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Magic Kingdom Chronicles
A look back at Disney history
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Jason Schultz

The WED Imagineers

Now that Disneyland's location had been finalized, a bigger question loomed over Walt's head - who could he get to design the place? Friends had already warned him that he was going to have a tough time finding people to design this world of fantasy. Notable among these was famed architect Welton Becket, a friend and neighbor of Walt's. He knew that traditional architectural firms wouldn't be able to offer Walt the innovative designs he wanted. Walt's search for designers soon turned inward, toward the Disney Studio.

Lucky for us, Walt already had an incredibly talented group working for him in Burbank. We already saw that Ken Anderson had been taken off other Disney projects to work on Disneylandia - he is oftentimes considered the first "Imagineer." During the time he was working on the mechanical miniatures, he was on Walt's personal payroll. But they soon found that this set-up - Walt paying someone employed by the Disney Studios to work on a different project - wouldn't work in the long run.

The solution to this problem came in the form of a separate company - a firm wholly owned by the Disney family through which Walt would be able to take on projects Walt Disney Productions wouldn't support. Walt Disney Incorporated was founded on December 16, 1952 with Walt Disney at the helm. This soon created friction between Walt and his brother Roy O. Disney - not only was Walt forming a company that would make Walt's family profits from Disney endeavors, but he was also using a name closely resembling that of Walt Disney Productions! This friction didn't soon let up, though Walt relented in the face of potential stockholder objections and renamed his private company WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises.

Imagineer
Imagineering's current headquarters in Glendale

We'll get back to our story in a second, but first let me regale you with the confusing history of Walt Disney Incorporated. It began in December 1952, as we've already established. It then changed names to WED Enterprises and was not only the design group for Disneyland but also a company owning the rights to the name and likeness of Walt Disney. In January 1965, what is now present-day Imagineering was sold to Walt Disney Productions (as the Walt Disney Company was known at that time). The name WED Enterprises went along with the Imagineers, and the remaining privately-owned company was renamed Retlaw Enterprises on February 5, 1965. (Retlaw is Walter spelled backwards.) Retlaw also owned the train-related attractions in Disneyland - the employees working them were on the Retlaw payroll. The Disneyland Railroad and the Monorail continued to be owned by Retlaw until 1982, when they (along with the "name rights") were sold to Walt Disney Productions for 818,461 shares of Disney stock. What's left of Retlaw - which includes several television stations and real estate holdings - continues to be owned by the Disney family.

In January 1986, WED Enterprises was renamed Walt Disney Imagineering, reflecting the name Walt had given to the designers over 30 years prior. And in May 1996 it merged with the Disney Development Company, an arm of the Walt Disney Company responsible for their non-theme park land management. But we're getting ahead of ourselves...

For the first several years at WED Enterprises, the engineers and designers were on Walt's personal payroll but were holed up in various places around the Studio. There was no single building on the lot solely dedicated to housing the offices of Disneyland designers. Bob Gurr recalls what it was like at the Studio in 1960: "At that period in time I worked out at the machine shop, which was way out on the East end of the lot. That meant that anytime I had to go to a meeting or go get some information from one of the other designers or animators or show developers, I'd have to go for a big long walk and go find them. That didn't seem to get in the way, even though there was no WED as such - it was just a scattered bunch of folks doing their work."

1953 and 1954 saw many now-legendary Imagineers join WED. The design of Disneyland called for an incredible variety of different crafts and skills - thus it was important that the designers and engineers embody a wide array of interests and skills. Following is a list of some of those initial people brought on the project that helped mold Walt's dreams into reality:

Ken Anderson (Artist - Fantasyland dark rides; Storybook Land Canal Boats)
Roger Broggie (Machinist - Audio-Animatronics)
Bob Gurr (Vehicle Designer - Autopia, Main Street Vehicles, Monorail)
Bill Martin (Designer - Fantasyland dark rides; Nature's Wonderland, Monorail, Submarine Voyage)
John Hench (Artist - Tomorrowland; House of the Future; Carousel of Progress; Space Mountain)
Bill Cottrell (Vice President of WED Enterprises and later president of Retlaw)
Emile Kuri (Decorator)
Fred Joerger (Model Maker)
Sam McKim (Artist - Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Caribbean)
Harriet Burns (Designer - Enchanted Tiki Room)
Wathel Rogers (Sculptor - Audio-Animatronics)
Dick Irvine (Art Director, later head of WED Enterprises)

This impressive group of individuals worked together in an incredibly short period of time to design something completely different from anything tried before. There were no easy solutions to their problems - they had to design most things from the ground up! Many of these people stayed with the company for decades, taking pride in the fact that the attractions they designed and built were enjoyed by people visiting Disneyland from all over the world.

Walt had one directive for the Imagineers: "All I want you to think about is that when people walk through or ride through or have access to anything that you design, I want them, when they leave, to have a smile on their face. Just remember that; that's all I ask of you as a designer." The cardinal rule-of-thumb is to create an enjoyable atmosphere, and today Walt Disney Imagineering is unparalleled in creating themed environments. The team he assembled proved up to the task of letting imagination be their guide - I assume everyone reading this has visited a Disney Park and enjoyed Imagineering's work firsthand!

As was mentioned earlier, Disneyland itself incorporates many motion picture elements - from establishing setting with the "long shot" (think of the viewing Sleeping Beauty Castle from Town Square) to various scenes (represented by the "lands"). This came as no surprise as Walt and his designers were almost entirely movie men. The laying out of attraction storylines also made use of storyboards (a method of planning out movies first invented, appropriately enough, by the Walt Disney Studio). The dark rides especially were designed using a linear storyline - here the Imagineers had total control over how the story would progress.

Bill Cottrell and Bill Martin were two of the people Walt sent around the country researching amusement parks and gathering data that could be used in the planning of Disneyland. They traveled to places like Coney Island and nearby Knott's Berry Farm, analyzing traffic flow and in general trying to learn from the mistakes of others. Coincidentally, Knott's Bery Farm served as inspiration for some early renderings of Frontierland done by Harper Goff in 1953. The Western atmosphere was successfully recreated in the Disneyland frontier, though most similarities to Knott's in those early concepts didn't make it past the idea stage.

Marvin Davis was given the task of creating the initial site layouts for Disneyland. The first major decision was the roughly triangular shape of the railroad route - Walt had known all along that it should be surrounded by a train and it served as a wonderful barrier against the outside world. He went on to design the initial elevations for Main Street and also was instrumental in the design of the Castle.

Well, Walt now had a team to design the place and a location to build it, but he didn't have any money! If only he had some definite concepts to show to those money men back east...


Questions about this column or about Disneyland history in general? Send them to me at jason@mouseplanet.com!


NEXT UP: Herb Ryman and the Long Weekend

EXTENDED INFORMATION

Welton Becket was a renowned architect and a Holmby Hills neighbor of Walt's. Becket's work for commercial clients sometimes involved lavishly themed store interiors - just like at Disneyland!

Ken Anderson was originally a Disney animator and helped in the design of Fantasyland.

The word Imagineer is one uniquely Disney and refers to the blending of imagination and engineering; these are the people who create the new attractions that go into Disney Parks.

It is widely acknowledged that Roy O. Disney was the financial brains behind Walt's dreams. Roy was sometimes reticent about Walt's projects, but when he saw that they would work - as with Disneyland - he gave the venture his full backing. After Walt's death in 1966, Roy saw to it that Walt Disney World was built and opened to the public.

The Disney Development Company was a Walt Disney Company subsidiary responsible for the planning and managing of non-theme park real estate owned by the company (such as hotels). It was formed in 1984 and had its greatest triumph in the opening of Celebration, Florida, a master planned community on the Walt Disney World property.

Bob Gurr designed many of the transportation systems in use at Disneyland and was also instrumental in getting the Audio-Animatronics system working. The Main Street Vehicles, the Disneyland Monorail and the Matterhorn are all projects he contributed to.

Bill Cottrell began with Disney in 1929, working on several animated features before joining WED Enterprises upon its creation in 1952. He was the president of Retlaw Enterprises from 1964 until 1982.

Bill Martin defected from 20th Century Fox to help with the construction of Disneyland. He was an art director who worked on numerous classic Disney theme park attractions, including the Monorail, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion. He later helped in the design and construction of Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland.

Harper Goff created initial renderings for the Mickey Mouse Park and was influential in designing Main Street, U.S.A.

Marvin Davis is best known for his work in master planning Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He was another early Imagineer who came from 20th Century Fox.


Jason is co-president of The Walt Disney Imagineering Fan Club, which has a home on the World Wide Web here.


 

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