Sam McKim

by Sheila Hagen, staff writer

At the age of 79, veteran Disney artist Sam McKim passed away on Friday, July 9, 2004 from heart failure at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. He leaves behind a legacy of artistic contributions that influenced the design of Disneyland.

Sam McKim, speaking at a Ryman-Carroll Foundation Special Tribute Event held at Disneyland several years ago. MousePlanet file photo by Sue Kruse.

A talented illustrator, McKim created many of the sketches used in the original design of Disneyland, including Main Street and Frontierland. He also worked on Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Haunted Mansion. His most enduring and perhaps most beloved contribution was the creation of the initial Disneyland park maps, which grace many a Disneyana fan's collection.

McKim's map of Disneyland from the recent book, The Disney Treasures. Photo courtesy of Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

On McKim's talent, former Imagineer George McGinnis and MousePlanet contributing writer recounts:

“Sam McKim's paintings thrilled me long before I came to Disney. Especially the work he did for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. When I arrived at Disney, Sam was one of the first to greet me and his friendship helped me feel at home in this very creative atmosphere.

“Just out of art school at the time, I looked to Sam's night school classes at the Art Center College of Design, to loosen up my painting and sketching. His “setups” for this illustration class were wonderfully detailed. This proved to be a most valuable class for me and other designers.

“Sam's creations at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and other parks are many. Frontierland comes to mind as one of his major contributions. It was an honor to know Sam McKim, a man of very high character. I will have his wonderful family in mind this week.”

McKim was born in Vancouver, Canada on December 20, 1924. In 1935, the McKim family moved to Los Angeles, California after briefly living in Seattle, Washington. McKim's maternal grandfather took McKim along to a movie studio one day in order to visit with a local relative. While there, a casting director spotted young McKim and immediately helped him get started in the movies.

McKim's first job was as an extra in a movie featuring the then-child star Jane Withers. After that, McKim, along with his four brothers and sisters, worked steadily as a child actor during the 1920s and 1930s.

McKim did mostly bit parts at many of the studios in the beginning, graduating to featured roles in movies such as the Western The Painted Stallion in 1937.

Image courtesy of VCI Entertainment.

Soon after, Republic Studios signed McKim to a five-year contract at $50 a week, plus a $25 raise every six months. During the Depression, this income (along with money from his brothers and sisters) helped to pay the McKim family bills.

At one point, Republic planned to star McKim in his own series of Western films, informing him that he would continue to make the same salary (with no raise) because the studio was supposedly not doing well. McKim's grandfather, who acted as the McKim children's agent, bluntly refused. Republic then dropped the series, and McKim went back to his usual co-starring roles there.

In 1943, McKim was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he did a tour of duty in the Philippines, followed by occupation duty in Japan after the close of World War II. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, McKim obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Los Angeles Art Center, as he had loved to draw since childhood.

Finding he had a real talent for art, McKim decided to pursue a career in it. Leaving his life as an actor behind, he even turned down an opportunity to be in a John Ford film, The Long Gray Line, in order to do so.

After a few months working at the art department at the Fox studios, McKim was laid off and a friend suggested McKim take his portfolio to the Disney studios as the studio was hiring artists to work on a new theme park in Anaheim. McKim was immediately hired and began a 32-year career with Disney, 12 of those working closely with Walt Disney himself.

McKim drew many of the sketches used in the creation of Main Street, Frontierland, and Tom Sawyer's Island, including the Golden Horseshoe Saloon, the Indian Village, Pendleton Mills, the Shooting Gallery and the tree house on Tom Sawyer's Island. He also created sketches for the Fred Gurley, the third train added to the Disneyland Railroad in 1958.

In 1957, McKim drew the concept art for the Haunted Mansion (which appeared dilapidated and rundown), giving rise to the famous story of Walt Disney refusing to allow a rundown building in his park, stating, “We'll take care of the outside and the ghosts can take care of the inside.”

One of McKim's next assignments was to prepare the initial sketches for the upcoming Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction for the 1964 World's Fair, along with sketches for “it's a small world” and the Magic Skyways. McKim eventually contributed artwork for every land at Disneyland, most notably the Monorail and the Carousel of Progress in addition to previously-mentioned attractions.

McKim was also tasked with creating the souvenir maps of Disneyland, which he did starting in 1958 with the first in the series, and continuing through 1964.

In addition to Disneyland, McKim worked on artwork for Walt Disney World's Hall of Presidents, the Universe of Energy pavilion, Maelstrom, and the Disney-MGM Studios theme park. He also worked on Disney television shows and live action films, with credits including Nikki, Wild Dog of the North, Zorro, Johnny Tremain, The Shaggy Dog and art stylizations for The Gnome-Mobile.

In 1992, McKim was called out of retirement to create another large souvenir map of Disneyland Paris. In 1996, McKim was honored as a Disney Legend.

McKim's work can still be seen at Walt Disney World in the American Adventure attraction in Epcot (“Family Thanksgiving”) and in the design of the buildings on Main Street and Frontierland at Disneyland Park in California, plus his popular lithograph of the Haunted Mansion, available at the Disneyland Gallery in New Orleans Square.

Lithograph of the Haunted Mansion, by Sam McKim

A dedicated family man, McKim married longtime sweetheart, Dorothy, and raised two sons, Matt and Brian, who both also became Disney artists. Matt McKim worked at Walt Disney Imagineering, working extensively on Disneyland Paris projects, while Brian recently contributed drawings of Sam McKim along with other Disney greats for the book, The Disneyland Detectives by Kendra Trahan. At the time of Sam McKim's death, he and Dorothy had been married for 49 years. Funeral and memorial service arrangements are pending; donations are requested in his name to be made to the American Heart Association.

Disney Press Release

Jul 13, 2004 16:03 ET

Legendary Disney Imagineer Sam McKim Dies at Age 79; Acclaimed Artist Influenced Disney Theme Parks With His Sketches and Drew First Disneyland Souvenir Maps

BURBANK, Calif., July 13 /PRNewswire/ — Sam McKim, the legendary Disney Imagineer who drew the first souvenir maps of Disneyland in 1954 and went on to a spectacular 32-year career with Disney lending his artistic vision to many popular theme park locations and attractions, died of heart failure on Friday July 9th at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. He was 79 years old. In addition to his Disney career, McKim started out as a child actor who appeared in films with John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Rita Hayworth and Gene Autry.

Commenting on McKim's passing, Marty Sklar, vice-chairman and principal creative executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, said, “Sam's early sketches for Disneyland's Main Street and Frontierland are inspirational to Imagineers — among the very best ever drawn for Walt Disney theme park attractions. He was the quintessential researcher; you always knew he would dig out the real gems for our stories, especially for historical subjects. He had incredible talent and was as fine a gentleman as you would ever want to know.”

McKim joined WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) as an illustrator in 1954, six months before the opening of Disneyland. His initial assignments included sketches for attractions, shops, and restaurants for Main Street and Frontierland, including the Golden Horseshoe Revue. His early work as a Disney artist also touched several of the Studio's films, including “Zorro,” “Johnny Tremain,” “The Shaggy Dog,” “The Gnome-Mobile,” and “Nikki, Wild Dog of the North.” He went on to play a key role at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, for which he contributed sketches for all four Disney attractions (“Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” “It's a Small World,” “Carousel of Progress,” and “Magic Skyway.”) His paintings also helped introduce the public to the “Haunted Mansion” and the Monorail at Disneyland, and the “Hall of Presidents” at the Magic Kingdom. Later, his artwork contributed to the story development of Epcot pavilions, including the Universe of Energy, and the Disney-MGM Studios, including “The Great Movie Ride.”

John Hench, the late great Disney Imagineer who passed away earlier this year, once observed of McKim, “Sam was the greatest to work with. He loved Disney, and his enthusiasm was always contagious. Once he got involved in anything, no matter how problematic, you always knew everything was going to be okay. If I ever needed to hear the truth about something, I always went to Sam.”

Born in Canada on December 20, 1924, McKim came to Los Angeles as a young boy and became a child actor, working with many of the top stars of the day. In fact, he didn't get the first Disney position he wanted, after auditioning for the voice of Pinocchio in the 1930s. After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, McKim enrolled in Art Center College of Design. The day after he graduated, he was called back to the Army to serve in Korea, where he earned several medals and honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross and the Bronze Star. Upon returning to the States, he took acting roles as well as advanced art classes at the Chouinard Art Institute.

McKim recalled, “John Ford offered me a supporting lead in 'The Long Gray Line' with Tyrone Power, Maureen O'Hara and Ward Bond. Would you believe I turned it down to become an artist? I started at 20th Century Fox, then moved to Disney for a temp job, and didn't leave until I retired 32 years later.”

As one of a select group of Disney theme park cartographers, McKim's “fun maps” charted the layouts of Disneyland (several editions), the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Tom Sawyer Island,” and Disneyland Paris.

Following his retirement from Imagineering in 1987, McKim remained connected with WDI and Disney. In addition to appearances at Disney fan events and consulting work, his two sons both worked for Disney — Matt for Imagineering, and Brian for Feature Animation. He also continued to be active in the arts. His work can be found in the U.S. Air Force and L.A. County Sheriff Department Collections, as well as in private collections.

McKim is survived by his wife, Dorothy; son Matt; son Brian and his wife, Dorothy, and their two children, Tyler and Natalie. A graveside service will take place this Friday (7/16) at 2:30 at Pierce Brothers Valhalla (10621 Victory Boulevard) in North Hollywood. A memorial service will follow at 4:30 at First Christian Church of North Hollywood (4390 Colfax Ave.) in Studio City. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in McKim's name to the American Heart Association (Gift Processing Dept., 1710 Gilbreth Road, Burlingame, CA 94010 or online at