Home » Women Who Changed the Disney Parks Forever: Dorothea Redmond

Women Who Changed the Disney Parks Forever: Dorothea Redmond

Dorothea Holt Redmond teaching at ArtCenter

It’s easy to talk in superlatives about the incredible women who conceived, developed, and breathed life into the Disney Parks, but we do so for good reason. Artists, designers, costumers, and Imagineers like Mary Blair, Harriet Burns, Leota Thomas Toombs, and Alice Davis (among many others) not only helped define some of the parks’ classic attractions, but pioneered new art styles and technologies in their quest to help Walt realize his dream of creating the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’

Another such figure in Disney history is production designer and artist Dorothea Holt Redmond. You may recognize her work in Walt Disney World’s Cinderella Castle and Disneyland’s Plaza Inn, but the projects that she is perhaps best-known for are those that are least accessible to the general public today. Described by Imagineer Marty Sklar as a “brilliant watercolorist” whose work was so immersive that “we immediately believed we had already visited these magic places,” here’s the story of how she rose to prominence in the motion-picture and theme park industries during her decorated 36-year career.

Redmond breaks into motion-picture production design

Dorothea Holt Redmond teaching at ArtCenter

Image: Geoffrey Fulton, ArtCenter

Nearly 30 years before Dorothea Redmond (née Holt) brought her lush conceptual illustrations to the Disney Parks, she gained a considerable amount of notoriety as the first woman to work in motion-picture production design. At 28 years old, Redmond had already completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California and a supplemental Illustration degree from the Art Center School in downtown Los Angeles. She was well-versed in architecture and interior design and had an eye for scene-setting that rivaled that of anyone in the business.

When she was brought on board by Selznick International Production in 1938, however, her male coworkers found it difficult to appreciate her exceptional education and natural talent. According to comments that Redmond’s daughter, Lynne Jackson, gave the Los Angeles Times in 2009, those colleagues were so incensed by her presence in the studio that they soon insisted she separate herself from them in a walled-off work space.

“It was really difficult when she started out in motion pictures,” Redmond’s son, Lee Redmond, added, “but my mother didn’t take crap from anybody. She’d walk into male-dominated places and deal with all these snide comments because she was better than anyone else in the room.”

Despite the undeniable challenge of dealing with workplace discrimination, Redmond delivered on her immense potential. She worked in tandem with director Alfred Hitchcock and his art director and cameraman to create scenes that properly conveyed the German Expressionist aesthetic Hitchcock wanted to depict on-screen. Specifically, Lee said, she used the contrast of light and shadow to heighten the mood of a scene—something that appealed to Hitchcock’s own dramatic style.

By the time she decided to walk away from production design in 1956, she had made significant, albeit oft-uncredited contributions for Selznick, RKO, Universal Studios, and Paramount on classic films that included Gone with the Wind (1939), Rebecca (1940), Rope (1948), Limelight (1952), Rear Window (1954), Sabrina (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), Funny Face (1957), and over two dozen others.

Redmond goes to work for Walt Disney

Plaza Inn Restaurant at Disneyland

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

In the autumn of 1964, Redmond was hired by WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) to help flesh out some up-and-coming areas for Disneyland. The park was almost ten years old, and Redmond was fresh off of a multi-year gig with the architectural firm of William Pereira and Charles Luckman, for whom she worked on distinguished landmarks like Seattle’s Space Needle and the restaurant in Los Angeles International Airport’s post-modern Theme Building.

With Disney, Redmond’s two premier talents—her expert sense of set and interior design and attention to setting the right mood—were utilized in still more creative ways. Among her first projects was a redesign of the interior of the Red Wagon Inn, the Swift & Co.-operated fine dining establishment perched on the corner of Main Street, U.S.A. and Disneyland’s central Hub. Disney had recently booted their sponsor from the park and was nearing completion on a $1.7 million rebranding they called the ‘Plaza Inn.’ Redmond’s elegant designs transformed the restaurant from its full-service, English-tavern aesthetic to a cheaper buffet cafeteria with a more delicate, turn-of-the-century Victorian feel.

Over the next decade, Redmond’s elegant illustrations provided Walt and his team of Imagineers with a framework for some of their most recognizable restaurants, shops, and lands. She delivered luminous renderings of the Blue Bayou Restaurant that bordered Pirates of the Caribbean, completed Glendra Von Kessel’s intricate mirror panel paintings for Mlle. Antoinette’s Parfumerie shop, and even created concept art for what would later become the famed and exclusive Club 33. (There has also been speculation that Redmond’s eerie watercolors helped Imagineers devise a water vehicle-based Haunted Mansion attraction, though this doesn’t appear to have been officially confirmed at any point.)

In one of her more ambitious assignments, she designed the lavish interiors for Walt’s new apartment, which was to be placed in the heart of New Orleans Square. Walt passed away before the project could be completed, but Redmond’s plans were finally realized with the opening of the opulent, First French Empire-style Disney Dream Suite in 2008—right down to every gilded mirror, marble fireplace, and floor-to-ceiling draped window she conceptualized. Today, the Dream Suite has been converted into a laughably exorbitant dining experience at 21 Royal (starting at $15,000 per meal), but Redmond’s vision lives on in a two-fold tribute to her incredible designs and Walt’s enduring legacy.

Redmond travels East with the Florida Project

Cinderella Castle murals

Image: D.K. Peterson, Flickr (license)

Redmond’s influence is strewn all over Disneyland, but her most obvious contribution to the parks can be spotted some 2,500 miles away in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Following Walt’s death in 1966, Redmond worked on the development of Walt Disney World and painted scenes depicting various architectural styles for Epcot’s World Showcase and Magic Kingdom’s Main Street, U.S.A., Adventureland, and Fantasyland.

The latter was of particular interest to Redmond, who left her mark on the iconic Cinderella Castle with five ornate mosaic murals that unfolded the story of the rags-to-riches princess in the castle entryway. Truer in style to the original fairy tale than Disney’s 1950 adaptation, the first mural depicts Lady Tremaine surveying the royal invitation to the Prince’s ball, with Drizella and Anastasia close behind her and Cinderella sweeping the hearth behind them. In the second mural, the Fairy Godmother gazes upon Cinderella, now transformed from her lowly station as the family servant into a regal, silver-gowned princess. The third and fourth murals take us from one classic “shoe scene” to the next—first, as Cinderella flees the ball and drops her glass slipper, then, when it is returned to her and she is identified as Prince Charming’s true love. In the final mural, Cinderella and her prince ride happily away together.

Mosaicist Hanns-Joachim Schariff led a select team of craftsmen in bringing Redmond’s original paintings to life. Each of the five murals were carefully constructed within a Gothic archway and assembled from over a million pieces of Smalti tiles, Venetian glass, silver, and 14-carat gold. When the 18-month installation process was finally complete, the murals stood fifteen feet high by ten feet wide and featured over 500 different colors—each beautiful and brilliant under the cool shade of the castle’s main passageway. The installations were later replicated in 1983, when Tokyo Disneyland debuted their own, slightly smaller version of Cinderella Castle.

A legend retires

Concept art for New Orleans Square suite

Image: The Walt Disney Company, Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1974, ten years after Redmond got her start with Disney Imagineering, she retired. Her expansive body of work encompassed theme parks, lands, attractions, restaurants, shops, resort buildings, and private quarters within Walt’s Disneyland and Walt Disney World. There was scarcely an area of the parks that she did not affect with her precise and evocative designs.

After another 34 years passed, in October 2008, Redmond received top honors from Disney. She was inducted into the twenty-first class of Disney Legends alongside former vice chairman Roy E. Disney, Imagineers Neil Gallagher and Bob Booth, animators Walt Peregoy and Burny Mattinson, voice actor and actress Wayne Allwine and Russi Taylor, Oriental Land Company CEO Toshio Kagami, musician Oliver Wallace, and powerhouse television personalities Barbara Walters and Frank Gifford. With Taylor and Walters, she was the counted among the 32nd-34th women (of 225 recipients to date) to receive the award.

“Collectively, this group has enchanted millions, young and old around the world,” said Disney president Bob Iger, “and it is a privilege to pay tribute to them today.”

It was the last formal honor Redmond would receive before her untimely death the following winter. She was 98 years old.


Today, Redmond’s legacy lives on at the Disney Parks. You may savor a character buffet at the Plaza Inn, dine like a queen at 21 Royal, explore the hidden rooms of Club 33, or simply catch a moment’s rest in Cinderella Castle, and at each turn witness the manifestations of her scenic designs and suggestive, colorful illustrations. From Disneyland to Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, and beyond, it is both a pleasure and an honor to be able to walk through the parks and still see traces of her enduring presence.