Disney Design Insights From John Hench

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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I recently had dinner with Todd James Pierce, who was out here in Orlando over Memorial Day Weekend. It's always fun to spend time with someone passionate and knowledgeable about Disney history.

I highly recommend, and not just because he paid for dinner, his book about the early years of Disneyland, Three Years in Wonderland.

During part of our discussion, I vented that, over the decades, so many Disney documents have gone into private collections and were completely inaccessible to researchers even if someone knew that such an item even existed.

Over the years, I have been able to obtain some unique material and I have tried my best to share it with others, despite the fact that it would not repay the time, money and effort (sometimes leveraging favors or exchanging other treasures) that I had invested in order to obtain the items in the first place.

With prices soaring on things as the result of auctions, I see more and more things disappear into the black hole of exclusive collections and Disney history being a little poorer because there is no access to these treasures to help tell the whole story of Disney.

After Walt's death, the Disney Company hired writer Lawrence Watkin, who had supplied many screenplays for the Disney live-action movies in the 1950s, including Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Treasure Island, The Great Locomotive Chase (which he also produced) and several others to write an official biography of Walt Disney.

By the way, The Adventures of Spin and Marty that appeared in serial form on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show was adapted from Watkin's novel Marty Markham, so Watkins knew both Walt and the Disney Studios well enough to write an interesting story about both.

Watkin told friends that his Walt biography (running a little more than 200 pages) was "ill fated" because it was "too truthful," so the manuscript was never published. The Disney Company then contacted writer Bob Thomas.

Watkin interviewed the "usual suspects" like Ward Kimball, John Hench, and Marc Davis, and often got the same concise anecdotes that these Disney Legends packaged and trotted out to many interviewers (myself included) over the next three decades.

The Watkin family does have a copy of the final manuscript written by their father that they stumbled across when cleaning out their attic many years after his death. I have had a chance to read that manuscript, and some of the material in it (primarily the interviews), is probably not familiar to some Disney fans. I have to keep reminding myself that things that are common knowledge to me might be unknown to others.

It is hard for me to imagine that, I so casually took for granted being able to hear Hench talk about the philosophy behind Disney.

It is an experience that no one can have today so to help others learn from his insights, here is an excerpt from that long-hidden interview Watkin did with Hench where he discussed why Disneyland resonated with people:

"Part of it, I suppose, is Walt's exploitation of very old survival patterns. He had an instinct for this. I think that if anyone really wanted to take the time to examine it, he would see that these survival patterns are the basis of our aesthetics, our sense of pleasure.

"We've carried these things around for 20 million years, in our DNA chains or whatever it is. We are the successful survivors, so we must still carry these mechanisms with us. The things that please us are obviously the ones that boost our survival potential, and the ones that we don't like are those that threaten us.

"Mickey was so-called 'Lollipop Art' because he was made from circles. I'm oversimplifying it, but circles have never hurt anybody. They are women's breasts and clouds and other soft forms. Felix the Cat, on the other hand, was full of angles and sharp points and I really think this was the main difference between the two.

"It explains the success of Mickey, who just won't quit. Walt was a highly intuitive person and he sensed these things, and, as a result of this, the studio probably developed more awareness in this field than any other design group.

"A lot of designers allow contradictions into their work because they're careless or because they don't really understand what they are doing. These contradictions will cancel what they're trying to say.

"If someone wants to make an automobile that looks slick and powerful and he designs something that triggers a very old image of a dead whale on the beach, the customer won't buy it. Look at the Hudson. It was a perfectly good car but nobody would believe in it.

"I haven't really analyzed the Edsel, but again, it was an example of a company which was perfectly skilled at engineering and did a wonderful job of pre-selling the car but nobody would touch it.

"Walt had a high sensitivity, I think, for timing and the way ideas relate to each other and this, of course, came from the film work. This is what film is all about, connecting ideas so that they relate to each other.

"A motion picture is an act of communication. It consists of ideas—sometimes very complex ones—that you want people to understand, and you want them to understand them the way you intended them to, without wandering off on their own.

"So you want to keep the structure clean and simple. Live-action filming has to count on a lot of accidents, but, in a cartoon, we were responsible for everything on the screen and we could gradually eliminate the things that contradicted what we were trying to say. With the background we had, this was a very easy thing to apply to the third dimension.

"It's a concept of relating things in a non-competitive way. One of the worst things about, for instance, a World's Fair is that every facility is trying to out shout the others. This is quite a normal state of affairs. It's what happens in our cities.

"People are subject to pressure from the Russian pavilion, as opposed to the French as against the Italian, and it does make for a curious kind of mental fatigue. Also, you have to pick up ideas and then drop them completely as you go on to another exhibit.

"It's like over-recording on a tape, I guess. Eventually, you get very confused. Most people have this experience when they go to a World's Fair. They walk out absolutely exhausted and they can't remember very much of what they've seen. Most of the attractions have cancelled each other out, as they were probably designed to do.

"Disneyland is a much more pleasant experience because at least there's an attempt to relate one idea to the next. You don't have to drop one before you pick up another. They carry through.

"This again comes from the motion picture background. The division into related themes gives a sense of continuity. Then, of course, there are other things which I think may count on a lower level; the way, for example, colors are harmonized very carefully. It may not have an impact at a logical level, but I'm sure people respond to it, whether they're trained in this or not.

"I suppose that most producers, particularly as they get successful, begin to think that they are part of an elite group. They see themselves as arbiters of taste. They want to make changes.

"Walt never wanted to change anybody. He always figured that people were great just the way they were. He had an affection for them.

"We were always attempting things that would force people to move around somewhere or other and he would say, 'Look, if they have to walk through there, you pay them for it somehow.'

"He never developed that kind of contempt you sometimes find in people in the advertising and publicity business – the kind of people who think, 'Well, the hell with them, they don't know any better. It's good enough for them'. Walt never lost his respect for people. He identified with them and, for some reason or other, his identification was quite accurate."

We all felt sad when Disney Imagineer John Hench died February 5, 2004 at the age of 95, even though he had led a long and rich life filled with recognition. After all, he had worked for the Walt Disney Company for more than 60 years and contributed to many of the Disney Company's triumphs in both film and in the theme parks.

However, there is even a deeper sadness surrounding Hench's passing. He died just days before he was to sign the legal documents that would have kept his papers and artwork together as a resource collection for future researchers.

His longtime secretary, Sandy, would have overseen the collection. However, since the documents weren't signed, his collection went to relatives, who sold much of it to a dealer — and the work has now been scattered and some of it has already disappeared into private archives.

Hench was an articulate spokesman for the Disney philosophy and not all of his wisdom could be contained in his book Designing Disney.

In fact, at the time of his death, he was already working on a book sequel with Peggy Van Pelt to cover aspects untouched in his first book.

Hench was very generous with his time and I was able to attend a "brown bag" luncheon with several others early in 1995 where in an informal conversation setting, he shared some of his incredible insights.


Imagineer and Disney Legend John Hench worked for the Disney company for more than 60 years

In an attempt to preserve some of his thoughts, I transcribed my notes of that luncheon that I share here today so that a little more of his perspective can enlighten others and this wisdom won't disappear into the "black hole" of exclusive collections.

When we discussed that Disneyland was a theme park and not an amusement park because it tells stories, he was even more adamant that what made Disneyland different was that it was a "storyboarded environment." he proceeded to talk about how the park is told in scenes with cross-dissolves.

"Just like a film, everything is controlled for an audience. There are no contradictions. We did a slide show once where we took a picture of a Gothic tower that was at Franklin and Highland and right in front of it was this big gasoline sign. It is contradictory. They are unrelated.

"The emotional image of that beautiful Gothic tower is destroyed by that sign and quite frankly, the tower doesn't do the gasoline sign any good either. It certainly doesn't help sell gasoline. When there are contradictions, when there is chaos, we feel threatened.

"Guests don't feel threatened at Disneyland. Guests feel reassured that there is a plan, a sense of harmony.

"One of the interesting things about queues at Disney is that by walking back and forth and back and forth, there are many opportunities to catch the eyes of others. You can't do that in a big city. That would be asking for trouble.

"There was a guy who visited Disneyland so often, he was eventually given a Silver Pass. When he was asked why he was here so often, he responded, 'Because I can jaywalk and talk to strangers without fear.'

"The guests experience a kind of freedom. The images here add up to something less chaotic and less contradictory than the outside world. The park is a virtual reality of what's outside the berm.

"There is a greater sense of order. At a state fair or carnival, everything clamors for you, so you look and look and try to make sense out of all these chaotic images. You are forced into making a lot of judgments.

"At Disneyland, when it comes to a 'decision point,' we try to offer only two choices. We don't give seven or eight, so that you really have to work hard to decide which is the best of those choices.

"We only offer two and then, a little farther along, we give another two. They are still getting those seven or eight choices eventually, but we are unfolding them gradually in segments so it is less overwhelming.

"This low-level of consciousness which we exploit is the extraordinary invention of the (Disney) Studio. Other parks fail at details because they are built by people who don't understand images. Images override everything."

Was Main Street based after Marceline, Missouri?

"There probably isn't anything exactly from Walt's hometown in Main Street at Disneyland, but there is similar imagery. Disneyland's Main Street has a more theatrical look than a real street would. The Main Street at Walt Disney World is even more exaggerated. There's an optimism in Victorian architecture.

"That was what we were trying to capture. The memory of our feelings about Main Street. Like a dream. There's some nostalgia involved, but nostalgia for what? There was never a Main Street like this one. But it reminds you of some things about yourself that you may have forgotten. A sense of progress and optimism. Even with the variety in the buildings, there is a sense of a single theme, a harmony."

Isn't having a castle at the end of Main Street a contradiction?

"It is a secured point. It is a strong point. A castle doesn't belong on Main Street, but it does belong at the end of a vista like Main Street. The old cities clustered around a strong point whether it was a castle or a fort or whatever and then spread out from there. So our castle is the strong point but because it is so small it seems like a home as well. You know the expression, 'A man's home is his castle'? Well, our castle is Everyman's home so that is why it doesn't seem like a contradiction."

Did Walt Disney consciously understand these concepts?

"The 'hub concept' of Disneyland was all Walt's intuition. For Walt Disney World, the company wanted to do the guest flow right. They contracted a big mainframe computer to analyze all sorts of guest flow scenarios for 80 percent of the biggest season, even keeping in mind the square footage required for those little family conferences where guests try to figure out where to go next.

"The computer determined that it would be best to have an open area near the entrance and a straight length of pathway leading into the middle of the park, divided up into blocks. As the computer completed its suggestions, everyone realized that it was re-creating Disneyland. How did Walt come up with such a thing? It was pure intuition.

"Walt was really ahead of his time, for example, putting up sound stages before the company really needed them. When Walt unveiled his plans for Walt Disney World to government officials, he was afraid they wouldn't understand all of his innovative, ahead-of-its-time ideas, so he never revealed his whole plan to them."

It was suggested to him that not everything in Disneyland was reassuring, and it was pointed out that the Space Mountain attraction that he had worked on was a pretty frightening experience for some guests, so much so that just the fear of what they had heard about it made some guests avoid the attraction.

"The first Space Mountain version had sections where the guests experienced zero Gs and people would lose everything in their pockets, so it had to be changed. We had great insights when we watched the first carload of guests get off of the ride and a lady came off kissing the carpet!

"From the RCA Lounge, we were watching on video monitors of guests on the exit ramp and two ladies were just moving along and then broke out in spontaneous laughter and recognition. 'I am not dead! I'm not as old as I thought! Hey, I can do that!' They felt good about themselves. They enjoyed the secret satisfaction that they weren't dead!

"Audiences respond to our animated movies because they are about survival. People respond to them. Survival is the basis for all games. There is a power of theater in it. Maybe why we have no resistance to entertainment is because it teaches us about survival.

"At the park, we toss a pseudo-menace at you and we allow you to win. You might feel you are going too fast for safety but it really is safe and eventually, you win and you feel good about winning. They are feeling things, maybe something they haven't felt in years because they've been doing humdrum kind of things where they haven't felt those feelings."

What do you think of Oswald the Rabbit?

"I never thought the rabbit was worth very much."

What was his favorite project?

"My favorite is always the last thing I worked on."

What was one thing about how Walt Disney that most people don't know?

"One of the things Walt liked to do to see the real nature of people he didn't know was to put on a 'stupid' act. Many people lost opportunities with Walt because they tried to take advantage of this 'stupid' man."

Since Disneyland is about storytelling, what is the primary story message of Disneyland?

"There is nothing to fear."