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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Yes – Yet Another Walt Disney Studio Tour

Weekend before last was a busy one.  First, nothing would have it, but we had to see Brave on Friday night’s opening.  Excellent movie, but have we come to expect anything less from PIXAR?  You can see my review posted just before this one, but, it’s a great movie and I’m looking forward to seeing it again… and again… and again…  J

Saturday was a bit less busy than originally planned, as my buddy Libby let me off the hook for a ride to SJO early in the morning, but, the wife and I spent the afternoon at the Walt Disney Family Museum, listening to Author and former manager of the Walt Disney Archives Robert Tieman talk about “Selling Walt: The Business (and Fun) of Movie Promotion.”  We spent the hour and a half talking about what the Studio did to help theater owners promote Disney movies coming to their establishments.  I’ll try to having another piece on this after I get a chance to go over my notes.

Finally the weekend’s main event was on Sunday.  A third trip to the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank for a tour of the Studio, this time with my youngest daughter.  Someone asked me, “don’t you get bored, see the same stuff?”  Simple answer, NO!!!  It kind of the same with the Walt Disney Family Museum; no matter how many times I visit, I always manage to learn something new each time.  This is helped on the Studio tour by the fact that in three visits, We’ve had three different tour guides.  While there is a defined tour guideline for what we get to see, there is no set script.  So, each guide can add their own special stories that they relate to the Studio and Walt. 

More on the tour in a moment, but first, back to beginning…  Since this was a one day trip, departure time set for 5:00 AM.  Tee must have been anxious because we were on the road at 4:58, and the trip progressed nicely until we were about an hour and a half into it.  For some reason I tapped the right front pocket of my jean, and gasped…  DAMN!!!  Actually, I think my word choice might have been and little different, but…  Tee’s eyes slammed open with a WHAT???  I had remembered everything for the trip except one critical component… one of my wallets, the one that has all my credit cards and my D23 membership card in it.  No credit cards, no gas…  No D23 card, no entrance to the Studio tour.  As we turn back north, thinking the trip and event may well be over, Tee calls her Mom to see if she can meet us about have way back with said wallet?  Fortunately, was up to the task, and hopped into the other vehicle with our oldest as navigator, and headed south, as we were headed back north.  We met up in Gilroy, I got my wallet and a quick Mickey D’s breakfast, we exchanged goodbyes and thanks, and were headed back south again…  hoping that I could make up enough time not to miss the tour.  Again, fortunate with Pam bringing me my wallet, we didn’t lose the full hour and a half’s driving time.  I pedaled it a little harder than I normally would have, and the quick breakfast stop in Gilroy, so, just a single gas stop in Buellton (of Anderson’s Split Pea fame), and we made Burbank with a half and hour to spare…  cutting it close, by my travel standards.  A quick stop to let Tee change clothes, a quick tour around the studio lot, and we were driving into the Buena Vista Gate at the Walt Disney Studios at the prescribed no more than 30 minutes before our scheduled tours.  WHEW!!!  J

As we are checking in for the tour - D23 card required – in front of the Hyperion Bungalow, who should come around the corner but Jeffrey Epstein.  I have had the pleasure of meeting Jeff on several occasions, including most recently at the Walt Disney Family Museum’s presentation of the D23 Fanniversary.  Jeff is one of those many truly friendly Disney Cast-members who is just a joy to be around.  Well, guess who turned out to be the guide for our 1:30 tour, none other than Jeffrey.  J  While waiting for our tour to start, Tee and I got a chance to look through the D23 Merchandise Store in one of the rooms of the Hyperion Bungalow, where I pick up a few items, and then a quick troll through the Employee’s store across the walkway.  Jeffrey gathered his tourists together at the prescribed time, and ushered us to shady spot – it was, of course, and normal warm and sunny afternoon in Burbank.   From our nicely shaded location in front of the Employee Store, Jeffrey began to explain some of the sites around us:

·         The Hyperion Bungalow behind us, one of several buildings that were moved from them original Hyperion Avenue studio in the Silver Lake district.  The bungalow now has two rooms, fittingly called the Hyperion and Silver Lake rooms, and is used for meetings, and as the check-in point for the tours.

·         Next to us was the Employee Store, which had been redone since my last visit, and the Employee credit union behind it.

Next, a look across the street was the Mickey Mouse topiary.  The Mickey topiary was a anniversary gift to the Studio from Walt Disney World, and Michael Eisner declared that the Walt Disney Studio should become the West Coast capital for topiaries.  Until…  The plant started to die and the studio landscaping staff had to spend a bundle of cash to develop an internal watering system so this Mickey could flourish.  Today, the Mickey topiary is the singular nod on the Studio lot to what seems so natural in Florida.  A few yards to the right of the topiary stands one of two flagpoles from the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, where Walt Disney was the Chairman of Pageantry and responsible of Opening and Closing ceremonies.  This first flagpole was acquired by Walt after the games, its sister flagpole, a few more yard down, was donated by another company so that the Studio could have the pair.  Behind the topiary and the flagpoles sit the Studio Commissary.  In 1940, when the studio first opened, there weren’t a lot of eatery options in the area, so Walt made sure that his people were taken care of for meals with the commissary.  To this day, the commissary still serves Walt’s favorite meal… Chili.  I couple of years ago, I was fortunate to attend an event at the Studio which included dinner at the commissary.  I had the chili, and it was – while not my Texas Red – a very good bowl of chili.  Actually, if you want the recipe, it’s on the D23 website – Walt’s Own Chili recipe.

Now we move on down the street to the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive, or have we?  If you have seen “The Reluctant Dragon,” then you know the street sign right next to the old Animation Building.  If not and you are a Disney fan, you’ve probably seen a picture or two of the street sign for Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive.  This sign was installed as a prop for the 1941 short film “The Reluctant Dragon,” where Robert Benchley (yes, that is Peter Benchley’s… of JAWS fame… father) dashes around the studio in search of Walt Disney to pitch him a story.  As travels the Disney lot, we learn different aspects of the animation process.  An interesting note about the street sign… if you follow the sign to the several department, you’ll find yourself even more lost… as they point the wrong direction.  Right next to the street sign is a fire hydrant with a sign painted on the curb “Pluto’s Corner.”  In the cement next to the hydrant are three distinct paw prints… wonder where that fourth paw is???  J

Standing on the steps of the Animation Building, we look across the walkway to the studio theater.  This theater has been used over the years as a screening theater and a sound mixing studio for putting the finishing touches on films.  A few years ago, the company finished a complete retrofit and remodel to the theater.  Today, it is used to screen new film for employees and to hold special screening for the public.  I had the good fortune to event a couple of those special screenings, and the inside is as beautiful as the outside.  The walkway outside was where they once place the cement encased handprints of recent inducted Disney Legends, much like they do outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  Years ago it was discovered that these cement tributes were slowly degrading with all the foot traffic, so the Archive team preserved them, move them to the Archive and install replicas in the new Legends’ Plaza.  The Plaza was close for this a special “Brave” reception, so we didn’t get to go in.  Moving on, we entered the Animation Building, and tour the first floor main hallway, looking at many examples of the animation and storytelling process.  The Animation Building was specifically built for Walt’s Animators.  It is a three story building running north and south, with eight wings, four on either side east and west.  When Walt was build this new studio after the success of ‘Snow White’, he ask is artists what the needed most… the clear answer was LIGHT!!!  With the eight wings, the Animation Building has lots of light.  On the third floor in the north east corner is where Walt’s offices were located.  In that wing Walt had his formal and working offices, and a reception area.  On second floor, one wing south was where Roy had his offices.  The running joke for Walt was that, “this was so that he could look down on Roy and keep and eye on him, but Roy couldn’t look up and see what he was doing.”  Unfortunately, the D23 Studio tours don’t make a trip to the 2nd or 3rd floors, but, if you keep your eyes open, there are a few events that do.  J

Moving on to Disney’s first utilidor… Utilidor, you say…  What the heck is a Utilidor?  Well, it is a utility corridor, and how many of you know that there is a whole subterranean world under Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom?  Well, actually it isn’t subterranean, because of Florida’s high water table; Walt Disney World is really built one story above sea level, with much of the Parks unseen operations conducted in the first floor utilidors.  I’ve been told that there are a couple of small utilidors at Disneyland, but nothing like the complex at Walt Disney World.  Maybe I’ll do an essay on the Magic Kingdom Utilidors and why they came to be, but, the Walt Disney Studios had the first Utilidor.  The Animation Building has a basement that was used primarily for storage, with a utilidor that accesses the Ink and Paint building next door.  While this passage has been used as a prop in several Disney productions (think Alias for one), it had a real function meant for its design.  This was the path that animators’ cells took in route to be painted and finished, before moving on to the Camera department, keep the cells protected from potential weather or dust from being outdoors.

After and quick tour through the Short building, the third and final building (well in reality, its two buildings that were combined into one on the new lot) moved over from the from the Hyperion lot, we made our way through the sound stages.  Not really much to say are or seeing but, the outside of these huge buildings where much of the Disney magic is produced.  During the development of Disneyland, several of these stages were used to build mock-ups.  One interesting note for fans of Mary Poppins, all of the live actions scenes for the movie were done on a sound stage, nothing was done outdoors or on location.  Out of the sound stages as walk by the iconic water tower (built with 6 legs, instead 4 or 5, because it was more esthetically appealing to Walt’s Brother Roy), we emerged onto what was once the studio’s backlot… the Zorro parking structure, over by the Riverside Gate, stands where the sets for the Zorro T.V. show once stood, along with other western sets.  As we walk along the street, we see the only remaining backlot structures at the Studio today, a row of store fronts. Within a short walk we come upon the backside of water (sorry for the Disneyland reference) err… of the Ink & Paint, and Camera Departments.  The most important building here was the machine shop where Roger Broggie took on an interesting apprentice… his boss, Walt Disney.  It was in this machine shop that many of Walt’s innovation were brought to life, and where Walt with Roger’s help created the Carolwood Pacific Railroad, a miniature train which he operated around his Holmby Hills home in the earlier 50s.

Now for one of the special treats of these tours, a trip to the Main Office of the Walt Disney Archive, and some face time with the one and only Dave Smith.  As we were told on a couple of occasions during the tour, Roy O. asked Dave to create the Archive in 1970.  One of Dave’s first tasks was to catalog and document Walt’s offices in the Animation building which had been shuddered since his death in 1966.  An exhibit of Walt’s Office has been on display at One Man's Dream - Walt's Office in Disney Hollywood Studio at Walt Disney World.  Also as I understand it, Walt’s formal office has been recreated for the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archive exhibit which opens July 6 at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.  Well, we got to spend about a half an hour with Dave, as he showed us some of the artifacts he has discovered over the last forty years.  Items such as, the ticket and parking pass for the Disneyland opening day media event, the first year ticket book for the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, and one of Walt Disney many Oscars.  I’ve seen some of the exhibits from the Archive at events like the D23 Expo, but, there is nothing like being in the same room listening to the man who started the Archive.

From the Archive, we moved past the Legends Plaza (no visit there today) to the Rotunda of the Team Disney building that sits on the corner of the lot at Buena Vista Street and Alameda Avenue, and houses Disney’s executive management team.  In the rotunda lobby are two large tiled pictures of the company founders… Walt and Roy.  As we leave the rotunda, we pass by the Roy Oliver Disney Building.  Built the 80s, on our last visit to the Studio, this building was an ivy covered box which looked a little out of place between the new Team Disney and the old Animation Buildings.  On this trip, the building has been completely remodeled and refurbished.  Gone is the ivy, and the old ugly cross beam support structure has been pleasantly disguised by clean concrete, smoked glass windows, and a lattice of natural woods covering the lower half of each floor.  This building now looks like it belong on the lot, and is a much more fitting tribute to the man it is named after.  And a few minutes later, we are back at the Hyperion Bungalow, and with some sadness, an end to our tour.  A hearty thank you to Jeffrey, and a quick trip into the Employees’ Store, and we were on our way home with our trinkets and memories.

As it turns out, the trip home turned out to be as eventful as our travels down.  First, yours truly flubbed again and took the wrong freeway exit and to turn around.  Wound up heading back to the Studio.  After getting my direction squared away, and heading north, we made our way to Camarillo and a stop for fuel, for both auto and human. Finished with dinner, we were again headed north, only to be slowed to a crawl a few miles north of Santa Barbara.  It took us 2 hours to make it three miles, because (as I discovered later) a drunk took out another vehicle and completely blocked both lanes northbound.  After getting passed the accident, Tee and I decided the meal stop was a good decision, had we decided to just drive through, we’d have been at that spot at right about the time the accident happened and could have been involved, instead of gripping about the slow crawl, and arriving home after 12:30 AM

All and all, another great trip with one of my girls, but, stay tuned... I have a run south planned for August and event at Disneyland.  J

Your comments or questions are always welcome.  If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at

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