The Walt Disney World Totem Poles

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I have been doing some private presentations for a while to help pay the bills. Last December, I enjoyed talking with a group of amateur Disney theme park photographers about the philosophy and history behind Disney theme park photography.

One of the things I emphasized was that these cameramen are the eyes of generations of Disney park enthusiasts yet unborn. It is important to document everything, because Disney, for a variety of reasons, is not doing so—and, at the parks, things change or completely disappear quickly and often without warning.

When Disneyland Park and the Magic Kingdom Park first opened, an amateur photographer had to factor in the cost of the physical film and the cost of developing and printing, which severely limited the amount of photos that were taken. As a result, there might be countless shots of the famous castle with assorted family members awkwardly posing in front of it, but very few, if any, of those wonderful little details that adorned the nooks and crannies of the parks.

For instance, the original Frontierland railroad station at the Magic Kingdom was located where Splash Mountain delights guests today. As a guest exited that station, to the north was a vast expanse of grass between it and the Rivers of America. Tom Sawyer Island did not appear until 1974. However, the land that was earmarked for the fabled Western River Expedition was not entirely barren. There were a few pine trees and a trio of totem poles.

You can catch a glimpse of them here (link).

They were not authentic Native American totem poles, but meant in the early 1970s to suggest the spirit of the Wild West that most people only knew from television and movies. Soon, like the rest of the United States, the Disney Company became aware of the need to be more sensitive and respectful to the depiction of other cultures, especially the rich history of the Native Americans.

Totem poles can recount tribal legends, commemorate people or significant events, represent supernatural powers, and more. Traditionally, they are made of red cedar and usually associated with the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. These poles are a classic form of storytelling.

I was fortunate enough to be working at Walt Disney World in 1998. At that time, the Disney Company had employed Tsimshian artist David Boxley from Alaska, noted for his decades-long creation of totem poles, to carve an authentic 30-foot totem pole for the Canada Pavilion at Epcot. There were two existing fiberglass totems that are not authentic and were primarily for decoration already at the pavilion. On April 1998, Boxley’s creation was erected next to the Trading Post and Northwest Mercantile store at the entrance of the pavilion.

During the carving process, the log was laid on its side on a raised platform where Boxley worked and interacted with the guests. It was done in the area that now showcases a raised stage for performances of groups like Off Kilter. I talked with Boxley several times during this time and can confirm that the Hidden Mickey at the top of the pole was indeed intentional.

This beautiful totem pole is what is known as a “story” pole and tells the tale from the Pacific Northwest Indians of Raven and Sky Chief. When the Trickster Raven came to earth, the people lived in the dark without shadows and without the sun, moon, or stars. Raven began a search for light. He noticed Sky Chief kept a bright light in his home hidden away in a box.

Raven transformed himself into a pine needle that floats into a stream just as the Sky Chief’s daughter is taking a drink. She unsuspectingly swallows that needle and Raven becomes a baby in her stomach and is born to the delight of Sky Chief. Sky Chief brings out the box to show his “grandson” the golden ball of light. Raven grabs the shiny ball, turns back into his true form and flies up into the sky where he tosses the light so all people can enjoy the sun, the moon and the stars.

I suspect most guests are completely unaware of that story the pole is telling and, if anything, only look closely at the pole to find the Hidden Mickey, which is one of the reasons that Imagineers were never too keen on revealing Hidden Mickeys to the general public in the first place. (Many Imagineers felt that guests would obsess on finding those images and ignore the other details. Even worse, they felt it would prevent guests from being immersed in the total experience.)

Perhaps the most impressive totem poles on Walt Disney World property are in the lobby of Disney's Wilderness Lodge.

The iconic “character” pole in front the Merchandise store with Mickey Mouse on top of Goofy, Donald Duck and Humphrey the Bear was carved over a period of several months by William Robinson. He was the artist also responsible for the animal figures by the registration desk and the animals on the bundled lodge poles in the lobby. I love this pole and it always makes me smile to see Humphrey, an often-forgotten animated character but one I enjoy greatly since he is the creation of Disney Legend Jack Hannah, the very first Disney animator I ever interviewed.

There are also two interesting “story” poles that decorate the lobby that are more serious in tone.

The Disney Company hired Duane Pasco to carve the two 55-foot-tall totem poles. Though not a descendant of Pacific Northwest Indians, Pasco is considered one of the most adept among the handful of Canadian and American master carvers. His work is done for both private and civic groups.

“These totem poles measure 3-feet wide at the top and 5-feet wide at the bottom and each is constructed of two 27-foot sections spliced together," Pasco said. "The choice of characters and their placement were the choice of Disneyworld's consultants."

“I made very detailed drawings for this project because there were to be three assistants helping me: Pat Huggins, Loren White, and Scott Jensen," he said. "I drew front, side, three-quarter views and lots of cross sections. In this way the client, the contractor and all the carvers can see exactly what the end product should look like.”

“The goal in designing the totem poles was to use legend and lore that was common among many tribes of the Northwest Coast but not necessarily specific to any one tribe," wrote Pasco’s wife, Katie. "This was easy to accomplish because the figures and the stories they represent remain fairly consistent. Characters on the Disney poles are pan-coastal in nature, with a particular attempt to portray figures not associated with inherited stories or family crests.”

Pasco and his assistants began cutting away material with chainsaws. For finer details they used adzes, knives and other traditional carving tools. The entire process took roughly six months. The poles are made from four old-growth red cedars each about 5 feet in diameter at the base. The big cedars had to be hollowed out and there was considerable rot inside that had to be removed. Pasco reinforced the centers by splicing in new wood.

After the poles were carved, they were finished with Thompson’s Water Seal and then painted. The installation, which took place January 1994, took five days. The poles are flanked by stone walls and tied to steel I-beams.

The Eagle pole located near the registration counter and the Raven pole located near the Whispering Canyon Café are again both “story” poles. Stories are read from the bottom to the top so with these particular poles there is no “low man on the totem pole” in terms of significance. The poles tell a mixture of stories and the images on them tell the following stories:

Beginning at the bottom of the Raven pole, is the image of the Whale Chief who had a beautiful daughter, Dolphin. Mountain Lion asked to marry her but was refused and, in his anger, scratched Whale Chief’s throat with his claws, leaving scratches so deep they have remained on many whales ever since.

Frog is known as the great communicator and made peace between Whale Chief and Mountain Lion. As part of that agreement, Whale Chief decided to hold an archery contest and the animal that came closest with its arrow to the mark would be allowed to wed his daughter.

Wolf, Bear, Eagle, Beaver, Otter, Kingfisher and many others tried but while some of their arrows came very close to the center of the mark, none of them were perfect.

Finally, the little Wren asked to try. Because he was so tiny, he had made his own bow and arrow from two spruce needles. His needlelike arrow flew straight to the center of the mark, winning the right to marry the Whale Chief’s daughter.

All the other animals roared and shrieked in fury and started to chase the small Wren, who flew up to a knot hole where he was safe and where most wrens have nested ever since.

Hootis, the Bear Chief, and his wife had two small cubs who could transform themselves into humans if they so chose. They went with Wren and his new bride as their protectors when they moved to a small island.

Beautiful Dolphin would leap out of the water for joy whenever her husband sang and danced for her. However, she missed her friends the Salmon people. Wren had Frog call the Salmon people back from their journeys to the surrounding rivers and islands.

The Salmon people did return and were so happy to see Dolphin again that they leapt up the rivers and over the waterfalls. Many new salmon were born in these waters but left to grow large and shiny but vowed they would return to the very river where they had been born.

At the very top of the pole is Raven and tells another version of the trickster bird flying into the Sky Chief’s house where with his beak, he cleverly untied the double cords and knots that tightly bound a painted box. Opening the lid, Raven lifted out the moon, breaking making chips of stars out of the cedar box. He flung them all into the dark night sky where they have spread their light.

Next, he reached into the box again and flung out a fiery ball of sun as a gift to all the animals, birds and humans to brighten the whole world ever since.

On the other side of the lobby:

The Eagle pole story begins at the bottom with the Bear Chief. Frog tells the Bear Chief that he should hold a potlatch feast for his young nephew, Bear Cub. (On the pole, the Bear Cub is emerging from between the Chief’s ears because traditionally, nephews were to be trained by their uncles who would educate them in the ways of the Bear Clan.)

A great painted shield of copper, the symbol of highest wealth, shows the design of Staget, the magical spirit between animals and humans. The Bear Chief plans to give this item of great value to his nephew during the potlatch feast.

Klu-kun, the Mountain Goat sits on a pole holding the copper to protect it. Mountain Goat once helped a young copper seeker to climb down the mountain cliffs by lending him his hooves.

A short section with a hole is where Ksem Wed-Zin, the Mouse Woman, lives and monitors the animals and humans around her. She is famous for helping young people, intervening when she feels that a young human or animal has been hurt or abused.

Above her are the clamshells that are another tale of Raven when there were only a few animals and no humans in the world. Raven was flying along a long, narrow arm of sand that was thrust far out into the sea. He saw a large clam lying on that beach and he opened it with his powerful beak.

In this way, Raven released the first humans who ever walked on earth. These humans were all very small, no larger than the size of the smallest finger, but as they went running toward freedom, they began to grow and grow until they reached a normal size. They built huge sea canoes and paddled along the coastlines until soon they had populated the whole world.

Beaver with a chew stick sits between Raven and Eagle because these two great supernatural birds have not always lived in peace together. Once, these two birds argued over who should grab the smaller Beaver’s crest and take it for their own.

Beaver prevented this from happening by threatening to unleash a giant beaver larger than the two of them together. Beaver dove into the pond and made a hole so the water drained away revealing this monstrous beaver hiding at the bottom of the pond.

At the top of the pole is the Eagle who heard a girl crying far out to sea because she had gone away to marry one of the Undersea People but grew sad and lonely for her family and her own people. Eagle flew out and picked up the girl and started to fly her back to her family but the girl was so curious that she didn’t listen to Eagle’s warning not to look down and it caused both of them to fall down into the sea in front of the girl’s village. They both struggled terribly to swim ashore.

Eagle likes to help which is why atop his head sits three small Taan-skeels. These are the watchmen for all humans and animals. Wearing tall, shading hats, Taan-skeel keeps their eyes wide open day and night, peering endlessly out to sea, along the beaches and deep inside the shadows of the forest to help protect the village houses.

Once again, guests hurrying to check-in or check-out or rush to a priority seating at a restaurant or eagerly hunt for Hidden Mickeys often miss these wonderful pieces of storytelling that bring an authenticity to Disney's Wilderness Lodge.



  1. By craigdvc

    What a great article! I can't tell you how many times I have looked at those totems for their craftsmanship and totally forgot that they tell a story. This is one of those articles that I love to save and read again before I take my next trip.

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