Tuesday 25 June 2024
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D23 Expo Part Four: “Working With Walt” Panel

Arriving on Day 3 (Sunday, August 11th) of the D23 Expo was not much different than the day before, although there were obviously a lot less people. Sunday was, after all, the only day that didn’t completely sell out. I was even offered early entry outside of the general admission line if I wished to go to the “Working with Walt” panel, which I had originally been planning on attending anyway. I jumped at the opportunity, and rushed past all the people in front of me in to get to Stage 23 on time.

I get to the panel just in time, and I find a seat as the lights dim and the introduction music starts. Imagine my shock and awe when none other than Marty Sklar, the Disney Legend himself, hobbles on stage to lead the panel. Once the applause died down, Sklar was able to introduce the other members of the panel: X Antencio, Alice Davis, and Bob Gurr. The four Imagineers spent their hour relating stories of what it was like to work with Walt Disney and what kind of man he was. They all shared stories of how they first met Walt and how amazing it was to be in his presence. 

Bob Gurr, creator of the original Abe Lincoln robot in Disneyland, told the story of it’s creation and Walt’s unrelenting perfectionism on the project. Walt was not satisfied with a seated Lincoln; Walt’s Lincoln needed to be lifelike, and needed to move around like a real man. Gurr succeeded in fulfilling Walt’s expectations, and created an incredibly lifelike Abe. So lifelike, in fact, that guests would throw ball bearings (given out for free next door on Main Street) at Abe thinking he was a real man, trying to get a reaction. This actually posed a problem to the maintenance crew, as they would slip on the ball bearings when they attempted to clean Abe up!
Alice Davis is the creator of all of the original costumes in the Small World attraction, and told us the story of how Walt asked her to take on the project. He met her at a restaurant when she was out with her husband one night and asked her about her career (she handcrafted girdles and bras, and mentioned that she used a lot of elastic). Walt was fascinated with the idea of elastic, and asked her questions about it for quite some time. She didn’t speak to him again for two years, and when she did, it was because he was asking her to design those costumes! Davis spoke of Walt very fondly, with a nostalgic grin.
X Atencio, a very sweet man, is the mind behind the words we all hear when floating through the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Atencio wrote the original script, much of which is still used, and that famous ditty we all know, “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!” He detailed his experience writing this script, and how it made him nervous because he had never done it before. As he began to gain confidence, especially after Walt approved his script, Atencio got up the courage to ask permission to add in the little tune he had in his head–thank goodness Walt approved it, or where would we be without that memorable song? Atencio recalled that after that experience, he fell in love with script writing, and he added a song to every one.
Hearing about the kind of man Walt Disney was, and how much he expected from his employees, but how kindly he went about it, made loving Disneyland that much easier. Knowing that Imagineers have always put their heart and soul into working for Disney really makes every aspect of the park and the attractions come to life even more with the beauty that is human passion. Being able to hear these stories about Walt and the original Disney attractions renewed the enthusiasm I feel every time I visit the park, and made me appreciate the art that is Disneyland even more than I already did.

Want more D23 Expo news? Check out the other articles in Grace’s Mini-D23 Expo series!
Part Four: “Working With Walt” Panel
Part Five: “To Infinity and Beyond” Panel
Part Six: Coming Soon…