Farewell to Joyce Carlson

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Farewell to Joyce Carlson

Disney Legend Joyce Carlson died after a long battle with cancer at her home in Florida on January 2, 2008. She was 84.

In the last year or so, it seems like a lot of Disney Legends have been called by Walt to come upstairs to work with him on some special project. It is hard to imagine that Walt died four decades ago so anyone who actually worked with him are at least in their 70s or older, and many of them didn't practice the healthier habits that are now commonplace.

Most obituaries about Joyce focus on her work on the "it's a small world" attraction. She was certainly deeply involved in every version of the attraction from the first one at the 1964 World's Fair to the last one installed at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Of course, Joyce's contributions over the years were numerous, but we always look for a "quick reference" when we try to identify people we don't really know or understand what they actually did.

I have no problem identifying the many contributions both big and small by "Miss Joyce-y" as those she worked with and loved her deeply affectionately called her. One of the first times I met her was at her little open cubicle in the Imagineering building at Epcot behind the Horizons pavilion.

It was roughly two years before her retirement in 2000—after working for the Disney Company since 1944. She became the first woman in Walt Disney Company history to reach the 50- and 55-year service milestones. She used to joke that only imagineer John Hench got the 50-year service pin before her.

Even after she retired, she still would come in to her cubicle one or more days a week for a few hours until the end of 2006 and her presence and insight, especially involving color, were always appreciated.

When I first sat down next to her to ask her some questions, within the first 10 minutes there were at least a half-dozen people who dropped by to make sure Joyce was OK because they were all highly protective of her. In fact, during our conversation, others casually walked by and gave me the "fish-eye" because they wanted to make sure she was not being taken advantage of by some disreputable type. They all saw her as sweet and vulnerable.

One of the reasons for their concern was that by that time, Joyce was having good days and bad days. She might occasionally forget things and then get frustrated at herself for not remembering a name. She was not quite as steady walking from one area to another.

Fortunately, this was a good day for her and I gathered a good deal of information that had never been shared before including the fact that when she worked with Mary Blair that Mary would wear colored contact lenses to match her dress. That insight might help explain Mary's unusual approach to color.

Joyce was very much like a Disney animated character or a "Small World" doll. She was short with huge glasses and a short haircut, and every time I met her she was full of mischief. Like a naughty child, a smile would come to her lips and she would lower her voice when she was sharing some delicious special gossip from decades ago. Then she would immediately apologize that she probably shouldn't have told me that harmless bit of information and laugh.

Although she started her Disney career as a "traffic girl," someone who delivered mail and coffee and supplies to the artists, she soon found herself in the ink and paint department.

"I had red hair and freckles when I was younger," Joyce said. "I've still got the freckles. There was a popular comic strip called 'Terry and the Pirates' and one of the characters was a pilot with freckles. His name was 'Hotshot.' If you needed more work, you held up a little sign. One day my supervisor said, OK, Hotshot' and that name stuck with me for quite a while. I even had a sign that said Hotshot.'"

Even by the time I saw her, I could understand how she got that nickname. She was a pint-sized ball of energy and I could see that anyone who somehow managed to cross the line would be the recipient of some fiery fury. However, it would take a lot to get Joyce to that point. She was passionate about her work but she was extremely patient when she taught others the basics of color.

She might re-mix a color a dozen times or more to get exactly the right shade. She worked with Hench to select the colors for the horses on the Walt Disney World carousel. I remember one time in Central Shops in Florida, Joyce pointed to a carousel horse going through rehab and asked me to identify the color of the horse's saddle. I thought she was joking since it was obviously a royal blue and I told her "blue."

She smiled and patiently pointed out to me that the saddle was blue ... but with a pinch of red in it to match other elements on the horse and to make the color have an impact. When I looked a second time, I could see she was absolutely correct and comparing it to another horse with a blue saddle nearby, I could clearly see the difference. Joyce could always see the difference which is why whenever a new version of "it's a small world" opened anywhere in the world, she was sent there to help train others to have that same "eye".

Joyce was born in Racine, Wisc., on March 16, 1923, and moved with her family to Southern California in 1938. After graduating from Santa Monica High School, she got a job at the Disney Studios in Burbank in 1944. Soon, she was in the Ink and Paint Department, where she spent 16 years working on such animated feature classics as "Peter Pan" and "Cinderella."

When the ink department was replaced by a new Xerox process in the early 1960s, Joyce was moved over to WED (the precursor of Walt Disney Imagineering) and began work on the Disney pavilions for the 1964 World's Fair, in particular the "it's a small world" attraction where she worked with Mary Blair, Rolly Crump and Marc Davis. Joyce proved especially adept at the dolls and toys.

"When we brought back 'Small World,' we repainted, freshened it up and put it in the show at Disneyland. We had slapped it together for New York so we had to do some redesigning. We expanded it and improved on the characters," remembered Joyce.

For the next few decades, one of Joyce's major responsibilities was the creation and installation of the "it's a small world" attraction at Walt Disney World and later at Tokyo Disneyland.

When Joyce returned to the United States in 1982 after spending time helping with the building of the Tokyo Disneyland version of "it's a small world," she decided to make Florida her new home. Part of her job was to maintain show quality standards in several Audio-Animatronic attractions. By the way, Joyce was the one who developed new figures for "it's a small world" including children representing Israel and Korea.

Much of her time was spent mentoring new generations of Imagineers and the standards that she had learned from Disney Legends she graciously passed along to those she instructed.

Joyce was made a Disney Legend in 2000, and was further honored with a window on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. The inscription on a second floor window above the Emporium states "Dolls by Miss Joyce, Dollmaker for the World." It is a reference to her contribution to the "it's a small world" attractions worldwide.

Joyce is survived by her sister, Veryl Jones, from Tampa; nieces, Kathy Kibby of Arizona and Nancy Dempsey of North Carolina; great-nephews, Scott Neal of Minnesota and Brian Young of Ohio; great-niece, Amy Garman of Florida; and six great-great nieces and nephews.

There will be no memorial service as per her wishes, just a celebration/gathering in honor of her life. Contributions may be made in Joyce's name to:

Hospice of the Comforter
480 W. Central Parkway
Altamonte Springs, FL 32714
Phone: 407-682-0808

An extensive interview with Joyce Carlson appears in the first volume of the entertaining book series, Walt's People. Available from Amazon.com.