Imagineering and Tom Fitzgerald

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

I was fortunate that over the years that I had the opportunity to meet some of Walt’s original Imagineers. I tried to take good notes because I thought being able to visit with these legends was a gift and that it was a gift that should be shared with those Disney fans who might never get the opportunity to meet them.

I remember one of the Imagineers telling me: “Guests think what we do is magic. We know with all the stuff that we do that it is really a miracle.”

Imagineer John Hench was especially philosophical when it came to defining the Disney approach to theme parks.

"Disney enhances the act of being alive,” he told me once.

Another time, he said that the success of thrill rides at Disneyland like Space Mountain was based on the premise: “fear minus death equals fun”.

He felt that Walt used technology to tell optimistic stories of an optimistic future. He emphasized that right from the beginning with the animated cartoons that Walt saw things in the best possible light, even transforming traditional stories to reflect that philosophy.

“Grimm’s fairy tales were pretty grim,” Hench smiled.

On April 5, the first in a series of DVDs chronicling the inspiration and creation of the Disney theme parks and attractions “told from the perspective of the Walt Disney’s Imagineers” was released. Imagineering the Magic-Disneyland focuses on each individual land at Disneyland, some material on Disney’s California Adventure and some additional “talking heads” segments about Imagineering. The second title, Imagineering the Magic-Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort is slated to be released later this year.

I had hoped for much more from the two-disc set, especially since there have been excellent programs on the Discovery Channel, Travel Channel and History Channel that have showcased the Disney Imagineers and their achievements. Even homemade DVDs like the ones from Dave O’Neal’s Extinct Attractions have done a much better job at documenting Imagineering history and sharing “behind the scenes” material of specific attractions.

On the Disney disc, Imagineering Ambassador Marty Sklar recounts Herb Ryman’s weekend meeting with Walt Disney where the two came up with the initial concept sketch that Roy O. Disney took to New York. I happen to know that Disney has three different video versions of Herb telling that story himself. In fact, two of those versions ran on the Disney Channel several times over the years.

Where is the recognition for folks like Richard Irvine and Marvin Davis? Where are the examples of blueprints and concept sketches and changes that happened along the way? Where are the comparisons with the original Fantasyland and Tomorrowland with their later revamping?

I know there is a great deal of material and that time and space on the disc was limited but knowing those restrictions, I felt some better selections could have been made, especially for the many fans who still dream of becoming an Imagineer and for those who are sincerely interested in the thought processes and lucky choices that resulted in a new form of entertainment known as a theme park.

Imagineers like Tom Fitzgerald, Marty Sklar, Tony Baxter, Kathy Rogers, and Kevin Rafferty share their recollections on the discs and trot out their old reliable stories like Main Street ice cream scooper Baxter sneaking into the construction area of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and having Imagineer Claude Coats inviting him to ride the attraction. But where is the other part of the story of a Disneyland employee named John Lasseter who snuck into construction of a Disney attraction and Baxter graciously hosted him the same way Coats had done for Baxter many years before?

Of course, names like Baxter and Sklar are instantly recognizable by most Disney fans but some folks may not recognize Fitzgerald'd name, even though he has contributed significantly to the Disney parks. In fact, the folks that watched the DVD with me had no clue who he was, although they knew many of the “classic” Imagineers.

Fitzgerald was promoted to executive vice president, senior creative executive, for Walt Disney Imagineering in July 2001. Don Goodman, then president of Walt Disney Imagineering and Sklar, then vice chairman and principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, made the announcement.

Fitzgerald was to run the day-to-day creative leadership of Walt Disney Imagineering in addition to his then current responsibilities for Theme Park Productions, a department that provided conceptual development, production, and post-production of all film and video presentations for Disney parks.

Commenting on Fitzgerald's promotion, Sklar said, "When I hired Tom years ago, I saw in him something special in the way of initiative and creativity. Today, I believe Tom represents the kind of unique creative talent that is vibrantly alive throughout Imagineering.”

Originally from White Plains, New York, Fitzgerald received his bachelor's degree in speech communications from Northwestern University. In 1979, he pitched concepts to Sklar, who hired him as an Imagineer.

Goodman said, "Tom aspired to be an Imagineer at the age of eight, when he visited the 1964-65 New York World's Fair and saw the attractions designed by Disney. He joined Imagineering about 15 years later, and has played an instrumental role in shaping our creative vision ever since.”

Throughout his childhood, supposedly Fitzgerald, like most of the rest of us, eagerly watched for those episodes of the weekly Disney television program where Walt Disney talked about the innovative staff of Imagineers behind the magic. It was those impressive programs that I had hoped would be recreated on the latest Imagineering DVD where Walt never felt he was “giving away the magic” to show the nuts and bolts and hard work that went into creating new attractions for Disneyland.

As executive vice president of Story, Script and Media for Theme Park Productions, Fitzgerald oversaw the conceptual development, production and post production of all film and video presentations, as well as script and story development for Walt Disney Imagineering projects. Fitzgerald was a writer and producer for Star Tours and also worked on Tower Of Terror, Horizons, the revamping of Pirates of the Caribbean with elements from the movie trilogy and many, many more attractions.

During his 25 years with Imagineering, Fitzgerald supervised the story development and production of many of Disney's park attractions and shows, including Golden Dreams (which he wrote), Seasons of the Vine, Soarin' Over California and Drawn to Animation for Disney's California Adventure; Pooh's Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland; the Magic Lamp Theater and StormRider at Tokyo DisneySea at the Tokyo Disney Resort in Japan; and CineMagique at the Walt Disney Studios at Disneyland Resort Paris in France.

“Tom Fitzgerald was the main story person as the Horizons project [at Epcot] got rolling," George McGinnis said. "Tom added the warmth of story to scenes I was designing and modeling in small scale.”

In fact, Fitzgerald appeared in the attraction. “Tom II,” the submarine-repairing boyfriend, was an audio-animatronic that looked just like Fitzgerald. I believe Fitzgerald was given the figure when the attraction was demolished. I know photos exist of Fitzgerald standing next to his electronic doppelganger.

In May 2007, Fitzgerald was replaced by Bruce Vaughn (formerly vice president of Research and Development) who became chief creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) and Craig Russell (formerly VP of Environmental Design & Ride / Show Engineering) who became chief design and delivery executive of WDI. Vaughn said that Fitzgerald is "the best writer that we've got here at Imagineering. So we're going to continue to use his talents."

A few years ago when the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction was undergoing the addition of Captain Jack Sparrow, I got a chance to attend a gathering where Fitzgerald talked about his philosophy behind Imagineering. I felt it might be nice to document some of those thoughts for future researchers as well as fans who bought the Imagineering the Magic-Disneyland DVD but still wanted some more insight into current Imagineering. Here are some of the thoughts that Fitzgerald shared that don’t appear on the new DVD:

“Walt’s life was one of constant struggle. Whenever he fell, he came back up higher. When he lost Oswald, he came up with Mickey. When he lost opportunities for animation after World War II, he went into live action. He always looked for something new. We have found that in the theme parks, guests want the classics like Pirates and 'small world' but expect and demand something new. We have to be careful of messing with classics. An example of failure was the Tiki Room Under New Management. It was a failure because of the attitude. It doesn’t match being part of the Happiest Place on Earth and guests instantly responded to that fact.

“On the other hand, the size of the Dreamflight/If You Had Wings club is very small but the size of the number of guests who love Buzz Lightyear is huge. We found it was very successful being an interactive experience. Guests like going again and again so they can increase their scores. The attraction only moves 2 feet per second so what do you put in there? Claude Coats had idea for a Black Hole shooting gallery and then a TRON shooting gallery but when those films didn’t capture the audience’s attention, those ideas were shelved. So this is an example of Imagineering coming up with an idea but it may take decades to find the right way to tell the story or for technology to develop for the story to be told.

“Walt Disney was fond of saying that the parks were living things…that they would change and grow over time. He was constantly tinkering with things in the Parks…that was one of the things he loved most about the Parks and the art form. Today, we continue that tradition, adding new attractions but also enhancing classic ones in the Parks. I will definitely be part of the team that continues the story and adventure for our guests.

"Enhancing the classic Pirates attractions with new characters and new technology will ensure their relevance and place in Disney theme parks as timeless adventures. We're adding a layer of storytelling from the films to the attraction while retaining all the familiar elements that make it vibrant and exciting for every age group.

“We’re getting away from video pre-shows because it has been overdone and because of language challenges. At Disneyland Paris, on the tram ride there are six different languages. Imagineers found that people in pre-show films were talking all the time because they were translating for their family. Fast Pass changes storytelling because there is no pre-show or a different pre-show for the guests and we have to give all necessary information in the ride itself.

“Of one of the classic Disneyland attractions, Tony Baxter says ‘How could you believe in the Trip to the Moon since the carpet goes right into the rocket ship? Wouldn’t it be flapping outside during take-off?’ So it is important that we consider all the details and be consistent in telling the story.

“We are concentrating more on what we call 'visual literacy'—like in Pirates of the Caribbean. You don’t need to understand English to understand the story. With Spaceship Earth, the first narration written by Ray Bradbury was too poetic. People couldn’t process the poetic narration and still process the movement and what they were seeing. I rewrote it for Walter Cronkite, who recorded that narration in the Magic Kingdom with a cold, at a fifth-grade level. It had to be low enough that kids understood but not offensive or boring for parents.

“Adults are not embarrassed to be a child at a Disney park. Elsewhere they would be embarrassed or humiliated or worse, bored. Theme parks engage the entire family rather than the singular activity of sitting in front of the computer. It is more difficult to surprise people today than in 1955 because of the Internet and on television, the behind-the-scenes shows.

“We place E-Ticket rides on the perimeter of the parks to draw people deeper into the parks. Sometimes placement is based on where real estate exists. The operator of the park determines when there is a new ride. It is becoming more and more difficult to find big ticket sponsors for a variety of reasons.

“The Japanese respond more extremely to the mice in Honey, I Shrunk the Audience but they recover quicker. American guests still talk and react to the mice long after the experience. When they leave, they don’t hear the post-show narration.

“We have 10 parks and it is like balancing different spinning plates or having all 10 kids hungry at the same time.

“John Hench taught us to be proud as Imagineers—that our work is important. John will always be a part of the DNA of what Imagineering is all about.”