Imagineer Kim Irvine on a Life of Designing at Disneyland

Written by
Kim Irvine, an Imagineer since 1970

60 years ago this week, Walt Disney welcomed the first visitors to Disneyland Park, built on Orange Groves in Anaheim. To realize his vision he created a team of artists, draughtsmen, model makers, planners, architects and animators who would create the park and the rides. He called them Imagineers, a cross between imagination and engineering, and they have been kept busy ever since; the company’s 6th resort — in Shanghai — opens next spring.

Getting to work in the magic kingdom of Imagineers is a dream job for many designers, and one who has realized that dream for 45 years is Kim Irvine. She is the daughter of Imagineers (her mother Leota Toombs Thomas portrayed the face of Madame Leota in The Haunted Mansion); she began working in the Imagineering model shop in 1970, and she describes her role as a “second generation Imagineer,” meaning that her job is to keep “enhancing and telling” the existing stories “in new and more relevant ways.”

One of the most high-profile of those upgrades was her work on It’s a Small World, the classic ride designed by Mary Blair, one of Walt Disney’s favorite animators and colorists (discussed on this DnA). But she’s had a hand in many a park attraction, including the makeover of the Main Street U.S.A.”400 block”: Candy Palace, Coke Corner, Gibson Girl Ice Cream and the Carnation Cafe restaurant.

To mark Disneyland’s official birthday (the anniversary was celebrated with great fanfare back in May but its actual birthday is July 17), DnA spoke again to Kim Irvine about the job she never tires of and why, in her view, it is good that Disney design-thinking is now visible everywhere.

Main Street
The “400 Block” of Main Street, Disneyland (photo, Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: What attracted you to Disney Imagineering?

KI: Well actually, I’m a Disney brat. I was born and bred Disney; my father was an animator at the studio. Walt brought him out from Missouri to become one of the first few animators to work on a feature and he met my mom there who was also an animator and then she went on to become one of the first lady Imagineers.

So I always knew I was going to work for Disney; it was just a foregone conclusion.

DnA: So it was the family business.  Did you talk about it over the dinner table?

KI: My dad used to talk a lot about working at the studio. I remember from the time I was just tiny he would come home and tell us about Zorro and about the new feature that they were working on. He did a lot of work at home, he had an animation table set up in the den and I would watch him for hours, work and work and work drawing those characters over and over again, smoking his pipe, looking at himself in the mirror to get the expression right.

It’s an interesting childhood, having artists as parents.

DnA: And also to have Disney dreams be perfect normality to you?

KI: Yes, it was, you know they taught me to draw and paint and sculpt at a very young age and those things were always available to my sister and I – easels set up with paints and an empty canvass or balls of clay in the middle of the dining room table if anybody felt like sculpting something. It was in our blood.

DnA: So walk us through one of the projects you’ve worked on.

KI: Well I think it all starts with ideas. Because Disneyland already has such a strong story to it, with its individual lands and then each individual attraction, restaurant, shop, they all have their own story. So what we try to do as the second generation and pretty soon third generation Imagineers is just add and keep enhancing them and keep telling those stories in new and more relevant ways.

We usually start that with a lot of conversation and putting up ideas and then they go to concept drawings and then to a model.

it's a small world
It’s a Small World, designed by Mary Blair, updated by Kim Irvine (photo, Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: What specific project demonstrates this?

Disneyland has been my main focus. I started working on in Disney World but then quickly went on to the Disneyland portfolio. So all of my work is here and we’ve done so many different things from adding the Disney dolls to Small World which is a huge task because we wanted to make sure that those fit in seamlessly with the look and style of Mary Blair which is a tough one to emulate and fit perfectly into that attraction with both sound and sight.

And then we’ve done restaurants on Main Street; we in fact gutted an entire block, the “400 block” as we refer to it here, which was the Candy Palace, Coke Corner, Gibson Girl Ice Cream and Carnation Cafe restaurant which were all original locations to the park in 1955. And they needed to be updated not only in finishes but also in the way that they function and in the way that they were laid out.

It was very daunting for an Imagineer who doesn’t like to see things change like that.

But we put it back together with the original story lines, and we worked very hard at making sure that all the details were there — I think one of our most important things that make our products stand out is the attention to detail in our storytelling.

There are so many things that we do in our attractions and in our restaurants and in our area development and in our landscaping that may seem esoteric — that the guest wouldn’t really be able to articulate — but they would certainly missed those details if they were gone. And those are the things that make our guests feel such an affection for it.

DnA: Can you reveal an esoteric detail that might surprise people?

KI: Well, I think it’s in Jolly Holiday Bakery; we really wanted to tell that segment of the Mary Poppins story but it needed to stay in the Victorian vernacular because it is on Main Street, rather than the Queen Anne style you find everywhere else. So we did a little storytelling with the Waiter Penguins in the stained glass windows or, if you remember Burt (Dick Van Dyke) did a wonderful little shop drawing of the Jolly Holiday Park they all jumped into. So we recreated his little scene out of a mosaic on the floor.

Then there are some backs or walls that we decorated with canvasses that are painted with a lot of little sayings from the movie like A Promise is like a Piecrust Easily Broken and Every Day is a Jolly Day with Mary.

That’s the kind of esoteric thing that isn’t written about, but people enjoy those details.

Jolly Holiday Bakery Café (photo, Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland)
Jolly Holiday Bakery Café (photo, Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: One practical detail that I was told about is that the original Disneyland had a kind of soft ground material because Walt Disney understood that if you were going to have people wait for a long time, they should not be standing on a very hard surface. Is that true?

KI: Yes, that is true and you know I think that a lot of the things that were done out in the park Walt directed his imagineers to do for guest comfort. He was really, really, concerned about making sure that people were happy and comfortable and we were providing all the things — for example, lots of benches so people can sit down and rest.

DnA: Now one observation we’ve heard is that since Walt passed, Disneyland has become a bit more expressly about the retail and about getting the the visitor through to a place where they buy product. Is that a fair observation?

KI: I don’t think so, because we really don’t do that very often. I mean there’s been reasons for some of the exits being close to a merchandise shop but I don’t think there is ever a purposeful reason for trying to force them into buying things.

The experience of buying a product here is really to make make sure that you are able to take the memories and some of your happiest moments home with you. So if you really love the Haunted Mansion we have got fantastic Haunted Mansion merchandise that you can take home and show off. If you really love the 60th anniversary we have some fabulous 60th anniversary merchandise. I still think it’s all about the experience.

DnA: Whenever I’ve met an Imagineer I get the impression they just love the job. Tell us about the magic of being an Imagineer.

KI: Well, when you are an artist or any kind of creative person — a writer, a musician — you really expose yourself to the public in a way that’s very personal. And when you are an Imagineer you are able to do that (but in a way that’s) much like somebody playing an instrument in an orchestra that does a wonderful performance– and the gratitude that you get back from that is so great.

My mentor John Hench used to say, it’s like letting people have a place where they can play. And a lot of people — adults especially — forget how to play as we get older. It’s almost like when you walk through those gates you remember again, and to be an Imagineer and be able to provide those locations where people can play is very fulfilling.

DnA: In the years of Disney the company has come to permeate pop culture, the toys that children play with, the way shopping centers borrow from the language of theming, and so on. How do you feel came about how Imagineering’s kind of inventiveness has just permeated the general culture?

KI: I think that shopping centers and restaurants and things are becoming more creative and providing more fun for guests rather than just being utilitarian, and that is a good thing.

Sleeping Beauty Castle (Photo: Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort)
Sleeping Beauty Castle (Photo: Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

On Redesigning It’s A Small World: “A Child’s Sunday Rainy Day Afternoon Project”

Back in 2008 DnA spoke with Kim Irvine about the upgrade she helmed of the classic It’s a Small World ride. Before it was unveiled, ‘Small World fans were worried Mary Blair’s classic ride would be tarnished by the proposed inclusion of Disney dolls and other commercial features. Such fears proved largely unfounded as Irvine managed to maintain the ride’s innocent charm. Following are some of Irvine’s comments about that project.

KI: It’s a Small World is an attraction that was actually designed for the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and it was originally designed by Mary Blair and Mark Davis and several of Walt’s people. Mary was a children’s book illustrator who did wonderful, very simplistic but charming, illustrations and he asked her to design a ride that would celebrate the world’s children.

I actually was able to mentor with Mary Blair because my first project was to work on the Small World and so I’ve been very careful to design these right into the style and look of her original attraction.

DnA: So tell us briefly what was it that was so distinct about her style.

KI: You know it’s an amazing style that it’s very hard to imitate. She was able to draw and create things the way a child would do it. When she would describe Small World she’d say, well, it’s kind of like a child’s Sunday rainy day afternoon project where things are actually made out of doilies and pipe cleaners and and toothpicks and popsicle sticks and things like that. And if you look at the Eiffel Tower it actually looks like it’s made out of little sticks and it’s really a very special and charming design.

What was important to Walt and I was taught back in the ’70s is that we do keep things in time with stuff that’s happening out there with children and making it relevant to people — it’s not a museum and he didn’t want it to feel like it was a museum or outdated.

So, by adding the Disney dolls it’s not really adding Mickey in a poncho or Goofy in a hula skirt. It’s taking the Mary Blair-designed doll, which is the actual Small World doll, and adding, for instance, a little Alice in Wonderland doll with a little Mary Blair-styled white rabbit in the England scene — where there is actually nothing else on the chessboard — so it’s a seamless addition is something that I think people will recognize as very much in the Mary Blair style and a very sweet addition to a scene.

Many times in my position down here I’ve had to pull out the original drawings and think about what the intent of that space was supposed to be and make sure it sits in the land properly, and that there’s no contradiction in style because really our guests own this place this is their park and we just really take care of it for them.

It's a Small World (photo, Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland)
It’s a Small World (photo, Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)