What Disney fan has not dreamed of working for the Walt Disney Company? For them, there can be no higher calling than being a part of the magic and wonder that Walt had created. Whether it is a Jungle Cruise Skipper, character performer, or maybe the ultimate dream job, Imagineer, it would be an aspiration comes true. Here is the story of a man who, before he could read, always dreamed of working for Disney, to be a part of Walt’s world. Artist, sculptor, designer and a fine Disney Historian in his own right, this is the account of Alex Maher who pursued this dream to fruition. Mr. Maher so believed in himself and his dream that he made certain radical moves to be close to Disney in the hopes of finding his place with the mouse. Here is his story…
DDL: Where were you born and raised?
AM: I was born and raised in Miami, Florida
DDL: How old was you when you became a Disney fan?
AM: I remember like it was yesterday. I was in kindergarten. I was in the library and pulled out a book; it was about Walt Disney. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t read but kept looking through the pages and pictures and realized that I wanted to work for Walt Disney.
DDL: Where your parents supportive of your dreams?
AM: Yes, very much so. From the earliest time, my father said “You have to go for it”.
DDL: Did you go to the parks much as a kid?
AM: My first trip to Walt Disney World was about three or four months after it opened. We would come every summer, but after I got married, we came almost every month.
DDL: You’re an artist and designer, where did you study?
AM: I’m pretty much self-taught. My dad was an artist. I started drawing from a very young age. I would show my dad all the art I did. He would critique it and give me feedback. He taught me practically all I know. He would say “Alex, that is very nice, but maybe you could try this or that to make the drawing look better”. He would never say, “That’s no good”. He always encouraged me.
DDL: Have you always been an artist?
AM: When I got out of High School, I joined the U.S. Navy. After my active duty, I moved back to Miami and became a graphic designer and did that for about eight years before moving to Orlando to pursue my dream of working for Disney.
DDL: How did you apply for your Disney job?
AM: This was before computers and on-line applications. After leaving the military in 1983, I would constantly apply for jobs at Disney from the Sunday newspaper job listings. I got so used to those want ads; I could automatically spot that Walt Disney Logo, see what jobs were available and apply. But nothing ever came of it.
DDL: Did you always apply for an artist position or anything just to get in?
AM: I had been applying for any creative position at Disney while still working in Miami. I had gotten married with my high school sweetheart and had two children. We decided to pack up and move to the Orlando in the summer of 1991. We were constantly visiting the parks anyway. I spoke to many people about getting a job at Disney and many said you have to know someone. If you live here, you have a much better chance of knowing someone who works at the parks, maybe even an artist. So I took the chance and moved, without any work!
DDL: So just applying for the job was not enough?
AM: It’s much different today with the internet and such. I did know of an artist by the name of Don “Ducky” Williams from being a member of the National Fantasy Fan Club while I was still living in Miami. I did not know him personally, but read many articles about him in our clubs’ newsletters. When I moved here, I tried to meet him but he was on vacation at the time. But I did meet his boss and he said…”Come back tomorrow and show me your work”. I did and he liked it, but said there was nothing available in his department, but suggested I try the merchandising division. The next day I visited the creative department of the merchandise division and lucky they liked my work and I was hired on as a freelance artist.
DDL: What is a freelance artist?
AM: Freelancers are outside contract artists who are assigned projects and work from home.
DDL: What was your first job a Disney?
AM: The manager in the creative department gave me a trial assignment. He wanted me to make “Figment” appear a little younger, a little more youthful. I was given some model sheets and I’ll never forget that. So, my first piece of art for Disney was Figment. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for that little dragon!
DDL: What is your favorite Disney character to draw?
AM…I get this question a lot. I’m such a big Disney fan, I love drawing them all. But I’m a big fan of Walt Disney, the man. Walt was Mickey and Mickey was Walt, so I have to say, Mickey Mouse is my favorite character to draw.
DDL: What is the most difficult character to draw?
AM: Any of the human characters. We’re all human, so we know what we look like. People are more critical with that. You can get away with the animal characters.
DDL: Do all artists do their own designs or use model sheets?
AM: We do all our own designs but use model sheets for reference on drawing the characters correctly.
DDL: Is it hard to get your designs approved?
AM: It’s fairly easy. We do such a high volume of work here that the merchandisers are pretty much OK with the majority of what we create.
DDL: Who approves the designs?
AM: We work closely with the product development team. The merchants work with the product manufacturers and come up with the quantities and such, and we partner with them to come up with interesting products. They will initiate the job request and we do the concepts.
DDL: What were your first designs at Disney?
AM: Today we are more specialized. I do mostly pins and vinyl today but in the beginning, we did everything. I could do a T-shirt one day, a mug the other or a figurine the next. I did a lot of Holiday ornaments in the early days.
DDL: What is your most memorable or favorite design?
AM: Oh, there are so many I’ve done over the years. There is one thing I did for the millennium celebration, the 2000 Hand-in-Hand logo. I had Mickey, Donald and Goofy holding hands coming out of the Mickey Mouse Corporate head. Our director asked everyone to come up with logo ideas for the Millennium celebration and out of the 6 or 7 submitted, they chose mine!
DDL: What were some of your toughest challenges?
AM: There are challenges in everything we do, but figurines are probably the most difficult. We rarely do the sculpting in-house. It’s usually sent out. To illustrate a figurine that is going to be sculpted, you have to do several different views of it. If you have a scene with four characters in it, you have to have a front view, a side view, top and back view. You have to imagine how that’s going to look in 3D, so that is very challenging.
DDL: What is your easiest?
AM: We always try to make our designs compelling and interesting. So there are really no easy designs. They all have their challenges.
DDL: Are the pin designs difficult?
AM: They are a huge challenge. They are small pieces of merchandise, but we draw them large, and they have to be compelling, yet simple. You can’t have too many characters in them because they are small and we are very limited on colors. It is a constant challenge to make them interesting for people to want to buy them.
DDL: What is more demanding, snow globes or pins?
AM: Snow Globes are a lot more difficult. The figure inside has to be drawn from all different angles as well as the outside base of the globe. So yes, I would say that snow globes are more challenging than pins.
DDL: What training or background does Disney look for in its artists?
AM: Character artists need to have strong drawing skills. For designers, good graphic design work and a good understanding of the computer programs such as Illustrator and Photoshop.
DDL: Did you attend any professional schools?
AM: No. I am all pretty much self-taught. You can learn techniques in school and how to do things, but you still need that basic talent and skill to do well. I have a good friend who is a phenomenal artist. He can draw anything and never had a bit of schooling. He is a natural.
DDL: How was the Disney Design group developed?
AM: It began, I believe, back in the early ‘70’s in southern California. It was not called the Disney Design Group back then, but Attractions Merchandise. The division was brought out here when Walt Disney World and about 15 years ago was merged with another division called the Disney Design Group, so we are now one division.
DDL: Can you tell us about your relationship with Ralph Kent, Once a Vice-President of Imagineering? Was he a help in your career?
AM: I could talk all day about Ralph, he was a great guy! When I first came to the merchandise art department, I met with the art manager, Mark Seppala. I showed him some of my work and he hired me as a freelance artist. He then took me around and introduced me to the other artists. He took me over to meet Ralph Kent and said he that he had worked with Walt Disney! Well, Ralph stopped working and talked to me for about 2 hours! He was so gracious with his time. He loved telling stories of Walt at Disneyland in the 1960’s. Ralph was our mentor; he taught us everything and was always there for us. He encouraged us and critiqued all our work. We all thought we could draw Mickey, but he showed us how to make Mickey look like Mickey!
DDL: How did you and Brian Blackmore meet?
AM: Brian was already freelancing for our department when I started. He was living in Texas, doing the inking of the characters at the time. I would do the character art and send it to Brian for inking. We became friends over the phone, we spoke almost every day. We had a lot in common, like two peas in a pod. His wife and mine are both named Maria, our fathers had the same jobs, electrical engineers, and both passed away at the age of 71. We both have two children and both of us got hired here in Florida within a few months of each other. We are great friends.
DDL: How many Disney Legends have you met?
AM: Oh gosh, you know I’m such a big Disney history fan, so I have made it a point to learn everything I can about Disney. I read everything I can find on the subject and meet the people who were involved in its history. I go to California quite a bit for business or pleasure, and being a member of the “Disneyana Fan Club”, I attended many of the conventions. In the early days, many of the legends attended those conventions so I got a chance to meet a lot of them. I have met four of Walt’s “nine old men”. I had the opportunity to visit Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball and Mark Davis at their homes. I also got to know Bill Justice and he became a good friend of mine. Every time I would go out there, I would hang out with Bill. He was a wonderful guy.
DDL: Can you tell us a little more about Bill?
AM: You know, he was such a character. He had a very unique sense of humor; he never failed to make me laugh. He would just say something and with a look, make me laugh. He was just the funniest and nicest guy I ever met. He was one of the few legends that embraced the Disney fans. He would come out to many of the fan gatherings, draw on paper plates and connect with the fans. The first time I met him was here in Orlando at our local chapters “mini-convention” and Bill was our guest. I was too intimidated to go talk to him! I had just started with Disney and was just intimidated. This was in 1991. But I saw him many times when I went to California and we became good friends. I just can’t say enough about Bill.
DDL: What are the challenges facing an artist getting in Disney today?
AM: I think it’s more difficult these days. It’s so hard to get to meet people. Most of the openings today are listed online now; you have to apply on the computer. There are no face to face meetings; people are being weeded out without ever having the opportunity to meet in person. Your background is checked before they ever see your portfolio. We do bring in interns from art colleges and get to see how they work. Many of our artists are from the intern program.
DDL: What does Disney look for in an artist?
AM: Today, they look for natural talent, if you have they are looking for, Disney will bring you on.
DDL: Is the Disney Company today the way Walt would have envisioned it?
AM…I always wanted to work for Disney and am very happy here. I love Disney and all that it stands for. Walt and Roy built a great company and we still live by their philosophy, it’s a great company that’s still doing great things.
DDL: Do you believe that the Cast Members are responsible for carrying on Walt’s dream?
AM: Absolutely! I totally believe that. Cast Members pass on Walt’s philosophy and ideas to the guests. When you see a Cast Member loving what they are doing, you know that they believe in Walt Disney’s dream! I just wish there could be more Disney history training for our new Cast Members.
DDL: Alex, thank you so much for your time, your story is amazing.
AM: You’re welcome, my pleasure!