I have many Imagineering books, but for a long time there was one that I avoided, Designing Disney by John Hench. It kept popping up on Amazon as something I might like, but I always clicked around the silly little orange book. I wanted books about parks, attractions, process and thought, not the memoirs of some random Imagineer. As it turns out, I’m an idiot.
John Hench is not an Imagineer, he is THE Imagineer, tapped early on to work for WED (the original name for Walt Disney Imagineering) and responsible for so much of the Disney parks. When you feel safe and happy in a Disney park but just can’t quite put your finger on why, you probably have Hench to thank. He understood people better than almost anyone else (save maybe Walt himself). He was so important to Disneyland that many considered him to be Walt’s right hand man.
Before he worked for WED, John Hench was involved with the Disney animated features, either in development, design or drawing actual animation. One particularly strange project had him working closely with one of Walt’s new friends—surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. The two men were piecing together a short subject called Destino, a surreal animated poem that was later abandoned (it was finally completed in 2003 and can be viewed here). Dalí shared a trait in common with Walt Disney, according to Hench, in that both men “had an extraordinary ability to turn a negative situation around in a short period of time.” Hench had the chance to witness this firsthand.
Once while Dalí and I were working together, I came in to find him pacing the floor, wringing his hands, frowning over a cable from Spain. He couldn’t work, couldn’t do anything but pace back and forth. I left the room…but I came back in forty-five minutes to check on him. Dalí was still walking the floor, but now he was happy as a lark, smacking his hands together with satisfaction over what had happened.
Dalí explained to me that he had suffered a terrible loss that morning—he had missed his chance to buy a Seventeenth-century castle in Spain that he had dreamed of owning as a child. But after thinking about it (for forty-five minutes) he said, “The purchaser has to be a wealthy man, probably a sportsman, because the castle is in hills where Spanish partridge are hunted.”
“I will make an offer to paint a mural on the entryway ceiling of the structure. Then I will arrange with Condé Nast of Vogue to photograph it with the owner’s portrait, giving this wealthy sportsman some publicity, which will flatter him. He will let me use this place when he is not up there hunting, and besides that, he will eventually get tired of hunting partridge and let me buy the place.”
Dalí also surmised that the new owner would need to build a road to install a modern bathroom and kitchen. Dalí said, “He is going to do all this for himself, but it will save me all the trouble and money.”
Dalí was absolutely delighted. In his mind, the whole thing had been turned around.
After driving up the paved road to the castle that Salvador Dalí eventually bought, John Hench toured the modern kitchen and bathroom, and looked up at the beautiful mural covering the entryway ceiling, knowing that everything had worked out exactly as Dalí had imagined.
While this story does not relate to Imagineering specifically, it does speak to one of WDI’s core principles—reality is what we make of it. We can all reimagine reality. Salvador Dalí suffered a crushing blow but in a very short amount of time was able to visualize new and even better ends than were possible before the turn of events.
John Hench’s book, Designing Disney, quickly became one of my favorites. Succinct and broad at the same time, I refer back to it often for any number of projects, both work-related and personal. The story of his time with the artist makes me wonder what life would be like if we had the ability to find the true positive in the negative, not years, months or weeks down the road, but minutes. A person who can quickly forget a bad turn is able to move on and get more done, but a person who can use that bad turn for positive change can make reality what they imagine it to be.
John Hench and the other Imagineers took a swamp in Florida and turned it into the vacation kingdom of the world. This was a massive undertaking, but it all began with a change in perspective, a reimagining of reality, to go from impossible to possible.
Contributed by: John Gray (NDI#194) John is the Imagineering Blogger.