Walt Disney World's Maelstrom, Part 1

by Paul Torrigino, contributing writer

Paul Torrigino's stories last fall about the never-built Dragon Tower attraction (read part 1 | part 2) were very well received and prompted many questions about his work on the Maelstrom attraction at Epcot's Norway pavilion. Paul returns with a multi-part series about his experiences with the Maelstrom. — Mark Goldhaber

Joining the team

I owe my involvement in the Norway project to Bob Kurzweil, a great guy who was a designer at Imagineering for some years back then. Bob was the designer of the Disneyland Alice in Wonderland attraction (the last ride built for New Fantasyland) in the early '80s, and he was the art director of the production of all the sets and figures for Alice at Imagineering's Tujunga production facility.

I had worked on all the other Fantasyland rides up until then, doing figure finishing and some black light scenic painting. Gosh, you know I spent a couple of years working in the black light rooms and I got really good at it.

So Bob really liked my work and we got on very well. He had a great sense of humor. I did a lot of the figure painting on that show, and also sculpted some props and some small figures. All the big figures for Alice were sculpted by Blaine Gibson, Peter Kermode, and Adolpho over in the sculpture shop, but we sculpted most of the props and some of the smaller things over at Tujunga.

I remember in particular sculpting a small hedgehog figure, the small hedgehog that the queen is about to hit with the flamingo croquet mallet. The hedgehog had this funny scared expression looking up at the queen and the figure came out really nice. Bob liked the job I did on it so I guess he remembered me after the project ended.

Paul still has this sketch of a hedgehog in his scrapbook. It was drawn for the Alice in Wonderland attraction at Disneyland. Image courtesy of Paul Torrigino.

After Alice finished, I stayed over at Tujunga and spent a year or so working with my good friend Helena Hutchinson on various little figure-finishing projects, including the Country Bear Band Christmas show make-over. We did the costumes for it. I learned how to sew real well on that one. All that fake fur!

Out of the blue one day I got a call from my boss at the time, Michael Morris, asking me to move back over to the model shop in Glendale to make some models for the new Norway project. Bob Kurzweil had asked for me.

The troll ride

Bob was the designer of the project, and Randy Carter was the producer. Bob and Randy did most of the negotiations with the Norwegian sponsors, along with Marty Sklar and the late Randy Bright (who were the top creative executives at Imagineering).

Paul and Helena Hutchinson work on new costumes for the Country Bears Christmas Show. Photo courtesy of Paul Torrigino.

Between the four of them, I think, they came up with the initial idea of having it be a boat ride, and the idea of having the boat turn around and go backwards. That idea was in the concept from the beginning, because they wanted the ride to have something unique about it that hadn't been done before. They worked this out with Dave Van Wyk, who was the head ride engineer of the project. Everybody thought it was a great idea and it was a great hook for the sponsors to get excited about.

Joe Rohde did all the early conceptual illustrations and I made the models. Bob mostly would come down to the model shop and work with us. Bob wasn't really a hands-on guy; mostly he would come up with the concepts and layouts, but wouldn't do illustrations or anything. He had the neatest office I would ever seen—sparse, with everything neat as a pin and nothing out of place—and normally he would have one piece of blank paper with a pencil next to it centered on the blank desk. And those were the days before computers. He was very well-organized. I've always been a slob—with piles of stuff all over my desk—so I was always very impressed on how neat he was.

Very early on, Bob had the whole ride designed with a Norwegian troll story. It was going to be a fun fantasy type ride all about the Norwegian troll legends that are very popular in that country. I remember doing some really rough little layout models—nothing too detailed—just quick studies out of foam core.

Bob and Randy were talking about getting the Sherman brothers to write a song for it, and one day they got them to come in for a meeting at the model. I was really excited to meet them and we explained the ride concept to them. They were very interested and were ready to go off and write a song.

Back to the drawing board

In the next few days after the Sherman brothers' meeting, Bob and Randy met with the Norwegian sponsors, who flew in from Norway (they were the heads of some big Norwegian corporations). The sponsors liked the boat ride concept but they made it clear that they were not interested in a troll ride representing their country. They wanted more of a travelogue showing all the different things that make Norway unique.

Bob and Randy came out of the meeting with a whole list of things that the sponsors specifically wanted to see in the ride; Vikings, a fishing village, polar bears, a fjord, an oil rig, and yes, maybe a troll or two. So they let the Sherman brothers know right away that the concept had changed, and as it turned out they never hired them back after that. Too bad.

This early load model for the attraction has a more atmospheric backdrop than the mural that was eventually created. Photo courtesy of Paul Torrigino.

So Bob, Randy, Joe and I met and went over the list from the meeting, and we were all scratching our heads. How the heck were we going to incorporate all this stuff into a story for the ride that made any kind of sense?! I think Bob came up with the time travel idea right away, and then everything kind of fell into place, sort of. We planned it out with a Viking scene first and then went right into the troll mythology. Then magically somehow the guests would get transported to the present day with the sea theme kind of tying it all together. Kind of a mishmash, but it served our purposes. We were really grasping at straws trying to fit everything in.

Our research was mainly from books and magazines. I had every book about Norway I could find right there at hand on my desk. Our research library had some good information, and we had some books the Norwegian sponsors gave us.

Soon after we got into the real design of it, the Norwegian sponsors offered to send some of the project team off to Norway for the grand research tour of the country—all the major museums, a helicopter flight to an oil rig, a trip to a reindeer farm and more. I was hoping to get to go along, but the word came down from Marty that model makers normally didn't go on research trips and he didn't want to start a precedent by sending me, so I didn't get to go. I was pretty sad that I didn't get to go, especially because I was the one that was actually doing the design work! But the few that went brought back lots of brochures and books for me to use as research.

Modeling the attraction

Paul stands with a model of the fishing village holding area in 1987. Photo courtesy of Paul Torrigino.

After the initial concept was approved, we started designing it for real. The way we would work is that Bob would come down from his office with a CAD (computer-assisted design) drawing of how he wanted the ride track to go through, with rough dimensions of the building layout. He would then tell me what his idea for the scene was, and I would block it out in dimension in half-inch scale. I just built the model the way I thought it should look. He would come down again after I got something built and then critique it. He liked most everything. Most of his critiques were on really little minor details. For example, he would say something like, “The top of this rock looks funny to me. Move it over an inch to the right,” and like that. I would build each little scene and finish it off real nice with paint and everything.

All the sections of the model were built on platforms so that you could see them at eye level. When we got a scene to where we liked it, we would review it with Marty and Randy Bright for a “buy-off”—meaning they would give it final approval and it could be drawn up. So I would set up each finished section of the model in a curtained off area where we could control the lighting and we would light them with mini-mole spotlights with colored gels in them or black lights depending on the scene.

After the model was approved by them, the show set department would come down and tear each section of it apart to measure it and draw it up to make the set of construction plans. The show set effort was headed up by Maureen Sullivan. Maureen worked on tons of projects for years and finally retired a few years ago. She was great to work with—a real professional—and later, I was able to work with her again on other projects over the years.

Coming next week

In the next part of the story, Paul discusses more of the design process and the construction of parts of the attraction at Imagineering in California.

About Paul Torrigino

Designer Paul Torrigino was a great Disney fan in his high school and college years and in 1980 he interviewed and was hired for a position at Imagineering's model shop by creative manager Maggie Elliot. In his portfolio he showed pictures of his home made models of the Haunted Mansion, Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse and Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Paul also had worked with theatrical production, film-making and art in college and had been working in architectural model shops in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Over the next 21 years as a versatile Imagineer, he held a variety of other titles including Production Artisan, Production Designer, Art Director, Concept Designer and Show Designer and worked on most of the large Imagineering projects.

After making models for EPCOT Paul transferred into Imagineering's show production department. There he worked on audio-animatronic figure finishing, scenic painting and props and sets for about 5 years. The projects included EPCOT, Disneyland New Fantasyland, Tokyo Disneyland and a variety of other smaller projects like the Country Bear Holiday show. He was relocated to Tokyo for a short while to do on-site figure finishing for Tokyo Disneyland before the park opened and worked on the figures for the Fantasyland dark rides, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise, Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and other attractions.

In 1986 he was asked to be the production designer of the new ride for the Norway Pavilion for EPCOT World Showcase. Paul relocated to Orlando to art direct the installation of the attraction.

1988 Paul returned to the Imagineering model shop and began working on models for Paris Disneyland and did quite a bit of black light painting on the show models of the Fantasyland rides. Soon after, he was asked to art direct the production of all the audio-animatronic figures for the park, and relocated to Orlando for two and a half years to oversee the production of the figures at Disneyworld Central Shops. Work included art directing all phases of the production of the figures for Phantom Manor, "it's a small world," Pirates of the Caribbean and the Fantasyland attractions Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland Hedge Maze, King Arthur's Carrousel and other smaller attractions. Work continued on the project when Paul relocated to Paris for a year and a half for the installation and also to oversee the hiring and training of the French animatronic figure maintenance crew.

After returning to California in 1992, Paul was asked to work on the new Animal Kingdom project. Paul worked for two years on concepts for the fabled “Beastlie Kingdomme” project that eventually was cancelled. Continuing on with Animal Kingdom, he designed the Countdown to Extinction attraction (name changed to Dinosaur later} and again relocated to Orlando for the installation.

In 1998 Paul was asked to help art direct various parts of the huge Tokyo Disney Sea project including aspects of Mysterious Island and the Explorers Landing Fortress and art directed much of the California production of the various show pieces.

When the Tokyo Disney Sea project ended Paul worked on a variety of smaller projects including art directing aspects of animatronic projects like the new Lincoln at Disneyland, the George Bush figure for the Hall of Presidents and the figures for the Tokyo Disneyland Winnie the Pooh attraction. Paul was working on new ideas for attractions, as well as some new secret animatronic development projects when he was laid-off under the direction of Paul Pressler a month after 9/11 happened in 2001.

Since leaving Disney, Paul has moved to Sacramento, California and has created an online custom tiki bar sign business called Pariarts, which he runs with his partner, ex-theme park designer Richard Gutierrez (visit Pariarts here to to enjoy—and purchase—some of Paul's incredible handiwork!).

Paul says, “I really love our little home business and laid back lifestyle now. We have a great studio workshop and we always have a ton of little art projects going. After Disney laid me off, I've had no desire to return to the theme park industry. I got to work on some of the most amazing projects Disney ever did, and I'm very satisfied with the career I had.”