Touring the Walt Disney Studios in Burbankby Todd Pickering, contributing writer
There are so many wonderful things to do in Southern California, and touring movie studios are on many people's lists. Universal Studios has a theme park attached to their studio and Warner Brother's has an open tour, but if you want to check out the Disney Studios you have to be a Gold member of the fan club D23. They offer tours three or four times a year, but space of course is limited. D23 has a magazine, events held all over the country, and the big convention every other year (coming next summer in 2019) at the Anaheim Convention Center. To join D23 just click here and click the "JoinD23" button in the upper right hand corner of the D23 page. To see Walt's office just as he left it is a holy grail for any Disney fan. We here at MousePlanet were invited to the Walt Disney Studios for a D23 event and had the pleasure to take a tour of the studios. As much as you may enjoy all of these photographs, to be present on the lot and walk in Walt's footsteps gives one such a full appreciation of the history of Disney and its creative legacy.
Our tour started in the Frank G. Wells building, which was named after the president of the Walt Disney Company from 1984-1994. He died in a helicopter crash in 1994. Mr. Wells was an avid mountain climber and Disneyland fans might remember the Wells expedition in the Matterhorn with snow shoes and snowmobiles as a tribute to him. He also has a window on Main Street U.S.A. This building opened in 1998, and the outside details are terrific.
This building hosts one of the three remaining multiplane cameras that was first used to make the Silly Symphony film The Old Mill. The first feature length film the studios created using the multiplane was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The last film to use this device was The Little Mermaid. There are only two other cameras: one up in The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and the other in Disneyland Paris. It is a formidable piece of equipment, and truly exciting to think of all of the amazing movies made with it including Fantasia, Pinocchio, and the last film that Walt personally oversaw, The Jungle Book.
The Disney Archives are also housed in the Frank G. Wells building (and there are some warehouses for the bigger pieces). The archives of course are always changing, so you will see different things each time you take a tour. We were treated to the original working script of Steamboat Willie complete with Walt's famous style of story boarding. Walt Disney invented this technique to move and re-arrange scenes from the board by putting them on smaller cards enabling him and his team to edit on the spot.
This method was very handy for working on animated films, and but proved so efficient that live action directors picked it up; it is still used in filmmaking today. Also on hand was the first Mickey Mouse merchandise ever made available, which was a children's notebook. Of course these items are priceless and the archivists wear white gloves when handling such delicate treasures. They are still digging things out of boxes even to this day. Also in the corner were the leftovers of a Tomorrowland display. There was so much to see that you could have spent hours in this one room alone.
The studios were built in the year 1940 with the profits from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The studio was relocated from Hyperion Avenue in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles to lovely Burbank. The most striking thing about the studios are how beautifully the architecture blends in with the landscaping and the lovely tree-lined lanes. The key was natural light so the animators could do their best work. The red bricks framing the doorways with Art Deco silver letters make the entrances streamlined and clear. The buildings are painted a lovely cream color with jade green trim blending harmoniously with the natural greenery of the trees and grass. Strolling around the property one gets the sense of working at the studios as being a very convivial experience. The motion picture Finding Mr. Banks with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as the creator of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers was filmed on location as very little has changed since the days the real people graced the grounds.
The water tower is an imposing structure; Roy Disney made sure to spend some extra money to add six legs so as to make it very sturdy. Having a water source on property was a big deal back in the 1940s, and when your business is animated films a fire could spell disaster. In fact they even built a tunnel so precious drawings and cels could be transported between buildings if it was raining or windy (no photos allowed in the tunnel but suffice to say... it was a tunnel).
Just down the lane from the water tower are the sound stages. Number one has been dedicated to one of the original Mouseketeers, Annette Funicello (The Mickey Mouse Club was filmed on the lot), and number two has been honored by Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews. There is also a screening room on the lot and the Animation Building has the most amazing collection of drawings, sketches, and posters from animated features—unfortunately that is off limits to the cameras. Since this is a working studio we had to walk quietly and didn't have much time. Your head gets dizzy looking from left to right trying to drink in all of the amazing art work in one hallway.
The highlight of the trip of course is seeing Walt's office. It has lovingly been restored to exactly as he left it when he locked the door for the last time in 1966. Photographs were meticulously taken so that every leaning book in his bookcase, every item on his desk, and even things that seemed out of place were left exactly where Walt had them. The secretary's office was not perfectly restored. Now it has a case with awards topped with a replica of his honorary Oscar for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—one normal sized Oscar and seven little Oscars. The original is up at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco; this reproduction made for the film Finding Mr. Banks.
The first office you walk into is Walt's formal office. If you were to have a meeting with Mr. Disney you would come here. There are loads of books on the opposite wall, a comfy couch, and an amazing piano where the Sherman Brothers would play new songs for him. This piano had some elements added to it to make it blend with the streamlined architecture. Also you can see photographs and drawings of his daughters Diane and Sharon behind the desk. There is also the famous mechanical bird in a cage that he brought back from Europe that was the inspiration for the Tiki Room.
Following the formal office is the working office, which is a bit more cluttered and of course full of copious scripts. There is an amazing giant photograph of Disneyland with notes about the three exhibits that opened from the New York World's Fair: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, The Primeval World, and "it's a small world." There is also a prominent picture of one of his favorite actors and friend Ed Wynn who voiced the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland and played Uncle Arthur in Mary Poppins. There is a kitchen for when they were working hard so lunch could be catered. The glassware has WED etched in it for Walter Elias Disney.
The long and narrow hallway outside the office wasn't restored to its original use. It originally housed Walt's wardrobe so he could change for dinner or an event if he had one that night. Then he had one more room, which was his private lounge. It had a shower, a couch, and a bar so he could unwind after a long day. This has been re-purposed into an art room with Disney artists' drawings of the man himself. There is one existing photograph of the couch in the room to give you an idea of what it was like in Walt's time.
To be in those rooms, thinking about all of the discussions about feature films, the history of the World War II era, and the arguments with P.L. Travers about her Mary Poppins just staggers the mind. The way that they lovingly re-created it can be seen in all of the people that make this tour possible. It is like being in a museum but also being in a frozen era and even if you weren't a huge Disney fan the history and importance of these rooms cannot be denied.
The last part of the tour brings us around to the newest building, which was formerly known as the Team Disney Burbank building. Today it is officially called The Michael D. Eisner Building. It was completed in 1990, and was designed by famed architect Michael Graves. This is where CEO Robert Iger has his office along with other top executives. Of course what is most striking are the Seven Dwarfs themselves holding up the roof of the building. After all it was the success of this motion picture that built this new Disney Studio Lot., and only fitting that they be honored. In front of this building are hand prints honoring many Disney stars including Fred McMurray, Julie Andrews, the cast of The Golden Girls, the Sherman Brothers, and many animators such as Marc Davis and Ward Kimball to name just a few.
f you ever get a chance to tour this amazing studio you will not be disappointed. A big shout out to our wonderful tour guide Jeffrey Epstein who was really fun and engaging but most of all you could tell how much he cared about history and preserving the legacy that has made so many people happy, and inspired millions.