An Interview With Randy Thornton
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Fans of Disney music, especially Disney theme park music, know the name Randy Thornton. Randy is a supervisor producer at Walt Disney Records and is responsible for, among other things, the great collection of theme park music brought together on the various Official Albums and the collections occasionally released. LaughingPlace.com had opportunity to speak with Randy shortly after the release of the most recent Disneyland and Walt Disney World official albums back in April.
LaughingPlace.com: A lot of Disney fans don’t know your name, but they certainly know your work pretty well, so can you tell us a little bit about your role at the company and some of the projects that you’ve worked on?
Randy Thorton: Yeah, I was a senior producer here at Walt Disney Records, and I’m now a supervising producer. I’m the only producer, actually, on staff. And I do a lot of the spoken word, the read-alongs and the storyteller products. Even though you don’t see them in the marketplace, we still do those. And I also was behind getting all the classic soundtracks restored. That’s been one of the passions of mine, to get all that done. And then I started working on the official albums, which eventually led to the Musical History of Disneyland boxed set back in 2005 for the 50th Anniversary. And they keep plodding along, still doing all that stuff, trying to get a lot of our old record masters out there. We tried the archive series as a regular physical product. That didn’t work. We tried CD-burning kiosks at the park. That didn’t work. And now they’re on iTunes, and it’s working great.
LP: That’s good to hear.
Randy Thorton: Yeah, we have over 47 titles out there, and it’s reaching
more people than ever before. More people are finding these things.
Before, with the physical product, we had to deal with merchandisers putting it in their stores, and each rack space is real estate. They want these things to move. And there was never really a whole lot of publicity behind it because most of our society lives in the now.
And the CD-burning kiosks were really cumbersome. The only places you could get them were inside the parks, and – I knew it was going to be awkward from the beginning, but I was given the opportunity, and I wasn’t going let it get by.
And what it did do was allowed me to get a whole bunch of masters ready. Because I knew eventually things were going to go to iTunes. I personally believe that distribution services like that is going to be the future. I think physical product’s going to eventually go away. However, the official albums are a unique kind of thing. Not only is it a different kind of product than most anywhere else, but it is a souvenir. So how that goes when physical product goes away, I don’t know. It might be one of the last hangers-on, I think.
LP: Now, the reason we’re talking to you today is the official albums – the new ones which just came out for Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Can you talk a bit about what Disney fans can look for in those and maybe some of the stuff that’s been taken off as well?
Randy Thorton: Yeah, yeah. It’s been sort of an ongoing process. The
official albums originally started in 1971 with the opening of Disney World,
when it was just the Magic Kingdom out there, and it was the official album of
Disneyland and Disney World. Before that was the Walt Takes You to Disneyland
and A Day at Disneyland that was narrated by Jiminy Cricket, or Cliff Edwards.
But it was just sort of like an overview, sort of to give you a feeling of the
park. It wasn’t actually sound elements from the park. But the 1971 album did
And then in 1982 or 3 – I know some people are going to send me letters about the dates, but then when Epcot opened – I believe it was ’83 – is when the album came out. Again there were tracks specifically for that particular park.
A couple years later, those tracks from Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Epcot Center were combined into the official album of Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Epcot Center, with a couple additions here and there and a couple of deletions.
And that sort of stayed the same for a good number of years until, well, actually, until the mid ’90s. Disneyland was still pretty much stuck with the same Disneyland/Walt Disney World/Epcot Center album, but Walt Disney World got their own. And again, it was a lot of the same things, but everybody is very familiar, there are some things at Disneyland that aren’t at Disney World. There are some things at Disney World that aren’t at Disneyland. And even sometimes when they all do have the same attractions, they have different soundtracks. Like, Splash Mountain is the perfect example.
Well, before they were all just sort of one-minute clips, little snippets. “Grim, Grinning Ghosts” was only a minute long, and as a fan myself, I always wanted to have much more of an experience there musically. And when I did the three-disk set for the 75th anniversary, 75 Years of Music and Memories, I was able to go back and really expand these, sort of like a little mini ride through, but really musically based, and that’s what led them to put me in charge of the official albums from that point on, and I really wanted to expand these things.
And all the development over at Epcot, with the attractions being removed and new ones coming in, none of that was ever kept up. So when I started, it was my goal to try to put as many new things on as possible, but a lot of these recordings were never meant to be on a record. I mean, they’re designed and they’re recorded specifically for use in the attraction, and that was with the contracts as well. So it was going to take some time to get the stuff out there.
So over the last, I’d say eight years or so, we’ve been adding newer and newer tracks to it and sort of picking up some of the attractions that were neglected, like finally we have “Reflections of China” on there this year. The World Showcase section of the album, I always felt needed to be more representative of what’s actually in the park, and now I think we’re even closer than we’ve ever been before. But it’s sort of taken a long process to clear these tracks and build them up and create a musical experience, something that’s listenable as opposed to just a collection of sound files, and to make it a nice presentation so people can take that little memory back home with them.
It’s never been my intent to make the official albums a Smithsonian representation of what the attractions are. They’re just little hints, those little things that trigger your memory, like smell and sound, to let you go back in your own imagination and relive these things. My vision for the official albums when I first took them over was to include sound effects and atmosphere from the park, but there was just never any space for it, and by the time I got to do the Disneyland boxed set, that’s where I could put all those ideas of going out to the park and recording sounds to get that atmosphere.
But you know like everybody else, we’re just as famous for our music as we are our animation and our theme parks, and to have an album that represents that to take home with you – a lot of us go to the park a lot, probably more than we should, and we probably should see therapist for it. (laughs)
One of the things that first amazed me, and one of the reasons why I became such a tyrant about quality and making sure everything lives up to Walt’s name, was about 17, 18 years ago, when I was promoted to be a producer, I was given my Silver Pass for the first time and took a red-eye flight out with a friend of mine over to Epcot and everything – at that time, it was only $35 to get into Epcot, but it was still a chunk at that time, same as it is now. And I’m sitting there thinking to myself, “If it wasn’t for my Silver Pass and the fact that we took the red-eye flight and stayed at a cheap offsite motel, I couldn’t afford this,” and no sooner had that thought gone through my mind than a family of eight walked back, and I go, “People must just save up for years to take their entire family to do it right.”
And our records – we don’t get airplay. We get airplay because of Hannah Montana and High School Musical, but it’s not like the classic stuff gets that kind of airplay. People buy our products because of those six little letters – D I S N E Y. And it better be worth their money. Because most people who buy our products, like the story products and things like that are low- to middle-income families, and they want to do something good for their kid that day, and they see one of our things up there, and it’s a safe bet if you’re gonna go with Disney. Well, it better be a safe bet. So that formed my opinions of things really early on.
So that’s one of the things that I try to convey with the theme park albums as well. I want people to take those memories home with them and have it presented in a way – one of the things that drove me nuts about the official albums before I did them – which is easy to sit up on top of the mountaintop and look how bad they’ve built the city. But was that not only do you have these little clips, but you jump from land to land, and you jump from park to park, from East Coast to West Coast. It made no sense, and theme is a musical term, and it’s a theme park. So by grouping these things together within their inherent themes makes a much more easy listening experience, and the songs transition well from one to another, and that’s what it’s all about.
I want to create a listening experience. Like with the Disneyland boxed set, it’s my intent that you put all six disks into your CD changer and close your eyes and be taken to the park. That’s part of the thing is to take that piece with you. It’s like the Sherman Brothers wanting to give the Banks kids some kind of talisman after they came back from their jolly holiday with Mary Poppins. They wanted to have something, and originally it was going to be a compass, but then they came up with supercalifragilisticexpiali-docious being the thing they took back, that just by saying that word conjures all those images again, and that’s what I view the official albums as as well.