Like Charlie Bucket in “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” one of the things that Disney fans dream of doing is pulling back the curtain on all those closed doors at Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California. It is here that Disney Imagineers create a plethora of fantastical things ranging from attractions to signage and everything in between.
In a way, Kevin Rafferty’s autobiography, “Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career”, is a little like Willie Wonka himself. He takes Disney fans on a wondrous journey through his career with The Walt Disney Company.
Rafferty could have easily sung the words that Willie Wonka sung in the movie, “Come with me / And you'll be / In a world of / Pure imagination … We'll begin / With a spin /Traveling in / The world of my creation.”
One would think Rafferty, who grew up in Southern California and had a passion for drawing and art, would be drawn to working for The Walt Disney Company. Well, you can erase that thought out of your head, because, in 1974, Rafferty was studying to become a Roman Catholic priest. After five years, Rafferty left the priesthood and enrolled at Cal State to study art.
Deciding to apply for a summer job at Disneyland, Rafferty thought they’d see how gifted he was and they’d eventually (and quickly) transfer him from the park to The Walt Disney Studios. Well those dreams didn’t exactly pan out because Rafferty found himself at the Plaza Inn working as a dishwasher. It was here where he would make one of many impressions with the top brass at the Disney Company. His first impression involved a clogged drain, a CO2 tank, and Dick Nunes. “I could and probably should have been justifiably fired right then and there …,” said Rafferty. “The girls still didn’t talk to me, but they talked about me.”
"There were at least a dozen Cast Members on the restaurant side, those who were serving those in line, witnessed that event,” said Rafferty. “I think they were all in such shock, not only about what happened but to whom, they were rendered speechless! I’m so glad no one ratted me out or that may have been the end of my magic Disney journey!”
After two years, Rafferty was transferred and promoted to busboy, but this time he was at the prestigious Club 33. “The moment I stepped through the concealed front door into the fancy foyer,” said Rafferty. “I felt like Jed Clampett must have felt the day he arrived in Beverly Hills.” Although he may have been a fish-out-of-water there, he quickly rose through the ranks, and, in less than two years, he was promoted to maître d’, sous chef, waiter, bartender, and lead.
For those who have never cooked or can’t cook (yes, I know Chef Auguste Gusteau says, “Anyone can cook”), being thrown behind the line in a kitchen can be very intimidating. “When I was asked to put on a chef’s hat and work in the kitchen, especially the renowned kitchen at Club 33, I thought my goose was cooked,” said Rafferty. “I was both honored and terrified. But this was a great early lesson in jumping in and trying new things. I was always apprehensive about any new venture or challenge that came my way but I always took them on. The good news is I had two amazing mentors who turned me into a chef quickly, my mom, the best Italian chef in the world so I was no stranger to the kitchen, and our head chef at the Club, Daniel Durand from France. Daniel took me under his wing and had me dishing up deliciousness in no time at all. Even today I cook many of the dishes I learned to perfect at the Club including my specialty “Veal California.” Club 33 members from the late ‘70s might remember that one!”
During this time, Rafferty graduated from Cal State with his degree in art and was ready for his big job with the Walt Disney Studios. However, a recruitment poster for artists and designers for a new park, EPCOT Center, that prominently featured Mickey Mouse on in – in the style of the WWI Uncle Sam recruiting poster – detoured him from the Studios to Imagineering.
After accepting the job, which including a $200 pay cut, Rafferty thought he was on his way to being an artist. Even though the job was not what he thought it was, he still accepted the position just so he could get his foot in the door and see what was behind the Disney Imagineering curtain.
It was during his Traditions class where he had an encounter with another senior member of Disney management. Rafferty didn’t find out who he was until his first working day in Special Services. “Carl never mentioned our time together in orientation,” said Rafferty. “But he did smile and wink at me once passing in the hallway my first week at Imagineering. I like to believe he got a big kick out of my enthusiasm for working at WED.”
Working in Special Services, Rafferty was working for the artists and Imagineers. He was sweeping the floors, emptying the trash cans, setting up rooms, dusting models, and cutting cardboard frames to “frame the concept art created by the real artists.” Although Rafferty didn’t feel like this was a great job, he quickly learned how fortunate he really was. Every day he went to work he was surrounded with many of Walt’s original artists, animators, and Imagineers including Marc Davis, John Hench, Harriet Burns, Herb Ryman, Harper Goff, X Atencio, Ward Kimball, and many others.
There are very few Imagineers and people who met and worked with Walt Disney. Rafferty said that having the opportunity to work with the first-generation Imagineers was as incredible as you can imagine. “These were the good and talented folks who designed and delivered some of my favorite childhood memories! It was amazing to learn the business from those who invented our business,” said Rafferty. ”It was also so great to hear their first-hand stories about their time and experiences with Walt Disney and everything that went in to the design of Disneyland. They were the brave and the bold and I admired and respected them tremendously. And on top of all that they were nice and wonderful people. It’s fun and impressive to think they accomplished everything they did without cell phones, computer-aided design and all of the wonderful tools we are able to use today. They did it all by hand (and by heart!).”
Kevin Rafferty on the construction site at Tokyo Disneyland in 1988. Courtesy of Kevin Rafferty.
Rafferty was promoted and worked on other projects in Imagineering, however after EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland opened, he found himself on the end of a massive layoff. He found his way to a small advertising agency doing layouts and eventually took a second job at Southern California Edison as a proofreader and copy editor.
“After I was laid off from Disney I was upset because, being in the project management department and not yet in creative, I never got the chance to prove to the company and to myself that I was creative,” said Rafferty. “Being laid off gave me the opportunity to get out there and test my creative chops while constantly, in the back of my mind, entertaining the possibility that one day I could return to the most creative company in the world. That was a dream I held onto tightly and in true Disney style, that dream came true. And when I returned to Imagineering I was a creatively stronger and even more appreciative about being an Imagineer. I have lived that dream happily ever after for over 40 years. There are a lot of careers out there in the world but in the grand scheme of things how many folks get to be an Imagineer? Not many!”
Not long after starting at Edison, Rafferty received a call that would once again change his life, and quite frankly, the lives of many Disney fans to come. Steve Sock, a manager at WED, left a message on his answering machine that Mark Rhodes, one of Rafferty’s best friends from his Club 33 days, was transferring out of project management and into show writing. Rhodes suggested that Rafferty take his place.
Courtesy of Kevin Rafferty
From this point on in the book is when Rafferty’s Disney career really kicks into high gear. Coming back to the company as head scope writer, Rafferty was quickly promoted at WDI. Throughout his career, he worked on numerous attractions at Disney Parks around the world. Rafferty worked with Jim Henson on the story development for Muppet Vision 3-D, he named everything and was the official show writer for Typhoon Lagoon Water Park, Comedy Warehouse at Pleasure Island, Pan Galactic at Pizza Port in Tokyo Disneyland, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Toy Story Mania, Test Track, Mickey’s PhilharMagic, the re-imagining of the submarines at Disneyland into the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, dreaming up and creating the immersive world of Cars Land, and many more project that did and didn’t come to fruition.
Disney fans are always curious about attractions that never were or were planned and then shelved for whatever reason. Rafferty couldn’t talk about any of those attractions, but he did discuss one that proved to be challenging.
“The most challenging attraction I ever created was Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. The reason is my up-front challenge was to take a large existing totally empty blacktop surface left over from a previous ride, Luigi’s Flying Tires, and come up with a brand new attraction experience and story to go there. In other words, here’s a large empty space, a blank sheet of paper if you will, on which you have to put something fun and new for a certain defined budget and schedule - good luck, Kev!”
“Well, everything starts with story so I first created the story that Luigi’s cute little cousins were invited to come over from Carsoli, Italy, to dance their traditional village dances for visitors to Radiator Springs on Race Day. Now comes the hard part: what do the cousins look like and how exactly do 18 of them dance perfectly together? The technology required to do this was immensely sophisticated because each of the cars is actually its own independent ride system. Even though they look like they’re dancing together in perfect synchronization, the reality is that none of them really know where the other is or what it’s doing! No one will ever know how hard this was to accomplish except for my small Imagineering team that had to figure it out. The attraction story was solid but how to actually bring that story to life was a different story! It took many long days and nights and trial and error to get there. But when I see guests enjoying the dance today with big smiles on their faces and singing along to the attraction theme song that I wrote every bit of, the hardship required to get there was worth it. That’s what I tell all of my project teams while considering our guest enjoyment when it’s done: it’s never easy but it’s always worth it!”
Whenever you ask someone about their career and inquire if they have something that is their “favorite” most people will say, “That’s like trying to choose your favorite child!” Although Rafferty did give the same response, he did talk about certain attractions that were most magical to him.
Kevin Rafferty with Don Rickles, voice of Mr. Potato Head Courtesy of Kevin Rafferty
“Although I dearly love Toy Story Mania! and of course Radiator Springs Racers, I actually do have a favorite and it’s the project I’m leading right now (in fact, I’m here working on it right now on site even as I write this!), said Rafferty." “I already know Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway is going to be something very special. It’s my favorite for many reasons including it’s for guests of all ages and it’s the first-ever ride through attraction starring Mickey and Minnie. But most of all because I personally challenged myself to come up with an attraction that didn’t celebrate and showcase an already existing movie story but would introduce a brand new attraction story and exclusive-to-the-attraction new theme song in the joyful spirit of “It’s a Small World (After All)” and “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).” This is the most difficult challenge to accomplish for any Imagineer and I’m so proud and happy I was able to help make this dream come true. The best part of is no one yet knows the story or ride sequence so the showman in me is extremely excited to introduce a brand new immersive experience to the world - one that’s filled with fun, color, music and surprises about every corner. As a side note, just now an electrician walked by me here in the ride building humming our memorable attraction theme song! Ha! It’s working!!!”
Rafferty’s last project, before he retires, is creating and imagining Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World Resort. This attraction, which is expected to open in 2020, is the first Mickey Mouse-themed attraction.
Although Rafferty couldn’t give any details about the attraction he did say he couldn’t think of a better attraction project to be creatively leading. “This is the cherry on top of my career,” said Rafferty. “It’s like saving the best for last! And I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that the attraction is also going into Disneyland where I started my career so long ago. It’s all coming full circle. After this attraction project opens at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World in spring of 2020 I will go back to Imagineering in Glendale and keep working on developing more magic for a while until I decide on an actual retirement date. I don’t have an exact date planned yet but suffice it to say I won’t be around long enough to see another attraction through the entire design and development process from initial spark to the park. But who knows? Anything can happen at Imagineering! When I do retire, though, do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to Disneyland!”
Oh, remember when I mentioned he had run-ins with top Disney executives? Well, Rafferty also tells other hilarious Lucy and Ethel-type encounters with Marty Sklar, Frank Wells, and others, including one with Rafferty's wife, Michael Eisner, Disney Corporate Attorney Merritt Farren, an outdoor picnic, and an incredibly large chocolate brownie topped with a thick layer of ooey-gooey, chocolate fudge frosting.
Photo: Walt Disney Imagineering
Rafferty said that his original intent was “not to write a book for the sake of writing a book as much as it was simply to sit down and tell stories.”
I loved this book. It was as if Rafferty was sitting next to me every day and telling non-stop stories about his career with Disney. You can feel his highs and lows and hear his excitement on every page in the book. This is not just someone who loves his job, but is someone, like many of us, who is a passionate Disney fan. “Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career” is part bio, part how-to-be-an-Imagineer, and part love letter to the company that he has called home for the last 40 years.
“When all is said and done,” says Rafferty. “I’m hopeful this book will entertain readers who are interested in the inner workings and culture of Imagineering with stories they have not heard and help to inspire a new generation of Imagineers. I do not take the rare gift of my Imagineering career lightly. It was never just a job to me. Truly it was a magic journey.”
My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career
By Kevin Rafferty
Pages 304. Disney Editions. $24.99