DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.25 – 1954 Disney Manufacturing 58 Creative Years

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times

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Published on January 08, 2014 at 3:00 am with 16 Comments

Esteemed Disney Legend, Bob Gurr, shares his recollections and pictures of what it was like in the dream factory known as the Walt Disney Studios Machine Shop.  Roger Broggie Sr. managed the place at a time when all the workings of Disneyland were being constructed.

Today’s Wheel of Years has stopped at 1954, so here we go. Movie studios in the early days owned and serviced their own camera equipment in a department usually known as Camera Service. This work was performed at the Walt Disney Productions studio in Burbank California in their Machine Shop managed by Roger Broggie Sr., where I was assigned to design the Disneyland Autopia car in October 1954. While camera service was the primary function of the machine shop, many pieces of movie equipment were custom modified in the shop. So the machine shop was actually a tiny custom manufacturing outfit.

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Roger was Walt’s go-to man for all things mechanical, especially all railroad interests, thus Roger’s machine shop was the logical first starting place for design and manufacture of attractions for Disneyland. The shop was located in a single building on the Burbank studio lot near the Buena Vista entrance. The shop personnel consisted of Roger as manager, Elena Astamendi, secretary, Bob Otto and Eustice Lycett, draftsmen, Don Iwerks plus around six others as camera service technicians. As Walt’s two year old WED Enterprises began to ramp up the design and development of Disneyland, Walt placed all efforts towards the steam railroad and mechanical rides in the hands of Roger and the machine shop.

In addition to the drafters and camera technicians, Roger had hired experienced railroad equipment fellows to work in the adjacent old Hyperion Zorro building (home of today’s Mickey’s of Glendale on the studio lot). Earl Vilmer was in charge of the railroad, Ed Lingenfelter was drafting up two locomotives, while Eddie Sargeant drew plans for the rail cars. Dick Bagley did all the drawings for the Mark Twain riverboat steam engine. I shared office space with these highly experienced gents in the Zorro building also, where they told me endless tales of railroad life in the late 1800s. Thus the genesis of what later became a vast manufacturing empire that lasted until 2012.

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Various studio department were busy building the Disneyland Railroad passenger cars and the Mark Twain riverboat superstructure in a movie sound stage. Bob Mattey’s special effects shop had a Peter Pan test track set up, while various pieces of Disneyland items had been purchased and were undergoing modifications and themed painting. It seemed that there was more Disneyland than movie stuff going on in late 1954. To me, it was most magical and fascinating to see all this stuff being prepared for delivery to Disneyland in time for the July 1955 grand opening.

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By May 1956 all of Roger’s operation was moved to a brand new purpose built engineering and manufacturing plant on the studio lot next to the ink and paint building, housing camera service and the studio electrical department. I was now part of a 10 man drafting department while the shop had expanded to maybe 30 machinists with all kinds of lathes, mills, welding, and sheet metal production machinery. We built two Omnibus’s, two Viewliner locomotives, numerous Autopia cars, and virtually all the early animated creatures for the park in this new shop.

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By early 1959 we had a movie sound stage filled with two Monorail trains, more back lot shops doing Disneyland manufacturing in addition to the movie sets and props. We even had a Submarine test tank installed next to the machine shop. A union situation developed where each kind of craft could only touch their part of a job, even though the equipment encompassed numerous trades like mechanical, electrical, plastic, upholstery, painting and the like. Each craft had to wait for the union craft person, not able to touch the other guys work piece. Thus was the founding of MAPO, the new Glendale based multi-craft union factory built adjacent to WED’s new 1961 Imagineering center. Over several years more factory buildings were added as the work load increased in preparation for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

As we began manufacturing for the 1971 Walt Disney World opening, Roger contracted numerous fabrication companies around the country from Seattle to Florida. MAPO became a giant operation with all kinds of engineering departments, a full factory, with additional operations scattered around Glendale’s Grand Central Industrial Center. One shop in particular was Airway, the old Grand Central Air Terminal aircraft hangers which were the biggest center of private and commercial aviation of the 1930s. Additional large central shops were built at both Disneyland and WDW to handle all the theme park manufacturing as well as standard maintenance work.

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Imagineering eventually needed even more space, so the Glendale MAPO operation was moved to the nearby Tujunga facility next to the Burbank Airport in the early 1990s. Over time, Disney had placed ever more manufacturing contracts with outside vendors who developed excellent expertise on quality Disney type work. Since the Disney internal shop operations had matured over the decades, the inevitable increase in shop rates began to climb much higher than the outside vendor shop rates.

It wasn’t long before a combination of retiring Disney technicians, layoffs after major projects, and the financial impediment to continuing Disney internal manufacturing eventually resulted in the closing of all but a tiny special animation shop by 2012. In that year the majority of all the MAPO, Airway, and Tujunga tooling, molds, and historically developed unique Disney Audio Animatronics were transferred to Garner Holt Productions in San Bernardino California, 50 miles east of Glendale.

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By that time, Garner Holt had earned an outstanding reputation for high quality and affordable Disney attraction engineering and manufacturing. Their work has been performing beautifully in every Disney Theme Park in the world for over two decades. But it was Walt’s faith in Roger Broggie Sr. and his vast mechanical expertise that founded an amazing engineering and manufacturing empire that endured for 58 years.

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

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  • Concieved@DL

    I had to Great Uncles that worked as Machinist on the opening day and the 1959 projects. It must have been an awesome feeling to see your hard work enjoyed by millions and millions of happy people.

  • dotter disney

    So enjoy your stories, thank you.
    The pictures tell such a story, seeing things at their beginnings is awesome. The first picture with the double deck bus, wow.
    Did you have a love of photography always?
    You have witnessed so many changes, and wonderfully share in writing and visual, another talent and gift of yours.
    Recently heard, ‘Everyone loves progress, but not change’ you embrace both.

  • explodingboy

    Great story, Bob! And some great photos as well.

    Love your input here on MiceChat!

  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    This column is pure gold Mr. Bob! So interesting to hear how and why MAPO came into being. Also, fascinating that many of Disneyland props and vehicles were fabricated in a camera repair shop!!!

    Loved hearing about Roger Broggie’s shop.

  • Bruce Bergman

    You forgot the best part: Steam Engines built by a Movie Camera Maintenance shop, and built to movie camera tolerances – They opened the throttle, and it silently glided forward…

    You can’t _do_ that when one part has superheated steam or flue gases inside and thermal expansion happens, and the one next to it is at ambient. They had to go back through and open things up from thousandth-inch clearance to tenths, or more.

  • Polo33

    Bob,

    What a legend and what a great engineer you are. Thank you so much for sharing these stores , they are the all fantastic and I look forward to them always. Maybe one day you can bundel of these up in a big color picture filled new book ! I will be first online :)

  • nirktwin2

    Great stories and pictures Bob, thanks for being part of MiceChat and sharing with us.

  • TrueBlue

    Wow! The Viewliner under construction! For such a short-lived attraction, it is still one of the most iconic vehicles ever at the park. Unfortunately, I came along a few years after it was gone and only saw it in old photos and movies.
    Thanks for sharing your personal photos, Bob. Is it true the Viewliner was powered by Oldsmobile?

    • Bob Gurr

      1956 Chevrolet 265 cu in small block V8. The Oldsmobile confusion is related to the use of a 1954 GM A-body Oldsmobile 88 cab section. Some writers had assumed without asking that the engine was also from an Oldsmobile.

      • TrueBlue

        Thank you for the clarification and the insight. Seems like any vehicle needing a solid, reliable powerplant can always turn to a small block Chevy.

  • JediPrincess

    I always love your articles Bob! You are a true legend. Thank you for sharing your stories with the world. :)

  • Dizzey

    A bunch of guys dreaming up stuff and building it… flipping the switch or opening the valve for the first time has got to be one of the most joyous act one can experience (if it works!). I’m sure the folks at today’s start-ups, perhaps some at Google or Apple get that same kick, but there’s nothing like seeing a big piece of machinery getting born. Thanks for the stories and especially the photos!

  • Country Bear

    Thank you Bob!

    Your articles (and book) bring more nostalgic joy to me than I can express. I really appreciate your kind soul and your willingness to share your experiences with us. Each article is filled with fascinating tidbits that we would never know about without you telling us. I appreciate it a great deal.

    Keep them coming Bob!

  • jl925sanders

    Outstanding as always!

    If anyone needs a Viewliner hit the Oregon Zoo and Railway, Portland operates the Zooliner along with steam engines. If memory serves the outside appearance of the Zooliner engine is nearly identical to the Viewliner with the car bodies and under carriages made locally in Oregon. The railway is currently being refurbished and will open again sometime in 2014.

  • wmatzner

    Bob-Great article. Seems to me that Garner Holt Productions has become more Disney than Disney is with their corporate structure. They have been making great animatronics for a while and now have Dave Feiten too to help program them. Can you comment on this?

    • Bob Gurr

      Corporate structure is not something one would use to claim that an activity is less Disney-like, It’s a prudent set of financial decisions over time in the face of the escalating internal cost basis of a mature stockholder organization vs a younger private organization. Over time, Disney placed an increasing amount of project work with Garner Holt, carefully scrutinizing their developing expertise until one day it made business sense to outsource nearly all the Imagineering manufacturing to Garner Holt Productions. Disney still originates all theme park designs, thus remains “Disney”.