“The human spirit in design is one of the strongest thematic elements there is. A sincere and passionate project drawn straight from the heart can succeed at a deeper level as the audience can sense the sincerity but not point directly to it. That passion translates to a vigilant attitude that details matter and all communicate that core emotion as part of a greater whole.”
— Eddie Sotto
Eddie Sotto is a thinker, a visionary, and a designer on the cutting edge of entertainment design. He was recently Senior Vice President of Concept Design at Walt Disney Imagineering and is currently Chief Creative Officer at Sotto Studios..
Here’s part one of our interview with Imagineer Eddie Sotto.
Nate Naversen: Thanks for joining me for this interview.
Eddie Sotto: You’re very welcome, Nate. Glad to be here.
NN: First of all, what inspired you to get into this business?
ES: Disneyland and the movies. My father recently recounted my first inspiration to me: Our first trip to Disneyland when I was about 5 years old.
We stood on Main Street U.S.A., spellbound while watching the fireworks. When it was over he asked me, “Eddie, Do you like Disneyland?”
“Yes…I liked Disneyland.” Then paused, tugged his sweater again and seriously stared up at him and said, “Dad, I REALLY like Disneyland.” He knew his son was hooked.
I remember telling my boyhood friend Tim O’Brien at age 6 that “I wanted to be the guy that came up with the rides at Disneyland.” I grew up as a “Disneyphile”, then married young at 19. My first “breadwinning” job was selling Appliances at Sears in 1977. But the love and obsession with theme parks and Hollywood set design never subsided. My family has a history in film design and art and I was fortunate enough to be gifted in this area.
NN: Were you the type of kid who spent more time doodling and daydreaming than paying attention in class? (Sometimes I think that’s a very healthy thing!)
ES: There is truth to that. I never went to college either.
During school, it was fun to draw in the dark while they were running filmstrips. Creative writing and storytelling in one form or another was an interest back then that has fueled a “story idea file” for ages.
(Future imagineers: Toting a micro-cassette recorder in the car is a very good tool to keep track of your new ideas as they come to you.I have been using one for years.)
When I was 12, my dad conned WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) into sending me 1/200 scale plans of Disneyland, because his psycho son wanted to make a scale model of the park. The obsession had pretty much peaked. Looking back, I’m really thankful to have been able to eventually transform my childhood obsession into a paid profession.
Now married, I’d have “flashbacks” of the old Eddie, occasionally spending my spare time making models and storyboarding attractions until my wife Deena (now frustrated with me) suggested that I try to sell the ideas to theme parks and really do something productive with my work. (HELL-O!)
Walt Disney Imagineering model shop could have never matched my salary in commission sales at the time so I set my sights on a higher-level position at Knott’s. After 6 months of persistence, landed the job as Assistant Project Designer at the Farm in 1979.
NN: Could you relate some of your experiences with Knott’s Berry Farm?
ES: Knott’s was really strange as it was so un-corporate. It was as if your next-door neighbor (whomever it is) decided to open their backyard up as a berry stand and a theme park.
Literally that is how the culture was when it came to operating it. You worked on “The Farm” as it was. It was frustrating at times as I was trying to apply the Disney quality and theme ethic to this person’s backyard. I didn’t have the mentality at first. But then it sunk in.
There was something about live chickens running in the parking lot that taught me that reality can be a more compelling theme, and soul a better product than faux paint and name tags. Knott’s was more of a visit to grandma’s house with all the mismatched decor and old paint than a slick “gotta see it all in 12 hours” park experience. It was laid back.
NN: I think that’s the real key to good themed entertainment. You can’t just put pretty sets and scenics up and expect them to be entertaining. It has to hit home in some way, and I think that’s what Knott’s does very well. After all, we city folk can appreciate a trip to the old family farm, or to the country. It’s our national heritage.
ES: Agreed. All the imagery pushes buttons. It is the smells, the textures, the temperature, everything. Nostalgia is always good as long as the audience really relates to it and it is sincere, well executed, and seamless.
I’m less impressed with Planet Hollywood or Hard Rock Café because they seem to lack heart. They are very well designed and look cool. But conceptually and emotionally, they have become contrivance, not made by fans for fans. The message I get is that rock is dead and in Lucite boxes, safely staring back at you from the days when it was defiant. Now it’s a backdrop for junior’s 12th birthday party.
The Hard Rock Cafe idea worked in London when the stuff on the walls was left behind by stars that went there and affectionately left their guitars or mementos. You were part of a famous place and never knew who would drop in. That was the big idea.
The music then was also a subliminal barrier against parents. The message: “If it is too loud, then you’re probably too old”. Now it’s all calculated and at best a predictable experience in a strange town to grab a burger. (And they are good too.)
NN: I generally like the atmosphere, but when it comes to the food you’ll pay 12 dollars for a burger. I’ll pay 12 bucks for an ordinary hamburger once, and once only.
ES: People seem to sense sincere efforts in design that come from the heart. I like to see cooking made with passion, not a portion scoop. Folk art can be really ugly but it’s the sincerity that makes it beautiful. Knott’s funky carved dummies in the facades and the toothpick Ferris wheel in the museum was that way too. The human spirit in design is the strongest thematic element there is and it transcends many obstacles. It can spell optimism, hope, free expression, and America.
NN: Here here! What was the feeling you had when you landed your first design gig? Were you euphoric or was it just another step?
ES: It was really exciting to have hopped the farm fence and be 21, an art director at the number three theme park in the country and have no experience. It was a mix of horror and elation. Then you realize that you have to do something and if it doesn’t work, there is that big ride staring at you that won’t go away. Daunting.
Never before seen concept art of Eddie Sotto’s Flash Flood Rapids ride. This board rendering is that of the load area.
This rendering was drawn to convey the overall flavor of the Flash Flood Rapids attraction.
Plan view of Flash Flood Rapids and the Rusty Rails Mine ride designed by Sotto
NN: Did you pitch any ride ideas to management while you were there?
ES: Yes, an Attraction called “Flash Flood Rapids,” a whitewater-rafting ride with animatronics set in a flooded ghost town.
NN: Was your idea similar to the Bigfoot Rapids ride that exists now?
ES: No, I knew once they did that that there was no chance to ever do Flash Flood. It was really themed and had some really cool effects.
You were dispatched from a breakaway wooden dam. Your raft washed through dynamite tents, a sinking ghost town with show scenes inside the buildings. In the buildings there was a card game to be played from the chandeliers, a bank robbery in progress, a flooded soap factory bubble machine dropping suds on you, etc. It ended by you being sucked down a flooded mine shaft.
ES: Another ride attached was the rusty rails mine, a dual racing ore car coaster ride that wove thru the attraction. I have copies of all the original art from it.
NN: I’m sure we’d all love to see it.
ES: The ride I pitched originally to get an interview with Knott’s was a 1920’s themed dark ride called Rumrunners. It was to replace Beary Tales and was a “Pirates of the Caribbean meets prohibition” type thing. The guy who interviewed me liked it, and showed it to Marion Knott. But Marion rejected its alcoholic theme.
I finally figured out that it might be better to ask what they were looking for. It was a raft ride, but they had no theme. The raft was an Arrow-Dynamics product and was actually rubber and flexed over the rapids. To my recollection, this ride system never was produced. They loved the raft ride idea and hired me to design it, but later abandoned it because to them it was too ambitious. It had a $12 million dollar budget estimate!
NN: I’m still getting used to great ideas being left by the wayside. Was that ever hard for you to swallow?
ES: I’m really jaded now, but yes it eats at me. If you want to make the vision into reality you really have to find the client that “gets it.” A shared vision. Sometimes you have to really suffer to get it made.
NN: I see. Well, would you like to share more about your design experience at Knott’s?
ES: Eventually we went on to design the Soap Box Racer ride to replace the lawsuit riddled Cycle Chase.
NN: You designed Soap Box Racer? That ride was great!
ES: I’m glad you liked it. It makes me cringe to see it now as our schedule allowed us only 6-months from the first idea to the grand opening!
Being so green and all, the soap box project almost killed me. It came down to sitting on a bench with Deena on opening day being so disappointed in the result of the show because they didn’t follow through the way I wanted. My folks threw a little family party at the steak house at Knott’s and I didn’t go! That was how fried I was. Taking it all so personally, not liking the result after pouring all into it.
NN: I would have liked to have seen it as you had originally intended.
ES: The intent was the first “outdoor dark ride!” The press release called it a “living cartoon”. The skies were to be the only backdrop for scenic flats in order to create an abstraction of Mr.Toad type gags that “happen to you”. It was a physical experience in that regard. I used Spike Jones crazy 1940’s music and Art Deco design to add a cool fresh graphic style and funny gags. There was a fire hydrant and a seascape billboard in parts of the ride that squirted water on the racers.
The cars were 2-4 passenger cute little soap box racers. Then Operations made me take a log from the log ride and theme the soap box look on it. They became coffins. I thought it looked pathetic, but they liked it.
NN: Sometimes you can’t talk people out of making a design mistake even when you present the good idea along with the bad one side by side.
ES: There is a lesson here. Designers have the curse of knowing what things could have been. We see only the warts and missing elements in our projects and often miss the successes. The public is blessed; they see the good and want to believe.
Overall, I’m proud of the creative risks I was able to take with the scheme. I had put so many personal feelings into it that it was hard to accept anything less than what the vision was supposed to be. The fortunate thing was that after all that it was a fun guest experience.
I think competitive rides do work. The ride, despite my own depression, got 130% of the Gate. On average, for every one person who walked in the gate, there were one and a third riders! There were lots of re-rides. It was really popular!
NN: I suppose you can look back and smile at the accomplishment. After all was said and done, you created guest happiness. And that’s what it’s all about.And I agree with you about the competition aspect in rides.People really seem to like it.
ES: It is important for any designer to go through the process of field experience. You need to go out and see the site and build the show in the field. You learn to abandon your false expectations of how things will turn out and learn to design for disaster, exit signs, smoke detectors and other realities that no artists rendering ever shows. Learn it by doing. I did and it was invaluable and satisfying.
Solving creative problems in the field as they arise is really hard fun. This was really where I gained my first experience in show design. They had virtually no staff, so what you drew, you built and dressed yourself in the field. It is best to learn by doing and redoing.
NN: Trial by fire. Sounds like it was a good proving ground.
ES: It was design boot camp! We ran out of firework props so we went to Toys-R-Us and bought beach balls! (My friend Del Langdale will remember, he ran Park Decorating)
We then took the cap from a black spray paint can and glued it on top of the ball, added twine; painted the whole thing black and presto…we had a bomb! We did lots of that kind of embarrassing stuff. As the saying goes, “Desperate men do desperate things.” But that was nothing compared to the Baltimore Power Plant, which we’ll get into later.
The other half of the equation is the realization that we all live in a world of compromise. It’s a harsh reality but we do not control the destiny of our projects. So here is my advice: Create concepts that you know through and through. You understand DEEPLY the theme and what is important about what in the story MUST be communicated to the guest at the very least. Write it down in a sentence if you can. Put it in your top drawer. You will then be faced with a myriad of horrifying compromises: From wheelchair ramps with rails and ugly signs on your 1865 western boardwalk, to the finance department cutting out the happy ending scene of the dark ride. You will be forced to choose between different elements that weigh differently in their ability to entertain the audience.
I believe that the true test of a great art director/designer is the choices you are forced to make along the way that finally leave the best blend of important elements the guest will understand that communicate the big idea.
How many times have we all noticed gaping holes in a ride or show and see where they ran out of cash and the story has a missing link? Someone kept the beautiful queue and didn’t edit wisely when it came to the show. Even with a tight budget you can take that sentence out of the drawer and critique your project and say, “Is it still the idea we once loved?
Are we keeping elements that no longer have meaning because they have been cut so far no one cares what it is or it is unrecognizable? Be the guest. They can’t hear your excuses that you ran out of cash or that the project manager was unkind. You edit wisely. If it is cut too far to succeed creatively, most likely it is you that must do the ugly task of telling management that it is now a “Dog’s Breakfast” and will not be a creative success.
They expect you to pull it off no matter how much they cut it. You are the arbiter, you must fight and suffer, offend those you must and in the end pull it off. It is not a popularity contest; it is a business, a creative one that must succeed by emotionally satisfying its audience.
NN: Those are excellent insights I think we can all benefit from. Would you tell us about your work on Camp Snoopy?
ES: Robin Hall came in as lead designer on Camp Snoopy under the Magic Mountain inspired management of Terry Van Gorder. Robin is the man who designed Spillikin Corners at Six Flags Magic Mountain, by the way.
A sketch of the Snoopy Animated Clock for Knott’s Berry Farm Camp Snoopy.
My involvement was in designing the attraction entry structures at the rides, some vehicle and graphic designs, and a Snoopy Animated Clock. (A shameless Small World image knock-off) The whole place was first generically designed as “The Childrens’ Area” with no theme other than Yosemite national park.
Then, very late in the job Schulz came in and we added the graphic tie-in to Peanuts. So instead of integrated story, we were to put up the signs and the clever names with the characters and theme it after the fact. In spite of it all, it was very successful.
ES: All in all, at Knott’s I learned to get close but not to expect to have control and not to obsess on things I couldn’t do anything about. (Which ends up being most of it) I began to set my sights higher on a place where I could do better work and they would “get it.”
NN: Was that when you began to look at moving to WDI?
ES: Yes, I was interviewed and rejected. They told me to follow my mentors: Build a model of a ride and submit it. Instead, Landmark Entertainment Group hired me on the spot.
NN: Did you have good experiences at Landmark?
ES: Yes, it was a great place to learn the business and build a portfolio. Owners Gary Goddard and Tony Christopher came from a theater background not Architecture. I found it was refreshing to have the company led by creative people.
I learned a lot there and they instilled in me a sense of priority towards the directorial aspects of show design. I learned to apply simple principles in presenting a good theater experience in a ride.
The design heavy, architecture driven design world can dominate the project, but it is never really about the facades. It is about the emotional show and story that is being told. Every ride needs its director and should focus on the entertainment value.
NN: I think that’s the idea that separates the sheep from the goats, as it were. An attraction based on architecture alone will never touch the guest the way a story based attraction will. Please continue!
ES: Landmark focused on really having a big impressive opening scene that sets the stage and engages the guest. It should then pace itself through the development of the story to climax in a big finish, sometimes even a second surprise ending. That all sounds very obvious but there are many rides that miss that important development thought process.
It’s also teaching yourself to think as the audience is thinking. Gary Goddard’s instincts were always right on. In his mind he would think, “It looks great, but what is the audience expecting it to do? Is there a payoff to the things we design or are they inanimate icons?
This lesson is valuable in the editing process of what is important to keep in a project and what to lose. It means keeping the fire breathing in the dragon even if it means cheapening the sets around it. What will the guest retain and talk about? It’s the fire, not the inlaid doorknobs on the dungeon door!
As a Show Designer I was delighted to have a vast portfolio to tackle and they let me do many types of things: Toy designs for Mattel, attractions for Six Flags Parks, LBE’s (Location Based Entertainment) in Baltimore and St. Louis, King Kong and 2010 at MCA, casino master plans, museums, and art direction for a music video! All this was accomplished in a dizzying 3 years.
NN: I suppose you had quite a few long nights in there.
Power core for the Six Flags Power Plant designed by Eddie Sotto and Landmark Entertainment Group.
Landmark Entertainment’s Laboratory of Scientific Wonders.
This is a show element for the Baltimore Power Plant. Note Sotto’s dedication to detail and the way the element is theatrically lit with contrasting warm and cool colors.
ES: Yes, the Six Flag’s Power Plant in Baltimore was an LBE Attraction based on the story of a fictional professor modeled after Jules Verne. My role was to design one of four major shows, his “Laboratory of Scientific Wonders.” It was a walk through.
Tony Baxter (Vice President of design, Walt Disney Imagineering) had seen it and liked my design. He must have remembered it when he thought of casting design for Euro-Disneyland. One day I got a call, and Tony hired me away to come to Walt Disney Imagineering to be a Show Producer/Designer for the Main Street U.S.A. at Euro Disneyland (later called Disneyland Paris).
WED Enterprises (later Walt Disney Imagineering) hired me because they thought the contract for Euro Disneyland was about to be signed, but it took another year. It felt good to be wooed to WED after they didn’t hire me the first time around. This is key as it is better to get experience they can see first then go there, chances are you’ll come in at a senior level.
Landmark is a place for you to get experience, have fun, work really hard and build a diverse and fast portfolio of experience. I recommend working there to all upcoming talent.
NN: At WDI, you worked on quite a few interesting projects. Could you tell us some of the projects you worked on?
ES: I worked on so many things over 13 years. My first pitch in 1986 was a version of the Carousel Theater as a giant spaceship that is an alien traveling show. George Lucas loved the idea. We did models and everything.
The show spun off elsewhere and we eventually went to France for Euro-Disneyland. The Carousel show eventually went into concept hell until it collapsed under its own weight. We tried a lot of ideas that could have worked too: Mazes, rides, game grids, you name it. It was cursed. Now it lives its own fate.
NN: Well, if history proves itself correct, the ideas will probably be recycled into another attraction eventually. By the way, the folks at Industrial Light & Magic really revere George Lucas. Did you enjoy working with him?
ES: He is distant. He is a quiet editor of ideas. He will sit and listen then distill his vision from what he has heard. Even if it is yours!
Later, I was part of the original concept team for the Indiana Jones Ride. George Lucas was involved then too.
NN: I think there’s a whole lot of interest in the Indiana Jones ride since it is still a relatively newer attraction. Could you talk about some of the original concepts?
ES: This show passed through many hands and there were many ideas. The one I was part of developing had Jungle Cruise boats leave you off at a camp in the jungle. Then you would join a search party for Indiana Jones on a walk-through with a guide. Later on, that guide got fried stealing a jewel from an idol, leaving your group in the temple to find your own way out.
NN: Sounds like a show scene from The Great Movie Ride at the Disney / MGM Studios.
ES: Both were in development at the same time. You end up in the Temple of Doom and escape in the famous ore car chase. Half forward and half reverse direction!
There were other scenarios that had the Indy jeep going backwards with the ball chasing it out of the temple too. At one point the Disney Gallery had an exhibit with the art of these versions.
ES: The person I went on to work with on most of my other projects was integral to Indy’s successes: Susan Bonds. I left the day-to-day Indiana Jones Ride project early on and Tony Baxter really championed it.
NN: Were there any prevailing ideas that drove the design? Further, could you explain about some of the new technologies introduced in the ride?
ES: The vehicle for one, and using it to its fullest. The vehicle is probably the most noteworthy. The vehicle is hydraulic and each one has to be individually programmed.
Tom Morris scored the on-board music to the action and did a great job too. Susan Bonds and Dave Durham (another talented imagineer) rode herd on that ride to get the vehicles to act realistically to the environment and the action.
At Animal Kingdom, the Countdown to Extinction ride doesn’t do this nearly as well even though it is very similar to the Indiana Jones Ride.
NN: Too, I think Indy has the brand recognition that Countdown lacks. After all, when you walk into the Indy queue you already know what universe you’ve just entered. At Countdown, you spend your time in the queue learning the rules of the Countdown universe, and that makes it tougher to relate.
When you enter a ride, you subconsciously ask yourself, Is the universe you’ve entered fact? Is it fiction? Is it sci-fi? You’ve got to figure that out to orient yourself. I think it makes a big difference when people know what universe they are entering from the get-go.
Of course, The Twilight Zone television shows used to make their living by breaking those rules. They would spend the entire episode convincing you that the setting was in a suburban neighborhood in 1950’s America – an “ordinary world”. Then they would blow you away at the end by revealing that you’re actually in a parallel universe where our normal “rules” don’t apply. The twist at the end was the shocker, and it was what kept you in suspense. You’d entered “The Twilight Zone”.
Imagineers Herb Ryman (left) and Eddie Sotto visit the Disney Gallery at New Orleans Square, Disneyland.
Now for a change of pace: Could you tell us a bit about working with Disney legend Herb Ryman? He was probably the world’s first Disney Imagineer.
ES: I worked with Herb Ryman for a year before he died on both Indiana Jones and Main Street U.S.A. at Euro-Disneyland. He told me that during Disneyland’s construction Walt walked him out into the dirt of the plaza hub one day and asked him to design the Red Wagon Inn. Herbie asked what Walt wanted it to look like. Walt said “Do something people will like.” That was it! Herb was pissed.
NN: Ha ha! That’s the trick isn’t it? To Walt it was so simple.
Was Herb Ryman’s animation and film background evident with the way he talked about things?
ES: Yes, but he wasn’t too productive anymore when I worked with him. He was getting ill too and was slowing down. He taught me more about life and the value of doing deep research in design. By the way, he was the teacher of my personal mentor John DeCuir Sr., the Hollywood Production designer of recent epic films like South Pacific, The Robe, Ghostbusters, Hello Dolly! and Cleopatra.
He said my first lesson was to utilize the WDI library as they have the best books on design and research, and are a key to success.
He also made a good point that you can design something that has meaning just as cheaply as something that isn’t accurate to history and is void of meaning. Too often themed stuff is designed poorly because someone didn’t research it.
“It doesn’t cost any more to do it right or add the value of a significant story,” he said. “Bad taste costs no more.”
He often talked about Walt Disney and the circus and Dumbo. Walt was jealous of Herb because Herb blew the Disney Studios off to travel with the circus. You see, Walt idolized Emmet Kelly, the famous Clown. Herb introduced them and Walt was actually in awe an a bit intimidated by him.
Herb could not believe this, of course. They idolized each other! After Walt died Herb took Emmet to the Walt Disney Story at Disney World. After the film, Emmet just sat in the theater. Herb noticed tears in Emmet’s eyes. Emmet said, “That was my life.”
Herb realized what he had done. Herb forgot that they had both lived in Kansas City at one point in their lives; but Walt went into animation, and Emmet to the circus. Each had wanted to be the other. Herb never forgot this.
When Herb died we all went out at night to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland and planted a tree that Herbie had in a pot at his bedside. It was a tree that was dying, and Herb predicted wouldn’t last past Thanksgiving. Herbie used it as his goal to live longer than it. The tree lasted, but Herb did not. Andrea Favilli rescued the tree as it was being thrown away. He brought it to the park to plant in Herbie’s honor. I think it is still there.
I used to call Herbie from Paris in his bed and he would talk about the places in France he saw and that I must go: Napoleon’s tomb and Vaux Le Vicompte, for example. He would describe history as something that could move him and “grab him by the throat.” He felt history and put its richness in his work. His designs at Disneyland had that type of depth. I wanted to express that level of depth in the designs for Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland Paris too.
He taught design and life lessons at the same time. Disney wasn’t his life. It was brought to life by Herb. Put yourself and something emotional into your work. Make it personal. Let the guest feel that it was made with a passion and a point of view. Walt’s trains were exactly that. Those details wouldn’t have been there if there hadn’t been a miniature live steam train and the passion of the old west before it. Obsessions make for great and interesting work.
NN: Tell us about working on Disneyland Paris, especially your project: Main Street U.S.A.
ES: Main Street in Paris was an attempt to merge the layers and texture that Europeans live with in their own rich world with American culture.
The best contribution I was able to make at WDI was the suggestion of doing a hotel at the front entrance of the park. It originally was proposed as just a covered ticketing complex. It was similar in look to the Del Coronado hotel in San Diego.
Michael Eisner (CEO of the Disney company) said that it was too expensive and that we couldn’t do just a canopy for all that money. I politely suggested a small second level to it as a hotel that would look into the park. He lit up and asked that the finance and hotel guys investigate it.
They came back with a huge 600-room business plan that dwarfed the scale. I freaked! But we rescaled the windows to make it feel more in scale. I’ll never forget waking up in a view room watching the trains steam in to the station on opening day. In-berm hotels are now a key part of California Adventure and Tokyo Disney Sea.
NN: Wow, that’s great that they bought it! I think that’s a great idea for many reasons, but especially because people really do dream about spending the night at the Magic Kingdom. The demand is there. Why not let them live their dream?
ES: Growing up as a “Disnetologist,” (I made my own Disnetologist stationary as a kid and until the Walt Disney company told me to stop) I used to thrive on knowing all the little details of the park. It was fun dreaming of who actually lived up there in those second floors and what they might look like inside.
The depth of the design with enigmatic names on the windows and the secret symbols everywhere thrilled me. I wanted to try to put those layers of design into the Main Street in France. Our goal was to visually teach who Walt Disney was as an artist, an American, a Father, a storyteller. I didn’t want to portray him as just a collector plate or a corporate symbol.
This Main Street was my chance to give back to the company (and insure for the guest) the marvelous experiences that it gave to me, to return the favor so to speak.
NN: That’s wonderful!
Eddie Sotto with Sharon Disney at Disneyland Paris. Sotto recalls, “On the opening day at Disneyland Paris, I gave Sharon Disney and her grandchildren a tour of the park. They loved Main Street U.S.A. but especially Walt’s Restaurant with all the family details. I was so shocked when her kids would see Walt and say, ‘There’s grandpa!’ That’s not Grandpa, I thought. That’s Walt Disney!”
ES: The concept for Walt’s restaurant (gone now) was a Club 33 for the everyman, but more. It was an art gallery telling the human story of Walt, his obsession with small town life and trains, and his dream of a park. All of this lending insight to how Disneyland Paris was created in a tribute to the art of imagineering through art and sculpture. It took place in private dining rooms above the street looking down at the parades. The rule for our team was: If it wasn’t unique enough to take a photo of, we shouldn’t be building it.
NN: I suppose every angle became a virtual picture book.
ES: The shops were themed to be slanted toward their mythical owners, either masculine or feminine. The deep dark woods and eclectic feel of the camera shop adjoined the softer pastel tones and light gingerbread of the clothiers.
Eleven channels of background music were chosen for the shops and restaurants. Even the manhole covers were museum pieces from different cities lent by the Smithsonian!
Murals and American style graphics were used as story devices around Main Street as the language barrier prevented guests from easily identifying the story and setting. Without being political, we used American icons like baseball, Coca Cola Billboards, a Lady Liberty Display, and other symbols to say: “USA”.
A turn of the century village in the USA is an abstract idea to most Europeans. After all, how many big movies showcase turn-of-the-century Main Street? Positioning Main Street to an audience that has no real nostalgia for its direct references is really hard. After all, how do you define “American” when American design is derived and eclectized from Europe? There are subtle differences between the two of course, and we made them a whole lot less subtle to get our point across. For example, American stained glass is different than European stained glass as it has round jewels incorporated in the designs and is not usually hand painted. We made all the windows custom in the American style.
Too, we focused on Americana and its richness and beauty. We made everything about something. We took the American personality and ramped up the colors made things less pretentious and more theatrical.
For example: The bakery was all San Francisco filled with trolley artifacts. Research showed that most Europeans know of and want to visit San Francisco and will see this bakery as American. The San Francisco sourdough bread was also a good tie-in.
C.D. Gibson: “Bachelor’s Wallpaper”
Much of Walt Disney World Main Street followed the Disneyland Paris pattern (at Casey’s corner as baseball, Gibson girl at Disneyland, etc.) C.D. Gibson was the highest paid illustrator of his day. He did cartoons of beautiful women playing hard to get, rejecting men. He is credited for being a catalyst for the women’s movement as many emulated the look, hair and attitude of his characters. Our ice cream shop was themed to be the “pick up spot” of the 19th century and we did it up with these cartoons. If this interests you, get the Dover book on Charles Dana Gibson and check it out. It is really cool. I tried to choose the funniest images for the cafe from 8 volumes of art.
NN: I’ll be sure and get it!
ES: I could go on and on, so I won’t…
NN: Please do!
ES: The job at the end was something to be proud of. It looked pretty good. Our design team had killed themselves to deliver it and it was worth it. It looked better than the other Main Streets and had a deep story to tell.
Disneyland Paris is the largest American cultural statement to be made on European soil in the 20th Century, it was important to me that we tell a story that is more cultural and bigger than Elvis, Marilyn, and burgers.
NN: I was glancing through the book, “Designing Disney’s Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance and on page 104-105, some of your renderings show an elevated trolley concept. Could you tell us your ideas for the trolley?
ES: That was part of the 1920’s theme as New York and Chicago had El Trains. A Peoplemover was to be an El. It was also running up the street above the right sidewalk acting as a thematic rain canopy for the guests viewing the parades.
Michael Eisner killed the 1920’s theme after a year of design. From that point on we were a year behind the other lands on the drawing boards. We ran like mad for the next 4 years! It was brutal.
Eisner thought the 1920’s flapper jazz era made us look less innocent. (Of course, that is how Europeans see America at that time.) Later he admitted to me that we should have done the 1920’s theme. It was tough pushing Victorian back to the Europeans who invented, passing it off as American! We pushed the twenties elements in anyway. The heavy profusion of graphic billboards and energy did come into Main Street U.S.A.
NN: Did you have a certain mindset while designing DLP Main Street?
ES: In every aspect of the design of the DLP Main Street I tried to never forget the depth of design we all expect as fans of Disney growing up. I tried to hold our team to that extra standard.
From the plaques that say “Elias Disney Contractor” in the sidewalks, to the windows that say “Dr. Robert Sherwood MD” (he commissioned Walt to draw his horse for 25 cents) to the Steam Trains that use period colors and respect American history. All were important design elements that gave Main Street depth.
When they see it, some will love it and will look deeper. At the end of their search, at home, or later when they run across the reference elsewhere, long after they have visited Disneyland they will be rewarded by the answer. I hoped they’d be thrilled, just as I was, many times over, when I found out the answer.
Disneyland is theater, but is also depth in history and story. The best parts are revealed over time.
NN: Thanks for your time! I think the audience will agree that this was a very stimulating interview.