I thought I'd start today with a quick top ten list filled with interesting bits from different areas of the company's history that I've found while wearing my detectives hat (with Mickey ears, natch.)
Here now are Ten Little Known Disney Facts:
The Disneys Made Their Mark on Central Florida Long Before The Magic Kindom
Once Walt Disney World opened its gates in 1971, the paradigm shifted and the greater Orlando area became the place to be. Walt rescued the region from obscurity and helped to fill its coffers many times over.
It's hard to remember a Florida where the center of the state wasn't the nexus and Disney's name wasn't synonymous with it.
That was the case in 1886 when a Canadian immigrant laborer named Elias Disney left the harsh winters of the midwestern plains and landed in the Sunshine State. Nobody was clamoring to visit his little kingdom.
Though he was a skilled carpenter and craftsman, Elias took a job as mailman in the backwater town of Kismet, Florida to make ends meet. He lived in a town called Acron, with a population of just seven.
Happiness for Elias came in the form of the coursthip of Flora Call, a young woman who he had followed to Florida from their home in Kansas, where both of their families had farms. She was a teacher in Kismet.
They dated for two years and married at the home of Flora's parents on New Year's Day 1888. They honeymooned in the nearby obscure town of Kissimmee.
Elias and Flora tried to make a name for themselves in Florida, first by operating a 40 acre orange grove (the crops died after an unusual frost) and then by running a hotel on Daytona Beach. Both options failed and they eventually left the state in the Spring of 1890 to move to Chicago. It was there in 1901 that Walt was born. (His oldest brother Herbert was the only Disney born in Florida.)
Both Acron and Kismet Florida are ghost towns now, but Kissimee and Orlando are thriving. Few living in that area (or visiting, for that matter) realize that the parents of their benefactor once counted themselves among the residents of the region. had they stayed on, history might have been different for them and for us.
Walt Once Relied On The Bard for Help
They were eventually proven wrong, of course, paving the way for Disney feature animation as we know it. Even so, Walt had to fight countless battles. One of the most heated involved perhaps the most beloved of all the dwarfs.
The names are familiar now: Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful and Grumpy (or, to cast members and Disney scholars: two S's, two D's and three emotions.) Walt and his writers went through dozens of names before settling on those seven. Some of the rejected ones were Blabby, Shifty, Droopy, Slappy, Daffy, and Fuzzy. When they finally came to a conclusion, Walt signed off on them, but still caught grief for Dopey.
The argument was that "Dopey" had negative connotations, and might be associated with narcotic use or addiction. It didn't help that the character, though lovable, was not too bright and spoke not a word in the picture.
His detractors also protested that the term "Dopey" was a modern one and that none of the dwarves should have slang names from their Jazz age era of the 20's and 30's, so that the film could remain timeless.
Fed up with the arguments, Walt consulted an English professor and Shakespearean scholar at a nearby University who confirmed what Walt had suspected all along. The term "Dopey" had indeed been around since the time of the Bard and was used by commoners and royals alike to describe someone who is a little slow on the take. He cited mentions of the term in plays and documents from the 1600's, including use by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. That silenced any critics, and the name remained.
Strangely, though the two are considered among the greatest of storytellers in the English language, Walt never adapted or appropriated any of Shakespeare's plots for his classic animated films. That distinction would have to wait until 1994's "Lion King", seen by many as a loose adaptation of "Hamlet."
Disney Made a Scripted Feature Film
Using Only Live Animals
Using Only Live Animals
Always one to go the extra step and to spare no expense, Disney brought live animals into a studio that had essentially been taken over at that point by the military for wartime training films. This menagerie was used by the animators that had not gone off to serve in the war as a real life reference point for the young deer and all of his forest friends.
"Bambi" was not a success for Disney when first released, and the studio went back to making Mickey/Donald/Goofy cartoon shorts and musical compilation films to get through the war. It would be a while before they got back to nature.
In 1948, desperate for new sources of post-war revenue while also trying to diversify his studio's production slate, Walt took a gamble and sent a team of filmmakers to shoot scenes of animals in the wild. This was used to make the short "Seal Island" which won an Academy Award for Disney and launched the profitable "True Life Adventure" series of nature films.
In addition to "Bambi", Felix Salten had written a book in 1938 about a young female squirrel named Perri, which Walt optioned. Given the ease in which he was able to transition to nature films, Disney chose to give his animation staff a break and use live animals as the stars when it came time to make it. He called this new creation his first "True Life Fantasy" and released it to the public in 1957.
It was a bold move, to be sure. Nothing like this had ever been attempted on such a scale. Screenwriters Ralph Wright and Winston Hibler had the daunting task of creating a film where the main characters spoke no dialogue and no humans appeared. Only an off-screen narrator (Hibler himself) would keep the story moving along.
Salten's story was set in a European forest, but for practical purposes Disney moved it to the United States. The film was shot in Utah and Wyoming.
The plot is a simple one, following Perri around the forest as the seasons change. She also meets a male squirrel and starts a courtship. This was the only true life Disney nature film in which it was openly acknowledged that manipulation occurred with editing and camera angles to make the animals behave according to a pre-conceived notion. (Accusations had been around since "Seal Island" that the film makers had staged shots or introduced elements that would not have been there naturally just to get the desired result, but they were never proven.)
"Perri" does feel a lot like its cousin "Bambi", but it lacks the charm and compelling characters that made the latter film a Disney classic loved by generations. Disney never made another "True Life Fantasy" after that, relying on Mother Nature to provide her own story lines, even into the 21st Century with films like "Earth" and "Oceans."
"Perri" retains it's unique place in Disney history as a one of a kind film and a little known answer to trivia questions.
Bugs Bunny's Voice Once Worked For Disney
While some might know that Walt himself first gave voice to Mickey, his successors (Jimmy MacDonald and Wayne Allwine) remained in the shadows as Mickey's fame grew. They also pretty much played that one character, occasionally doing other minor ones when necessary.
Disney's crosstown animation rivals, Warner Brothers, had one person who created and became synonymous with the sound of their roster of characters. He was Mel Blanc, the legendary "Man of 1,000 Voices" (though Blanc always claimed it was closer to 850) that created the dialects, inflections, tics and tempo of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, and many many others.
Mel Blanc had an outstanding career as a voice-over artist and is arguably the most famous man to ever work in that field. He was an actor and comedian on the radio, but it was his role as Warner's chief vocal artist that drew the most attention. You know instantly when you are hearing a Mel Blanc character. He was that distinctive.
Bugs and Mickey (and Daffy & Donald) were seen as friendly rivals and did not appear on screen together until 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Blanc provided the voices for his animated progeny in that film and many media outlets reported that it was the very first time that Mel Blanc appeared in a Disney film. They were wrong.
In 1939, Blanc was hired to provide the voice of Gideon the Cat, assistant to neer-do well fox J. Worthington Foulfellow in "Pinocchio." These would be the two characters that would lead the little wooden boy astray. The script, as originally written, gave Gideon plenty of dialogue, and it was a big break for Blanc, known primarily at the time for his supporting work on Jack Benny's radio show. Somewhere along the line, it was decided the Gideon would be more effective as a mute character, like Dopey in "Snow White" or Harpo Marx. As a result, all of Blanc's dialogue was cut from the final film, with the exception of a hiccup. If you listen carefully, you can hear the hiccup three times in "Pinocchio" and it is, strangely, unmistakeably Mel Blanc's voice.
Blanc was still paid full salary, of course, for his voice over work on "Pinocchio" and he holds the record to this very day for most money paid for the fewest words spoken in an animated film.
Who knows what would have happened if Blanc had stayed at Disney? Would Captain Hook, the Mad Hatter and Winnie the Pooh, to name just a few, have sounded completely different? We'll just have to use our imaginations.
Mel Blanc passed away one year after the release of "Roger Rabbit." His nearly 60 year career in Hollywood was an amazing one. He was the sole voice of Daffy Duck for 52 years and Bugs Bunny for 49 years, both records. The only other vocal artist on the top 5 list? Disney's own Clarence "Ducky" Nash, who voiced Donald for 48 years.
Alice In Wonderland Holds The Record For
Most Songs In A Disney Film
Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that Lewis Carroll's original books, on which the movie is based, are not as straightforward as some of the other fairy tales and fables which inspired previous Disney films.
Carroll (actually a pen name for the Reverend Charles Dogdson) wrote two Alice books, which are combined into one in this film. His Alice stories are full of fantastic characters, nonsense rhymes and illogical sequences.
Walt's animators and writers tried to find a way to cram all of these plot lines and characters into one of Disney's shortest feature films (at 75 minutes long, it barely qualifies as a feature.) One of their solutions was to use snippets of Carroll's poetry as musical segments in the film. Over thirty different songs were composed for "Alice."
As a result, "Alice In Wonderland" has twenty songs in the finished film, more than any other in Disney history. There is a catch to that. Many of the songs are mere seconds long, but still listed on the musical soundtrack. Some of the songs ("Unbirthday", "I'm Late") have become Disney classics, others have faded away. One of the songs that was cut eventually was recycled as "The Second Star To the Right" in 1953's "Peter Pan."
Another recent Disney heroine made movie music history as well.
Lilo (of 2002's "Lilo and Stitch") is a HUGE fan of Elvis Presley. She introduces Stitch to his music. During the course of the film (which, coincidentally was released on the exact date 25 years after Elvis died) five Elvis songs, recorded by him, are used. What's the big deal about that? None of Elvis Presley's actual pictures (he starred in 33 feature films, a few of which were set in Hawaii, like "Lilo and Stitch") contains as many Elvis songs as this Disney animated film did.
You can't make this stuff up.
Walt Wanted To Open a Chinese Restaurant
With Audio-Animatronic Characters
With Audio-Animatronic Characters
People often walk away impressed that Disney was able to include such a sumptuous Chinese feast on their property. Few realize, however, that Walt Disney himself had the idea decades before.
According to Walt, Disneyland (or any successive parks) would never be finished products, so he was always "plussing" as he called it. One of his more interesting ideas was to open and operate a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Disneyland.
As befit Disney, this would be no run of the mill place.
At the time, Walt - inspired by a toy bird he picked up on a trip to New Orleans - was tinkering with small mechanical objects. His grand vision was to create figures that would replicate real movements on larger scales. It was the birth of audio-animatronics.
After a few small prototypes proved successful, Walt decided on his first human figure. Nope, not Abe Lincoln. Walt chose the great Chinese philosopher Confucius.
The great idea Mr. Disney and his Imagineers had was to open a Chinatown section of Disneyland, just off of Main Street. The primary tenant would be a Chinese restaurant (sponsored by the food company Chun King) with ornamentation, furniture and artwork from all of the provinces. The place would also have a talking dragon and singing birds. The highlight, though, was to be an audio-animatronic life size Confucius.
Walt wanted guests to walk in and be able to have a real time conversation with the ancient Chinese wise man. Someone would be secretly hidden in the wings listening to the questions and providing on the spot answers. (Stuff that actually happens routinely at the parks now with Crush and Mike Wazowski, but would have been groundbreaking back then.)
The Imagineers loved working on the project because the kinks in audio-animatronics were still being ironed out and a figure of an older man sitting would be much easier to pull off than a standing, walking and gesturing man in his prime.
Alas, Walt's unnamed Chinese restaurant would never become a reality.
In part because of space considerations (Disneyland is a very small world, after all) the plans for Main Street's Chinatown section were scrapped. The area is now used to store parade floats and other large vehicles. The new development focus shifted to New Orleans Square, which does include a themed restaurant, though not as elaborate as the Chinese one.
The idea of singing birds and dragons lived on in the Enchanted Tiki Room (though the dragons were changed to tiki statues.) Originally, the Tiki Room was supposed to be a sit down restaurant too, but it was scaled down. There is a residual effect to the restaurant plans. Tiki Room is the only attraction at Disneyland to have its own bathrooms inside.
Confucius never saw the light of day at Disneyland, but the technical advances made by the Imagineers paved the way for their Confucius prototype to be transformed into what would become Abe Lincoln at the 1964 World's Fair. It was stunningly realistic, and the era of Disney animatronic figures was born.
Maybe it's a good thing that this particular restaurant never opened at Disneyland. Since duck is a staple on most authentic Chinese menus, a certain temperamental sailor suited mallard might not like it
Disneyland Once Issued a Birth Certificate
There's a rumor going around that if a baby is born in any of the Disney parks, they are given a lifetime pass to visit.
This is completely untrue, but it's not like women haven't aimed for it. A few years ago, there was a pregnant woman who refused to leave a bathroom stall at Walt DisneyWorld, despite the fact that her water broke and she had gone into labor. It was only after park officials convinced her that no such lifetime pass existed that she allowed them to take her to a hospital off property.
Disney has tried to discourage the rumor, but it still persists. Like many urban legends, there is a grain of truth to it, which was blown up into a whole myth. In 1979, Disney did indeed give a special award to a baby born in Disneyland.
On July 4th of that year, in an overcrowded park on a stifling hot day, Rosa and Elias Salcedo of Los Angeles were trying their best to enjoy their visit despite the fact that Rosa was in the final term of her pregnancy. While sitting down to rest on a bench behind the Plaza Inn, Rosa went into labor unexpectedly. It was too late to rush to a hospital so after bringing in medics to assist, little Teresa Salcedo was born, just a few steps from Main Street.
At six pounds ten inches, Teresa was small but healthy. Soon after, Rosa and her newborn were taken to the local Medical Center. A few months later, in a special ceremony in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, Teresa Salcedo was presented with Disneyland Birth Certificate Number One. The family happily posed with Mickey and the fab five.
This was the first time in Disneyland's 24 year history that a child had been born inside the park, but not the first time that a child had been born on the property.
Ron Dominguez is a Disney Legend, who rose from ticket taker to Executive Vice President of Disney Parks. He has more of a connection to Disneyland than others, as his family owned much of the property that Walt bought for his dream park in the early 1950's. Ron, his mother and his brother were all born in the area that is now New Orleans Square and the Pirates of the Caribbean.
Though the family moved out when Walt bought their land, the Dominguez home remained on the property after the park opened, used as offices for Walt's staff. Ron still bills himself as a "Native-Disneyland-American" a nationality few can claim.
There will, of course, be other babies born in Disney Resorts and Parks, but only one can claim to be the first and have the certificate to prove it. All others will have just a story to tell (and will have to pay full price like everyone else to visit their special birthplace.)
Walt Disney Wrote One of His Own
Live Action Feature Films
Live Action Feature Films
Retlaw Yensid had a pretty short career in Hollywood.
The screenplay for Disney''s 1966 comedy "Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN" was credited to this mystery man, who had never been listed as writer on a film before. Quite an accomplishment for a rookie, but who was he and how did he get such a job? Was he a close friend of Walt Disney?
As close as you could get actually.
If you spell Retlaw Yensid backwards, you come up with a very familiar name. That's right, Walt wrote the story for this film, a takeoff on the classic 1719 castaway adventure novel, Robinson Crusoe.
Walt had a habit of using variations of his name for new enterprises. He had a separate company called Retlaw Enterprises, and also one named WED (after his initials.) The fearsome sorcerer that chastises his apprentice (Mickey) in "Fantasia" is even called Yensid, though it's never mentioned in the film. As an inside joke, animators modeled Yensid's facial expressions on Walt.
Disney, who had acted out the stories for his films for years, used this pseudonym to bring the tale of Robinson Crusoe to somewhat modern times as a U.S. Navy pilot. His trusted screenwriters Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh fleshed out the simple story from their boss and turned it into a 95 minute film.
Dick Van Dyke stars as Crusoe, who ejects from his plane and lands on a deserted island, which he soon adapts to in creative and handy ways. He befriends a chimpanzee and eventually meets another human, a girl named Wednesday (a nice update on the Friday character from the Crusoe story, who was male.)
The last quarter of the film departs from Daniel Dafoe's novel, as Crusoe meets Wednesday's father and tries to avoid being forced into a marriage with Wednesday. It's a silly, breezy film and has all the hallmarks of a Disney comedy. It's quite evident that Walt had a hand in it.
Retlaw Yensid, unfortunately, was one and done.
"Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN" was a huge hit in 1966, but Walt passed away a few months after it opened, so he never got to lend his alter ego's name to another film.
Jackie Chan Played (And Sang for)
A Classic Disney Character
A Classic Disney Character
Even those with just a passing knowledge of Disney trivia would tell you that the answer is Robby Benson. They would be right - if you're talking about the English speaking version of the Academy Award nominated classic film.
One time teen heart throb Benson did indeed give voice to the Beast in English, but the language of the Queen and Shakespeare is spoken and understood by just about a quarter of the planet. What about the other 75 percent? Aren't Disney films shown in those markets? Yes, but they are dubbed by actors who are fluent in that region's particular language and dialects. Often it's a huge star that fills the role, though they may not be well known to Americans or to the British.
Such was the case with the Chinese version of "Beauty and the Beast."
Jackie Chan was a child actor in his native China before rising to the ranks of stardom there. His attempt to break into Hollywood films was not successful until 1995, when "Rumble In The Bronx" was released. This led him to lead roles in films like "Rush Hour" and Disney's own "Shanghai Noon" franchise. He remains as popular as ever, as evidenced by 2010's surprise hit remake of "the Karate Kid."
What most American fans of his don't realize is that Chan had a successful recording career and sang songs in many of his Chinese films long before his US debut. This made him the natural choice for Beast in 1990. Unlike many English speaking voice actors in Disney films, Chan recorded both the voice and the songs himself. (For instance, when "Mulan" was released in the US, B.D. Wong did the voice of Shang, and Donny Osmond recorded the songs, Chan did both in the Chinese version.) You may not be able to speak Chinese, but if you listen to the "Beauty and the Beast" version that Chan did (it's on YouTube) he's quite good.
There's some controversy in global markets as to whether a Disney film is better served with native dubbing or by just putting subtitles under the original English language version. The fear is that some jokes, colloquialisms or phrases might lose something in the translation. No matter which camp you fall into, it's always quite a unique experience to hear classic Disney characters speaking other languages.
Disney Was Largely Responsible For
The Popularity of Color Television
In today's day and age, with 800 channels and people running out to buy a bigger TV set as each new advancement in HD is made, it's hard to imagine a time when television was still a novelty.
Walt's "Disneyland" TV show, "Davy Crockett" and "The Mickey Mouse Club" are credited in part with making the television set an essential piece of household furniture in the 1950's (and for younger readers, that's exactly what most early TV sets were, giant pieces that dominated a living room. Sometimes when a set burnt out, you'd buy a smaller one and put it on top of the broken one.) Disney was hardly the main reason, of course, people just HAD to have TV set to keep up with pop culture in the 1950's as they became more and more affordable. The only drawback was that the screens were tiny and exclusively black and white.
Disney helped to change that.
In 1961, Disney left his original broadcast partner (and investor in Disneyland) ABC, to move to their rival network, NBC. This was shocking news, at a time when there were only three major networks airing in prime time.
NBC wanted to make a splash, so they convinced Walt to change the name of the show from "Walt Disney Presents" to "The Wonderful World of Color." The idea was to have each show air in full living color, the better to show off the advances in television technology that NBC's parent company, RCA, had made (also one of the reasons NBC chose the colorful peacock as its mascot.) A new theme song was written, the opening titles now featuring a kaleidoscope pattern rather than Disney images. A brand new animated Disney character, Professor Ludwig VonDrake, was created just for the TV show - a first in the company's history. Walt was also smart and perceptive enough to film all of his previous TV programs in color, even though they were airing in black and white. As always with Walt's brainstorms, it was seen as a foolish move at the time, because the costs were greater than they needed to be, but Walt was proven right when technology caught up with him.
On Sunday September 24, 1961, the show premiered with an episode detailing the science of how color works. It was a big hit. Almost immediately, folks wanted to see what they were missing on the spectrum. Advertisements were quickly produced featuring Mickey and the gang watching "Uncle Walt" on a color TV set in front of Sleeping Beauty castle. They were placed prominently in newspapers and magazines all over the country and stayed there for years. RCA's sales started to tick up. Demand in stores outpaced the supply.
Other TV shows were airing in color at the time, but within a few short years, black and white was completely phased out on the networks. The show's title was changed to "The Wonderful World of Disney" in 1969. By 1971, thanks to Disney, the ratio of household color TV's to black and white passed the 50 percent mark for the first time. Disney dropped the "brought to you in living color" announcement at the start of the show that same year. Black and white televisions have since gone the way of rotary phones and VHS players, once ubiquitous but now obsolete.
"The Wonderful World of Color" lives on with a dazzling new show at Disney's California Adventure.
Whatever new television technology is around the corner, one thing is certain, Disney will be out in the forefront promoting it, just as they were back in the 1960's.