney Connection the more I have felt a commitment to those of you who have carved out enough time in your busy lives to read my writing. I want all my readers to finish a post feeling that their time has been well spent. If I keep up my end of the bargain, I hope you will too. Thanks for your support.

In the meantime, I’ve put up up a page of pictures from my time at D23 Expo 2017.

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge — We’re not in Kansas Anymore

star wars opening

1977 – No on-line ticketing or midnight openings LACY ATKINS/AP

As a someone who loves science fiction in all its permutations, Star Wars: A New Hope, (or just plain old Star Wars as I knew it as a kid), was a perfect movie. It had a little of everything I went to the movies for: Adventure, action, sword fights, humor, plausible science, space travel, easy to identify good guys and bad guys (although, George, why are Storm Troopers dressed in white?), a damsel in distress, an unlikely, underdog hero, a wise cracking leading man, a sweeping and pulse quickening score, and spoiler alert (I do know someone on this planet that has not seen a single Star Wars movie) an explosive, exciting, happy ending.

So, I am thrilled to think of walking into that movie world when Star Wars Land opens in 2019 at Disney Studios. I was sitting in the packed auditorium at the D23 Expo in 2015, when Bob Iger announced the plans for the park additions. The place went crazy and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. As the plans have gone from concept paintings to more detailed information, my excitement has not waned.

Our appetites have now been further whetted by the amazing model displayed at this year’s D23 Expo. (See my post D23 Expo 2017 Magical Afterglow for more on the Expo). The Theme Park’s pavilion rolled out the new land name, “Star Wars, Galaxy’s Edge”. The model reveals, not only, the scope and scale of Disney’s largest theme park addition ever. (I confirmed that both US theme parks will get exactly the same addition) But, gives us a view of the park most of us will never get once we’ve entered. Galaxy’s Edge continues Disney’s continued emphasis, started with Pandora, of providing a totally immersive experience.

sw model.jpg

Reports describe much more than the current Studios Streetmosphere to add to the theming and mood.  We will find First Order troops and Rebels roaming the streets. Success or failure on the Millennium Falcon attraction may have an effect on Park’s inhabitants responses to you later in the day. The model also showed the location of the other headliner attraction, a battle inside a Star Destroyer. This might include a new kind of light saber.

This is all very exciting. But, it leads me to a sobering, but inevitable, thought. I will miss the old Disney/MGM Studios and all it represented. Before you start yelling at the screen, I am not one of those, “Don’t ever change my Disney theme park” people. Walt knew technology, and our ideas about entertainment would change or, as he often did, he could change them. The Parks, unlike Disney movies, were built so he could continue to tinker. I believe Walt always thought that while he did the best he could creating his films, he always believed, he could’ve done better if he had: (pick one or more: more time; more money; better technology). Other director’s from George Lucas to Ridley Scott have voiced similar regrets. Once a film is produced, it’s frozen in time. Yes, I know there are director’s cuts of films like Blade Runner. And if you’re George Lucas, you change them and make us all buy new versions. But, the Parks were a chance for Walt to always make things better. He’s famously quoted as saying, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Walt’s approach to theme parks wasn’t that different from films. He used storytelling to enhance the attraction experiences. The theme park was a way for Walt to always try to “get it right”  – even if it took him more than one try to do it.

Let’s remember what Michael Eisner was after when he built, what is now called, Disney Hollywood Studios. It was a working film and television studio that would, not only, give us a chance to see “how it’s done” in television, film and animation, but would take us back to the golden age of Hollywood. A time when the studios controlled everything that had to do with making a film and the movie theaters were palaces with uniformed ushers. (See Grauman’s Chinese or Radio City Music Hall). Hollywood was truly tinsel town. MGM boasted it had “More Stars than there are in the Sky”. I love movies that take place at that time in and around L.A. during that period, like Singin’ in the Rain, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and Barton Fink. Walking through the Park, always felt like being on a movie set in that period. The atmosphere was reinforced with: The Streets of America recreating a studio backlot; iconic buildings like Grauman’s Chinese; and the store fronts and building architecture (yesterland.com has a great overview of architectural inspirations for the Park). And to top it off, there was actual hand drawn animation going on within the nondescript walls of the working studio itself, including work on Brother Bear and Lilo and Stitch (See my post The Art of Animation for my thoughts on animation).

I still get a special feeling when I enter the Park and become enveloped in the eclectic architectural styles reminiscent of Hollywood and the surrounding areas from the 20s-50s. More than Epcot or Animal Kingdom, I think, Studios comes closest to Walt’s use of Main St. USA as a way to calm and prepare us to enter a world of fantasy, as well as begin to tell the story of the Park itself. We walk down a Main St USA that’s from a different time. Did you ever notice that the pathway under the Railroads in Disneyland and Disney World are red? You’re walking the red carpet into a theater! Ever notice how directors often fill the opening moments of a movie with sights and sounds to set the time and place the film. Car styles, store fronts, license plates, welcome signs, music serve the same purpose on Main St. USA and Hollywood Boulevard. Upon entering the Studios we see a period style gas station, lots of LA style architecture and Sid Cahuenga’s. We now know when and where we are. Then the entrance music, filled with great and recognizable movie themes like Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur, tell us that this is a place for and about the movies.

So, I will miss old Hollywood as Galaxy’s Edge takes storytelling to new levels. I’m hoping it does feel like we’ve entered into the movie throughout the Land, instead of limiting theming to an attraction as has been the historical Imagineering approach. The Studio’s park is in transition from giving us a chance to see how movies were and are made to putting us on the set. I think the original concept was great and I will miss that peek behind the cameras. But, I believe that the direction that Pandora and now Galaxy’s Edge takes is completely in line with the kind of “plussing” that Walt would surely have taken advantage of, had he been able. Hang on. We’re making the jump to light speed!


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