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D23 Walt Disney Studios Tour

August 15, 2009

We were VERY lucky to make it into one of D23’s first free tours of the Walt Disney Studios. In fact, I am expecting it to be the only D23 event we ever get into, if they keep doing everything first-come, first-served on the Web for 20,000 members. Every other event I’ve tried to get into has sold out before my computer even brought up the link to click on, but on this occasion they accidentally posted the link 3 minutes early and I saw it in time to make it onto a waiting list. When they decided to add more tours each day, we got in!

Ooooh! Parking lot! Behind it is the building where all the animation takes place today – we didn’t go there

We arrived at the studio at 11:30am for our 12pm tour. They had us park and walk over to what is sort of the “show” front part of the studio, near the gym, the commissary, the conference rooms and the company store.

(If the photo is bad, you’ll know it came from my iPhone)

They’d set up a check-in point where we showed our ID and D23 card to get a wristband, a D23 Expo pin (they are pushing that thing hard!) and a color sticker indicating our tour group.

The family of four ahead of us was trying to get the son and dad into the tour even though only the mom had registered for the event (and her daughter got to be her one guest), but Disney stuck to the rules and told them they couldn’t come. DH told me if he’d been the dad, he woulda made it up to the son by taking him over to Griffith Park to see the carousel and Walt’s Barn, and then visit Travel Town. I think they went to Starbucks instead.

As we waited for the tour to begin, some of the blue-shirted D23 staffers took groups to the bathrooms at the commissary. It was fun to chat with them and find out what their jobs were, because they were real-live D23 employees who workon the magazine. I got to be obnoxious and tell them their copyediting needs work – tee hee!

Oooh! Vintage phone booth!

Last time I was at the Studios, I got to eat at the commissary – the food was really good, unlike the food at the faux commissary in Disney's Hollywood Studios...

D23 had put out big photos at some of the tour stops. This one at the beginning of the tour shows the studio in the ‘60s.

“What? You gonna let some dorky little sign tell you what to do? C’mon – gimme that burger!"

When the tour started, we were split into two groups. Ours went on the studio tour first, while the other went to see the Archives first. Our tour guide was so funny – she told us we could take as many pix of her as we wanted as long as she wasn’t talking, because the day after the last round of tours, she’d found unflattering mid-sentence pix of herself all over the Internet!

The first area we saw was the last remnant of the permanent sets on the lot, a single row of storefronts. They used to have a Wild West town, a small Mexican village (for Zorro), and someplace that I can’t remember what it was but they used it for Darby O’Gill and the Little People. (Soon to be screened at the D23 Expo – get yer tickets NOW!!!)

Across the way was the back of the Ink & Paint building, which our guide painted as kind of a women’s ghetto, since it was the only department they were allowed to work in and their amenities consisted of a break room and, uh, a place to drink tea (wait til you hear what the men got in their building…).

We continued down this sort of back street behind the soundstages and stopped at the one where WED Enterprises built lots of the vehicles for Disneyland, including the train, the monorail and I think she said this is where the Mark Twain was built.

...Perhaps the hippos were built here too?

As we walked down the bland back street past empty soundstages and anonymous warehouses, it struck me what a terrible idea this would be for a theme park!

Our next stop was Soundstage 3, which is not quite as famous as Soundstage 2, where Mary Poppins was filmed and which has been dedicated to Julie Andrews. That stage was being used for some TV show that I can’t remember what it is. Soundstage 3 was built to shoot the classic squid attack scene in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea– they actually dug out the floor and filled it with water!

If you can see the blue tape lines on the floor – that’s where the tank was for 20,000 Leagues

Next we headed back the way we’d come and turned down a side street near the old film vaults.

Now that the animators and, well, everybody, it seems, has moved over to new buildings across the street and around Burbank, all of the buildings are used for something different than what they were built for. These film vaults were built like bunkers because the old kind of film stock, nitrate, was highly combustible. I don’t remember what these fireproof vaults are used for now – maybe they keep Zac Efron here…

This is the only building where they still do what the sign says, except that in the year 2009 those crazy kids do a different kind of “cutting” here...

Our tour guide was good about stopping us in shady places. We paused on the steps of the next building because it was the best place to get pictures of the water tower. She told us that it was built with six legs instead of four in order to withstand earthquakes (the hope was that it would collapse straight down instead of tipping over). It used to hold the water needed to heat and cool the entire studio, and at one point Walt wanted to see if it could be turned into an employee pool! No dice…

I forget what the first building we went in was for originally – maybe Camera? Now its sole purpose is to house the stuffed carcass of Gus: The Football-Playing Mule.

The next place we went was the Animation Building. It was built in a sort of E shape so that every office had a window, enabling the animators to draw with natural light.

All the windows except those facing north, which naturally get the best light, had louvered shades so that lighting could be adjusted.

Here our guide also told us all about the good life enjoyed by the male employees of the studio. Although the building was 3 floors around the perimeter, the center had a fourth floor that housed a private club for men only. There was a restaurant, a sauna and I think an exercise room where the animators could go unwind. (I should prolly be verifying all of this online, but let’s just assume the guide knew what she was talking about!). I dunno if it’s all still up there – I would have loved to see it!

Instead, I give you a picture of a hall:

We walked down the center of the building and were allowed to take pictures of the concept art lining the walls, including…

Backgrounds from one of my childhood favorites, “The Cold-Blooded Penguin,” about a penguin who dreams of moving to a warmer climate.

... and concept art for The Princess & the Frog

Someone’s going to have to help me out with this one – is it from Bambi?

At this point our guide stopped us and said “Walt Disney World likes to brag about its Utilidors, but *we* were the first to have them!” She told us about the tunnel from Animation to Ink & Paint that kept cells from getting wet in the copious amounts of rain Burbank gets. And then she took us down into it!!!

Before we went into the tunnel, she said that poor Jennifer Garner must’ve run up and down these halls hundreds of times for Alias.

The glow of the Coke machine cleverly distracts the bad guys chasing Jennifer Garner...

When we emerged in the Ink & Paint building, we got to look into the main paint-mixing room and saw some of the original bottles of the stuff! Apparently it lasts forever.

On the way out, they had a photo of the original Hyperion studios for us. Some of the buildings were moved to the Burbank lot, but the rest were demolished, and today the site holds a Gelson’s supermarket.

Back outside, our guide pointed out Walt Disney’s office for us. They also had a picture of the interior. Today it’s being used by Shaun Cassidy. Apparently he’s one of the more reverent tenants the space has had, but it amazes me that they don’t hold Walt’s office out of the pool of rentable space and do something special with it.

At some point we saw the big fancy building Michael Eisner had built. Maybe on the way back into the Animation building to walk down more halls?

More halls!

I’ve always loved the backgrounds in Lady & the Tramp

The “Hall of Kings” where Frank, Ollie, and many of the other most famous Disney animators had their offices.

LOVE the 101 Dalmatians concepts!

Next we briefly backtracked toward the front of the studio to talk about the Hyperion Bungalow, which is from the original lot (I’ve heard it’s the oldest building at the studio) and is now a conference room.

And the Mickey topiary. There was a funny story about how Disney World sent this topiary to the studios as a gift, and there were originally to be a bunch of them, but this one is having so many problems staying alive that they had to scrap the plan.

You’ve prolly seen the corner of Dopey Drive and Mickey Avenue a lot. The sign was created for the “documentary” The Reluctant Dragon and it’s still here!

Pluto’s paw prints are in the asphalt here…

Before we went into the Archives, we made a stop at Legends Plaza, which runs from the Seven Dwarfs building down to the building housing the Archives. Patrick says it used to have a fountain in it, but now it’s just a big patio.

There’s a ginormous replica of the Disney Legend award in the plaza

Yikes! Unlike Oscar, this award could KILL you if you fell on it

Disney gives out Legends Awards to people who have been instrumental in its success, and I guess at the ceremony they put their handprints down the way stars used to put their footprints in the cement in front of the Chinese Theater. We only had 10 minutes here, so everyone dashed about trying to find the prints of their favorites.

We spotted Virginia Davis’ handprints first. I just learned she passed on that very day.

We've actually seen this guy's Legends Award in person at his house!

Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston – Look closely, cuz one of these things is not like the others!

The Sherman Brothers’ hands!

At the Archives end of the plaza is another Partners statue. I wasn’t particularly interested in it until someone mentioned it was the closest one would ever get to the Partners’ statue, and then I dashed down there to get an intimate portrait (graciously snapped by the Editor In Chief of D23’s magazine!).

Finally they called “time” and we were off to see the Archives. I think we managed to read almost every handprint plaque though.

One of the D23 writers pointed out that the film strip overhang above the building’s name appears to come off the reels painted above it

We only spent a few moments in the lobby, and I wish we could have been there longer because they had a fantastic display of hats from various Disney movies.

Mary Poppins’ hat!

My fave, the Rocketeer’s helmet

Ah, TRON...

Cue EPCOT opening theme song: “We did some things/And other stuff/We put things up/And layed them down/We made some costumes/And jumped around/We’re getting ready for yooooooooou!”

They also had on display costumes from such Disney classics as Hannah Montana and High School Musical XIV: The Reckoning. I took some shots of the curtain dress from Enchanted and the dress Barbossa gave Elizabeth in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but they were really glare-y…

Wow – one of only two or three multiplane cameras anywhere!

Outside the Archives...

Inside the Archives

We were snickering when we got inside because the room is soooo tiny, yet D23’s magazine ran a promo photo of the Archives picturing the place full of people reading, writing, staring thoughtfully into middle space, etc. They must’ve been midgets!

Waiting for us inside the Archives was none other than Dave Smith, Chief Archivist and founder of the Walt Disney Archives! Like a lot of other Disney nerds, I want to be him when I grow up.

Dave is great! He told us a bit about what was in the cases around the room and then brought out some rare items for us to see and showed them around. Most of them were in archival sleeves, but some he’d take out and hold in his hand, and I’d think “Yikes! Shouldn’t he be wearing gloves or something?”

Cases full of merchandise from many different decades

Walt’s personal items

There are maquettes (3-D models used as reference by animators) all along the tops of the bookcases.

I think my favorite artifact we saw was the mechanical bird that inspired Walt to develop Audio-Animatronics.

Dave showed us a postcard Walt drew for his mother, noting that it disproved the theory that Walt couldn’t draw:

A complete Disneyland ticket book

Probably the first merchandise licensed by Disney

This script for Steamboat Willie was found in Walt’s desk drawer after he died, seeming to indicate that he was always mindful of the roots of his success.

Original backgrounds for Steamboat Willie – gack! Only one of them is in protective plastic!

Walt’s doodle in a scrapbook

We also saw the very first ticket sold to Disneyland (Roy bought it) and some Opening Day ephemera like the commemorative ticket and an intact parking pass. We were given about 10 minutes to wander around the Archives, and when I saw someone getting their picture with Dave, I jumped on the bandwagon!

Looky! I wear glasses too! I could be the next Chief Archivist!

Original background plate from The Old Mill

Dave recently told a story in one of the Disney publications about how he found this in the office of a Disney janitor, who said he’d found it in the trash years ago and pulled it out to keep on his shelf. It’s the original snow globe from Mary Poppins!

All too soon, they were shooing us out of the Archives to get ready for the next group. On our way out we got replica Disney Studio security officer patches, which was cool but what am I going to do with all these patches? (They gave us a Disneyland one in the latest issue of the magazine). It’s not like I still own an acid-wash Guess jean jacket I can sew them on or anything…

On the way out, we took some more random pictures. Someone saw me on my iPhone and asked “Are you taking notes?” to which I proudly replied, “I’m live-blogging on Twitter for the DIS Boards!” I don’t think they had ever heard of the DIS before – MiceChat and MousePlanet are more popular in this neck of the woods…

Lurkyloo: Proudly bringing to the DIS such thrilling shots as these!

Our last stop was the building containing the Disney Employee Center and the Studio Store. As a D23 staffer held the door open my eyes got big as saucers and I gasped, “You mean we actually get to BUY things here?!!!” Then I dashed inside and started filling our basket like I was on Supermarket Sweep.

My brain got the part where we were being allowed to shop in a store that is off-limits to the general public, but it missed the part where we didn’t get the huge discount that Cast Members get. However, we didn’t fare too badly because a lot of stuff was on sale.

I didn’t realize there are actually two stores – the Employee Center had the more exclusive, cast member-only stuff (plus random daily necessities like Ritz crackers and InTouch Magazine), while the Studio Store was just a mini Disney Store with all the same junk—er, stuff.

As I sprinted around the Employee Center trying to find my souvenir for the day, I kept coming back to the colorful display of generic gift shop merch at the front of the store. But I kept telling myself not to get it because it looked like stuff you could get anywhere!

Even these Fantasia-themed candles look like you could find them in any old gift shop

Since I was striking out, I just started dumping stuff in the basket for Patrick: a “D” logo hat, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit pins, and an ugly but limited-edition Studio pin. He added a $12 T-shirt and some postcards.

After we checked out there, we went next door to the Studio Store.

I guess Patrick really liked this mural!

Finally, after another couple of turns through the Employee Center, I settled on a unique souvenir that would capture the essence of our tour and forever remind me of the very special day we spent at the Walt Disney Studios…

… OK, no, for reals I broke down and got an anonymous mirrored picture frame with a vaguely Moroccan theme that seemed perfect for one of my fave wedding photos, and of course *I* will always know where I got it even if no one else does.

Our loot!

To continue the theme, after we left we drove over to the circa 1945 Smoke House restaurant, where the Disney studio folks used to lunch. I read that it’s one of the stops on a personal tour D23 is auctioning off at the Expo in September, which also includes meeting Dave Smith, visiting the sites of all three Disney studios in L.A., riding on a miniature train courtesy of the LA Live Steamers, and visiting Walt’s Barn—all things we’ve done, so we pretty much just saved ourselves thousands of dollars!

Talk about a throwback, this place still has red Naugahyde booths, a neon “Cocktails” sign outside the cavernous bar, and a menu where you half expect to see canned peaches over cottage cheese and a lettuce leaf as the “diet” special.

The Smoke House is also HUGE – there were three dining rooms, plus a private room, and that bar the size of the main dining room. However, we were one of just four groups eating there that Saturday afternoon. They seated us next to a grouchy older couple who spent their entire meal complaining about people who constantly need to be on their “Palm-berries” and “peep” their every move. So I peeped about ’em!

We started with neon orange garlic cheese bread that tasted like a salt lick and doubles as a handy safety beacon in traffic….

Next we split a tough, water-logged “grilled” artichoke accompanied by the Smoke House’s special mayo, which must’ve had MSG or crack or something in it because I would have eaten it on ANYTHING, even my Palmberry!

But the meal got a lot better after that. We split the Signature Barbeque Tri-Tip and a baked potato, which required them wheeling out a cart laden with vats of sour cream, chives and whipped butter so they could smear it all over the potater table-side.

Yeah, this is only *half* a meal at the Smoke House...

After beaning both the remaining patrons when the top buttons ricocheted off our pants, we were going to pass on dessert…. until they brought over a ginormous dessert tray and one of the things on it was Boston Cream Pie! You never see Boston Cream Pie in restaurants! We had to get it.

I loved that it had so much chocolate on it – usually the chocolate-icing-to-custard-and-cake ratio is really off. This was the perfect amount.

After that, we pretty much didn’t have to eat for the rest of the weekend!

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