Close up of Joyce Carlson in a white smock working

           Walt Disney’s first theme park holds a solid place in American memory.  In California, the first visit to Disneyland is a rite of passage, a cherished childhood memory.  Visitors from other nations flock to the park, bringing home with them photos and souvenirs and ear-shaped hats as proof that they have had the complete American experience. Since its opening in 1955, Disneyland has been seen as the forerunner of amusement parks, combining modern technology with imagination in groundbreaking ways.  While the creative output of Disneyland’s designers is recognized by park guests on a daily basis, the designers themselves remain largely in the shadows.  Little has been written outside of the studio itself on the creative minds behind Disneyland’s attractions, known as Imagineers.  This may be in part due to Walt Disney’s belief that his designers were all working toward a common goal, even though he stressed the belief in his workers of personal ownership in a project.  A separate reason may be the desire to keep all projects under the Disney title; this position is backed by the fact that Disney did not allow any of his artists to sign their work besides Mary Blair.[1]  Regardless of the reasoning behind it, the reality is that the minds behind Disneyland’s creation and growth have remained relatively undocumented by historians.  This omission is particularly glaring for historians because Walter Elias Disney Enterprises, or WED, the company which would eventually become Walt Disney Imagineering, was hiring women in key design positions starting in the mid-fifties, a time when women were invisible in the corporate world. 

            The attractions WED created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair placed several female employees in charge of design and development as well as utilizing them in other design and engineering capabilities.  Harriet Burns, a model maker and set designer who had the distinction of becoming the first female WED employee in a non-clerical position, worked on both the set dressing and the model finishing for Progressland (which would become the Carousel of Progress), Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and It's a Small World, as well as set dressing for several of the world pavilions.  In fact, It’s a Small World, WED’s attraction for Pepsico, sported a design team comprised almost completely of women.  Joyce Carlson, a former Ink and Paint employee, designed the singing children of the world.  Alice Davis, who had made the model dress for Sleeping Beauty, dressed them, creating 150 painstakingly-researched costumes.  At the helm was artistic designer Mary Blair, an artist held so high in Disney’s esteem that he asked her to return to the studio specifically for the project.

            The employment of women in these creative roles is at the heart of a distinctive contrast between the image put forth by Disneyland and the realities of WED’s inner workings.  On the outside was a place heavily criticized by historians as being a hotbed of nostalgic Americana propaganda, perpetuating a wholesome historical myth while holding up Victorian notions of paternalism; in short, the antithesis of progress.  While Disney himself promoted a family dynamic at his company, with himself at the head, the hiring of women in key positions illustrates a progress not widely found in other corporations at the time.  Moreover, former WED employees and their family members suggest that these women were hired on the basis of the quality of work they generated; at least according to employees, gender did not seem to be an issue.  The fields these women were working in, model-making, costume, and set design, were not incongruous with acceptable work for women in the fifties and sixties.  However, the tasks they had to perform to complete their jobs were distinctively masculine.  As a model maker, Burns was regularly utilizing power equipment such as lathes and ban saws, and Davis was placed in charge of developing both WED’s costuming workroom and regulations for attraction refurbishment. 

            This website is the result of basic research for a graduate thesis tracking the work of female employees at WED in design jobs during the mid-fifties to the late sixties and their impact on the Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California.  For the purpose of this site, only the 1964 New York World’s Fair will be studied, and then only the attractions in which women played key design roles.  Within this site, the reader can expect to find basic biographies of four women who were integral to WED’s success at the World’s Fair as well as a simple introduction to the attractions themselves.  More detailed arguments relating to the possible progress women made at WED are forthcoming.

Click here for a brief introduction to WED's World's Fair attractions in which women played a key role.

About the student

[1] Conversation with Alice Davis, Nov. 24, 2009.