Walt Disney was talented at a great many things – filmmaking, inventing, doing high pitched voices – but, perhaps the thing he was most talented at was spotting talent.
Yes, spotting talent is a skill, and Walt could sense the promise within someone and help coax it out of them better than almost anyone else. And, not only could he find great people to work with, but he gave them the tools to succeed and put them in an environment in which they could flourish. Which is to say, essentially, he was a darn good boss.
The culture of WED Enterprises (later Walt Disney Imagineering) enabled smart, creative people to design and build some of the greatest themed attractions on earth. But, while Walt's name is on all the signs, it's those people who truly made something special.
If you like Walt Disney World (and if you're reading this article, I'm gonna go ahead and assume you do), you owe your love of that place not to Walt, but to his Imagineers. Walt never set foot in the completed Walt Disney World – he passed away long before it opened. And while he absolutely paved the way for the resort, it was his Imagineers that truly made it what it is today.
If you're a Disney fan, you should know who these people are. Below, I've listed seven of the most important ones, but this list is by no means exhaustive. There are dozens more that I've left off who are no less deserving of praise. But, you have to start somewhere, so these seven it is.
1. John Hench
If you design one of the most photographed buildings in the country, you are a special talent. And, if said building happens to reside in the middle of a theme park, you've done something utterly remarkable – you've made art out of tourism. And, not only did John Hench do that, but he is arguably more responsible for the visual aesthetic of the most visited theme park in the world than any other human being.
Hench began his career with the Walt Disney Company as an animator, and he was often regarded by Walt as one of his most talented artists. Eventually, he became involved with the planning of Disneyland, at which point his knack for theme park design became blindingly obvious.
His work as a lead designer on the Tomorrowland area of Disneyland is still regarded as a classic of mid-century design, and Disney fans the world over adore the sleek white look of his futuristic vision.
When tasked with the development of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Hench eventually created two of the most iconic structures on the planet: Cinderella's Castle (the aforementioned most-photographed building) and Space Mountain.
Hench started working for the Walt Disney Company in 1939 and kept an office at Walt Disney Imagineering up until his death in 2004. If the site of Cinderella's Castle makes you smile and gives you a momentary vacation even amid the most dull of dull days, you have Hench to thank for that sublime feeling.
2. X. Atencio
The man born Francis Xavier Atencio, and known by Disney fans as X Atencio, is probably responsible for an obsession of yours.
He, like Hench, was an artist for the Walt Disney Company before the opening of Disneyland, but it was in the theme parks that he truly made his name. His first prominent role was in writing the script for the beloved-but-gone Adventure thru Inner Space – a kind of psychedelic stream-of-consciousness about the scale of the universe.
Two of his later attractions, however, are still around – Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
Atencio wrote the scripts for both attractions, including the iconic Ghost Host narration, as well as the lyrics to the two attractions' signature songs: “Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)” and “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”
Honestly, it's astonishing Atencio doesn't have Tim Burton/Benedict Cumberbatch levels of fandom surrounding him. He wrote the script for the Haunted Mansion! Can't tell me that's not better than playing a smart detective with high cheekbones.
3. Mary Blair
The first and most important thing to know about Mary Blair is that she was the absolute coolest. Her art, more than anyone else's on this list, doesn't need to be explained. You see it, you smile. It makes you feel good; it makes you feel happy. And, importantly, you immediately appreciate it as art. You don't need someone like me to write an essay explaining why it should be considered art.
Blair's art is seen every day by millions of people. She provided the primary visual aesthetic of It's a Small World out at Disneyland (which was essentially copied over to the Disney World version). Her colorful and geometric style permeated early Disney films like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
And, perhaps most interestingly, her mosaics at the Contemporary Resort remain one of the most beautiful and modern features of any Disney resort.
Blair's aesthetic and use of color are so recognizable, Disney continues to create work in the Blair-style. She inspired countless animators and designers with her playful sensibility, and was even the subject of a Google Doodle in 2011.
She passed away in 1978, but what she left behind was a body of work that epitomizes how cheerful and playful art can be. Perhaps more than any other Imagineer on this list, Blair's work transcended Disney and remains important even when viewed through a fine art lens.
4. Claude Coats
Coats, on the other hand, was thoroughly Disney. He was mostly a background artist in his film days, creating intricate and detailed paintings for films like Pinocchio and Fantasia. His backgrounds for Pinocchio, specifically, continue to be highly regarded among animators and Disney historians.
He worked on dozens of films before eventually finding his way to the theme parks. At Disneyland, he was one of the principal voices behind the visual aesthetic of the Haunted Mansion – designing many of the sets used in the final attraction.
Additionally, Coates worked on the 1964 World's Fair attractions, notably Carousel of Progress and the Ford Magic Skyway.
His last major contribution to Disney was in his work on the development of EPCOT Center. He helped conceptualize many of the early pavilions, such as the Universe of Energy, World of Motion, and Horizons. He passed away in 1992.
Coats' greatest skill, according to the next legend on this list, was “turning sketches and paintings into three-dimensional adventures.” And, ultimately, that's what it's all about, isn't it?
5. Marty Sklar
As strange as it is to think about, Walt Disney has been dead for nearly 50 years. His greatest creation, Mickey Mouse, is actually older now than Walt was when he passed. It has literally been a lifetime since Walt last walked the earth.
Yet, the Walt Disney Company still operates, and it still creates new films, TV shows, and, of course, attractions. But someone has to speak for Walt. Someone needs to be there to keep his spirit present. And that's where Marty Sklar comes in.
Sklar's been working for Disney since 1956, and in the years since, he's seen it all. He's been working with Imagineering since before it was even called Imagineering. He helped design and launch the 1964 World's Fair attractions. He wrote copy for Walt to use and read in his presentations to sponsors and to the public. In fact, one of those presentations was the famous EPCOT film – a production largely helped along by Sklar.
He's been there for everything. He's seen it all. He retired from Disney in 2009, but he remains the only person to be at the grand opening of every single Disney park. Someone has to speak for Walt, and at Disney, that person is still Marty Sklar.
6. Tony Baxter
Baxter, on the other hand, never worked with Walt Disney in that way. In fact, his career with the Walt Disney Company began much the same way as millions of others – he signed up to scoop ice cream on Main Street of Disneyland when he was still a teenager.
So the story goes, one day while on lunch break, Baxter went snooping around the backstage areas of the park, trying to catch a glimpse of the still-unfinished Pirates of the Caribbean. As he was doing his sneaking, he happened to run into none other than Claude Coats. Coats admired his gumption and his passion, rewarding the young Baxter with a tour of the ride.
A few years later, Baxter joined the ranks at Imagineering and Coats acted as a mentor to him. Over time, he worked his way through countless assignments, always producing top quality work.
Baxter was responsible for the original version of Journey into Imagination as well as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Star Tours.
His greatest attraction, however, came from an idea that was solely his. He wanted to create a ride based on the Disney film Song of the South, using the music from the film and some well-designed animatronics to tell the story. Eventually, a log flume got added into the mix, and the result was Splash Mountain.
Baxter stepped down from his lead role with Imagineering in 2013; however, he still mentors young Imagineers and designers and spends his time thinking of new and innovative attractions. So, you never know – we still may get another fantastic Baxter ride.
7. Joe Rohde
You probably already know who Joe Rohde is, but it really is about time people start mentioning his name in the same breath as those legends above. That is why I put him here – not necessarily to introduce him to you, but to acknowledge that he has done as much to push Disney forward creatively as anyone.
If you do still need an introduction, it would go something like this:
Rohde joined Imagineering in 1980, where he worked on everything from the development of Epcot to the launch of Pleasure Island. His contributions to both remain beloved today – he worked heavily on the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, which remains one of the most well-themed in the park, and he also helped create the gone-but-never-forgotten Adventurer's Club.
Oh, and he is pretty much responsible for the most beautiful park in Orlando, Disney's Animal Kingdom. If you've ever been left speechless by the attention to detail of the Harambe Village, or stood in awe while looking at Expedition Everest, you've experienced what makes Rohde's work so special.
In many ways, Rohde is the final proof of concept for Walt's vision. He's a generation removed from Walt's time with the company, and yet he still honors and follows those founding principals of story and attention to detail. Walt created something that was so special, it could not only live on without him, but it could thrive. All it needed was a group of extraordinarily talented people to keep moving it forward.
Thankfully, finding such people was one of the things Walt was best at. It seems the only thing he was even better at was teach that skill to others.