Thursday, March 15, 2012

DUMBO Flying High Again!

One of my panels, from pencil to paint.
The DUMBO ride has been an iconic memory of Disneyland almost since the park first opened its drawbridge in July 1955. I said almost because when the fiberglass pachyderms arrived 3 weeks before opening at a flying weight of 700 pound each. When load with passengers (oops they hadn'tt added in the extra weight) they scraped the lower wood rim.  The ride went on a strict structural diet to lose weight and had to be reworked. This resulted in the attraction not opening until taking flight August 16, 1955. 

A few of Bill Peet's Story Sketches
The ride is of course based on the timeless classic film, "DUMBO" released by Walt Disney in 1941 which was a boon to the studio and the hit they needed to recoup box office losses from Fantasia. It was a simple and economically made feature with a running time of 64 minutes. When asked to lengthen the time Walt refused saying it was fine the way it was. Wish we had that kind of clear thinking these days. DUMBO was also one of the most heartfelt of the Disney classics and I defy anyone to sit through the "baby mine" lullaby sequence and not get misty eyed. I'll get into much more detail on the film in a later post but for now, this is about the ride.
Original "Pink Elephants version

The original plans had the 10 pink pachyderms which garnered the nickname "Pink Elephants on Parade". Walt decided he wasn't too keen on seeing guests flying formations on some intoxicated mammals and so ordered all of the elephant artwork grounded until they were painted blue-gray and to be on model to DUMBO.  

DUMBO evesdropping
Originally the ears were hinged and would slowly flap up and down which I remember seemed to make them seem even more alive when I visited the park soon after it opened. This ear movement created a great effect, when it worked. Unfortunately it jammed frequently and DUMBO looked like he was trying to execute a barrel roll or listen in on Aunt Esther's secret recipe for apple pie crisps. The little fellows got plastic surgery on all the ears and they never flapped again.

One of the many gilded sculptures that adorn the ride
Eventually the other parks received their own versions of the DUMBO ride, each time adding something new. More capacity from 10 elephants to 16, fountains of water surrounding the inner base and so on. Well with the wonderful updates at the New Fantasyland in Walt Disney World, we have achieved yet another milestone.

This week the park unveiled the ride to an appreciative audience. It is the first installation of what eventually will be two DUMBO carousels flying in opposite directions. It also has many new features such as fountains with corresponding LED light show that is best described by the fans as a mini version of the World of Color night show, so make sure to stop by and see it in the evening. It is also adorned with gilded sculptures of characters and props from the film from the Stork to Momma Jumbo to even peanut shells. The base is also trimmed with 8 story panels depicting the entire Film story of our favorite little flying fellow. I was honored when they contacted me to design those pieces not just because I deeply respect the amazing people they have at WDI but because DUMBO is easily on my short list of favorite Disney films.

A few of the panels I did in various stages.
I met with Imagineers to discuss the basic layout and size of each panel which grew from 3 feet to a healthy 10 feet apiece. I was given a frame design's inner contour to use as a guide while designing since these were to be enveloped within very ornate sculpted shapes as a homage to circus ornamentation.

The WDI crew was constantly improving each step of the process and one minor snag was hit when they changed the frame outline during the painting process. It was worth it as the new frame was a beautiful modification and only improved the settings for my illustrations. I chose what I felt were the key moments in DUMBO's journey and got marvelous input from my bosses at WDI. I had painted in a very black BG behind the "pink elephants" panel which although true to the film, was much too dark when surrounded by the other pieces and created a "hole" effect. Luckily again this was pointed out to me and I simply painted it over with a gradation of cobalt blue and I have to admit, it was much better.

The DUMBO ride is one of the few rides found at every Magic Kingdom park around the world. Even though it is basically a simple and classic amusement park design, there is a tremendous appeal for adults as well as children. It is in no short thanks to the little elephant who rose to the occasion many years ago.


  1. Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing the details of your contributions. The theme parks wouldn't be the same without Dumbo.

  2. Great! I've noticed these vignettes on photos and loved the way they looked on the structure. I guess it shouldn't surprise me that you did them! Dumbo is one of my favorite features too and I can't wait to personally see this new version of the ride.

  3. Thank you David, it was an honor to be asked to be a part of that team and to hear such wonderful comments like yours. DUMBO may not have been the fanciest, or most elaborate animated feature from the golden age of Disney magic but it certainly had the heart and included some ground breaking sequences like "Pink Elephants".

    To have a hand, or maybe just a finger in updating the classic DUMBO ride is a treat I will never forget.

  4. Just recently went on the ride today and I never noticed the first time that the art panels were on the ride. As a connoisseur of the movie myself (best animated film of all time IMO) I must say you captured those scenes fantastically. Like if Dumbo were to be remade with better technology with its coloring and such, YOU would be the person I'd hire for the remake as the Animation Director. Your scenes are like on model with the moments you have shown off.