023 McNair Wilson Former Disney Imagineer Part 2: Tower of Terror, Meeting Walt, Insider Stories of Imagineering
My DVC Points Podcast

00:00 / 00:51:44

An Imagineering Blessing from Walt!

McNair's father was an officer in the Navy Reserves and stationed at a converted elementary school. The school/base happened to be at the end of the parade route of the Tournament of Roses Parade where all the parade officials gathered. The guests included the Parade's Grand Marshal, the Mayer of Pasadena, and the Rose Queen and Her Court. In 1966, Walt Disney served as the Grand Marshal of the rose parade. McNair's father arranged for the children of the officers on the base to meet Walt Disney. Walt went into the reception hall to meet and greet the kids. Walt asked for a chair, and McNair hurriedly went to get one for him. McNair's shoe got caught on the linoleum flooring and created an awkward teenage moment. The chair slipped from his hands and slid into Walt Disney's shin. Later he found himself sitting alone with Walt Disney showing him his own sketchbook. Walt Disney was impressed and asked McNair “You want to be an Imagineer?” Walt Disney poked him on the shoulder and said, “and so you shall be.”

Walt's Autograph?

After that encounter with Walt Disney McNair realized he didn't think to ask for Walt Disney's autograph. McNair told his father, and he said, “we'll get it.” It wasn't until 2009 when McNair was cleaning out some old boxes that he came across some old boxes full of keepsakes. On one of the envelops he found was written the words, “Craig's Rose Parade.” As McNair's first name is Craig, he thought it strange and opened the envelope and found the program from the 1966 Rose Parade. In the program was a photo of Walt Disney and his bio as the Grand Marshal. Also, on the page in the program was Walt Disney's autograph that his father had gotten for him all those years before.

McNair also discovered many other items from his Imagineering days. One, in particular, is an original map of Disneyland with lots of the Imagineer's autographs on them.

The Priceless Map

McNair explains that he bought a Disneyland map as a child in 1958. When he worked at Walt Disney Imagineering, he had about 20 of the original Imagineers from Disneyland sign the souvenir drawing such as Sam McKin, Harper Goff, Marty Skylar, and Xavier' X' Atencio. We briefly discussed the value of this autographed map. Disney collectors concluded, the only way to determine the value of this autographed map is the place it on an auction and see what it brings.

Harper Goff signing McNair's map with Harper's Wife

McNair explains the legendary “Dinosaurs Club” lunch gathering of Disney animators & Imagineers. Disney insiders knew about this gang, even where they met; however, you could not go unless a member invited you. The first time I went, I was invited as a guest of Claude Coats (Disney Legend and one of my mentors.” In this photo, L to R, Collin Campbell, Bill Martin, Clem Hall, Wren Wicks, myself (Craig McNair Wilson), and Ken Anderson. Every week was a casually rotating stream of amazing folks—as few as four to well over forty when Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson released a new book. I continued to attend even after leaving Imagineering and continuing to work as a consultant through Michael Eisner's office to facilitate brainstorming to all 23 divisions of the Disney corporation.

The Dinosaur's Club

Imagineering Pleasure Island & Naming Downtown Disney

The backlot project was being proposed for a one square mile plot of land in downtown Burbank, California. This project was the forerunner to Pleasure Island, Downtown Disney and Disney Springs. These three gentlemen plus architect Chris Carradine became the core “concept & design” team on Pleasure Island. The “Disney Backlot” proposal as mixed-use entertainment, mini-theme park, luxury hotel, a retail center, a movie backlot attraction, ABC network studio, and Disney Animation headquarters.

Manager Rick Rothschild (left) with Joe Rohde (center) and McNair Wilson presenting the Dinsey Backlot attraction.

Marty Skyler was discussing with McNair one day about building Pleasure Island next to the Walt Disney World Shopping Village and said, “we gotta' get rid of that name: Walt Disney World Shopping Village.” Marty knew that McNair was creative at naming venues and other things. Marty asked McNair to come up with something different and better. McNair went back to his office and pulled out his big roll of butcher paper and started writing a list of names. The name that he thought of right as the meeting had ended… He asked Marty's secretary to “beep me” when Marty is going to the restroom because he couldn't get a meeting time with him. McNair ran over to the men's room and found Marty with a toothbrush in his mouth. I pulled out a marker and writes on the mirror in front of Marty, “Downtown Disney.” Marty yells out THAT'S IT!! With Toothpaste Flying!

1987 – Pleasure Island press conference. McNair (as “Captain Spike, proprietor of a seafood eatery called “Madison's Dive”), Michael Eisner, and SAK Theatre actor Anita Goodwin (as Adventurers Club character “Madam Zenobia”). The event was held on the paddle wheeler “Empress Lilly” to show off the new Pleasure Island model. Note: Madison's Dive was cut from the project.

McNair's Signature Attraction: Hollywood Hotel Tower of Terror

At the outset of Hollywood Studios, Disney knew right a way that it was going to be too small. So they tried to figure out how to and where to place more attractions. They felt that Sunset Boulevard and needed an anchor at the end of it. Eisner requested they bring in Mel Brooks to see if they could build an attraction or show relating to one of Mel's movies. As it turns out that they already had plans to construct, a high-end luxury hotel next to the Hollywood Studios called “The Hollywood Tower Hotel.” The creative team McNair calls “the knuckleheads” did a round table discussion with each person adding on to the story using an improv theatre technique of picking up where the next person left off. By the end of the round-table, the team had verbally transformed one end of the Hollywood Hotel into the Tower of Terror attraction!

One of Chad's (second row on the left) favorite Disney memories is riding the Hollywood Hotel Tower of Terror with the lead Imagineer of the project: C. McNair Wilson (front row 2nd from left) at TheThingLive.com conference June 2017.
McNair with Dr. Gary Ewen and students from Colorado Christian University's Business Department. Dr. Ewen developed the class and invited McNair to co-teach the last three sessions. At the end of the semester students visit WDW for a full week experiencing Disney's execution of business principles, leadership and customer service.

Abandoned Imagineering Projects – Ideas that Never Came About

Chad asked McNair to discuss some of the Imagineering projects that he worked on that never came to fruition. McNair goes into detail on two projects that Disney never developed. The first was when they were designing a nighttime spectacular for Disney's MGM Hollywood Studio's. McNair recalls a story about trying to work with Andrew Llyod Webber, Cleopatra and Noah's Ark into the spectacular. Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to do Noah's Ark in place of the Fantasmic show while Disney's “Creative Entertainment” group wanted to do Cleopatra as an outdoor spectacular. They never settled on an idea and Andrew Lloyd Webber withdrew from the project. However, the Noah's Ark idea did resurface in discussions about the centerpiece at Disney's Animal Kingdom where Tree of Life exists today.

Show Notes Bonus Content:

McNair provided numerous photos with commentary after our interview concluded.

In the first half, McNair mentioned in the interview testing out an autograph hound on Main Street asking guests for their signatures and an undertaker for guests in line at Haunted Mansion. Adding live character performances were enormously popular with guests and very successful in entertaining guests to take their mind off long waits for attractions. McNair pointed out that at Haunted Mansion, park operations had to bring in three additional “ride hosts” to encourage guests to keep the line moving. I created a roster of over twenty “Streetmosphere” characters for the Disneyland proposal. Michael Eisner LOVED it all and said, “Do it!” Disneyland management said, “We don’t need it and we won’t spend the money.”

“Streetmosphere” Test for Disneyland, Dec. 1987.
McNair was a policeman patrolling Main Street, USA.

Guestbook in McNair's first office at Imagineering

McNair writes. This page shows our boss Marty Skylar’s entry. Notice the date: April fools Day, 1987. (I had been making once-a-month, for a full week, consulting trips while continuing as Artistic Director for SAK Theatre’s 45 shows-a-day at EPCOT, 30+ Renaissance Festivals a year, four Six Flags troops, and dozens of themed convention shows at WDW. By the way, my first office at Imagineering was the former office of just-retired Sam McKim who was on the first team of Imagineers designing Disneyland and drew the now-legendary Disneyland map that I have, signed by many imagineering legends including Sam McKim.

Marty Skylar's entry into McNair's sketch book on April 1st, 1987. McNair points out that Marty used “his ever-present red Flair felt pen.”

“Craig — Welcome to Imaginuity! (A word McNair coined that Marty loved.) By choosing to accept this assignment – you have escaped “the real world,” and entered a Fantasy Kingdom where you will be given many blank pieces of paper. Learn how to use them and you will succeed. Remain the ignorant street player you were before, and you will soon find yourself back on the lecture circuit. THIS IS NOT A THREAT!
M Sklar 4/1/87
P.S. Nor is it an April Fool joke.”

Marty comments to me as “Craig” that’s the “C” in “C. McNair Wilson.” One of the character's McNair played was from the UK and they used his middle name for the character. This character started the transition from using his first name “Craig” to use of his middle name “McNair.”

McNair had name tags at Imagineering for both of the names he used as a cast member.

Note: Feature photo for this episode was taken at WDI HQ in Glendale, California. Left to right: Terry Weaver, McNair Wilson, Chad Pennycuff