The Magic of Disney Animation Pavilionby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
"Welcome to Walt Disney Animation in Florida!" wrote vice chairman of the Board Roy E. Disney in the souvenir book for the Magic of Disney Animation Pavilion at the Disney-MGM Studios.
"Can you imagine an American childhood without the magic moments of Disney animation? No Mickey Mouse…or Minnie. No sputtering, rasping Donald Duck. No 'Whistle While You Work.' No epic, comic, cliff-hanging mouse-eye-view up a mammoth stairway to Cinderella's bedroom.
"Audiences of kids and grown-ups have delighted in 60 years of silliness and storytelling, sentimentality and terror. Dumbo flies. Snow White runs from the scary eyes of the forest. Lady and the Tramp fall in love over a plate of spaghetti. Mickey Mouse leads a band, battles a giant, falls in love.
"The Animation Building is a working studio. Inside, more than 80 artists and technicians are creating new animated films for theatrical and video release. A unique behind-the-scenes tour includes films, starring animators and animated characters, who tell the insiders' story of animation. Strolling through soundproof corridors, guests watch as animators bring classic Disney characters to life.
"Disney animation is synonymous with quality, innovation and fun. This proud tradition, celebrated in the Animation Collection, an ever changing exhibition of the best of animation art drawn from the Walt Disney Company Animation Research Library and the Walt Disney Archives, continues in the Animation Building at the Disney-MGM Studios."
When Walt Disney was producing the animated feature film Sleeping Beauty (1959), he realized that a great way to publicize the "high art" approach of the film, as well as address all the letters that flooded into the studio from young artists interested in animation, would be to put together a traveling exhibition showcasing the history of animation, as well as how animation was done.
Walt Disney created an exhibition showing the history and development of animation. He used elements from the film itself to explain the actual animation process. It was titled "The Art of Animation: A Walt Disney Retrospective."
To put the exhibit together, Walt sent people to the animation "morgue" where the animation art was kept. Walt wanted some specific pieces and it wasn't just cel setups but backgrounds, concept art, story sketches, and more. There were three versions of this exhibit, and each featured different original art.
One was showcased in Tomorrowland at Disneyland from May 28, 1960 to September 5, 1966. The exhibition in Tomorrowland featured early optical devices, like thaumatropes and a zoetrope, as well as TV screens showing segments from the episode "The Art of the Animated Drawing" first shown on Walt's weekly television show on November 11, 1955.
The exhibit was connected to the Art Corner merchandise shop, where future animators could purchase "How to Draw" Disney character books, flip books, and even an animation kit with a pressboard light table with pegs and pre-punched animation paper.
Of course, young artists could also buy original Disney cels for a $1.50, thanks to the ingenuity of Disney Legend Jack Olsen who was in charge of this merchandise location, and who determined that guests might like cels that were just being tossed into the trash at the Disney Studios to hang as a decoration in a child's room.
There were two other traveling versions of the exhibition that toured the United States beginning in 1958. When they finished their travels, one was sent to be shown in Europe and the other to Japan in 1960, to promote the release of Sleeping Beauty in those countries.
The Japanese exhibit was originally displayed at 17 department stores throughout the country, a common practice since Japanese department stores often sponsored fine art exhibits. When the exhibition finished its tour, it was moved to the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo when the Disney Studio was convinced to donate it to the museum.
However, sometime in 1962, the museum—like many museums—found itself cramped for space, and donated the art to Chiba University for educational and research purposes where it was put in storage and not rediscovered until 2004, many decades later.
Once the art was restored and combined with artwork from the Animation Research Library (ARL) collection and loans from the Disney Archives and Walt Disney Imagineering, there were more than 550 pieces, making it the largest exhibition of Disney animation art ever. It was titled "The Art of Disney" and put on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo from July 15 through September 24 in 2006.
In the tradition of that classic exhibit at Disneyland that gave curious guests a taste behind-the-scenes of the magic and mystery of Disney animation, the Disney Company decided to expand the experience at its newest theme park, the Disney-MGM Studios, when it opened in 1989.
Bob Rogers, the acclaimed founder and chairman of BRC Imagination Arts, a well-known experience design firm, began his Disney career in 1968 performing magic tricks at the Magic Shop in Disneyland.
Over the decades, Rogers has been responsible for several Disney-related projects, including producing the five-screen movie Impressions de France for Epcot. It is still running today, the last unchanged movie from when the park first opened in 1982.
One of his most memorable Disney achievements was creating the original Magic of Disney Animation tour pavilion at Disney-MGM Studios when it opened in 1989.
BRC Imagination Arts was established in 1981 and follows the original philosophies of Walt Disney Imagineering in combining storytelling and film production techniques to create an immersive design for attractions. The company has produced exhibits and attractions for World's Fairs, international events, museums, educational institutions, corporate brand environments, and theme parks.
In 1988, WDI approached BRC to assist in the creating of a tour of a working animation studio, making important information of the production process accessible to guests but without disturbing the artists who were working on actual projects. In addition, BRC was responsible for scripting and producing the three different films shown during the tour: Back to Neverland, Animators on Animation, and Disney Classics.
That first year, roughly 80 artists worked at Disney Feature Animation Florida and Disney even briefly considered using Audio-Animatronics figures in the attraction portion. Ironically, when real animators were working behind the glass enclosures, several of them put up handmade signs on their desks declaring "We are not Audio-Animatronics" for the curious gawkers.
"The first step in a project like this," said BRC producer Marci Carlin, "is to figure out just how long your experience needs to be. Then you figure out your capacity: how many people can be moving through the experience based on the number of people in the park on a given day. Then you design an experience that can comfortably accommodate that many people."
For this attraction, it was decided to move approximately 1,000 guests through the exhibit each hour.
The experience began in a movie theater (this theater and the finale theater each holding approximately 250 audience members), then moves through all the departments of an animation studio—storyboard, layout, character animation, etc.—in elevated tiered passageways that allowed the guests to view the artists behind glass enclosures. On overhead screens, brief animated segments helped explain what was happening in each step of the process.
The animators at Disney Feature Animation Florida referred to this area as "the fishbowl" referencing that they felt like goldfish in a bowl being constantly looked at as they did their regular tasks. They sometimes put signs or things on their desks to amuse the guests, including occasionally inappropriate items.
"We wanted the audience to have sort of an over-the-shoulder experience," Carlin said. "So we put several risers in front of the windows that look down on the animators. This made for better viewing, but also allowed us to increase the number of people moving through."
"I later worked on the Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) short at the Florida studio and was in the fish bowl for most of it," remembered my long time friend, animator Mark Kausler, who also worked on the Back to Neverland short. "I remember shooting a scene on 3/4 inch video one day and looked up to see Jeffrey Katzenberg looking at me from the other side of the glass! I picked a good time to be shooting!
"Michael Eisner occasionally dropped in on us wearing shorts and sneakers and a Mickey T-shirt. Rosemary Clooney and Jim Davis (Garfield) came by and so many others. It's so hard to realize that the whole Florida studio is history now," he said. "I didn't hate being on display in Florida so much; they took such good care of us that you couldn't complain. There was a pitch room for story and music right next to the glass and sometimes we would gather in there and pretend to pitch story ideas to amuse the guests."
At the end of the tour, guests queued up in a carpeted lobby area for their final film experience in another movie theater, which was a retrospective montage collection of clips of highlights from Disney animated films.
While waiting to enter the Disney Classics Theater to see this show, guests would watch "Animators on Animation," short clips of Disney animators talking about the creation of Disney characters and their love of animation. It would have an animator or show artist seated in front of an animation desk on a riser showing how to draw a character and discussing animation (and sometimes avoiding the often-asked question of what films he had worked on).
After the finale film, guests moved into a museum-like display of artwork, cels, maquettes, duplicates of Oscars won by Disney for animation, and more items usually promoting the latest Disney animated project and then exited into a store selling animation-related merchandise.
For the original tour, guests quickly determined that the best time to visit was usually Monday through Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. because it coincided with the regular working hours of the artists. Although occasionally, there might be a small handful of people working in the evenings or on weekends, in general, it was during the weekday hours that most of the areas were filled.
In 1996, Disney Feature Animation Florida moved from temporary backstage trailers into a new $70 million facility designed specifically for animation that was connected to the area with the tour. In the mid-1990s, the studio employed approximately 400 artists and technicians.
The original version of the tour ran from opening day until it closed on September 30, 2003 where it was replaced with a much different version since the Disney Feature Animation Florida unit had been dissolved.
To consolidate production, the Disney Company closed its Orlando division officially on Monday, January 12, 2004 as well as its animation annex studios in Paris and Tokyo and the animation building was converted into office space for different departments.
The new version of the animation tour, that began in 2004, reversed the pathway and began in the Disney Classics Theater where guests interacted with a Disney show artist (not necessarily an actual Disney animator) who bantered with an animated Mushu the small dragon from Mulan (1998), ironically a film made entirely at the Florida studio (the same attraction can also be found at Disney California Adventure Park as the Animation Academy.
Then guests journeyed past display cases, an interactive area including an opportunity to learn how to draw a Disney character and meet Disney costumed characters. This version closed on July 12, 2015 and the area was remade into the Star Wars Launch Bay.
The official description of the original attraction was:
"The new Animation Building at the Disney-MGM Studios is a working animation studio that just happens to have visiting hours. The magic of Disney animation is created here, every day, by a staff of over 80 talented artists and technicians who are producing new featurettes, starring classic Disney characters, for theatrical and cable release.
"Inside: Films provide the insiders' view of animation. Exhibits explain the intricacies of ink and paint, extremes and in-betweens. The Disney Animation Collection presents stunning art from 60 years of animated filmmaking. Guests watch from soundproof walkways as animators create new adventures for beloved Disney characters."
On May 1, 1989, the Disney-MGM Studios officially opened with a dedication ceremony led by then-CEO Michael Eisner. However, not long afterward, on that same day, there was another dedication ceremony in front of The Magic of Disney Animation pavilion.
Roy E. Disney talked at podium set up in the front of the attraction where he emphasized that hand-drawn animation was really the focal point of the Disney Company. He continued to talk about the fact that animation was the start of the Disney Company and that, with the newly opened Disney Feature Animation Studio Florida, "a new day for animation will be dawning."
The animated feature film The Little Mermaid would debut in November, just six months later, proving Roy absolutely correct.
Joining in the dedication were several Disney Legends who had made significant contributions to animation: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Ken O'Connor and Ken Anderson. O'Connor was there because he had worked as an art consultant on the Back to Neverland short film in the pavilion.
The one snag in the ceremony was a literal snag as the cover over the elaborate animation film strip sculpture at the front of the building did indeed get caught on a pointy outcropping of the sculpture. Amid the fanfare, releasing of balloons and applause, several Disney executives struggled in a tug of war to release the red cover from it entanglement and eventually succeeded.
There was also a ceremony where these six animation legends put their handprints and autographs into cement blocks to be placed in an alcove of the outdoor animation courtyard inside the building.
Originally, the attraction was configured so that guests could not see these three rectangular blocks placed in the ground, although savvy guests knew all they had to do was go through a glass door to get a close-up look.
While Anderson, Davis and Kimball were Imagineers at the time, they got their starts in the world of animation. Davis was responsible for the design of characters like Tinker Bell and Princess Aurora. Kimball was the animator who designed Jiminy Cricket and the Cheshire Cat. Anderson was the designer of Shere Khan and Elliot (Pete's Dragon). All of them had contributed significantly to many of the Disney animated features.
O'Connor was known as one of Disney's top layout artists and art directors. His work included the magical coach in Cinderella, the marching cards in Alice in Wonderland, and the dancing hippos in Fantasia.
Thomas and Johnston stayed in animation their entire career, but also collaborated on several books, including the definitive book on Disney animation titled Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. Their animation began with work on the dwarves in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and continued through The Fox and the Hound where both worked on the young Tod and Copper.
The original intention was that there were would two legends to one block as demonstrated on the one featuring Thomas and Johnston, longtime friends as well as co-workers. Their hands and signatures are neatly and symmetrically imprinted, along with an impression of their pencils. This was how all the blocks were to look.
However, another block features three handprints and signatures: Davis, Anderson and O'Connor, once again with impressions of their drawing pencils. Yet, Anderson's signature seems crowded and his last name curves downward as if squeezed for space or an afterthought.
The secret is clear on the final block, an example of the behavior of the exuberant Ward Kimball, an extrovert known for being an unpredictable maverick. Not only did he make sure his pencil was broken before being imprinted, unlike his fellow legends, he also spread his fingers wide so he could make a second impression and close examination will reveal that he has six fingers on each hand, something that most guests missed at a casual glance.
Also, in a fit of high spirits, he filled the bottom half of the block with a quick drawing of Mickey Mouse's head in the space that was going to be filled by Anderson. Who would be so bold as to wipe out a Mickey Mouse drawing by the legendary Kimball? Apparently, no one. So Anderson squeezed in to a space on another block.
Those hidden handprints were available for every guest to enjoy until they were removed when the Star Wars Launch Bay opened on December 1, 2015.
So, today, where once guests eagerly learned the secrets of Disney animation and watched talented artists hard at work, now they greet Kylo Ren and Chewbacca and enjoy galleries and games themed to a galaxy far, far away.
Disney Films Done at Disney Feature Animation Florida:
- The Little Mermaid (1989): Florida artists contributed ink and paint support to the film
- The Rescuers Down Under (1990): About 10 minutes of the 77-minute sequel to 1977's The Rescuers was animated in Florida, as well as 10 minutes of the Mickey Mouse short feature The Prince and the Pauper double-billed with the movie.
- Beauty and the Beast (1991): Florida animators assisted in the "Be Our Guest" sequence.
- The Lion King (1994): Florida animators provided about 20 minutes of the film, including the "I Just Can't Wait to be King" sequence
- Pocahontas (1995): Florida animators contributed about 18 minutes to the film, including scenes involving Pocahontas' father, Chief Powhatan.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996): Florida animators were only responsible for about four minutes of this movie, including scenes involving both Quasimodo and the villain Judge Frollo.
- Mulan (1998): This was the first animated feature film produced primarily by Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida at Disney-MGM Studios, all while theme park guests watched. It is also the first Disney animated feature made outside of Burbank.
- The Emperor's New Groove (2000): Additional Animation Production Services
- Dinosaur (2000): Additional Animation Production Services
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001): Additional Animation Production Services
- Lilo and Stitch (2002): Made almost entirely in Florida, this film was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated feature.
- Brother Bear (2003): The last major film to be released by the Florida studio.
- In development at the time was another feature titled My Peoples (also known as A Few Good Ghosts and Once in a Blue Moon) that was cancelled.
Other projects done at the Feature Animation Florida included the Roger Rabbit short cartoons Tummy Trouble (1989), Rollercoaster Rabbit (1990) and Trail Mix-Up (1993); the shorts John Henry (2000), Off His Rockers (1992), and How to Haunt a House (1998) for Toon Disney featuring Goofy; a Manatee PSA (1992); and, in 1993, "The House Meets The Mouse Parts 1 and 2," a non-Disney project for Warner Bros. Television's Full House, which had an animated segment for "Joey's Caricature" and cameo by Mark Henn.