Disney Imagineer Tom “Thor” Thordarson Journeys to the Center of the Earth

Written by Rick Wright. Posted in Features, Tokyo Disney Resort, Weekend Update

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Journey

Published on January 18, 2014 at 3:00 am with 13 Comments

Here is an amazing article and tribute to Tom “Thor” Thordarson and his artwork for the Tokyo DisneySea Mysterious Island rides. After being Director of Attraction Development at MCA Universal Studios, Hollywood, Tom became a Disney Imagineer in the role of Director/Senior Concept Designer. ~~Rick

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The Making of Tokyo DisneySea’s
Journey to the Center of the Earth
with WDI Ride Senior Designer Tom Thordarson
by Alain Littaye, Disney and more blog

Among his many assignments at Disney, Tom “Thor” Thordarson was tasked with the concept design for one of the “E-ticket” rides for the new Tokyo DisneySea theme park in Japan. “Journey to the Center of the Earth” is the top rated thrill ride of Tokyo Disney Sea. Tom was also a key team player in the early design phases of many other attractions for DisneySea, including 20,000 Leagues under the Sea at Mysterious Island.

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Those of you who have been lucky enough to visit this gorgeous theme park will appreciate how important Tom Thordarson’s contributions (shown below) were to the design of these rides. And for those of you who never visited this wonderful Disney park, let’s start with a video of the full Journey to the Center of the Earth ride.

Now let’s take an in-depth look with Tom Thordarson to see how it was done. First, I want to thank Tom very much for the beautiful artwork and pictures that he kindly provided for this article.

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Here is Tom, in his own words, remembering his work on Mysterious Island and Journey to the center of the Earth:

When I was first invited to be part of the TDS team, it was truly a project that I cannot recall being more excited about. Mysterious Island, with it’s magical energy full of classic adventure was where everyone knew I belonged focusing upon, though I played with concepts for Port Discovery as well. They basically said: “This is based on the Jules Verne book in general, but give us your take on it.” Disney had explored it loosely as a studio tour designed by Scott Sinclair, but I was allowed to use or scrap any past ideas as to the content of this story as it would become a ride.

I watched the movie with Pat Boone and read the book. I sat in my office at Imagineering for close to a year creating this ride in countless drawings, storyboards and paintings. I presented this ride again and again and was told by staff that my sound effects and enthusiastic body gestures were a “hard act to follow”. lol! Michael Eisner was chuckling and well entertained repeatedly at my performances, I recall well. One Corporate Exec. stated, as I finished the very first presentation with my story boards, “Is it HOT in here..or is it me?

I truly lived this ride…over and over and by the time it was in show model form, I felt I had ridden the thing a thousand times. Every rock form, creature and sound was something I had to describe to the team in drawings and verbal dramatizations.

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Here is some of the pre-show decor in the queue.

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Now we present paintings Tom’s original artwork for the attraction. They are roughly in chronological order of the attraction and combined with some pictures that were shot before the opening – all from Tom’s personal collection.

Here is Tom’s design for the “Terravator” – the lift which “carries” the guests “deep down” to the load area.

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…and an artwork display in the queue showing guests how deep the Terravator goes under the Earth.

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Tom’s painting for “Journey” load area.

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The theme of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” is, of course “subterranean”. As is often the case at WDI, Tom and his early team went exploring caves for references for Journey’s design. Tom is on the bottom right of the second picture. Tom says, “I could go on forever telling everyone about the details. I have included pictures of one of my early research trips into actual caves where I took countless photos. We had rangers take me deep into the caverns below where most people have ventured in tours. But I had to make all this bigger than life. I had to learn from real nature, but then project a sci-fi logic to the rest.”

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The painting below shows the entrance of the vehicle inside the “crystal scene”.

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Tom did scale section drawings to help WDI set designers translate his illustrations…

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…and also pictures of the model of the crystals scene, where Tom placed every Crystal in miniature. These were ultimately translated quite accurately into the final ride.

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Tom explains more about this scene and how he designed these “crystal vortexes”.

I placed ever single crystal in the model for the rockwork department to chart and blow up to scale in the actual ride precisely. The way this looks is all out of my head…not anything real. I designed this “Vortex” of crystals as an idea where there was a “swirling energy” in the earth that caused these formations..like a magnetic tunnel. All the rock formations from the beginning to the end, I designed to have a psychological effect. In the beginning, the forms are friendly shapes like swirls and circles and crystals. As we move into the more dangerous and dramatic areas, I designed the look to be sharper and actually look like the rock shapes are “pulling you” or forcing you towards the creature and out the volcano’s eruption. Again, when I design a ride or even just a painting, every form tells a story. Rock…seems simple but it is a stage and opportunity to tell a story…that can allow us to control our audience’s emotions, depending on how we stage it.

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Here are two rare pictures of the actual set shot before the park’s opening…

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…and a picture of the crystals with the show vehicle.

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Tom also did all the storyboard sketches for the ride like this one below. As you will note, in the early concept Imagineers envisioned a kind of “train” of three vehicles together.

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Here are two storyboards for the “mushrooms forest scene”…

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Here are two “fabrication drawings” for the mushrooms of the mushroom forest scene. Tom had to provide great detail for the construction crew.

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Here’s a painting for the same scene.

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Did you notice the little animals with the red backs on the painting above? Tom created the following art to illustrate how these life forms should look with a “phosphorescent” back.

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Tom also did artwork showing some subterranean animals like this “caped skenk”…

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This next one is a “Moss Plucking Skenk”. They were both ideas with the one below becoming the final design.

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Tom also drew this “Winged Nudibranch” for the production team.

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The two next pictures are rare photos of the real decor, also shot before the park’s opening.

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As Tom recalls…

In the Giant mushroom forest, I made it all up on my own. The movie was really fake and unimpressive. So, I researched real glowing fungi and mushroom species’. I created a world where light came from the natural bio luminescent mosses and plants and the water was full of phosphorus plankton. This thinking made me believe in my story and so I could paint it and describe it to others like it was a place that really existed. The creatures were my creations that I believed could really have evolve. The team was VERY amused by the names I gave them like the “Moss plucking Skenk”, “flying nudibranch” and “leaping tri-pedal beetle”. You should have seen the figure animation department trying to say the names when they were building the creatures. The meetings were a real hoot! The creatures have parts that glow because..well, they eat the phosphorus and glowing vegetation, of course.

Here are some more storyboard sketches. You may notice that a few ideas never made it to the finished ride…

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This next one shows the vehicle entering one of the cavern scenes where guests see the Lava monster’s giant egg sacks.

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Next is a photo of the model that was inspired by Tom’s art.

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The photo below was shoot by Tom at WDI: “This is a test in full scale using concrete that the WDI rockwork department did to show me. They wanted to see if they could duplicate my designs in the rock sculptures.”

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This next painting Tom created is one of my favorite and absolutely gorgeous. It shows the scene of the “storm upon the subterranean sea” at the center of the Earth!

Tom states, “I did take certain key scenes from the book, like the idea of a “subterranean sea”. Here is a rendering that shows the way I pictured such a place. A cavern so huge it had it’s own weather and atmosphere inside. I wanted it to feel very phosphorescent and electrical and that those were the only sources of light so deep below the surface.”

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Of course there is the climax scene of the attraction, the encounter with the Lava Beast – in the ride, one of the biggest audio-animatronics ever built by WDI. Here is Tom’s early concept for the Lava Creature.

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Tom’s storyboards of the attack by the Lava Beast…

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…and the spectacular painting of the final scene!

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Here is a picture of the Lava creature.

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Tom recalls,

I liked a few elements from the studio tour but things like the creature being a worm was not as exciting for me. I wanted to be scientific in how I made this ride believable. The creature, in my mind was a prehistoric life form that, because we were in a lava tube peppered caldera of rock, had to look like it could have evolved to withstand incredible heat and yet move through tunnels with great speed. If you look at the first drawing of the lava creature, it is almost like a crustacean, hard exoskeleton amour to insulate it from the heat. However, it could swim out into the undersea tunnels too, to the open sea. Even when I deal with fantasy..I like to believe it could be possible in some way.

Right after the attack, the ride vehicle is rising at full speed, escaping from the creature and the center of the Earth. Here are some storyboard proposals that Tom did for this sequence. The first one shows people as the vehicle is launched in his fun storyboard. In reality, this accurately illustrates how your face looks in this high-speed scene!

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The next one is a “leaping idea in the final run”. For technical reasons the vehicle couldn’t actually jump over a gap, but the final effect is almost the same.

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Tom did also a concept for the car landing in a “lava tube” after the above “flight”.

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Tom has great memories about the design of that scene. He elaborates,

Then came to the part in the ride where the vehicle accelerates and we are sucked into the erupting lava tube. Just before we almost get eaten by the lava creature, we are blasted out the top of the volcano. I wanted it to feel like we are suddenly air-borne and maybe feel zero gravity for a short moment. Well…they said,”Ummmm, Ok…so for how long are we at zero g’s?”. I was busy painting a key frame at the time and said,…”Ohhh, I dunno, 10 seconds or something”. Well..that taught me a lesson in being careful what you ask for as a show designer at WDI. Two days later they take me to a private pilot in Malibu. He was told to take me up in his small plane and test what 10 seconds feels like in zero gravity. He had said he could fly small parabolic arcs like the big planes do for NASA to train the astronauts. So….this we did!

I held a chalk eraser in my hand as I was loosely belted in the back seat of this flying Volkswagen of a plane…and the pilot, at 10,000 feet over Malibu began zero gravity manoeuvres. When the eraser floated from my hand, we were at zero G’s and he held that speed and arc as long as he could…well, 10 seconds is an eternity at no gravity for the average person!! In the end, we never do zero in the ride as the ride was built…just about .1 or .2 for a couple seconds when you first blast out and down. Anyway…it was a fun memory.

This last bit of concept art shows the unload area of “Journey to the Center of the Earth”.

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But there is more at Tokyo DisneySea’s Mysterious Island. This is Captain Nemo’s Nautilus floating in the lagoon…

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What follows is Tom’s artwork for the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction.

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Here are a few of the storyboards I did for the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride. In the beginning, I was developing ideas for both rides. These storyboards and the familiar shot below of the first mini sub design showing the giant squid attack was my pass. It was the first image the press saw in the project announcements in the beginning of TDS. The ride was turned over to other art directors from there and I focused on journey through the finished models and drawing package.

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The next painting below shows some Atlantis clues…

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And this one is a “view of Atlantis”.

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The next painting shows the 20,000 Leagues ship graveyard…

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And this one the “sunken ship hull”.

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This last “20,000 Leagues” painting shows the giant squid attack as envisioned it.

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Creating a land or an attraction is never the work of a single person, of course, but considering this body of artwork showing the contribution of Tom’s designs to Mysterious Island attractions, I think it’s fair to say that he certainly deserves the tribute I’m doing today. It’s my pleasure to allow Tom to conclude this article.

With all my passion for these rides, they would never have made it to being built without all the amazing team I worked with at Imagineering. It definitely does take a team of minds to make it all a reality. I would like to personally acknowledge the talent of Imagineer, Greg Combs who was so instrumental in his leading the show/set effort that brought all this craziness into working drawings and reality. Also, to Imagineer, Gwynn Ballantyne, who took the baton into the field and saw that all this and her own creative contributions would be become something we could all step into as the ride it is today. Thanks so much Gwynn. Lastly, to fellow show designer and Imagineer, Dave Durand. He was the creator and Art Director of the Crystal Skull, Indiana Jones ride for TDS and I recall many a day when we had lunches in the courtyard there at WDI and inspired each other with our passion for making magic and adventure we believed Walt would be so proud of today!

Magic and regards, Tom (THOR)

Here’s a great video of  20000 Leagues Under the Sea:

Tom Thordarson has his own website and a gallery in Hawaii – more precisely on the Island of Oahu – where you’ll be able to find his beautiful Tiki and Hawaian artwork, including the Tiki idols series. Originals as well as prints are on sale and any Tiki lover will be quite happy! Also, if you’re a fan of Tom’s artwork and want to contact him, feel free to do it through his MySpace page and Facebook page.

Tom also has a new gallery in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the U.S. Navy Exchange Mall. It’s the “THOR STOR” in the NEX Mall. Most of his underwater and diver paintings are there now. Below is a painting he just finished, and you can see how his Disney Sea past influenced his work today.

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All artwork by Tom Thordarson and copyright Disney and WED Enterprises

Last picture “Tentacle Difficulties” copyright Tom Thordarson

Video: copyright Emil Sixh

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About Rick Wright

Rick has been a long term MiceChat author and co-founder of the Weekend Update. You will often find Rick in the position of "Greeter" at official events due to his warm and welcoming spirit. If you've got photos, news or trip reports to share, Rick would love to hear from you: [email protected]

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13 Comments

Comments for Disney Imagineer Tom “Thor” Thordarson Journeys to the Center of the Earth are now closed.

  1. This is such a terrific attraction, and worth the trip to the incredible Japanese Disney Parks for.

    Yes, it’s the same ride system as Test Track and Radiator Springs Racers, but the effects and story, and beyond jaw dropping detail, are just perfection. Detail so big and so tiny (even a cup and saucer on a control panel while an ‘engineer’ is away from his station!). The queue, (once you get into the caves) is terrific, and you can see incredible laboratories used by Captain Nemo.

    The art work shown here is gorgeous, and totally indicative of the amazing attraction built.

    Take a year off from your precious “world” vacation, book a flight to the stunning country of Japan, with her beautiful and respectful population (and truly incredible Cast Members), and visit some Disney Parks the way they should be seen, where an outside company does “Disney” better than Disney does.

    Heck, even Japan does McDonald’s better than America, best McDonald’s I’ve ever had was in Japan. Every.Single.Time.

    • QPerth,
      When is the best time to visit Disney Sea?
      How many days do you need to hit all the attractions and return to all your favorites?
      I don’t think there is any way to take in a large percentage of the details hiiting the ride once and if you are going to go all the way to Tokyo, I know my family would like to hit favorites a second time.
      Do they have a better deal with lines if you stay at a Disney resort? I know they are super expensive but maybe a night or two are possible.
      Where would you stay nearest property that isn’t Disney.
      Heard the lines are all incredibly long.
      Sorry for all the questions but you are the only person I’ve run across who has actually been.
      Thanks for any thoughts.
      This is the kind of thing WDW could do if they wanted to. Thank goodness Universal is trying to give us a great experience.
      Can you imagine how bad WDW would be treating us if there wasn’t a Universal?

      • I’ve visited Tokyo Disney quite a bit and it’s very hard to make good recommendations due to the often terrible and unpredictable weather and the oppressive crowding (especially during holidays and weekends).

        A few tips for you to explore:
        1) Avoid weekends. Tuesday through Thursday is usually the best time to visit.
        2) if you are looking for a good compromise between acceptable weather and low-ish crowds, try the period just before Golden Week (which runs April 29th through May 5th). The parks can be much less crowded before April 29th and the weather in those last two weeks of April should be much more spring like.
        3) If bitter cold and snow doesn’t bother you, try a week day in January or February. But the parks don’t look their best at these times due to the cold and lack of vegetation.
        4) You might get lucky the first week of October. Generally acceptable fall weather and lower crowds. Plus there’s the added benefit of whimsical Halloween decorations.

        Unfortunately, I’ve often been forced by my schedule to visit during the Summer. Not a good idea. But follow the week day advice, arrive an hour before opening. Use FastPass wisely. And you might still get a few rides in. ;-)

        If it sounds difficult to find a good time to visit TDR, it is. But the parks are worth the trouble. Once you see the Tokyo Disneyland Resort, you’ll understand how a Disney park should really be run. And Tokyo DisneySea is the ultimate themed experience, a park truly beyond words.

      • I think January or Feburary is the ideal time to visit. The parks are designed to be very functional in cold weather (for example the glass roof over their Main Street equivalent) but it really keeps crowds down.

        It also provides the maximum contrast with the American parks. One of the best days I’ve ever had at a Disney park was a stormy February day at Disney Sea. Everything was walk on and the rough seas in Tokyo bay made an incredibly atmospheric backdrop.

      • Dusty and Gyoza,
        Thank you for all the great information. I really appreciate it.
        Dusty, cool you have been able to go so often.
        How does the fast pass with the disney hotels work? Is it true?
        Thank you

      • Sorry for my delay in responding Captain Action, I comment a lot, and truly never expect anyone to reply back to me LOL. It looks like you came to the right place though, with incredible and spot-on advice from Dusty Sage and also jcruise86. Thanks for stepping in for me there!

        I haven’t heard of any ‘deals’ helping with the lines by staying at the Disney or Disney Partner hotels at the Resort, but I imagine the Main TDR webpage would have info if something was available. We had stayed further away and got the train in. We had always spent one day per park, but honestly, I would say a 2 day each Park would be a good minimum. Most of the year lines are long, so you just have to deal with that, use Fast Pass when you can, and make the most of what you can do.

        jcruise86 idea of the tiny, (and yes the rooms and bathrooms are hilariously tiny!!) Business Man’s hotels is a great idea. VERY good rates, comfortable and great facilities, just tiny rooms, which you hopefully wouldn’t want to spend most of your time in anyway.

        I had used http://www.toyoko-inn.com/eng/ on an unscheduled and extended stay in Osaka, and found them just incredible. Wonderful staff, and a comfy bed and facilities. Even a mini laundrette in the hotel I stayed at. Plus wifi!! Being in the small room made it quite the adventure, and even though the reason for the stay wasn’t a good one, my time at the little hotel room was always wonderful.

        Summers can be stifling hot, so honestly, I would prefer to go myself in the cooler times of the year. I had only ever been during warm and hot times though. And my visits had always been near weekends or school holidays. Something to be avoided if possible at ALL costs. Waiting 3hrs per attraction, especially JTTCOTE and popular attrations, so that only 4 rides can be experienced in a LOOONG day, does take some of the happiness away with your patience.

        But, still, I will always recommend visiting the incredible Japanese Parks to anyone. The standard and service is beyond anything anywhere.

        Sorry again for my delayed reply!

  2. Great article – thank you.

    Thank you Mr. Thordarson for creating a work of art. The entire Mysterious Island area of TDS is incredible. I remember saying “WOW” so many times when seeing it. Not sure how to describe it more than it was like walking through a dream. Beautiful.

    Agree with the QPerth – Disney and theme park fans should do their best to visit TDR. You can make it easier on the budget by staying at one of the non-Disney hotels (and then visit the hotels). Don’t let the language scare you – the people of Japan were always willing to help me and I just made sure to be very polite.

    thank you again for the article!

  3. Thank you, Micechat, for featuring that excellent article!

    I enthusiastically agree that Americans should consider skipping WDW for a year or two or three and instead go to Tokyo! It’ll be just as safe and a lot more interesting, especially if you’ve already visited WDW. Just try to learn at least a few words of Japanese. I got a lot of mileage out of saying, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” politely in Japanese. If you don’t suffer claustrophobia, consider staying at a businessman’s hotel with a tiny hotel room in Tokyo and taking the train into Disney. Some folks love taking the bullet train to Kyoto.

    I’m certain that the great Walt Disney would love Tokyo Disneyland (and be a bit disappointed at some things about WDW today–though it has lots of cool stuff.)

    I always plug the famous Tokyo fish market with its tuna auction that is early in the morning, but something I’ll never forget. I recently had lunch with an aquarium director who agreed with me that this fish market was more interesting than many aquariums. There were different types of octopus and squid neatly laid out near each other and EVERYTHING there was so perfectly clean and fresh that there was no bad fishy smell anywhere at the whole gigantic market.

    If you’re on the East Coast or Midwest, you may also wish to consider going to Paris (Disneyland, but not the most awful studios park) instead of WDW, though plane fares to Paris were hovering over $1,000 per ticket from Los Angeles last time I looked.

    • While we Disney fans might devote three days to the two parks at Tokyo Disneyland, I think two days at Disneyland Paris would be more than enough, especially since Paris is one of the most beautiful & interesting places on Earth.

  4. During a visit to TDS in 2009 I thought I really “DID” experience a real Center of The Earth, it was so convincing especially that vibrating cabin that went down so fast! To finally learn that the visual creator was fellow Sequoia Creative designer Tom Thordarsen in this gloriously illustrated MiceChat story is a delight. I do hope that more Theme Park artists will be featured here in similar stories of “how they did it”.

    Yes, Dave Schweniger, Tom Reidenbach and I co-founded Sequoia Creative in 1985 where Tom Thordarson was our star artist and creator who went on to visualize so perfectly what the Center of The Earth might be like.

    • ^ ^ Always an honor to have people like Bob Gurr on Micechat! ! ! :)
      Thank you for posting that!

  5. Thank you for this article! I am always excited to read about the Tokyo parks!

  6. Awesome!