When arriving at a Disney Park, we often check our notion of truth at the ticket gate. Fanciful stories consume us and we are able to leave behind the sorrows and troubles of our everyday lives. It is an enchantment. It is a place where Imagineers direct our thoughts and allow us the chance to “suspend our beliefs” by immersing us in atmosphere and nostalgia.
In August of 2011, I had the great opportunity to tour Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California, as part of an Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic tour. After we gave our sample of blood and signed a contract to not reveal any of WDI’s secrets (not really), we were given an amazing introduction to Imagineering and a tour of the facilities by Dave Fisher, Senior Show Writer for Walt Disney Imagineering. ”Allow yourself to dream” and “everything has creative potential” flashed upon a screen and I knew that I was in the home of creative masters.
An Incredible Day on the Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic Tour
One stop along the way was the famous Maquette Room. Within this single room lies maquettes from animated features and hundreds of past and present Disney Park attractions, such as Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Epcot’s World of Motion and Disneyland’s America Sings. It was a visual feast. Honestly, it was hard to take it all in during such a short time. If a character once appeared in a park, then more than likely the maquette of that character is in this room. After much discussion of the maquettes and audio-animatronics, our attention was turned to a beautiful princess and her seven friends.
Dave broke out his own storytelling skills with a revealing tale almost “as big as time”. The legend and subsequent twist involves a set of Snow White and the Seven Dwarf Carrara marble statues that were once placed in Disneyland, but are now protected from the elements at Walt Disney Imagineering, in the middle of the Maquette room.
Visiting the Maquette Room at Walt Disney Imagineering
Disney Legend and Imagineer John Hench reminisced about the origins of these gorgeous statues in his book, Designing Disney, Imagineering and the Art of the Show.
“We encountered a special challenge when Walt unexpectedly received a gift of statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs carved from pure-white Carrara marble, which arrived in wooden crates from Italy with no return address or any other indication of who might have made and sent them. Walt called me down to the studio warehouse to look at them, and told me he wanted me to put them somewhere in Disneyland. I had to tell him that we would have a perspective problem with the figures: the sculptor had carved Snow White the same size as the dwarfs. “Just figure it out,” said Walt. My next thought was that the white marble statues could make any place I chose to put them look like a graveyard. “It could look like the place where we buried the dwarfs,” I told Walt. “For God’s sake, Johnny,” he replied, “don’t make it look like a cemetery.” He had no sympathy for me.”
As John tells it, the statues were an anonymous gift to Walt Disney. During the late 1950s, there was a set of licensed Snow White and the Seven Dwarf soaps that were extremely popular. The Snow White soap and the dwarf soaps were all roughly the same size in the set. Legend has it that the sculptor of the statues used a set of soaps for his statues’ proportions. This obviously caused a problem as Snow White should have been much taller then the dwarfs.
Hench stepped up to help rectify the situation. By using forced perspective, he was able to solve the scale problem. He placed the statues in a vertical arrangement. Snow White was placed at the top of a slope, which was highest and farthest from the guest. Because of the highness and distance, the guest’s eye would naturally expect the Snow White statue to be small. Hench also had an under-scaled deer sculpted to stand by Snow White. It helped validate her size and helped give her a natural appearance.
Original John Hench Sketch of Snow White’s Grotto
In addition, Hench devised a clever and unusual waterfall to be a part of the scene. With a normal waterfall, the water will taper as it goes down. However in this scene, the waterfall would begin at Snow White’s feet and would grow wider as it fell due to the added feeding springs along the way. The dwarfs were placed closer to the wide bottom of the waterfall. This created the illusion that the dwarfs were smaller.
On March 27, 1961, Snow White’s Grotto opened along side a wishing well. Walt had postulated that guests would throw money into the pool of water below the waterfall and that some guests might try to jump in to get the money. Thus, the wishing well was added to the scene in hopes that guests would throw their money in the well. As guests walked up to it, they could hear Snow White’s echo singing “Some Day My Prince Will Come.”
Disneyland’s Snow White’s Grotto
Now for the twist in the story…after 65 years of dedicated service to the Walt Disney Company, John Hench died on February 5, 2004. He left behind a legacy of expertly created designs seen in architecture (such as Space Mountain), animation (such as Fantasia), live-action films (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), theme parks (such as Disneyland’s Tomorrowland), costumes, and restaurants (Plaza Inn). He was also the official artist of Mickey Mouse starting in 1953 for Mickey’s 25th birthday. Throughout his luminous career, he strategically controlled the guests’ perception thru story.
A view of Snow White’s Grotto with Wishing Well on the left
Hench was a master storyteller. It is only fitting that he himself is involved in one of the biggest stories (and mysteries) in all of Imagineering and the parks. After his death, his secretary found a file titled “Snow White.” Upon careful examination of its contents, it was discovered that the Walt Disney Company had in fact commissioned an Italian artist by the name of Leonida Parbla to design and create the marble statues. Hench’s Snow White file included correspondence between him and the sculptor discussing the company’s discovery of the proportion issue with the statues. In one letter, Hench asked the sculptor how much it would cost to re-create Snow White. Parbla’s response was that it would cost $2000. Hench subsequently wrote back that the price was too much and the company would just work with what they had.
Snow White and the Under-scaled Deer
The legend of the statues has taken on a life of its own in Disney folklore over the years. It seems that Hench himself constructed the story. He even propagated the tale in his own book. However, with the momentous revelation of the letters, one would think that the story has been re-written. Unfortunately, the answer to this mystery will probably never be solved. In spring of 2011, Imagineers went to find the letters to settle the quandary once and for all. To their dismay, the letters were missing. No one knows where the letters are to this day. Dave finished by saying, “you choose your story.” In the end, John Hench may have been the only person in the Walt Disney Company to know the real truth behind the marble statues. Was this a deception or John Hench’s last immersive tale?
Special thanks to James, Matt and Michael for your expert help with this article.Share