Imagineer Tom Morris joined the Walt Disney Family Museum’s Happily Ever After Hours virtual event on June 17th to discuss his career highlights and some behind-the-scenes magic. His magic touch can be found at Disney Parks around the world including Disneyland, Walt Disney World, , Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Here are 10 things we learned from Tom Morris.
1. He worked at Disneyland as a teenager.
“It was an exciting place to work,” Tom Morris shared about his first job with Disney when he was a teenager, one that happened as a result of his previous paper route. “You generally couldn’t get a job there until you were eighteen, but I was very lucky to have… Jack Sayers on my paper route as a neighbor of mine and he told me there were some lessees in the park that started hiring at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Basically, he got me a job with the balloon concessions at fourteen and I would work weekends and holidays.” The role allowed Tom to work in five assigned positions, two on Main Street, one in the hub, one in Fantasyland, and one by it’s a small world. “The balloon room was backstage behind Tomorrowland next to the Adventure Thru Inner Space.”
2. He went to the opening ceremony of Walt Disney World.
In 1971, Tom Morris saved enough money from his paper route to take a trip to Orlando to attend the grand opening of Walt Disney World.“I was most impressed by the monorail, how everything was linked with the monorail,” he shared about the biggest difference between Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. “It transformed it into something that seemed important. It wasn’t just an amusement park in the middle of what seemed like the everglades.”
3. He was hired by WED before he completed college.
Tom was working at Disneyland while in college studying communications, but that’s not why WED hired him. “I had submitted a portfolio as an employee at Disneyland, by that time I was an Attractions Host… so you could submit your portfolio at the time and they were beginning to hire for Epcot, Tokyo Disneyland, and also the animation program at the studio,” he explained. In high school, Tom had taken several drafting courses, which is why WED hired him as an Apprentice Draftsman before he finished college. “I started at the bottom as an apprentice, took a pay cut from Disneyland, and worked a little bit on the World of Motion with Claud Coats and on The Land Pavilion with Doris Widward.”
4. Working on EPCOT was a special experience.
“It was new and there was a feeling that we were doing something positive for the world,” Tom shared about the experience of being on the team that created what we know today as EPCOT. “This was Walt’s last dream. Not exactly as he had envisioned it in his lifetime, but it was an extension of that… I think there was a lot of idealism in the company surrounding that. We really believed in that, there was this deep belief that we were fulfilling Walt’s last dream.”
5. Journey Into Imagination was a last-minute add-on.
“Tony Baxter was the creative lead on that and he selected myself and Barry Braverman and Tad Stones and several other people to be team members on that,” Tom Morris shared about the experience of bringing one of the park’s most beloved attractions to life. “It was a joy to work on. I guess we wondered all the time whether it would be popular or not because it was a brand new idea. It was not based on any IP or anything that had been done previously at Disneyland or Walt Disney World… The ride itself was late, it opened five or six months later and it was obvious right away that it was a hit.”
6. How Walt Disney’s vision for EPCOT differed from the park.
“Walt’s original vision was for an actual community, a real community, and it was based on some books he had read from Victor Gruen and others,” the Imagineer clarified. “That’s why he wanted to do Walt Disney World, not to do Disneyland again but to test all these new ideas. I think he felt they had learned so much on Disneyland about working with people, communicating with people, about traffic flow… and why not put those to use for the betterment of man?… It was very definitely a thing that he was intent on doing. With his passing, it became difficult to understand exactly how he would move with the new learnings and the challenges.” He went on to share that the company’s belief was that Disney was a great communications company and they could do more for the world by inviting Guests to see and experience new ways of living that they could take home with them. Tom Morris sees that goal at least partially achieved with the green living movement, with many modern architects having been inspired by a visit to EPCOT. He also shared that there’s a misconception that Walt Disney wanted to continuously upgrade people’s toasters and microwaves in his planned city. The reality was that it was more about solving traffic problems and creating a safe place for pedestrians.
7. The difficulty of designing the castle for Disneyland Paris.
“The most important thing was that it not be too much of an echo of the castles that were within a two-hour drive of the ile de France,” he explained about the need to make the park’s icon special. “In school in that region of France, you learn those castles the way in California we learn all of the missions… So it couldn’t look exactly like that, nor did we want it completely different and feel like it's from another planet. So it sort of had to have a dejavu quality while also looking like a fantasy, something that came from a storybook and a Walt Disney Film.” Eyvind Earl’s design for the castle in the film Sleeping Beauty wouldn’t relate well in full scale, but Tom Morris included elements of it along with inspiration from real castles like Mont-Saint-Michel.
8. Star Trader Mickey was a budgetary necessity.
“I was working on the design, the new facade for that building. It’s called the South Exhibition Building because it used to have the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit,” Tom Morris shared about a Tomorrowland upgrade project when Star Tours was being installed. “That building has been there since 1955, so it was time for another rehab, another fresh look to it. Especially with Star Tours coming in, so I was assigned to come up with what the new facade would be for Star Tours. I probably put too many eggs into the Star Tours part of it and there was very little money left over to retheme what was called the Character Shop.” Tom Morris and Randy Bright thought up a more fitting name for the gift show, Star Traders, but his leftover facade refresh budget was small. “Neon had just started to come back in vogue at that time… It had really gotten a bad reputation, you know, the ‘Neon jungle’ and Disneyland is surrounded by a neon jungle… I decided we could do something with neon and not everyone agreed with that idea… This guy from LA Neon came to WED and he had a suitcase like professor Harold Hill and he opened it up and it lit up with all the different colors and the new colors they had developed with neon.” It was an inexpensive way to add color and animation to the building and it was exactly what was needed. “I did this crude animation, nine-step animation of a floating astronaut Mickey that wasn’t very good so they gave it to Mark Henn at the studio to clean up.” International projects kept Tom Morris away from Disneyland for a while and he forgot about it. Ten years later while visiting the park, he was surprised to see it was still there.
9. How Tom Morris came up with the idea of synchronizing sound to rollercoasters.
Long before Space Mountain had a soundtrack and decades before Rock N’ Rollercoaster, Tom Morris had a dream of putting synchronized sound to a rollercoaster. “It started in my car because I had a really great sound system in my car and I would often drive along the coast between Newport and San Clemente and occasionally what I was playing on the stereo would synch up emotionally with where I was, coming up on a curve and suddenly you’d have a grand view of the ocean,” He shared. “That had been my thing, trying to sync up music with real life.” He shared his idea with WED in the ‘80’s and even did some experiments riding Space Mountain with a walkman and premixed tracks, but the technology wasn’t there to account for a differential in length of the attraction that could be up to a 30-second difference. But it was an idea that Tony Baxter and Marty Sklar. “I still have some of the soundtracks that I put together. I used a mixing board.” He found that John Williams music worked best and in particular, a mix of his music from E.T. is what sold Marty on the concept that was first applied to the Casey Jr. Circus Train at Disneyland Paris before coming to Disneyland’s Space Mountain where it all began.
10. He’s working on a book about the unsung heroes of Imagineering.
“I didn’t set out to do this project,” he shared about his book that’s currently in the works with Disney Editions. “I set out to do a book on the archeology of Disneyland and I had talked a little bit with Disney Publishing about it… But then I started discovering stories about people I hadn’t heard of and started meeting people who told me about others.” Every interview lead to more names of individuals who used to work at WED that he hadn’t heard of before. In particular, a lunch with Glenn Durflinger led to a conversation about a man named Ted Rich who worked for Bill Martin who was really responsible for the design of New Orleans Square at Disneyland and Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, a name he had never heard before. “It became very intriguing to me that there were people we had never heard of.” It brought back one of his earliest memories at WED when the day after the Oscars, his boss casually mentioned that the man who just won Best Art Direction, Dean Tavolaris, worked there in the 1950’s. “It’s kind of a story of new people starting and people at the end of their storied film careers where this was the last place they worked.”
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.