What Used to Be

As a rule, the Walt Disney Studios does not give studio tours, or so I understood. However, I’ve noticed a number of people being escorted around the Disney Burbank lot recently. I can only assume these are special guests being given an inside look at what was once Walt Disney’s magic factory. It’s worth a visit, I suppose. The Walt Disney production facility is certainly  something you’d want to see. The facility is clearly inviting with immaculate, landscape grounds and manicured lawns. As an added treat, cute, little squirrels scamper about grounds adding a distinctly Disney touch.

Back in the day, I gave an occasional tour of the Walt Disney Studio myself. As an employee of Walt’s cartoon factory I couldn’t help but be proud of this special facility. After all, this was a production facility built with the artist in mind. Walt Disney wanted to create the perfect environment for his creative staff and he spared no expense. In sharp contrast to Hollywood’s tacky production factories, the Walt Disney Studios was a perfect creative space. The lot had more in common with a university campus than the usual Tinsel Town, grungy production factory. I confess, I was proud to show off this marvelous campus. The unique location where Disney magic was created.

However, that was another time, long before the Walt Disney Company exploded and became the massive multimedia enterprise it is today. Ironically, as the studio has clearly grown, it appears there’s even less to see. Today’s Walt Disney Studio tour is more about real estate than it is about creativity. It’s a view of the buildings and facilities rather than a look at the creative individuals that once filled those special buildings. Today’s Walt Disney Studio Tour is a contrived look at, what used to be.

What do I mean by, what used to be? You can hear this for yourself as the appointed tour guide gives his or her corporate approved spiel. The Animation Building is where the Disney classic films used to be made. This is where hundreds of talented artists used to work. Across the way, inkers and painters meticulously inked and paint the thousands of acetate cells. Rather, they used to do that. Then, they were sent down the hall to the Camera Department where animation cameramen used to photograph the beautiful artwork one frame at a time. This building also housed editorial, where film editors used to cut film. The entire facility would hum with activity as talented men and women moved through the production process. That is…they used to.

Yet, “Used to Be” continues. A visit to “Recording Stage A” is a reminder of a time we recorded a full studio orchestra with stars such as Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Of course, we used to do that. Today, film scores are recorded off site. A trip to the studio back lot will provide a view of parking structures, but there used to be movie sets in those spaces. And, let’s not forget the Disney Carpenter Shop and the Machine Shop hard at work building whatever the Old Maestro desired for a park or movie. They were there as well. At least, they used to be. As we move farther into the studio back lot you might be told about the western street that used to occupy that space. Of course, there was the famous Zorro Set and a tropical lagoon. There was a residential neighborhood and an Irish Villiage. There was a good deal more that used to be there but…you get the idea.

It would appear that today’s Walt Disney Studio is simply prime real estate ready to be leased to any production group willing to pay the freight. Of course, the deco inspired structure has its charm, and the facility retains its comfortable vibe. It’s clearly a cool option when you consider the cold, corporate spaces offered by more modern structures. Yet, there’s a tinge of sadness when I walk past the corridors once occupied by Disney’s finest creatives. Computers take the space of drawing tables, and the brilliant designers, painters and draftsmen have been replaced by corporate drones. The glow of the computer screen takes the place of the animator’s light table and the hallways of each wing remain deathly silent. There are no gags on the office walls and no person would dare engage in the wacky pranks once played by the Disney animators. Clearly, working at the Walt Disney Studio was the best job in the world. At least, it used to be.

As the tour continued on their way I couldn’t help but wonder if the visitors were somewhat disappointed  by their visit to the Mickey Mouse Factory. After all, there wasn’t a hint of magic on the excursion. They could easily have been strolling through an industrial park or a bible college. The amazing artisans and craftspeople don’t work here anymore. The storytellers and animators have long since departed. The only thing left of Walt’s amazing studio are a series of beige buildings. Buildings where everything creative, wonderful, and marvelous …used to be.

The buildings remain even though the magic is long gone.

The buildings remain even though the magic is long gone.