Confessions of a Walt Disney World Merlin

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

I thought that with all the publicity about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Islands of Adventure in Florida that the Magic Kingdom might bring back the character of Merlin the magician.

Merlin is a main character in the 1963 Disney animated feature The Sword in the Stone, based on the novel by T.H. White. The great magician Merlin aids and educates the young King Arthur (known by the nickname “Wart”) about various things that will help him become a great king.

In the original film, the character was voiced by actor Karl Swenson and designed by supervising animator Milt Kahl. Bearded and bespectacled, Merlin knows so much and is so powerful that he often appears distracted and forgetful.

“Walt [Disney], the wizard, never knew that I patterned Merlin the magician after him when I wrote the script," remembered storyman Bill Peet. "In his book, T.H. White describes the wizard as a crusty old curmudgeon, argumentative and temperamental, playful at times and extremely intelligent. Walt was not quite a curmudgeon and he had no beard, but he was a grandfather and much more a character, and in my drawings of Merlin, I even borrowed Walt’s nose.

Merlin is the only character from that animated feature who appeared in the Disney theme parks. In particular, he officiated the well-loved ceremony in front of the carousel at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, where a guest is selected to draw the fabled sword from the stone—just like the young Arthur. The show began at Disneyland in summer 1983, the same year Merlin’s Magic Shop closed at the park and the new architectural redesign of Fantasyland opened. Occasionally the Make Believe Brass would accompany Merlin to offer “musical merriment” in the ceremony up until around 1994.

Disneyland Paris had the ceremony in the castle courtyard beginning in 1992 but it was canceled in 2001, and then later brought back for special holidays and now only during the summer. Hong Kong Disneyland also has a Sword in the Stone ceremony.

The version at the Magic Kingdom officially opened in 1993 (although most sources claim 1994). The Florida version ended with a final performance August 15, 2006. At the Magic Kingdom, the Sword in the Stone was staged immediately in front of the Cinderella Carousel in a small raised area featuring the stone.

A special pin commemorating this particular version of the show, designed by Glenn Winters in an edition size of 2,500, premiered in 2006. It featured a frustrated Donald Duck by the sword under the gaze of Merlin as part of “35 Magical Milestones” that celebrated 35 years of experiences or attractions at Walt Disney World. Donald, of course, had the last laugh since – officially – the fact that Merlin’s show negatively impacted the flow into the new Mickey’s PhilharMagic attraction was the reason for the decade long show being canceled. Unofficially, it saved a lot of operating cost, not only for the character, but the support technician and equipment and the attention to the wig and costume of a character who only appeared at the Magic Kingdom.

I am going to turn over the rest of this column to Disney historian Jim Korkis for him to share his memories. In addition to being a facilitator and animation instructor for the Disney Institute, a co-ordinator for College and International Programs, and a writer and researcher for special Disney Design Group projects, Jim was a “friend” of Merlin at the Magic Kingdom in 1995. He had just finished spending the summer performing as Prospector Pat, a streetmosphere character in Frontierland, and was asked to audition for the role of the three-day Merlin to cover the days of the week not performed by the regular Merlin.

“Just remember that Merlin is a living, breathing character, so, officially, we weren’t Merlin, we ‘assisted in the portrayal of Merlin’ or were a ‘friend’ of Merlin. Merlin is Merlin and he remains the same no matter how many ‘friends’ help portray him over the years. It was a genuine honor and a joy to do Merlin and one of my fondest memories of my time at Walt Disney World. It is a fond memory not just because it was so great to interact with the guests or how cool it was to be a recognizable Disney character, but because of the great support I got from my techs, cosmetology, costuming and the other performers. These folks rarely get the recognition they deserve for truly making the magic.

“Because Entertainment was so pleased with what I had done with the Prospector Pat character, I was asked to audition for Merlin when they cut back on Magic Kingdom streetmosphere characters, like a lamp seller in Adventureland, Betsy Ross in Liberty Square, a space couple in Tomorrowland, and poor Prospector Pat, the old gold miner. Auditioning for Disney characters takes place periodically (link). The Orlando auditions are usually held in the Main Gate Rehearsal Hall on Sherberth Road, near the back entrance to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The Main Gate building houses the Entertainment Department (as well as other departments like Merchandise and Disney Design Group). It is called Main Gate because on Walt Disney’s original plan for Walt Disney World, there was to be one entrance, the Main Gate, and it was located off of I-192. Most current cast members have no clue that is why the building is called Main Gate.

“Auditions include supplying a head shot, resume and presenting a one-minute comic monologue. Usually, a poloraid will be taken of the performer on that day, as well, and paperclipped to the headshot and resume. Sometimes, an improvisation exercise might be required, as well.

“In addition, characters have a 'height range' that the performer must match. For 'Face Characters' where the actor’s face will be visible, the casting committee must agree that the facial structure is close enough that the performer could 'look' like the character even before wig and make-up.

“The Rehearsal Hall for Merlin is located behind Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom, right next to the building where the parade floats are staged. The entrance is to the left of the Splash Mountain attraction across the railroad tracks down a curving path. Next to the open metal canopy that stores the parade floats is a building with a rehearsal room, a wardrobe room with costumes for the parade performers and a large rehearsal hall. The floor is raised above the foundation a few inches for some 'give' for dancers. The floor is marked off with tape. Each color represents a different stage in the Magic Kingdom with the correct dimensions. Most of the rehearsals for the Magic Kingdom are done in this backstage location.

“Final dress rehearsals are done in the actual location after the park has closed for the evening, and all the guests have left,and before it opens for the public the next morning. In the case of Merlin, that meant the final dress rehearsal started at 2 a.m. and ended by 8 a.m. Of course, the call for Merlin to show up was midnight for makeup and costume and checking of props and last-minute notes.

“I was given a written script, as well as a cassette tape that had all the sound cues, since Merlin had to react to the sound cues like fanfare and dialog, learn exactly how long they were, and time out his actions accordingly. Basically, the performer has to adapt to the pre-recorded track, so during rehearsals, the cassette tape was used.

“In 1995, the director of the Sword in the Stone ceremony was the talented Chris Oyen, who had gained recognition for his work as a writer and director of the Adventurers’ Club and the Comedy Club on Pleasure Island, as well as several in-park shows. It was also apparent that Oyen had written (or re-written significant parts) of the script. I have worked with hundreds of directors and Chris was one of my favorites.

“Training also included observing the main Merlin for a day. Training me was a very talented and generous performer named Eric Pinder who was the full-time Merlin at the time. Eric later went on to be a performer at the Adventurers Club on Pleasure Island. Although he often played Graves the butler or Otis Wren, on the final performances at the venue, he portrayed Sutter Bestwick.

“Training with Eric consisted of shadowing him for a day to see the typical routine both on and off stage, including all the tips that Eric had learned from previous Merlins as well as from his own experience doing the role.

“For the first few days, cosmetology helped me with my make-up, but I was expected to learn during this time how to put it on myself and was given a kit of make-up. Once I started putting the make-up on myself, I had to go down to cosmetology for the final check until they approved that I could continue to do it on my own without any further checks.

“Merlin had three beards and wigs. One was worn during the day for performance, another was being prepped for the next day and the third was in the wash being cleaned. Since, unlike the audio-animatronics characters, Merlin’s hair was made out of synthetic fibers, it could just be tossed into a washing machine.

“The beard had straps that went up through the wig and then attached to the inside of the tall purple sorcerer’s hat. This was very tight and secure and kept the hat from falling off when Merlin walked or ran. However, it also pulled on the jaw so whenever Merlin spoke his lower jaw was constantly fighting against the strap that was pulling back up. Traditional spirit gum attached the fluffy white eyebrows and secured the mustache. A pair of clear lensed granny glasses completed the face and had to be entwined in the wig so they wouldn’t fall off.

“Underneath the robe, Merlin wore the same standard outfit as most of the other costumed characters: a thin gray t-shirt and black shorts with an elastic waist band. It was very common, because of the Florida heat and humidity added to the weight of the costume, to sweat profusely so this skimpy outfit provided some little comfort. For Merlin there was also a belt underneath the robe, so that the 20 pound wooden hourglass could be attached through a slit in the robe. Plus I had to wear a pair of tights, in case the bottom of Merlin’s robe accidentally blew up and revealed the legs. Purple fabric slips covered Merlin’s tennis shoes so they looked like curved shoes. It was all very uncomfortable and awkward but you had to make sure the guests thought it was all seamless.

“Training also included learning how to handle doves and a dove release. There were cages behind the small parking lot at the utilidor entrance to Cinderella’s Castle where all the doves for all the shows were kept. One keeper would train Merlin how to handle a dove (pulling it out of a cage and setting it in the special area inside of Merlin’s carpetbag) and how to properly release it. Just opening the hands might result in the bird just sitting there in the palm or casually dropping to the ground to search for French fries so there had to be an upward thrust to let the bird know to fly. In the earliest days of the show, clever hawks circled near the castle, realizing that, every hour, Merlin would be releasing a free lunch. It was unclear how that situation was eventually resolved but every bird I released flew safely back to their cage for a reward behind the Magic Kingdom.

“Merlin’s dressing room was with several of the costumed characters in a small hallway behind the outside restrooms to the side of Pinocchio’s Village Haus. Merlin would run from this location carrying a large carpetbag that he had loaded with the appropriate props including the live bird. Blowing on a toy bugle and announcing that the ceremony was about to begin, he would make his way around Dumbo and Cinderella’s Carousel to get to the small raised stage area near the front of the carousel.

“Respectfully and playfully, Merlin would try to clear away any guests and using a thick rope would establish a stage area for the performance and at the appointed time the show would begin. Since Good King Arthur was supposedly going off on vacation, there was a need for new temporary royal ruler of the realm in his absence. Merlin using his magic was to select the appropriate candidate. Merlin would first pick an adult who despite his best struggles was unable to pull the sword. Then Merlin would select a child who would magically raise the sword half way and be crowned the temporary ruler. Unfortunately, it took so long to find the proper ruler that his reign is over so Merlin gives the child a medallion and a certificate.

“For Walt Disney World, the medallion was roughly an inch and a half in diameter and less than one-fourth of an inch thick. The front of the medallion had a drawing of Wart from the waist up with an extended left hand pulling the sword up from the rock anvil as he looked up. On the back is a small crown and in fancy script 'Temporary Ruler of the Realm' Walt Disney World © Disney. It was attached to a purple lanyard 15 inches long and less than an inch wide.

“The WDW certificate is approximately 8 inches by 10 inches. The colorful bottom of the certificate had an odd assortment of 34 Disney characters, including Baloo the Bear, Mr. Toad, The Walrus from Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, Lady, Practical Pig, Tigger, Br’er Bear, Figaro, and more, including, of course, Merlin who is leaning in to smell a flower being held by Flower from Bambi who is sitting on the back of Nana the dog from Peter Pan. The entire certificate is © 1986 The Walt Disney Company. It was a standard certificate without the text that could be ordered and used by other departments in the Disney Company. In fact, later I saw it being used as a certificate for the College and International Programs without the Sword in the Stone text.

The text on the Sword and the Stone certificate read: 'Walt Disney World. Temporary Ruler of the Realm. Official Certificate of Coronation. Let it be know to one and all that the bearer of this certificate has been duly selected, tested, appointed and has fulfilled their duties as an official temporary Ruler of the Realm. Ceremony presided over and authenticated by Merlin, Court Wizard.' It was signed by Merlin with a star instead of a dot over the letter 'i.' The certificate was rolled up and a purple ribbon holding it together.

“The medallions were strictly accounted for and had to be checked in and out with my tech guy. The tech guy was stationed up above Sir Mickey’s shop with a small electronic box to play the sound cues and hit the release for the sword to go up and down. He also had a folding chair and a small umbrella like one from a patio table. As part of my training, I climbed the ladder up to the location to see that he could not see me very well, so it was important to stick to the script. When I responded to the mysterious Voice In the Sky, I purposely looked the opposite way so that guests had no hint exactly where he was. When it rained heavily, the show would be canceled, not because they were worried about me as a performer or even damage to the costume, but because of the danger of the tech being up there in the rain unprotected with electronic equipment. I had two techs I worked with—and they were both outstanding. The sword only came up halfway because you didn’t want a guest pulling out a full heavy sword and wielding it around and then having the challenge of trying to reset it.

“I was given an extra medallion in case of emergency like the lanyard tore for some reason, or the child had a sibling who would become emotionally distraught or there was a surprise appearance by a child from Give Kids the World. I also had a small roll of gold stickers. The gold sticker was about two and a quarter inches in diameter. In curved lettering it said 'Temporary Ruler of the Realm.' The center image was a sword going through a crown into a rock anvil.

“The show lasted approximately 15 minutes, and then Merlin spent 15 minutes doing photographs, autographs (some kids thought I was Father Time and others thought I was the Page Master but still wanted autographs). Then it was running back quickly to the dressing room to get out of the sweaty robe and cool down and reload the carpet bag with a new bird, medallion, etc. The carpet bag was a variation of the classic magic trick, the silk changing bag, where it could appear empty even when it was loaded with stuff. Strangely, even though I would show the bag was empty and then proceed to pull all sorts of things from it, it never got any gasps of amazement from the guests. They just accepted it must be magic.

“One of the questions people ask is how people get chosen from the audience. Chris Oyen pointed out to me that the first couple of jokes that Merlin says are pretty corny. The purpose of this was to see who was responding because then it was clear who understood English and would be able to follow directions and who was in a playful mood and wouldn’t mind a little playful embarrassment. For adults, I tried to look for someone who had that Disney pixie dust twinkle in their eyes and also someone who was with a large group of family and friends because that would increase the reaction on stage.

“For a child, I looked for someone near the front so they didn’t have to stumble getting forward. I avoided children whose parents were trying to shove them forward (just as I avoided people pointing at adults as possible volunteers) because I wanted someone who really wanted to participate rather than being bullied by friends or family. I always tried to look for the kid who wasn’t rowdy but looked like he really wanted to play. Generally, you could tell by the longing look in their eyes. Sometimes, Merlin would guess wrong and the child didn’t want to come up. You never forced that situation because even if they looked like they were excited, they were too shy to do anything. “That’s perfectly all right. Oh dear, I must have made a mistake. I really need to concentrate better.” Finding another volunteer was never a problem. One time I saw a Merlin go through three or four kids before he found one. You just have to pay attention.

“Absolutely loved being a friend of Merlin despite the speedbumps. I have pictures and video and I am just amazed at how entertaining that little show was and how much guests liked it. I wish I could have given everyone a medallion and a certificate.”

For those who would like to re-create the Merlin show for your next child’s birthday party, here is the script for the Walt Disney World version.

Walt Disney World Merlin Script - 1995

(Enter from offstage area near Pinocchio’s Village Haus restrooms. Periodically blow on toy bugle and announce the ceremony is about to begin. Circle around the carousel to the area with the sword in the stone. Politely clear the area by informing guests the ceremony is about to begin. Unfurl rope and have several volunteers hold it stretched out in front of stage area.)

Merlin: Everyone holding the rope, watch out for the people behind you and step back very slowly and carefully. Now, just one more giant step backwards. Very good. You may place the rope down on the ground. (Announce to audience.) This rope enables me to perform my magic so be very careful you don’t step across it or you might get swept up in a magic spell. (Sound effect.) Like that one there! Gather round. It’s time to begin! (Try to encourage larger reaction from audience.) Let’s try that again. I said, it’s time to begin! Thank you, that’s so very kind. But there is something missing. I don’t understand. According to my schedule, I was to assemble a crowd and begin at exactly…(look at hourglass hanging on belt) (Fanfare music.)

Merlin: Ah, there it is!

Voice In the Sky: Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

Merlin: That means to listen very carefully.

Voice In the Sky: By proclamation of Arthur, the right and true king and lord of all the land, it is time to select a temporary ruler of the realm.

Merlin: Yes, indeed it is.

Voice In the Sky: This temporary ruler of the realm is needed to safeguard and protect the kingdom while good King Arthur is…

Merlin: Is what?

Voice In the Sky: On vacation!

Merlin: Oh, foof!

Voice In the Sky: Presiding over the selection process will be court wizard, royal prestidigitator and official royal ruler of the realm selector….Merlin!

Merlin: Ta-Daah! (Assume pose)

Voice In the Sky: Let the ceremony begin! (Fanfare)

Merlin: That being said, allow me to introduce myself. I am Merlin, adviser to King Arthur and right now it is my job to discover which one among you is qualified to be temporary royal ruler. Since the responsibilities are so great, I will be selecting several people throughout the day to share these burdens of leadership. So, have no fear! If you get selected, it is just a part time job. All right. Let’s begin.

(Fanfare) Voice In the Sky: Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

Merlin: (yelling toward the castle) You’ve already done that part.

Voice In the Sky: Oh. (nervous laugh) Sorry. (Lame Fanfare)

Merlin: It is so hard to get good voices in the sky these days. Now, in order to find a qualified candidate, it may take a little magic…and luckily I have brought with me my bag of magic and spells which as you can see is…(open bag and show to audience that it is empty)…apparently empty. Oh dear. No matter. All it takes is a little ingenuity and I shall produce a royal ruler selecting bird. This bird will fetch for us a new ruler. But I need all your help. After I finish my magic spell, I’ll point at all of you and everyone must say in a very loud voice “Alakazam!” So, let’s try that shall we? (Point to audience. Get response.) Excellent! That was excellent!

Merlin: Here we go. (sings) Higitus Figitus, wicitus word, I need a royal ruler selecting bird. (Point to audience for them to shout “Alakazam!” Toss handful of feathers from pocket into the air.) I think that Alakazam did the trick. Let’s see what we have here. Oh, yes, you all did quite well indeed. Here is the temporary royal ruler of the realm selecting bird! (Put bird from bag and hold up in air so audience can see.) (Fanfare) Now, fly over this crowd, my feathered friend and fetch for us a candidate. Now! (Release bird in direction of the castle.) It’s finding someone now. Look! It’s really looking. (Bird circles castle and flies back to cages.) It’s really looking…somewhere else.

Merlin: We’ll just have to try something else. It may return at any moment. So have no fear. If it selects you (brush off imaginary bird poop from shoulder), you’ll know it. Right now we need something magical. (sings) Higitus Figitus, pictitus pod, I need a royal ruler selecting rod. (Point to audience for “Alakazam! Toss handful of glitter from other pocket into the air.) Lovely. This never fails. (Pull out and hold up high for audience to see the divining rod. Fanfare.)

Merlin: Ta Daah! Indeed! This device will help us select the person possessing (grab hold of the two handles and point towards audience and move back and forth as if sensing vibrations) the courage, the strength, the moral charisma….the ability to make a fashion statement! (Point rod at person selected.) You are our candidate. Come right this way. (Guide guest to the sword. Music. Check out the candidate.) I like that look. Stand right here.

Merlin: Your name is? (Guest says name and Merlin repeats name so crowd can hear it.) Absolutely correct! You passed the intelligence test, Sir (name of guest). Now this is your final exam. Before you can ascend to the throne, according to tradition, the right and true king must remove the sword from the stone. (Grab hold of the sword and then release.) Since we’re only asking you to be a temporary ruler, you only need to pull it up half way. Now that shouldn’t be a problem for a stout (move hand as if you are going to tap stomach and then move it up to the area of the heart) hearted fellow like yourself. Of course not! Grab hold of that sword and assume your rightful place in history. (Turn away so you cannot see guest struggle with the sword. Address the audience over music.) This is so exciting. I’m so glad his family is here. Ladies and gentlemen, our new royal…(turn back to guest)…Well, this is unbelievable. Is he like this at home? You understood the bit about pulling the sword, yes? (Have guest try again.)

Merlin: Wait! (Grab the divining rod and look at one of the handles.) I found what the problem is. I had it set on “Bodyguard” rather than “Ruler”. But we do need a bodyguard and you Sir (guest name), you would be perfect. So stand right there…and don’t touch anything…while I make a simple adjustment. (To audience.) I am so sorry. Usually this is so simple that even a child…(act as if the rod is pulling you towards someone in the audience). This can’t be right. (Ask child’s name. Ask if they are willing to help out. If not, repeat process on another child. Repeat child’s name so crowd can hear.) You are our net candidate. Come right this way, sir. (Music. Bring child into position. Move bodyguard into a pose where his arms are outstretched pointing to child. Mimic same pose on other side of child.) Ta Daah! We’re going to need some help, Sir (guest name). The boy is going to need some inspiration. So make a strong man’s pose (arms in air trying to produce a muscle) just like you do in the mirror at home. Look at this ladies, he’ll be available after the show.

Merlin: (to child) Think courageous thoughts and pull on that sword (put hands on sword to demonstrate) and we’ll help with the magic word (Point to crowd for “Alakazam!” as music/fanfare plays). Pull! Pull! (sword rises and applaud and encourage audience to applaud. Get cape and crown from bag. Hand crown to bodyguard to hold. Put cape around child’s neck using Velcro. Take back crown.) Our new royal bodyguard, Sir (guest name). (Lead applause. Put crown on child’s head.) And our new temporary royal ruler of the realm, King (child’s name).

Merlin: It is time for the royal procession. (Music starts. Instrumental theme song from movie.) Everyone clap along to the music. (Demonstrate.) Come along, King (child’s name). (Lead the child. Stop and turn to bodyguard.) And you Sir (name of guest) (hand him edge of cape) have a train to catch. (Lead parade around the stone in a circle. Stop in front of the sword.) King (child’s name) wave to your subjects. Subjects wave back to your king. Don’t forget to clap with your free hand. Everyone say, “All hail, King (child’s name).” Keep clapping to the music. (Lead guest and child back to original position. Help bodyguard assume strong man pose again.) (Music ends.)

Merlin: Now, King (child’s name). It is time for your first official proclamation. You may make any law you want…like staying up past your bedtime, eating chocolate all day long…anything you want, and all must follow it. So right now, think carefully. Go ahead and make any law you…(Alarm clock sound. Look at hourglass on belt.) Oh, dear. I am so sorry, your highness, but finding you took so long your reign as temporary ruler of the realm is already…..ended. (Remove cape and crown and return to bag. Grab medallion and proclamation.) Stay there, because even though words cannot express my sadness, I would like to present to you this royal medallion (place around child’s neck) and this official proclamation (hand child the rolled certificate with purple ribbon) commemorating your time as our monarch….King (child’s name). (Lead applause. Go back to bag and rummage through it.) Sir (guest’s name), for your fine work, you will receive (find nothing, pause, turn to audience, hold up hands) the memory of this historic experience. (To audience) Let’s acknowledge our former leaders. Thank you, King (child’s name). (Lead applause and guide child back to parents.) And thank you, Sir (guest’s name) (Shake hand and lead to audience.) And don’t quit your day job.

Merlin: We will be attempting to select another temporary royal ruler at (name time). Until that time, what’s the magic word? (Point to audience for “Alakazam” and then wave hands towards the sword that drops back down.) Remember to make magic you have to believe, and I have to Be Leaving. Enjoy your day! (Music. Roll up rope to put back in bag. Sign autographs. Take pictures. Return to dressing room for re-set.)