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Women Who Changed the Disney Parks Forever: Harriet Burns

From Main Street to Chinatown to New Orleans… and beyond

New Orleans Square

Bryce Edwards, Flickr (license)

Beyond Burns’ models of Sleeping Beauty Castle, Storybook Land Canal Boats, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds, and her innovating figure finishing on the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Submarine Voyage, the Carousel of Progress, Pirates of the Caribbean (for which, it is said, she patterned one of the pirates after the family milkman), and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, she also worked on concepts for new lands within the Disney Parks. One of the first such projects was an area called “Chinatown,” which would have branched off Main Street, U.S.A. along Center Street.

Burns toiled over models for Disneyland’s Chinatown. Its main draw was a restaurant featuring an Audio-Animatronic Confucius, who was designed to bow to guests and dispense wise sayings. In the months before Abraham Lincoln was used as a model for Walt’s first human-based Audio-Animatronic, Confucius would have been the first such animatronic installed at Disneyland.

The idea was never realized, however. Burns worked on delicate building models for a week and was all set to run the project past Walt when he decided that Disneyland didn’t need a Chinatown.

“He said, ‘San Francisco has a good Chinatown,’” she told Wolf, “‘and we’ve got a little one here, so we don’t need one in Disneyland.’” Perhaps it was for the best—with Confucius and his Chinatown scrapped, Walt was inspired to take the project in a more… presidential direction.

Haunted Mansion

Image: HarshLight, Flickr (license)

Luckily, Burns got a second chance to fiddle with the development of a new land. Walt’s fascination had shifted from Chinatown back to New Orleans, another exoticized haunt of his, and it would become one of the biggest and most expensive projects the park had taken on since its inception. Like Main Street, New Orleans Square wasn’t intended to evoke a single American city (or several), but a specific time in history. With its ornate iron balconies, one-of-a-kind antique shops, and array of Southern comfort food, it veered toward romanticism rather than realism.

Among the various models Burns created for New Orleans Square was that of a mansion perched near the banks of Rivers of America. Well, to be more precise, she created three models: two that looked decrepit and spooky, as you might expect a haunted house (or, as it was at the time, a haunted walk-through attraction) to appear, and one that was in near-pristine condition.

It was the third model that Walt favored time and time again, driven, Burns said, by a strong desire for “everything in Disneyland to look good.” And when it came time to figure out the logistics of a haunted house attraction in the years after Walt’s death in 1966, she was among those considered to model for the ethereal Madame Leota—a role that was finally bestowed on fellow Imagineer Leota Toombs Thomas.

Burns’ legacy lives on even today

Emporium on Main Street, U.S.A.

Image: Ken Lund, Flickr (license)

The best Imagineers aren’t marked by their innovative designs and out-of-the-box thinking, but by the way they continue to inspire the growth and creation of future Imagineering projects. Like so many of her talented peers, Harriet Burns left a legacy that is still followed and improved on today. You could fill a book with the contributions that she made to the Disney Parks. Better yet, take a stroll around Disneyland—you’ll be hard-pressed to make it more than a few steps before running into an attraction, building, or prop that she didn’t develop or enhance in some way.

You can find her in the dynamic staging of the wayward pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean, in the sky-colored turrets of Sleeping Beauty Castle and the snow-tipped peak of the Matterhorn Bobsleds, in the beautiful columns of the Haunted Mansion, in the elegant solarium and patio of the Plaza Inn, and the trill of every brilliantly-feathered bird in the Enchanted Tiki Room. You can find her, too, in the window over the Carriage Place Clothing Company as you turn from the Emporium to the Fire Station, one of 80+ windows specially decorated to honor the upper echelon of Disney Imagineers, animators, and pioneers: “The Artisans Loft – Handmade Miniatures By Harriet Burns,” it reads.

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