“A very serious, very advanced engineering project is being built in Florida around these new Disney characters: Dreamkeeper and his pet dragon Figment…It will be only part of a total experience that people will remember all their lives.” –Kodak in-house magazine advertisement 1980
Yes, the iconic Dreamfinder was once going to be called “Dreamkeeper.” The character of Dreamfinder created for Epcot when it opened more than a quarter-century ago has a special place in the hearts of many Disney fans. Yet, for a new generation, Dreamfinder is too often either a vague or a puzzling image with some obscure type of connection with Figment.
Disney performer Joe Hudgins (one of the Dapper Dans and the original “Six Bits” character at Hoop De Doo Revue) was the Dreamfinder for the groundbreaking of the Imagination Pavilion. Disney even tried a short-lived early experiment of having a performer wear a Dreamfinder mask that looked horrible.
When EPCOT Center opened on October 1, 1982, actor Ron Schneider, costumed as the character, explained to Bryant Gumbel on the Today show who Dreamfinder was supposed to be:
“Well, I’m kind of the host of the Journey Into Imagination show out here at Epcot Center. I traveled all over the Universe, collecting the stuff dreams are made of: Sounds, Colors, Ideas . . . Anything that sparks the imagination. And I store these sparks in the Journey Into Imagination Pavilion. And the guests and I recombine them into new ideas and new inspirations.
“This is actually something I dreamed up (indicating one of the first Figment puppets in his hands). This is my Figment. And I’m very proud of him. You see, I threw together the two tiny wings, the nose of a crocodile, the horns of a dilemma, and all the calm and reserve of a small child’s birthday party. And so, he with his curious and naïve way of looking at life shows me things that I would never have guessed in my own knowledge and experience.”
Gumbel ended the interview by asking, “And what of Dreamfinder and Figment? Do you fit into the family that includes Goofy and Pluto and Mickey and Snow White and Cinderella? Or are you truly apart? Are you the future?”
Dreamfinder responded: “No, I’m part of the same spirit, actually. I’m more of the original spirit, the same thing that led to them created me. And I was there when they were created.”
While Dreamfinder and Figment were there at the opening of Epcot, their famous ride attraction, Journey Into Imagination, did not officially open at the Imagination Pavilion until March 5, 1983.
For more than 15 years, Dreamfinder delighted guests of all ages in the attraction itself as an Audio-Animatronic figure and also as a walk-around character carrying a mischievous Figment puppet who might snatch a hat from a guest and fling it in the air. Dreamfinder and Figment were considered the official original spokes-characters for Epcot. Yet after 1998, Dreamfinder disappeared almost completely.
Who were Figment and Dreamfinder? The little purple dragon, Figment, was the physical representation of being “a figment of the Imagination.” He was instantly popular on all sorts of Disney merchandise. Dreamfinder was his husky human companion and friend with a full red beard, long blue coat, black top hat and broad smile.
Figment and Dreamfinder were actually born in a concept for a planned-but-never-built section of Disneyland to be called Discovery Bay. In that area there was to be Professor Marvel’s Gallery of Illusion, “a fascinating visit with the foremost collector of the exotic, weird and whimsical from all over the world” according to a press release from October 1976. Entering through a sideshow wagon, guests would find themselves in a Carousel of Progress revolving theater where an Audio-Animatronic Professor Marvel would display all manner of oddities that he has collected.
A small statue of the magnificent white bearded and mustached Marvel was built with a black top hat, gold vest, red tie and monocle. Cradled in his right arm was a small green dragon that Marvel bred as a hobby. At that time, every available resource of the Disney Company was redirected to both the Epcot and the Tokyo Disneyland projects and the Discovery Bay project was shelved—along with Marvel and his dragon.
As Imagineer Steve Kirk remembered when he was interviewed by Lou Mongello:
“I was in my office, we’d all been taken off of every other project except Epcot, so everyone had been reassigned from Disneyland, from Disney World and so forth on to Epcot, and everybody was part of a pavilion. Tony was in with the Kodak folks as being potential sponsors for some kind of pavilion. He ran into my office in the middle of this meeting and said ‘Can I borrow little Figment and Dreamfinder?’ And he grabbed it and took it in to them to show it to them. They said ‘that’s great, do we get the dragon, too?’ The only issue was that, at the time, the dragon was painted green. Figment was green. And Kodak thought that represented a little too much of a Fuji Film (Kodak’s chief competitor who used the color green prominently on its packaging) connection, so he turned purple as a result of that.”
Tony Baxter recalled that “[Dreamfinder] was a Santa Claus-type who is wise and older and knows all the great things, a great thinker. But we needed a child-like character that had like a one second attention span and was a little crazy."
To provide the voice for Dreamfinder, WED hired actor Chuck McCann. McCann was a showbiz veteran by the age of 17, performing his nightclub act on popular television shows. He has had a career as a serious actor (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), a comic actor (Silent Movie), was an Oliver Hardy impersonator along with Jim McGeorge in the Stan Laurel role, and as a voice artist in dozens of animated cartoons from Duck Tales (Duckworth and the Beagle Boys) to Fantastic Four (The Thing) and many more.
A man of many voices, McCann based the voice of Dreamfinder on actor Frank Morgan as the mighty Wizard in MGM's "The Wizard of Oz." However, during the recording of the original sessions, there was some dispute and McCann left the project. The Imagineers found a "sound alike" in Ron Schneider, who had been an understudy for Wally Boag at the Golden Horseshoe Revue in Disneyland. After much intensive practice, Schneider recorded the remaining lines for the character in the attraction and was hired to be the walk-around Dreamfinder character when Epcot opened.
Schneider told Mongello, “One of the other things Tony [Baxter] told me about Dreamfinder is that Dreamfinder was always intended to be an updated version of that guy who used to host the Wonderful World of Color on NBC. The encouraging uncle. Someone who saw the good in people and saw the creativity of people and wondered at it. So, there were my inspirations. Of course, I had the Wizard of Oz voice going for me immediately. People react viscerally to that when they hear it.”
Schneider was also involved as Dreamfinder in a short "lost" Dreamfinder film.
The pavilion was to house an attraction featuring the characters and a 3-D film titled Magic Journeys, directed by Murray Lerner. However, there was some concern that the film might not be ready in time for the opening of the pavilion, so Imagineering decided to prepare a back-up plan.
The Disney Company contacted filmmaker Mike Jittlov, who was well-known for his 1979 short film, The Wizard of Speed and Time. Jittlov was asked to produce a 70-second live-action film featuring Dreamfinder that could be used to introduce about five minute of clips from Magic Journeys as a back-up, in case the entire 3-D film wasn't finished in time. Contrary to other descriptions, this segment was not done in Jittlov’s well known stop-motion technique nor was it in 3-D.
The film was titled Dream Finder Run, because, at that point, the name Dreamfinder was two separate words and basically the character was going to run around.
The film begins with Dreamfinder putting on his coat and talking to the off-camera Figment: “Figment, my impatient young friend. You can’t push creativity. It takes time to do things right.
Figment (off camera): “And isn’t now the time for a preview of the Magic Journeys film?”
Dreamfinder: “By golly, you are right. I better hurry along.”
There was one day of filming in Florida and two days in Tujunga, Calif., at WED (Imagineering). The film, had the character running around in the Imagination pavilion while it was still being constructed, as well as pass projects at the WED workshop in California.
Dreamfinder spends brief seconds in each location. Jittlov has a cameo, as does the shadowy silhouette of Mickey Mouse. Figment appears on the desk of a sculptor, as well in the basket of a bicycle (as a tribute to the film E.T.) At one point, Dreamfinder grabs a reel of film (supposedly Magic Journeys). He inadvertently runs off the edge of a second floor hallway and lands in a pile of film cans. Looking at the audience, he informs them it is now time to put on the 3-D glasses to see the preview of scenes from Magic Journeys.
Lerner, who was directing Magic Journeys, found out about this back-up plan and rushed to finish his film. It premiered on time so Dream Finder Run was never shown in its entirety.
However, a clip of a few seconds from that film was shown in the television special Epcot Center: The Opening Celebration on October 23, 1982. Danny Kaye and a very young Drew Barrymore meet Dreamfinder and his puppet Figment outside the original attraction transitioning into about eight seconds from the film.
Shortly after Epcot opened, the Disney Channel was born and, despite the backlog of Disney cartoons and television shows and films, the Channel wanted to provide original programming. So that first year, they prepared five episodes of a Dreamfinder show, with actor Jack Kruschen performing the character. Supposedly, three episodes were completely scripted and filmed but there is some debate about whether they were actually aired—although it is clear they were scheduled to be shown.
The premise of the series was that, after school, four children of different ages (one of whom was actress Kristy Swanson in her first role) dropped by to visit with Dreamfinder. He had an elaborate laboratory that would help to expand imaginations, including a “Door from Here to There” where they could enter and journey anywhere. The famous Dream Catcher blimp would also dock at the house.
Figment appeared as a puppet but also in little animated clips where he fought an ugly green creature known as “Fear.” The series was produced by Norton Wright, who later went on to be one of the producers on Sesame Street. In the series, Dreamfinder was officially known as “Old Eli” perhaps as a reference to Walt “Elias” Disney.
In addition to Schneider, performer Steve Taylor also portrayed the role for almost 15 years and developed the "gag" of Figment grabbing a hat and flinging it away. Since Taylor was shorter than Schneider, it was often unintentionally amusing when one Dreamfinder went out to perform who was tall and then, an hour later, a shorter Dreamfinder appeared. Just like Figment apparently, Dreamfinder could be any size he wanted to be.
There is much more to the history of Dreamfinder and Figment and, if readers are interested, I will attempt to explore it in future columns including all those educational films made with an animated Figment. Until then, I would suggest you visit www.friendsoffigment.org (link), which is always a fun and reliable source for information about Dreamfinder and Figment.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have room to include the full story of Dreamfinder and Figment in The Vault of Walt book (link), but there are 38 other great stories in the book and, if enough copies are sold, then there will be a sequel and I will include Figment’s story, as well as a 40,000-word essay on the complete story of “Song of the South”. So buy a copy or two of the book now (I am making the big promotional push for the book over the holiday season).