Bright as a Disney Penny

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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With Disneyland's 50th birthday celebration drawing to a close, I am happy that the celebration resulted in so many wonderful books devoted to Disneyland appearing—just as I am equally disappointed that the Magic Kingdom's 35th anniversary this year and Epcot's upcoming 25th have not produced even one book to match the ones published about Disneyland.

So much of the early history of Walt Disney World has never been recorded and so much of it has been lost. I suspect more is known about Disneyland from 50 years ago than is known about its much younger sibling in Florida.

Disneyland Then, Now and Forever by Bruce Gordon and Tim O'Day and Behind the Magic: 50 Years of Disneyland by Karal Ann Marling are two of my favorite books that have recently appeared. However, those books and many articles about early Disneyland owe a great deal to a long out-of-print book published in 1987 entitled Disneyland Inside Story by Randy Bright.

Imagineer Randy Bright, who was made a Disney Legend last year, spent two years researching, developing, and writing the book. Even two decades later, it is considered one of the best-written and most accurate accounts of early Disneyland, and is on the research shelf of every Disney historian I know.

Bright also used that research as coordinating producer on one of my favorite specials devoted to Disneyland, The Disneyland Story. The hour-long special ran on the Disney Channel in 1990 and featured host Harry Anderson boarding the Disneyland Railroad for a trip through time chronicling the creation and development of Disneyland.

Despite his being made belatedly a Disney Legend, I doubt many Disney fans know much about this fascinating man and his contributions to the Disney theme parks.

In 1990, fellow Imagineer Pat Scanlon wrote, "Randy was unpretentious and sometimes the master of understatement about himself. I remember him telling me a number of years ago that he didn't know much about managing and management politics. He was just a producer… just a producer. Well, he was 'just a producer' of 13 Disney rides; 12 theater shows; 17 films, including 7 in Circle Vision 360; 12 pre- and post-shows for attractions; 11 multimedia productions; 65 video units; 26 film units, and every recorded and live script in Disneyland, Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom.

"The summer of 1959 was a very special one for me," Randy Bright recalled in 1987, "As a college undergraduate, I had enlisted in the Navy—the Disneyland Navy—and was scheduled for active duty aboard the Sailing Ship Columbia, the newest vessel to ply Frontierland's Rivers of America."

Bright took the Disneyland job to help pay college expenses but subsequently worked on nearly every attraction in the park, even roaming Tomorrowland as Disneyland's costumed spaceman.

Born in Long Beach, California in 1938, Randy attended California State University, Fullerton, earning a B.A. in Political Science. While working at Disneyland, Randy met his wife, Pat, who was then working as a Disneyland tour guide.

In 1965, Randy moved into a full-time position with Disneyland's Disney University, where he specialized in publications and audio-visual presentations. In March 1968, Randy went to Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) as a staff writer, working on shows for Disneyland and the then-developing Walt Disney World. From 1973 to 1976, he was Manager of Employee Communications at the Florida Disney University, after which he returned to California to lead the WDI Communications department.

As manager of Concepts and Communications, he also produced marketing films for the Epcot project, then in the conceptual stage. Beginning in 1979, Randy served as Director of Scripts and Show Development, where he functioned as Executive Producer of film projects for Epcot, Tokyo Disneyland, and other Disney theme park projects. In addition, he served as writer and show producer for The American Adventure in World Showcase at Epcot.

Many outstanding people tried to come up with the right concept for The American Adventure and were stumped at how to encompass the entire story of the United States in a 20-minute attraction. One attempt was a boat ride through musical images of American folklore featuring characters like Paul Bunyan and John Henry singing "This Land Is Your Land." After two failed attempts by two different high-powered teams (one by a well-known Hollywood producer), the project was given to Bright.

He threw himself into in-depth research and surrounded himself with in-house designers, model-makers, engineers and special effects experts. One of the first things Bright did was write, with Bob Moline, a song to encompass the feeling he wanted to convey in the attraction. That song, "Golden Dream," was the inspiration for the show as it was finally written and it is still used today in the concluding, emotional photo montage.

"Although our show is about America, taken with as much authenticity as could be researched, that's not to say it is American history," Bright told cast members when the attraction first opened, "It represents some of the great moments, and highlights some of the great doers; it's a look at the 'little people' and their contributions to a rapidly developing country, as well as some of the great achievers in history. It's a 100-yard dash capturing the spirit of the country at specific moments in time."

Bright originally intended that there be three hosts in the attraction: Benjamin Franklin to represent the 18th Century, Mark Twain the 19th and Will Rogers the 20th—but survey trips to colleges found that few college students knew who Will Rogers was. (At one point, Walter Cronkite was considered as the spokesman for the 20th Century.)

"It became apparent that we were still too close to the 20th century events to decide who could best speak for us. Perhaps 100 years from now, someone from this century will be recognized as the Ben Franklin of our time," said Bright.

"What our show says is that the American Adventure will always be a struggle, but if we can apply ourselves in positive ways and deal with reality, we can move forward to a better future. The American Adventure focuses on the drama of individual endeavor. It tells us to get involved, to do something. It goes through the full range of human emotions from the light-hearted gurgle of the gas pump in the Depression scene, to the emotional trauma of what the Civil War did to many families. Even our foreign visitors unfamiliar with American history will participate through the eyes of Americans. We're left with a realization that we've been through a lot, but are better for it," emphasized Bright.

By writing from his heart, Bright created an attraction that still entertains and touches emotions nearly a quarter of a century after it opened.

"Randy knew he was a good writer. He never made a big deal about it, though. Writing was what he did—it was his contribution to the team. But, in my book, he was one of the greatest concept talents ever to walk the halls of the Disney organization. So, I guess I'll have to forgive him for his unintelligible penmanship, and for never learning to type with more than one of his 10 fingers," wrote Imagineer Pat Scanlon.

In 1983, Bright was promoted to Vice President, Concept Development, responsible for overseeing the development of all major shows and attractions for all Disney parks. In August 1987, Randy was again promoted, to Executive Producer, Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme parks. (At that time, he began work on Disneyland Inside Story fearing that future generations were already beginning to lose all those wonderful true stories of the past 30 years.)

In addition, at the request of Marty Sklar and Mickey Steinberg, and with the enthusiastic support of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, Bright was assigned to develop a "position paper" for the second decade of Epcot. Who knows what marvelous direction Epcot might have taken if Bright had lived long enough to complete that project? Bright was the one who helped develop the idea of a movie ride pavilion at Epcot that later developed into an entire Disney theme park. He was also involved in the development of the Wonders of Life pavilion.

On Tuesday afternoon, May 29, 1990, Randy Bright was bicycling near his Yorba Linda home in California, when he was struck and killed by an automobile. He was 51 years old.

At the time, Imagineer Marty Sklar remarked, "I don't think even Walt could have created a more quintessential believer in the Disney traditions than Randy Bright. His growth from a Jungle Cruise guide and costumed spaceman at Disneyland to the top creative position at Walt Disney Imagineering is the stuff of storybook legends. He was a true dreamer and doer."

Associates remember that Bright was quick to share the credit when a project turned out well and just as quick to step forward and take responsibility if the project was a disappointment. He was remembered as someone who stuck by his principles, even when it was unpopular to do so, and someone whose heart was as big as all outdoors.

Close by his final resting place stands a waving American flag, a fitting tribute to a man who among many accomplishments also contributed The American Adventure to Disney theme park history.