Talking With Walt's Frozen Headby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I got a chance on April 13 to see the student film, The Further Adventures of Walt's Frozen Head, with an appreciative audience and spend some time talking with writer and actor Ron Schneider who portrays Walt's frozen head.
Walt Disney was not cryogenically frozen but was cremated at Forest Lawn in Glendale on December 17, 1966. Rumors still persist that Walt was put into cryogenic suspension and buried somewhere underneath Disneyland, in particular under the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction since it was still under construction when he died.
Walt did not want people to see him in the hospital and so only the immediate family was allowed into his room to visit. Very few people, even those close to him, knew how really sick Walt actually was. When he entered St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank, everyone accepted the explanation that he was just going in for minor neck surgery from an injury caused by a polo accident that had plagued him for decades.
Walt's funeral was quietly held at the Little Church of the Flowers at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale at 5 p.m. on Friday, December 16, the day after his death. No funeral announcement was made until after it had taken place. Only a few immediate family members attended, but no friends or business associates or even his younger sister Ruth and older brother Raymond.
So, the situation that people were not fully aware how ill Walt was, never saw him in the hospital bed where he had lost significant weight, was pale and drawn and sometimes confused because of the medication nor attended his funeral to see him lying in state sparked the speculation that like other popular celebrities including Elvis Presley that he was not really dead.
In 1985, I asked animator Ward Kimball if he was the source for the rumor as I had been told since he was well known for his pranks. He replied, "When Disney fans ask me if it's true that Walt's body is kept frozen for future resurrection, I answer that question by pointing out that Walt was always intensely interested in things scientific and he, more than any person I knew, just might have been curious enough to agree to such an experiment."
Diane Disney Miller asserted in 1972: "There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics." Diane's children were often teased mercilessly at school about their grandfather being frozen.
Perhaps the most prominent book during Walt's lifetime, The Prospect of Immortality by Robert C.W. Ettinger, was published in 1964. However, even this book still discussed cryonics as merely theoretical although perhaps eventually possible and the concept is still regarded with much skepticism by mainstream medicine and scientists today.
Walt's death occurred at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, December 15, 1966. Walt lay in his hospital bed for a few hours while his family arrived and said their farewells. If Walt was to be put into cryonic suspension, it would have had to be done within minutes to properly preserve him. That did not happen.
In the years since Walt's death, people have been cryogenically frozen and in some cases, just their heads which is a concept that has been parodied on the animated series Futurama. No one has ever been brought back.
In 2002, Larry Pontius wrote a 444-page novel called Waking Walt. The premise was that Walt was indeed frozen and kept in a secret location but decades later was thawed out by his closest friends and associates with an experimental drug to help save his company that had fallen into a shambles and is in danger of a hostile takeover by a corporate raider.
Pontius became Walt Disney World's first Director of Marketing in 1974 to come from the "outside world" at the personal invitation of Jack Lindquist who was then vice president of Marketing for Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Pontius is generally remembered for his innovative campaigns in the mid-1970s for Space Mountain, River Country, Disney's Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, Epcot (including creating the advertising phrase "The 21 Century begins October 1, 1982.") and the first 1974 Halloween event at the Magic Kingdom. He ended up being promoted to director of Creative Concepts for Walt Disney Productions
He later worked for Disney in California and then left in late 1980 and moved on to other companies and teaching. He died at the age of 73 on June 3, 2013 in his home in Longwood, Florida. He never met Walt or worked with him but certainly talked with many people who did.
In his book, Walt is tossed into Florida where he has to hitchhike with a car of wild teenagers to get to Epcot and then finds he doesn't have enough money to get in. He is finally able to find a way in but is annoyed at the long lines, uncaring employees, prices and more but gets tears in his eyes when he sees the American Adventure presentation.
The corporate raider finds out about Walt's reanimation and decides that Walt should remain dead permanently because he will upset the raider's plans. Pontius peppers the story with not only facts about the Disney Company but some stories he obviously heard from old timers.
Overall, the story is a humorous mystery. While it could have used some judicious editing, some of the storytelling, dialogue and ideas make it worth reading as long as you keep in mind where reality ends and fiction begins.
Finally, let's talk about The Further Adventures of Walt's Frozen Head. It started as a joke. A University of Central Florida student was joking around at a party with some friends about outrageous film titles. When he went home and told his wife, she said he should make it.
That's how UCF film school grad Benjamin Lancaster came to produce, write and direct the student film and ended up spending four years making the 80-minute feature. Go watch the entire film on YouTube
Why is the entire film available for free for now? According to Lancaster, who posted it on the site in March: "We've had a lot of discussions and at the end of the day, we decided this is a film for the fans and we wanted to make it as easy for them to watch it as possible. Traditional distributors we talked to were worried about the film's content."
The film premiered at the Santa Cruz Film Festival October 4, 2018, and has been making the rounds of film festivals to general approval including the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival, Big Apple Florida Filmmakers' Showcase, Red Dirt Film Festival, South Carolina Underground Film Festival, and Colorado International SciFi & Fantasy Film Festival, among others.
The official synopsis for the film is "The Further Adventures of Walt's Frozen Head is a quirky comedy about the unlikely friendship between the frozen head of Walt and Peter, a Magic Kingdom Cast Member. During his yearly de-thaw to oversee the direction of his company and guard his creative legacy, Walt demands to be allowed up to see his final dream, Walt Disney World. When management scoffs, he recruits Peter to kidnap him for a day in the Magic Kingdom. "
That's just the bare bones. Basically, Peter who works in WDW merchandise is having problems with his wife and his estranged teenage daughter who wants to go to Prague for the summer on a student exchange program. Peter has moved into his parent's home and dreams of one day being the manager of the Main Street Emporium.
For his daughter Molly's upcoming 16th birthday, Peter wants to find a copy of the Mickey Mouse doll she lost when she visited the park when she was 8. His manager sends him to a stockroom in the utilidors underneath the park and he gets lost and finds himself on the previously unknown third level.
This is where Walt's frozen head is kept and is unfrozen once every year for just three days to get Walt's ideas and bring him up to date on what is going on. (Apparently, Walt doesn't care much for the Pixar films.) After 72 hours, it will be impossible for the head to be re-frozen.
Walt wants to go upstairs and visit his park that he hasn't seen since a rogue 20 years ago ("How do you think Paul Pressler got his job?") but the three executives who are briefing him tell him it is impossible. Once they leave, Peter stumbles into the room and Walt convinces him he will make Peter's fondest wish come true if he will take Walt upstairs.
Through a series of humorous misadventures (including Peter's parents not being surprised at all that Walt is just a head but puzzled how he still draws Mickey Mouse), Peter and his daughter take Walt to the park hidden in a knapsack with a mesh covering and put it in a stroller.
For Walt, it is an eye-opening experience and as the deadline nears for him being returned and re-frozen, Walt decides he doesn't want to be frozen anymore and just wants to watch the fireworks. Spoiler note: There is a satisfying happy ending for everyone…and I mean everyone including the Disney Company.
The movie was made without the knowledge or permission of the Walt Disney Company or family. It has not been authorized or approved by either and those organizations have no responsibility for its content.
Like the 2013 film Escape From Tomorrow (a horrible film on many different levels), this film was shot "guerilla filmmaking style" on Walt Disney World property without the knowledge or permission of the Most Magical Place on Earth that has strict rules about that sort of thing when it comes to "professional" productions. Lancaster claims he was able to get some wonderful cinematography that adds to the reality of the film by doing a ton of advance planning.
He told writer Seth Kubersky, "We shot on property for four days and every shot we had was logged into a 30-page document with the angle, the time, the order that we were getting it in, the contingency plans for different weather. We pulled up the park in Minecraft, where it's been thoroughly documented, in addition to the scouting trips, just so we knew exactly every square foot that we were shooting on."
They also did their best to avoid people they knew.
Cinematographer Amber Steele did an outstanding job, as did the person who did the compositing of Walt's head two years after the main footage was shot. By the way, they did not film in the actual utilidors. The Orlando Brewing Company and UCF Chilled Water Plant stood in for that location and I bet even some WDW cast members may not realize the doppelgangers.
It suffers from some of the same disadvantages of student films, including some pacing issues that make it seem longer than its actual running time, some amateur actors (some acting is terrific including Ron Schneider as Walt's head) and hints of a small budget obviously limited some of the location settings outside the park.
It also suffers from not having a strong antagonist to help create a sense of urgency. Perhaps intercutting scenes of Disney executives using the new security cameras they tout in the beginning to try and capture Peter and Walt.
However, it is a goodhearted and respectful attempt with some truly funny in-jokes for Disney fans, a strong narrative and is reminiscent of the Frank Capra "feel good" films, although Lancaster claims that he was inspired by the Tommy Kirk films made for Disney in the 1960s.
One of the things I liked about the film is that it got all its facts correct unlike other independent films like As Dreamers Do and Walt Before Mickey that were horrendous in terms of getting the facts right and the portrayal of Walt.
While I recommend seeing the film and feel you will enjoy it, especially if you are a Disney fan who knows a little history about Disney and Walt, the real reason to watch is the scene-stealing performance of Ron Schneider as Walt's Frozen Head.
He captures an authenticity of Walt not found in other film portrayals, as well as Walt's joy at life and people and his sense of mischievousness. People will immediately recognize his performance as being Walt.
I've known and liked Ron for years. I suggest you pick up a copy of his book, From Dreamer to Dreamfinder.
Born in Southern California in 1952, Ron is a natural performer with a sense of authority and skill. He was a puppeteer, ventriloquist, magician and actor, who was fascinated by Walt Disney and Disneyland and dreamed of one day performing at the park. He did end up becoming one of Wally Boag's understudies in the Golden Horseshoe Revue.
While best known to WDW audiences as originating the character of Dreamfinder with the puppet Figment in 1982, he continues to write, direct, consult, perform and more for many different companies, theme parks and themed restaurants.
I got the opportunity to talk with Ron about his work as Walt's frozen head and, as always, he was gracious and informative.
Jim Korkis: So, Ron, how did you get the role of Walt's frozen head?
Ron Schneider: They were doing the Florida premiere of the documentary of Leonard Kinsey's book, The Dark Side of Disney, on November 14, 2015, at the Gods & Monsters comic book store at Artegon Marketplace on International Drive.
I was in attendance, as was Ben Lancaster, who showed the trailer for The Further Adventures of Walt's Frozen Head. The entire film had been shot…except for Walt's head which was just a black area. They hadn't been able to find anyone to play that role. We met and talked.
I am usually up late at night and one night checking my e-mail at 3 a.m., I ran across one from Mickie Garcia, one of the producers on the film, asking if I would be interested in doing the role of Walt. I started laughing so loudly that it woke up my fiance who wanted to know what was going on. I said, "You are not going to believe this" and when I told her, we both kept laughing for two hours and she had to get up at five to go teach school.
They sent me a copy of the script and I loved it. It had a heart, a message. So I took some of Walt's lines in the script and stitched them together into one speech, laid down on my bed and held my camera above me and did my audition. I guessed they liked it because they told me I got the role.
JK: You know so much about Walt. Did you put in any special touches?
RS: As soon as I got the job, I told Ben, "you know there is a problem here. I am a writer." So I did doctor some Walt's lines and they had no objection. I didn't rewrite or advise on any of the rest of the film because it was already shot.
They didn't take all of my suggestions. I wanted a scene where some character was a smoker and put an ashtray down in front of Walt's head and the burning cigarette in it and then do a reaction shot of Walt trying to sniff the smoke and smiling blissfully. That didn't get shot.
JK: What was filming like?
RS: We did two days on a soundstage here in Orlando. I worked in front of a green screen. Ben explained where I should be looking on each line so it would match up with the footage that had been shot nearly two years earlier. In the film, when Walt falls, I actually fell for the filming. The person who did the final compositing did outstanding work.
I had my iconic beard so I shaved it the day before and as you can see have since grown it back. The makeup person they had was outstanding, even highlighting the wrinkles I already have.
JK: As an actor, did you go back and study Walt's introductions for his television show?
RS: I considered doing that but actually what I studied was the last speech Tom Hanks did to P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks. Hanks didn't look like Walt or sound like Walt but in that one speech, I felt he really captured the essence of Walt. I have been studying Walt since I was 8 or 10 years old. I have read so much about him.
JK: Well, you did play Dreamfinder, who is similar.
RS: When I first got that role and asked for direction on how to play him, Tony Baxter and Barry Braverman told me that he was Walt Disney. He was the Walt Disney that you saw every week on television. Someone who saw the good in people and life and saw creativity in everything and wondered at it. So that is what I based the character on and that Wizard of Oz voice that Chuck McCann used originally.
JK: As most people have told you, you did an outstanding job as Walt, really capturing his personality.
RS: Thank you so much. I think I look the most like him when I smile. By the way, for people who don't get the last joke, that is the head of Steve Jobs.
JK: Has there been any reaction from Disney?
RS: Nothing. To the best of my knowledge there has been no feedback from Disney.
JK: Disney often tries to ignore things like the film Escape From Tomorrow in the hopes that it will disappear. Would you do the role again?
RS: As a writer, I have come up with a prequel and a sequel. In the prequel, it is the story of the first time Walt gets unfrozen and realizes he has no body. In the sequel, he gets a robot body to walk around and do things.
JK: Judging by what I have seen, I would look forward to either one of those films.