No one knows Disney history, or tells it better, than Jim Korkis, and he’s back with a new set of 20 stories from his Vault of Walt. Whether it’s Disney films, Disney theme parks, or Walt himself, Jim’s stories will charm and delight Disney fans of all ages.
The best-selling Vault of Walt series has brought serious, but fun, Disney history to tens of thousands of readers. Now in its fourth volume, the series features former Disney cast member and master storyteller Jim Korkis’ home-spun, entertaining tales, from the early years of Walt Disney to the present.
Step inside the vault with Jim to hear about:
Discover these and many other new tales of Disney history, as only Jim Korkis can tell them, in The Vault of Walt: Volume 4.
Then be sure to check ALL the volumes in The Vault of Walt!
Foreword by Jeff Kurtti
Introduction by Jim Korkis
Part 1: Walt Disney Stories
Walt’s Hollywood Homes
Walt’s Hollywood Studios
Walt’s Hollywood Theaters
Walt’s Hollywood Hangouts
Walt the Bibliophile
Part 2: Disney Film Stories
Jiminy Cricket Is No Fool
The Making of the Original Frankenweenie
The Secret Story Behind 40 Pounds of Trouble
The Gertie the Dinosaur Story
The Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Story
Part 3: Disney Park Stories
Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland
The Story of Body Wars
All Aboard the Fort Wilderness Railroad
Ken Anderson’s Haunted Mansions
Who Disappeared Roger Rabbit from the Disney Theme Parks?
Part 4: Other Disney Walt Stories
Fred MacMurray: The First Disney Legend
Disney and the Rose Parade
Disney Animator Pranks and Hijinks
Walt Disney and New Orleans
Clarence Nash: The Voice of Donald Duck
In the age of the internet, “Disney historians” are a dime a dozen. There appears to be a conventional wisdom that if you like something, and can cobble some cohesive sentences together, and post them for people to read, some degree of expertise is inherent, or at least implied.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I recently spent far too many hours on a web site trying to pull the plug on yet another Disney myth being put forward as “truth” by an overly enthusiastic—and quite ill-informed—fan. (Seriously, his resource was that “a bartender at [the location being discussed] told me.” So much for scholarship.)
In their eagerness to be a part of the community, too many people don’t start from the beginning. It’s important to learn from those who have gone before. Bob Thomas. Pete Martin. Christopher Finch. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. John Canemaker. Brian Sibley. J.B. Kaufman. The collected works of Didier Ghez and his colleagues. And as many eyewitnesses as might be left.
Information needs to be weighed in an overall balance, contextualized, and perpetually cross-referenced, checked, and confirmed (or denied). Too much scholarship is left by the wayside as people rush to publish without seeking proper sources. Even eyewitness accounts are often questionable, altered by time, “enhanced” for retelling, and requiring context and corroboration. “That’s one of the reasons historians have to be careful,” Jim Korkis says, “even if they are getting the information from a first-hand source.”
As a writer, documentarian, curator, lecturer, consultant, Disney historian, and overall fan, I’m delighted to tell you that what you hold is “the genuine article”. I have known Jim Korkis for years (decades?) since our first collaborations during the glory days of The Disney Institute at Walt Disney World.
Over the years I have relied on Jim as a resource, researcher, sounding board, and contributor to many projects, including the member newsletter and blog for The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Jim balances deep and informed research and investigation with a proper amount of skepticism and questioning. Jim has certitude where appropriate, and doubt where necessary. He is a confident historian, and a fearless yet humble enquirer.
It’s a boon to any Disney fan of any level of interest to have another collection of Jim’s excellent essays to call on. The stories here are varied and fascinating, and shed light on frequently unknown or unconnected bits of Disney history, or illuminate the character and personality of Walt Disney himself. There is a wonderful alchemy that results from Jim’s combination of scrupulous research, informed passion, and the felicity of well-turned storytelling.
As the years move by, so many of these stories, and the thoughts and memories of the people who tell them, would have been lost to time. In addition to the value of preserving this information, Jim has done so in a way that educates and entertains his readers, and I believe not only inspires their own scholarship, but also informs how they seek their information—and how much they trust their sources—and challenges those who wish to follow in his footsteps as historians.
So it’s time again to open up The Vault of Walt and enjoy the work of Walt Disney, his colleagues, and creative heirs—presented by someone who carries on a tradition of quality and value commensurate with his subject matter.
Is there anything new still left to be said about anything in Disney history?
There are a plethora of books, websites, blogs, and podcasts devoted to sharing stories of Disney history.
In fact, most of them simply repeat the same stories and “secrets” over and over, indicating that all there is to know about Disney is already known, or will never be known since the people involved have passed away and documentation has disappeared.
Ironically, there is more to be discovered and shared about Disney today than at any other time in recorded history.
Several unpublished memoirs and scrapbooks have been recently uncovered and put into print. Thanks to the internet, people now have access to international sources as well as newspaper archives, previously out-of-print material, and even direct contact with people who worked at Disney.
Countless books, especially from Theme Park Press, have unlocked previously unknown stories and insights, and many more are slated to be published in the near future.
When it came time to put together this latest volume in the Vault of Walt series, I worried that I might not have enough good and rarely shared stories, especially compared to the previous editions. That was not the problem.
The problem was that I had too many good stories and I had to decide which ones to leave on the cutting room floor, perhaps for a future edition. The original table of contents changed several times from first submission to the publisher to final proof copy.
Like the previous editions in this series, I think I can guarantee that these are Disney stories that you have not heard before, or at least not with this amount of detail and documentation.
Of course, new information is always appearing. Everyone “knew” that Walt Disney must have climbed into the cabin of a train on the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad to take over as engineer every now and then, but there was no proof.
Yet, just last year, an old Retlaw Enterprises (Walt’s private company that owned the trains and the use of his name) itinerary kept by a former employee who was getting rid of it clearly showed that every Sunday in 1957 at 2:00 pm, Walt would tap out the engineer and, dressed in his overalls and cap, take the train around the park for a few hours without the guests ever knowing.
Everyone “knew” for decades that Walt Disney would have never flashed a “Vote for Goldwater” button to Goldwater’s opponent in the upcoming election, President Lyndon Johnson, on September 14, 1963, when Johnson awarded Walt the nation’s highest civilian honor, the prestigious Medal of Freedom. And, yet, that is pretty much what Walt did do and the full facts behind it were unearthed just a few years ago by Disney historian and author Michael Barrier.
Disney historian Didier Ghez’s recent book, Disney’s Grand Tour: Walt and Roy’s European Vacation, Summer 1935, revealed new information and a new perspective on that historic trip as well as debunking Walt’s meeting with Italian dictator Mussolini that everyone “knew” must have taken place. It didn’t.
Those are just some of the reasons that it is exciting to be researching and writing Disney history today. New information and new perspectives are constantly being shared. For those people who are willing to put in the long hours and many frustrations, precious gems can still be found.
A handful of those previously unshared gems are inside these pages, and I sincerely hope that they will inspire others to go out and find even more information.
Disney history is such a rich and diverse tapestry that some of the little details are too often overlooked and are in danger of being forgotten. The Vault of Walt series is my attempt to showcase some of them for your enjoyment and to help future researchers.
Thanks for buying this book.
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for over three decades. He is also an award-winning teacher, a professional actor and magician, and the author of several books.
Korkis grew up in Glendale, California, right next to Burbank, the home of the Disney studios. As a teenager, Korkis got a chance to meet the Disney animators and Imagineers who lived nearby, and began writing about them for local newspapers.
In 1995, he relocated to Orlando, Florida, where he portrayed the character Prospector Pat in Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom, and Merlin the Magician for the Sword in the Stone ceremony in Fantasyland.
In 1996, Korkis became a full-time animation instructor at the Disney Institute teaching all of their animation classes, as well as those on animation history and improvisational acting techniques. As the Disney Institute re-organized, Jim joined Disney Adult Discoveries, the group that researched, wrote, and facilitated backstage tours and programs for Disney guests and Disneyana conventions.
Eventually, Korkis moved to Epcot as a Coordinator for the College and International Programs, and then as a Coordinator for the Epcot Disney Learning Center. He researched, wrote, and facilitated over two hundred different presentations on Disney history for Cast Members and for such Disney corporate clients as Feld Entertainment, Kodak, Blue Cross, Toys “R” Us, and Military Sales.
Korkis has also been the off-camera announcer for the syndicated television series Secrets of the Animal Kingdom; has written articles for several Disney publications, including Disney Adventures, Disney Files (DVC), Sketches, and Disney Insider; and has worked on many different special projects for the Disney Company.
In 2004, Disney awarded Jim Korkis its prestigious Partners in Excellence award.
If you have a question for Jim Korkis that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
I was about 15 when I interviewed Jack Hannah with my little tape recorder and school notebook with questions printed neatly in ink. I learned to develop a very good memory because often when the tape recorder was running, people would freeze up. So, I sometimes turned off the tape recorder and just took notes which I later verified with the person. I always gave them a chance to review what they had said and make any changes. I lost a lot of great stories, although I still have them in my files for future generations, but gained a lot of trust.
I was very, very lucky. I was a kid, and it never occurred to me that when I saw their names in the end credits of the weekly Disney television show that I couldn't just find their names in the local phone book and call them up. Ninety percent of them were gracious, but there were about ten percent who thought it was a joke and that maybe one of their friends had put me up to phoning them.
It was like dominoes. Once I did one interview and the person was pleased, he put me in touch with others. After some of those interviews were published in my school paper and local newspapers, it gave me some greater credibility. Later, when they started to appear in magazines, I got even more opportunities.
JIM: You know, one of the proudest things for me about my books is that not a single factual error has been found.
To do my research, I start with all the interviews I've done over the past three decades, some of which are some available in the Walt's People series of books edited by Didier Ghezz. When necessary, I contact other Disney historians and authorities to fill in the gaps. And I have amassed a huge library of books, magazines, and documents.
When I moved from California to Florida, I brought with me over 20,000 pounds of Disney research material. The moving company that had just charged me a flat fee was shocked they had so severely underestimated the weight, and lost thousands of dollars. That was over fifteen years ago and the collection has only grown since that time.
About The Vault of Walt Series
JIM: I was fortunate to grow up in the Los Angeles area at a time when I had access to some of Walt’s original animators and Imagineers. They shared with me some wonderful stories. I wrote articles about their for various magazines and “fanzines” of the time. All of those publications are long gone and often difficult to find today.
As more and more of Walt’s “original cast” pass away, I realized that their stories had not been properly documented, and that unless I did something, they would be lost. Everyone always told me I should write a book telling these tales and finally I decided to do it.
JIM: She actually contacted me. Her son, Walter, loved the Disney history columns and articles I was writing and would send them to her. I was overwhelmed that she enjoyed them. She was appreciative that I tried to treat her dad fairly and not try to psycho-analyze why he did what he did.
She also liked that I revealed things she never knew about her father. As we talked and I told her I was doing the book, I asked if she would write the foreword. She agreed immediately and I had it within a week. She even invited me to go to the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and give a presentation. She is an incredible woman.
JIM: Obviously, the ones about her dad were a big hit. She especially liked the chapter about Walt and his feelings toward religion. She told me that it accurately reflected how she saw her dad act.
JIM: That’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. I tried to put in all the stories I loved because I figured this might be the only book about Disney I would ever write.
One chapter that I have grown to love even more since it was first published is the one about Walt’s love of miniatures. I recently found more information about that subject, and then on the trip to Disney Family Museum, I was able to spend hours examining some of Walt’s collection up close.
About Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?
JIM: I wanted to read a “Making of the Song of the South” book, but nobody else was ever going to write it. I wanted to know the history behind the production, why Walt made certain choices, and as many behind-the-scenes tidbits that could be told. I didn’t want to read a sociological thesis on racism.
Fortunately, over the years I had interviewed some of the people involved in the production, had seen the film multiple times, and had gathered material from pressbooks to newspaper articles to radio shows of the era.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Song of the South. I wanted to get the facts in print and let people make up their own minds.
JIM: I thought I knew a lot after being actively involved in Disney history for over three decades, but writing this book showed me how little I really know.
For example, I learned that it was Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck for decades, who did the whistling for Mr. Bluebird on Uncle Remus’ shoulder. I learned that Ward Kimball used to host meetings of UFO enthusiasts at his home. I learned that the Disney Company tried for years to make a John Carter of Mars feature. I learned that Walt himself tried to make a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I learned that Disney operated a secret studio to make animated television commercials in the mid-1950s to raise money to build Disneyland. And so much more.
Even the most knowledgeable Disney fans will find new treasures of information on every page of this book.
JIM: Walt Disney was not racist. That is one of those urban myths which popped up long after Walt died, and so he was unable to defend himself.
In my book, I make it clear that Walt had no racist intent at all in making Song of the South. He merely wanted to share the famous Uncle Remus stories that he enjoyed as a child, and he treated the black cast with respect and generosity.
Many people don't realize that the events in the film take place after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction. So many offensive Hollywood films made at the same time as Song of the South, even one with little Shirley Temple, depicted the Old South during the Civil War in an unrealistic manner. Walt's film got lumped in with them, and he was a visible target for a much larger crusade.
With John Cawley:
The Big Easy comes to Disneyland—just not as soon as Walt would have liked.
New Orleans Square in Disneyland was the first new “land” added to the theme park since it opened in 1955, but Walt had always wanted there to be a New Orleans-themed section in Disneyland from the start.
At the opening day ceremonies, co-hosts Ronald Reagan and Bob Cummings both referred to the New Orleans flavor at the edge of Frontierland, and the famous jazz band the Firehouse Five Plus Two played Dixieland jazz to inaugurate the area. A Disneyland postcard of the area from 1956 stated: “Down on New Orleans Street over in Frontierland…finest barbeque this side of the Mississippi…”
Walt planned that the Magnolia Park just around the corner from Adventureland’s Jungle Cruise would eventually develop into a New Orleans area. Wrought-iron balconies, like those iconic of New Orleans architecture, decorated the exterior of Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House.
The Plantation House restaurant (often referred to as the Chicken Plantation Restaurant because it featured full chicken dinners for $1.65) was designed so that the side of the building that faced the Rivers of America had a New Orleans-style façade. It was reminiscent of pre-Civil War New Orleans. The side of the building that faced the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad was designed to look like a Spanish hacienda, in keeping with the Frontierland theme.
In the late 1950s, the Imagineers conceived of this area as having a creepy haunted house, a pirate wax museum that guests would walk through to see tableaux of pirate history, and a Thieves Market for shopping.
By 1961, in order to put in as much as possible into the area, the haunted house was moved to the north, taking over the land where the Plantation House restaurant originally stood.
The New Orleans area was proposed to be the Blue Bayou Mart, an enclosed section where it was always a breezy summer night with stars in the sky. There would still be a Thieves Market with the pirate museum underneath the street in a “basement”. However, there would now be an elegant restaurant overlooking the Blue Bayou.
Imagineer Sam McKim created a concept map. Because of the demands of the projects for the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, Walt pulled all the Imagineers off the New Orleans project to concentrate on the pavilions for the fair. When the fair ended, everyone had a new perspective, including changing the walk-through pirate wax museum into a boat ride like “it’s a small world” and changing the static figures into Audio-Animatronics.
Why was it called New Orleans Square, since it doesn’t seem to be a square at all, but a series of curved, winding streets? The Vieux Carré is the historic name for the actual New Orleans French Quarter, and translates from the original French into “Old Square”.
The area at Disneyland was officially dedicated on July 24, 1966, by Walt and Victor Schiro, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 1961–1969.
A reporter for a New Orleans newspaper wrote that “it’s the next best thing to being there” and repeated the information from the Disney publicity material that it was built for almost the exact amount paid for the entire Louisiana Purchase in 1803, roughly $15 million (just $2 million shy of the cost to build the entire Disneyland park in 1955).
When Schiro repeated to the gathered reporters that the Disney version was “just like the real thing”, a playful Walt off to the side and in a soft voice said “only cleaner”. Walt was in an exuberant mood and kept interrupting the mayor, pointing out that they both had mustaches, and how the dollar had risen over the years since the original Louisiana Purchase. He also joked that since the mayor had just made him an honorary citizen of New Orleans (“You know I am already a Louisiana Colonel,” remarked Walt) that maybe he should make the mayor an “honorary dictator of the Magic Kingdom”.
When New Orleans Square opened, you could hear the chants and ringing bells of a voodoo queen living off a balcony on the backside of the square near the bathrooms and the train station. It was speculated that it was the sound of the infamous Marie Laveau who practiced voodoo in New Orleans in the 1700s and 1800s. After all, her portrait could be found in both the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion when those attractions first opened.
Those chants and bells wouldn’t have bothered Walt, whose massive personal apartment was being built over the Pirates of the Caribbean ride where his wife Lilly would have been able to easily visit the nearby One-of-A-Kind Shop down below, filled with unique antiques.
At the dedication, Walt said:
Disneyland has always had a Big River and a Mississippi sternwheeler. It made sense to build a new attraction at the bend of the river, and so New Orleans Square came into being—a New Orleans of a century ago when she was the “Gay Paree” of the American frontier.
To read the rest of the story, pick up your copy of The Vault of Walt: Volume 4.
If Imagineer Ken Anderson had gotten his way, Disneyland's Haunted Mansion would have been haunted by some very different haunts!
It had always been part of Walt’s vision for Disneyland to include a haunted house, but he had originally planned to locate it on a side street off of Main Street. Imagineer Harper Goff had sketched a dilapidated old house on the top of a small hill overlooking a church and a graveyard. Guests would have looked through its large windows to see the ghostly activity inside.
By 1957, when Walt gave an interview to the BBC about his plans for a retirement home for ghosts, he envisioned it in an area of Frontierland with a New Orleans theme. Ken Anderson had just moved over to WED Imagineering from the studio, and Walt turned to his “jack of all trades” to research some possibilities. As Paul Anderson told me:
We always hear about “the group of Imagineers” that went out to research the Haunted Mansion. Actually, “the group” was just Ken.
Anderson’s 1958 sketch of a decaying mansion was apparently based on the Evergreen House in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s the sketch that Sam McKim transformed into the famous concept painting.
It is also apparent that Ken’s approach to a Disney “walkthrough” haunted house was greatly influenced by his experiences taking a tour at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.
Sometimes called the “ghost mansion”, this popular tourist attraction has doors and staircases that lead nowhere and a maze of rooms constantly being redone by the widow of the maker of the Winchester rifle. She believed that the ghostly victims of the Winchester rifle had cursed her family and were haunting her to keep building more and more rooms for their earthbound spirits. It was even rumored that through “automatic writing” she received building directions which she passed along to the carpenters.
Ken Anderson had two pages of notes on the Winchester House, from the size of the tour group (maximum of 20), the mix of adults and children (roughly four times the number of adults to children), the maximum/minimum entrance and exit time in each area (25–60 seconds), the maximum/minimum time the guide spoke in each area (32 seconds to three-and-a-half minutes), as well as a variety of notes like “average group well behaved” and “rooms are all empty—nothing to touch”.
Anderson strongly believed that a cohesive story was necessary to guide Disney guests through the Haunted Mansion. Not only was storytelling an important element of the Disney Brand and had positioned Disney’s “dark rides” as different from carnival amusement park dark rides, but storytelling would be necessary to move guests through the experience rather than have them dawdle in one area and clog the flow of traffic.
In 1957, Anderson developed four story concepts, all of which feature elements reflected in the final version of the attraction that was eventually opened at Disneyland on August 9, 1969.
Perhaps the best-known version was Anderson’s first attempt, which featured the Legend of Captain Gore and was written in February 1957. The mansion was the seaside manor of an old sea captain who had married a young woman named Priscilla. She discovers he is actually a notorious pirate.
Gore killed his bride (and in one version tossed her bloody body into an outside well that still bubbles red) and she haunted him until he took his own life by hanging himself. This story would have been shared with guests by a butler or maid who worked in the mansion.
Another version was Bloodmere Manor, which was the lakeside estate of “the unfortunate Blood family”. It was built around 1800 in the swampy bayous near New Orleans and was moved to Disneyland intact because it was an example of early architecture from that region.
The mansion had not been occupied for some time and was badly in need of repair, so the Disney Company started the work of restoration as soon as it arrived at Disneyland, but:
[S]trangely enough…the work of each day was destroyed during the night…and the night watchman reported that when he had passed the house he’d heard eerie screams and seen weird lights… In fact, we are sorry to report that the latest tragedy of all occurred here in Disneyland…when one of our carpenters engaged in restoration work on the house disappeared completely from sight…and he has not been seen or heard from since. The house is now too dangerous to live in, but we have succeeded in making it safe enough for a visit…when accompanied by our trained and competent guide, a former butler of the household.
A third version had Walt himself as the narrator on tape as the guests wandered through the house to go to a ghostly wedding celebration.
Another version focused on the Headless Horseman from the Disney animated film The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) about Ichabod Crane on Halloween night. This version also featured a wedding, this time between Monsieur Bogeyman and Mlle. Vampire. The bride jilts the groom at the altar, sparking chaos and the need to quickly exit the mansion.
To read the rest of the story, pick up your copy of The Vault of Walt: Volume 4.