CalArts: Where Imagineers Are Born

By Keith Mahne

Picture a place with maze-like hallways. You walk through those hallways, passing cubicles filled with art supplies and artwork. Photographs and doodles fill in the blanks to reveal the style and personality of the occupant. Sometimes the cubicles are the size of a broom closet, and sometimes as large as a walk-in. If you continue, you might come across a wood shop, or a sculpture studio, or a room filled with computers. Pass the library, and at certain times of the day you might hear a string trio playing bluegrass music. Perhaps you thought you were observing Imagineers in action while on a tour of 1401 Flower Street, Imagineering Headquarters in Glendale, California. Wrong. It happens all day, every day in Valencia, at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Continue after the page break as we have a look at the place Imagineers are born…

Walt Disney with founding trustee Lulu May von Hagen observing “The
CalArts Story” featurette which was to be screened before “Mary Poppins.”

CalArts and WDI go back a long way and there are many similarities between the two organizations. Before his death, Walt Disney provided much of the funding which made the school possible. Disney artists from WED helped out with the DAFCA (Disney Artists For CalArts) program, which focused attention on CalArts through a yearly art show that raised thousands of dollars for the school’s scholarship fund.

DAFCA Committee (left to right): Marty and Leah Sklar, Harrison and Anne Price, Sharon Disney Brown, Richard and Ann Irvine, Marvin and Marjorie (Walt’s niece) Davis, Thomas and Tommie (Walt’s personal secretary) Wilck

Both CalArts and WED had to struggle through a mire of skepticism to get where they are today. WED’s initial hurdle was building Disneyland, an entirely new concept, which many people predicted would fail before it even opened. CalArts was known for controversial approaches to teaching the arts, instead of its revolutionary approach to interdisciplinary study in the arts.

Rarely-seen 1964 photo from the Los Angeles Times of Walt visiting an early version of the California Institute of Arts (CalArts).

Walt envisioned a place where artists would be free to create, and from that point of view, CalArts was an immediate success. Walt believed that a willingness to risk failure is essential to pushing the limits of creativity. That is the credo of CalArts.

The CalArts graduating class of 1975. Back row: Joe Lanzisero, Darrell Van Citters, Brett Thompson, John Lasseter, Leslie Margolin, Mike Cedeno, Paul Nowak, and Nancy Beiman. Center row: Jerry Rees, Bruce Morris, instructor Elmer Plummer, Brad Bird, and Doug Lefler. Front row: Harry Sabin & John Musker.

Teamwork is paramount at CalArts just as it is at Imagineering. Former Imagineer Tim Delaney told me while being interviewed for the Disney Avenue Podcast that there were occasions where someone didn’t last as an Imagineer because he or she couldn’t work well with others. Walt wanted CalArts to be about teamwork and he firmly believed artists should interact with other artists as they do in making a film or creating a park attraction. At CalArts, dancers work with musicians and production designers work with actors. WDI does the same.

Ron Miller (far left in a black suit), Lillian Disney (in red) and Roy E. Disney
(in grey) join Lulu May von Hagen at the official CalArts groundbreaking
ceremony in 1969.

Both WDI and CalArts face similar challenges in the future. WDI must continue to implement ground breaking and unique experiences and attractions for guests, while retaining its small, campus-like culture. CalArts must expand, while preserving the low student/faculty ratio which has attracted so many talented artists. One of the strategies for meeting these challenges is a commitment to change.  All Imagineers are familiar with Walt’s Disneyland philosophy: “It’s something that will never be finished.” CalArts also seems dedicated to maintain an environment which will continue to challenge its students.

Walt in his, “Workshop away from work.”

Walt’s idea of CalArts wasn’t to define art as this or that, but instead to create a giant laboratory where things might happen. That’s an idea similar to his feelings toward Imagineering: “WED is my backyard laboratory. My workshop away from work.”

And now enjoy The CalArts Story, the short film that was originally presented at the 1964 gala premiere of Mary Poppins and doubled as a fundraiser for the then-recently incorporated CalArts:


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Why WED Enterprises Changed to WDI

By Keith Mahne

He is the symbol of magic, imagination and creativity. It seems that with a simple wave of his wind, pixie dust appears and marvelous creations come to life. He is Sorcerer Mickey, the symbol that represents the creative genius of Walt Disney Imagineering. But this little guy didn’t always grace the nametags, letterhead and business cards. Continue after the page break and let’s take a look at why WED Enterprises became Walt Disney Imagineering…

Until 1985, the original logo read “WED Imagineering”, and its angular script and sunburst twinkle dotting the “I” gave it a classic 50’s look. In 1984, under former president Carl Bongirno, Marty Sklar and John Hench updated the logo, but these new designs were put on hold; there were more pressing problems at hand. At the time, WED did not have an overall company graphic. Departments identified themselves with many different symbols, Sorcerer Mickey being just one of dozens of symbols used by the Special Effects Department. Another problem was that WED wasn’t really recognized outside Disney as a Walt Disney company. If you didn’t know that WED was the acronym for Walter Elias Disney, you had no idea that this huge design and engineering company was a part of Walt Disney Productions now The Walt Disney Company.

The year 1984 brought in a new regime, with Michael Eisner and Frank Wells taking the reigns of the company. Number one on the agenda was to organize and outline all the separate Disney divisions, subsidiaries, and companies into a matrix under one parent company. The Walt Disney Corporate Identity Program was implemented and in full swing; names and logos were changed. Walt Disney Productions was broadened to The Walt Disney Company. With consistency the goal, everything under this corporate umbrella became closely associated with the name Walt Disney.

WED Enterprises went through several name concepts and emerged as Walt Disney Imagineering. Official in 1986, the name reflected a more visible company identity, and especially a direct tie to Walt Disney’s name. The WED Imagineering logo, though updated, had to be tossed in favor of a new horizontal signature: Sorcerer Mickey the symbol, Walt Disney in script, Imagineering in typography. Finally, all the name tags, letterhead, business cards, WDI souvenirs and clothing were all standardized.

Although the name and logo has changed, their premise remains the same. They continue to create the most awe-inspiring, jaw dropping creations of all time. They continue to be a team of dreamers and doers. Imagineers continue to push the boundaries of creativity, innovation and possibility as they create new experiences and new forms of entertainment for us today, tomorrow and beyond despite what their logo may be.

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Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday.