Nine Imagineers You Should Know
None of what we enjoy at Disney theme parks would be possible without the work of Imagineers.
For generations now, these visionaries have taken seemingly unthinkable ideas and turned them into breathtaking theme park attractions.
So, let’s celebrate some of these remarkable individuals. Here are nine Disney Imagineers you should know.
Xavier “X” Atencio
The colorful man called X enjoyed a fascinating career with Disney. Atencio started as an animator of some renown.
In fact, the artist worked on a high-profile assignment on Fantasia, but then his career went on hiatus due to World War II.
When Atencio returned to Disney, he turned into something of a renaissance man, even working on the title screens for films like Mary Poppins and The Parent Trap.
Along the way, Walt Disney recognized something in his protégé. Atencio viewed Uncle Walt as a father figure, but the illustrator didn’t understand a job change.
Disney moved Atencio into Imagineering and asked him to write the lyrics for the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. The animator had never written a song before.
For whatever reason, this move made little sense on the surface but paid long-term dividends.
X created Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me, one of Disney’s most famous songs.
Loyal Disney fans have thought about Tony Baxter’s contributions a lot lately.
One of Baxter’s finest inspirations, Splash Mountain, recently closed at Magic Kingdom. Soon, Disneyland will also update the attraction to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.
Until 2023, Frontierland guests at Magic Kingdom relished what I called Baxter’s Corner.
Here, guests could ride Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Baxter invented both, which speaks volumes about his greatness.
Baxter’s other works include Star Tours, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Indiana Jones Adventure, and Journey into Imagination. That dude was pretty good.
Disney analysts and historians can’t help but have their favorite Imagineers.
I’d struggle to choose just one, but Mary Blair would definitely make my short list of three or so.
I strongly suspect that Walt Disney would agree. After all, Blair left Disney to work on her own more than once.
Each time, she proved wildly successful. Each time, Walt Disney persuaded her to return to the company.
For this reason, Blair’s impact exists beyond “just” the look and style of It’s a Small World.
She’s also the author of several Little Golden Books and created commercials for Maxwell House and Nabisco.
Blair’s dramatic work with colors led to work on Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland.
Disney also hired her to create murals. You’ve seen the 90-foot-tall one at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, right?
Wing T. Chao
The Chinese native emigrated to the United States when he was a teenager. His dual nationality would prove beneficial to his upcoming Disney career.
During the 1970s, Disney planned expansion beyond Walt Disney World. After Chao joined in 1972, his first job established his architectural abilities.
Chao worked on the Lake Buena Vista Community, including Disney Village, which we now know as Disney Springs.
From there, Chao worked to build a bigger, better Walt Disney World campus.
The Imagineer’s assignments included new hotels, convention centers, and theme parks.
Chao’s design expertise established him as a point person on several Central Florida Disney projects in the 1980s. He even had a hand in the creation of Celebration, Florida!
The success of these projects led to Chao’s next big assignment. He worked on the development of Disneyland Paris. In fact, many of the European campus’ plans are his.
Later, Chao returned to his roots in a manner by finalizing deals for new Disney theme parks in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
By the way, the architect also managed to design four Disney Cruise Line ships.
If you’re a Disney fan who is a world traveler, Wing T. Chao has touched your life.
Alice Estes Davis
Without question, my favorite real-life Disney couple – after Walt and Lillian – is Marc Davis and one of his college students, Alice Davis.
An art student with a prestigious background herself, the former Alice Estes met her future husband at Chouinard Art Institute.
They wouldn’t fall in love until they both worked at Disney, though.
Estes-Davis wasn’t actually a costume designer in her own mind. She desperately signed up for courses in that field since it was the only way she could start university that semester.
Fate intervened, as the future Disney Legend demonstrated a remarkable eye for costuming. In fact, Davis remembered her for this skill and hired her at Disney.
The rest was both romantic and Disney history, as Estes-Davis crafted many of the unforgettable outfits on It’s a Small World. Later, she did the same for Pirates of the Caribbean.
Yes, two of Disney’s most iconic attractions ever owe their look and style to Alice Estes Davis. She was a pioneer who redefined what was possible for women in Imagineering.
Like Estes-Davis, Gracey has contributed to several of your favorite attractions.
This Imagineer earned a reputation as something of a mad scientist at Disney. First, he worked as a layout artist on Pinocchio.
Over time, his co-workers realized that Gracey’s talents existed beyond animation. He became a special effects guru.
Others would ask him to create Imagineering tricks, and he’d brainstorm and experiment until he found something viable.
Over the years, Gracey developed so many special effects for Haunted Mansion that Disney named Master Gracey after him!
The artist also developed the fiery background tricks you’ve admired for years on Pirates of the Caribbean.
Perhaps most remarkably, Gracey also invented the technology that allows non-speaking characters on Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress to vanish from sight.
You can think of Bob Gurr as Disney’s Ride Guy.
Gurr took such pride in his inventions that he would say in later years: “If it moves on wheels at Disneyland, I probably designed it.”
Gurr’s creations include vehicles for Autopia, the Doom Buggies at Haunted Mansion, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. He also famously worked as an expert on all of Disney’s monorails.
Disney fans still wince at the thought that Joe Rohde no longer works at the company. The pain remains fresh after the Imagineer’s retirement in 2021.
For a time, Rohde stood out as an old-school Imagineer, one whom everyone recognized even if they didn’t know his name.
The gentleman with the unique earrings starred at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a project he helmed.
Many of the authentic touches at the park connect directly to Rohde’s decisions, as he stressed that Disney needed staging for the park.
In layperson’s terms, that means everything you see at the park tells a story. He looked at all elements as part of a stage, forcing them to have a purpose.
Perhaps Rohde’s greatest accomplishment is Pandora – The World of Avatar, the breathtaking alien realm that somehow feels like a real place…because it is at Disney!
Beloved Imagineer Marty Sklar spent 54 of his 83 years working for Disney.
During Sklar’s tenure, he functioned as a de facto link to Walt Disney’s golden age of theme parks.
Sklar’s first Disney job was creating The Disneyland News, a newspaper that debuted weeks before Disneyland opened.
By 1956, Sklar had graduated college and joined Disney full-time. Five years later, he transitioned to Imagineering.
Sklar worked as one of the chosen few during the 1964 New York World’s Fair. He had a hand in It’s a Small World and Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
Walt Disney used Sklar as his primary writer for Disney PR writing at the time. Eventually, Sklar transitioned to leadership, where he led the development of EPCOT.
Simply stated, Sklar carried the company torch for more than 40 years after Walt Disney died.
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Feature Photo: Disney