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Women Who Changed the Disney Parks Forever: Leota Toombs Thomas

Toombs moves out East

Hall of Presidents

Image: Josh Hallett, Flickr (license)

Shortly after she wrapped her work at Disneyland, Toombs shifted her attention to the Florida Project. Walt and his team were paving the way for their next big resort and planned to replicate many of the attractions that had made its West Coast counterpart so successful. With Toombs’ help, they crafted another expansive cast of Audio-Animatronic figures and animals and expanded their offerings to include large-scale projects like the Hall of Presidents. There was no end to which she wouldn’t go in order to complete a job—even, as her sister-in-law Joann Loughlin told the Magical Mouse Schoolhouse, venturing into the chest-deep waters of the Jungle Cruise to fix the animatronic animals.

Toombs ran quality control on Walt Disney World’s shows and attractions for several years and eventually met and married her second husband, landscaper Hugh Thomas, while on the job. Eventually, she returned to California in 1979, where she helped found the Thomas Ceramics Company and designed special molds for distribution and retail in the Lillian Vernon Catalog. Prior to her official retirement from Disney, she passed on a wealth of knowledge and experience to up-and-coming Imagineers in the Staff, Paint, and Sign shops of Disneyland’s WDI Show Quality Service Department, ensuring that Disney’s attractions would retain the same level of quality and detail they had carried in the past.

Leota’s legacy lives on

Disney Legends plaque

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

No Disney Imagineer reaped more benefits from Toombs’ extensive knowledge and showmanship than Kim Irvine. The daughter of the infamous ‘Madame Leota,’ Irvine continued her mother’s legacy during her own lengthy and decorated career at the Disney Parks. She currently serves as the Director of Concept Design at Walt Disney Imagineering and accepted Leota’s Disney Legend award in 2009, which recognized Toombs’ enormous contributions to the company 18 years after her death in 1991.

While Irvine’s influence can be seen in everything from the cascading waterfalls around Rivers of America to the compass gracing the ground in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. There is perhaps no more fitting tribute to her own work (and that of her mother) than the revamped séance scene in Disneyland’s Haunted Manion Holiday overlay. When the overlay debuted in 2001, guests might have noticed a slight change in the visage and voice of the floating Madame Leota. Irvine had graciously agreed to model for the seasonal version of her mother’s classic character, while actress Susan Blakeslee delivered an effortless impersonation of Audley’s voice.

Observant guests visiting the Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion, on the other hand, might notice a still more permanent tribute to Toombs—and her best-known contribution to the parks—in the form of a semi-animated tombstone. Under her watchful gaze, the inscription reads:

“Dear sweet Leota,

beloved by all,

in regions beyond now,

but having a ball.”

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