ORLANDO, Fla. – Imagineering was never just a man’s club at Disney World.
Some of the most indelible and iconic images guests know from the Magic Kingdom and beyond were created by women.
For many decades, theme park and resort design was largely seen as a boy’s club.
This was never the case for Disney’s Imagineering.
Some extremely gifted female Imagineers were among the first generation recruited by Walt Disney.
One of the few artists most Disney fans know by name is Mary Blair.
Her unique design flair and color sense heavily influenced a long list of favorite animated features: “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan” and “Lady and the Tramp.”
It’s a style she developed for 1944′s “The Three Caballeros.”
This would be the launching point for her Imagineering projects.
Twenty years after Blair’s round-faced children debuted in the film’s “Los Posadas” Christmas sequence, they were adapted as animated figures from across the globe in “it’s a small world.”
The colors and design of the ride’s backdrops and props are largely Blair’s work.
Blair designed a few new areas for the Florida version of the ride, but her largest impact on Walt Disney World (literally) is the great tile mural at the heart of the Grand Canyon Concourse in the Contemporary Resort. The photo below shows the 1970′s postcard and my own photo of the same side of this enormous work of art.
The mural acts not only as a backdrop for the main public area but also cleverly hides the hotel’s enormous main elevator shaft.
Blair said the mural covers 18,000 ceramic titles.
It took at least 18 months to paint the titles and to install them on the walls.
“All of the design motifs are based on actual research of the Indians of the Grand Canyon and Southwest. We felt that children and animals were such a part of the art of Disney that we chose them to show activities of people of the [Grand Canyon] area with a touch of fun,” Blair said.
Blair was born in McAlester, Oklahoma in 1911.
She passed away on July 26, 1978, in Soquel, California.
Blair was named a Disney Legend in 1991.
Born in 1929, Alice Estes Davis made her career as a costume designer.
Her Disney career started in a chance meeting in the early 1950s when she took an art class taught by a Disney animator.
A few years later, the animator called and asked her to design a real-life version of the costume worn by Briar Rose in Sleeping Beauty, so a model could act out scenes as inspiration for the character’s on-screen actions. During the project, they drew closer. She married legendary animator Marc Davis in 1956, while he was still busy sketching both the heroine and the villain of that film, Maleficent.
Impressed with her work, Walt Disney hired her for costume designs on several movie and television projects. He invited her to Imagineering in 1963, to help Mary Blair on an ambitious project. The two became lifelong friends.
Davis designed and handcrafted more than 150 meticulously researched costumes for the first version of “it’s a small world” that debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Not far away, her period costumes also covered the animatronic cast of “Carousel of Progress.” The Carousel was moved to the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland in 1974. Of course, a version of “small world” opened with the park in 1971.
After the World’s Fair work was complete, Alice said she “went from sweet little children to dirty old men overnight.”
Starting in 1965, she created 47 different costumes for “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Each one was fashioned after period-specific 17th and 18th-century clothing, but with a “Disney Flair.”
Copies of her costumes are still used in Florida’s version of Pirates, which opened in 1973.
Alice Davis retired from WED in 1978, but still consults on various projects for The Walt Disney Company. She was named a Disney Legend in 2004. She will turn 92 on March 26.
Dorothea Redman started her career as an artist and a set and interior designer.
She started at David O. Selznick’s Hollywood studio helping create the interiors and exteriors of iconic places, like the Tara plantation for “Gone With The Wind.” Her work can be also seen on screen in “The Ten Commandments,” “Sabrina” and “White Christmas,” to name a few. She also collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock styling seven of his films, including “Rebecca”, “Rear Window,” and “To Catch a Thief.”
For Disney, Redmond designed many of the interiors of shops in California and Florida.
Her work established the look and feel of Main Street, U.S.A., the Enchanted Tiki Room, as well as other projects from Fantasyland to Frontierland to Adventureland. Redmond is most known for her work at Cinderella’s Castle.
Redmond designed five murals retelling the story of Cinderella in a style more like the renaissance than the 1950 film
Noted craftsman Hanns-Joachim Scharff translated Redmond’s drawings into mosaics made with more than one million hand-cut pieces of Italian glass, real silver, and 14-carat gold. The images were so well-received, the owners of Tokyo Disneyland insisted on exact replicas for its Cinderella Castle, which opened in 1983.
Redmond also helped with Epcot’s World Showcase, even after she officially retired in June of 1974.
Born in 1910, Redmond passed away at age 98 in 2009 at her home in the Hollywood Hills. She was named a Disney Legend in 2008.
Joyce Carlson started working at the Walt Disney Studios after graduating high school in 1944.
She delivered mail and art supplies.
Carlson later graduated to inking and painting the individual characters that brought Disney’s characters on the big screen.
Like Alice Davis, one of Carlson’s first Imagineering projects was the “Carousel of Progress.”
Working with Imagineer Leota Toombs, she used chewing gum, wires and whatever she could find to help create scale models of the appliances and sets featured in the show.
Showing off her work, and explaining what the Carousel was about, Walt Disney said “Do you believe that this whole set was built on earrings?”
Carlson went on the create original models and designs for “it’s a small world” in New York, before helping move it to California’s Disneyland and refine it for Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.
Carlson also created models and final pieces of “The Enchanted Tiki Room,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Country Bear Jamboree” and “The Haunted Mansion.” While designed originally for another project, Carlson also helped create many of the singing animals of “Splash Mountain.” Working with another legend, John Hench, Carlson also styled the colors for the horses for Walt Disney World’s carousel in Fantasyland.
She moved to Florida in 1982, where she was known as the “small world” expert, helping maintain the figures she designed, and later creating new dolls representing Korea and Israel.
Carlson was named a Disney legend in 2000, the same year she retired as a full-time cast member of 56 years. However, she kept working part-time through 2006 and was still mentoring in 2007.
Carlson passed away from cancer in her home in Orlando in January of 2008. She was 84. There are two tributes to her in the Magic Kingdom: A Joyce Carlson doll near the Eiffel Tower in “it’s a small world” and a window on Main Street, U.S.A. above the Emporium. Fittingly, it reads “Dolls by Miss Joyce, Dollmaker for the World.”