A Celebration of Disney History
One of the advantages of living near Walt Disney World is the number of special Disney-related events that one is able to attend. I was very fortunate to have the pleasure of going to a very memorable event on October 13. Hosted by the Lake Buena Vista Historical Society, “RetroMagic,” a salute to Disney history, was held in the Contemporary Resort in the Ballroom of the Americas. Many Imagineers did wonderful presentations, and those attending got the chance to eat a “vintage” lunch.
It was a long day, starting at 9 and ending after 6 (it ran about an hour over), but we had a number of short breaks and the lunch, so those attending could keep their energy up, and attention focused. After a welcome, the first official presenter was Disney Legend Ron Logan. The Disney Legends Awards is a program that recognizes individuals who have made important contributions to The Walt Disney Company. As Executive Vice President of Walt Disney Entertainment, Logan was responsible for creating, casting, and producing live entertainment products. It would take an entire blog to list his achievements, and this will be the case for many of the presenters. I am going to focus on what each individual spoke about, and for Ron, it was mainly SpectroMagic. For those who may not be familiar with it, Spectromagic was a nighttime laser light/musical spectacular parade at the Magic Kingdom. It ran from October 1991 to May 1999 and then again from April 2001 until June 2010.
Ron told us that the original Disney World nighttime parade, the Electrical Parade, was sent to what is now known as Disneyland Paris, but was called Euro Disney at the time. Ron got a call that Disney World now needed something new and different, and he and the Imagineers at the time came up with SpectroMagic. He said that the floats were designed to look as interesting from behind as they are from the front. The parade was initially going to be called Electro Magic but was changed to SpectroMagic. There were 36 floats in total, multiple types of lighting-including the aforementioned lasers. Ron said he made a point of not doing the lights the same as they were in the Electrical parade, saying, “I didn’t want Christmas lights in SpectroMagic.”
Ron Logan also shared that he was given a SpectroMagic jacket, which illuminated in the back. He still has it. For those who recall the parade, there were women in butterfly costume with wings that lit up. Those costumes weighed over 60 lbs! The eyes on the Peacock float were made of fiber optics. Chernebog’s wings were so big they could only open on certain parts of the parade route-the wingspan was over 30 feet. If you remember the characters that blew trumpets, the sound always came out in the direction the trumpets were facing. Some of the floats were so heavy that the bridge to Liberty Square had to be rebuilt to hold the weight. I was a big SpectroMagic fan, so this talk was very enjoyable for me.
The next presenter was done by Disney Historian Michael Campbell. He talked about something many of you may not be aware of—at one time there was a Railroad that encircled Fort Wilderness Campground. Walt was quite the Railroad fan, as were a number of Imagineers. The folks working on Fort Wilderness felt an old-fashioned looking Railroad would go well with the theme. A 4/5 scale steam train was built for the fort. Developed by the Roger Broggie Jr, the Railroad was, sadly, short-lived. The official opening was in 1974, and it was gone in 1980. There were issues with the train going off the rail, and the guests camping at the fort were not at all happy with the constant blow of the train whistle. It was interesting to see pictures of the now-defunct train. We were told portions of the abandoned track are still visible at some spots in Ft. Wilderness.
Next up were two Imagineers, both Disney Legends, Tom Nabbe, and Bob Gurr. They were interviewed onstage by members of the Historical Society that put the program together.
Tom is in his late 70’s and Bob in his early 80’s and both have had long careers with Disney. Walt hand-picked Tom when he was young to portray Tom Sawyer at Disneyland. As an adult, Tom managed the Disney World Monorail, helped open Disneyland Paris, and then retired in 2003. Bob’s main area of expertise was vehicle design. He was involved with (among other many other things) creating the Doom Buggies in the Haunted Mansion, the cars for the Tomorrowland Speedway (formerly Autopia), as well as the design for a number of Monorails. Mr. Nabbe was also involved with the design of the monorails. He shared that it was difficult to go from one area of construction to another, always having to show ID. So he decided to walk along the tracks to get from one area of the building of the monorail to another. Bob Gurr told a story of testing out the first monorail by driving it at top speed (43 MPH) through the Contemporary Resort, saying it was wonderful and terrifying all at once to speed through the concourse.
Bob was told that guests would be disturbed by the monorail going through the resort, but he promised it would be very quiet, it would not sound like a train. Bob mentioned being good friends with famed Imagineer Marty Sklar, and that they often spent time together. Both Bob Gurr and Tom Nabbe have written books about their time working at Disney.
The next presentation was a short talk about the history of the Ballroom of the Americas, where the event was being held that very day. Former President Nixon gave his infamous “I am not a crook” speech in the ballroom on November 17, 1973. They took out a life-sized cardboard cutout of Nixon, as well as an American flag, and placed it in the exact spot the ex-President stood to make his speech.
Then it was time for lunch—which also was historical. We were served “Handwiches” which were sold at Disney World from the late 1980s until the mid 1990s.
The idea, spawned by then-company executive Michael Eisner, was to construct a sandwich that would be easier to eat while walking around. They took a coned shaped soft bread and added various sandwich fillings. During its time at Disney, there were a number of choices of fillings. We got to try tuna, pulled chicken, and beef. Additionally, there were Cobb Salad fixings, which we could put together ourselves. I tried that, along with the chicken and the tuna Handwiches, everything was yummy.
There were large sugar cookies and chocolate cookies for dessert, as well as ambrosia. While we ate, we were treated to a showing of a ride through Horizons. The now-defunct attraction from Epcot.
Next, Disney Imagineer and Legend Rolly Crump appeared on a taped interview.
Rolly goes back a long way, he is currently 89 years of age, and he spoke of his involvement with the NY World’s Fair, particularly the designing of the It’s a Small World attraction. He was there to oversee that attractions move to Disneyland, and was responsible for, among other things, the animated clock that is seen at the attraction. For those who recall it, Rolly was the Imagineer involved in the making of the Magic Shop on that used to be on Main Street USA, known as The House of Magic. Comedian Steve Martin started his career at the Magic Shop in Disneyland. Later on in his career, Mr. Crump designed the Electric Umbrella counter service restaurant in Epcot. Rolly spoke of his admiration for Walt Disney and told us he cried when he learned of Walt’s passing.
The original Dreamfinder, Ron Schneider, was the next guest.
For those who don’t recall the original Figment ride, there was a jolly character called the Dreamfinder who interacted with Figment. He wore a top hat, a blue suit, and had a long red beard as well as red hair. Disney decided they wanted that character to “come to life” and Ron was chosen as the first Dreamfinder to walk the parks at Epcot. He was there until 1988 and was replaced by others when he left. Ron told us that the original voice for Dreamfinder was inspired by the Wizard from the Wizard of Oz. He also shared that Joe Rhode, the Imagineer is best known for designing Animal Kingdom, played the role of Dreamfinder at one time. Ron gave props to Imagineer Tony Baxter, telling us he was the creative force who came up with Figment. He also talked about the history of the ride and spoke of how he misses the original version.
We were then treated to an awesome live performance from the woman who sings “Two Brothers” in the American Adventure film at Epcot, Ali Olmo. Ali played the guitar and sang; she did a beautiful job with that very touching song. She did not speak much, but Ali did mention that Disney gave her the freedom to sing the song in whatever way she thought was best.
After a break, we heard a rendition of the song The Age of Information, inspired by Walter Einsel and performed by his granddaughter Lisa Bastoni. This song originated at Epcot’s Communicore, a “space-age” area back when Epcot first opened in 1982 (it closed in 1994). The song was written to go with a 40 foot kinetic sculpture constructed by Einsel, which included fifty-five automaton figures as well as dozens of animated devices, props and displays, all timed to react and move in perfect synchrony with the song The Age of Information. Lisa spoke of the enjoyment she got watching her grandpa build these adorable figures and the props that went with them. She brought models of some of these things with her to share with the audience, and you could hear the pride in her voice as she spoke about her grandfather’s work and shared the displays.
The final presentation was done by filmmaker Jeff Blyth.
Jeff was involved with making the original Circlevision 360 film seen in China at Epcot, as well as the older attractions some of you may recall from the Magic Kingdom, Timekeeper, and American Journeys.
I found his talk fascinating. Have you ever thought about where the filmmaker stands to make a 360 degree film? I have to admit I never did and was impressed to learn they are underneath the camera during filming. The camera itself is on a hydraulic lift so it can be raised or lowered as needed to get the scene right.
Jeff talked about filming in China and said the crowds watching the filming became huge; no one had seen a camera like that, and they were very curious. The police were needed to keep the crowds under control. We were told that the remake of the movie, done 20 years after the original, had many technical improvements. The original film had fixed lenses that took a long time to change when a shot required a different focal length. Additionally, the film was first made with film; digital did not exist. The film all had to come from the exact same batch, be developed at the same time with the same chemicals, or it would not look right. Additionally, because there were nine cameras, that increased the odds of one of them having a film with scratches. The best improvement was the new improved camera had lenses that could focus, worked digitally, and had a better dolly to move the camera from place to place. Jeff said it takes many weeks to sync the sound and the picture when producing a Circlevision film. For those who recall Timekeeper at the Magic Kingdom, we were told that Robin Williams was a gem to work with and that Robin loved the finished movie.
It was a really good day. For $100 with lunch included, I thought I more than got my money’s worth. The Imagineers who were there were more than happy to pose for pics, sign autographs, and chat during the breaks and lunch. They brought their books if guests wanted to buy them, but there was no push to sell, and it was not mandatory to buy one to get a picture or autograph. Everyone was super friendly, and the entire experience was wonderful. I would go again in a heartbeat. I believe the next event is planned for 2020, I don’t know any of the details yet, but I will keep my eyes open.