From the Mouth of the Mouse

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The folks who know the most about Disney aren't always the Imagineers but rather the 'regular' people who manage the lines, serve the food, clean up the trash. Jeff Heimbuch has interviewed dozens of them. Their fascinating stories present Disney from new perspectives: you'll learn what it's like to work for the Mouse on the front-lines. And, of course, you'll hear from the Imagineers, too. So buckle up! What comes From the Mouth of the Mouse may surprise you...

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FROM: From the Mouth of the Mouse Published Wednesdays

Interview: Rolonda, Imagineer

During her nearly 30 year career as an Imagineer, Rolando had her creative fingers in many different pies, and wore many different hats - she shares them all with Jeff Heimbuch, including her memories of the old Disney Village.

In this week's edition, we step away from regular Cast Members yet again to speak with another Imagineer, Rolonda, who worked for The Walt Disney Company for almost 30 years on a wide variety of projects. She has seen the company grow and expand from two American parks to multiple parks worldwide!

What did you do for the dompany?

ROLONDA: I was very fortunate to work in various departments at Walt Disney World. I started my career in 1976 with Buena Vista Design as a graphic designer. This group was building the Disney Village, now called Downtown Disney, at the time. I then went to work for WED (now WDI). We were referred to as WED EAST, because we were on the East Coast, while the main portion of WED was on the West. I worked as an Artist Preparator and figure finisher for animatronics. In the 80s, I went to Creative Entertainment as a scenic designer. My specialty was designing parades. In 1995, I became an Art Director for WDI. I worked as the Art Director for the Magic Kingdom and Disney's Animal Kingdom, and then retired as a Show Producer in 2005.

What specific attractions and shows did you work on?

ROLONDA: When I first started, I did the graphics package for the "Empress Lilly" and the resorts. That was my first assignment! With WED, I also worked on the Epcot and Tokyo projects. Those were my main two. With WDI, I was the Show Producer for the Magic Carpets of Aladdin and the Emporium Expansion on Main Street. With Entertainment, I was the art director for the 20th Anniversary Parade, Christmas Parade, and Illuminations. I was also the Show and Art Director for the Beauty and the Beast show at the Studios.
With WDI, I was mostly Show Quality Support and Art Director for Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. In this role, I worked with all the other disciplines in the Parks - Foods, Merchandise, Ops, and so on. Anything that was added or needed rehab, we provided creative direction, so as to maintain the stories we created for the guests.

Not really a question, but I actually completely forgot, up until a few years ago, that it used to be called the Disney Village. I remember my first visit there as a child, and how different it was back then! I remember the huge "mountain" of stuffed animals in the very center of the store and what a treasure trove I thought it was!

ROLONDA: The Walt Disney World Village also had a wonderful antique shop and an artisan shop. That was, of course, before the invasion of all Merchandise being Disney. Back then, the shops at Disney were unique. We lost so many there and in the Parks. It all began to change after Pleasure Island went in.

Tying into how you started at Disney, did you go to school for graphic design?

ROLONDA: I studied Visual Design, where graphics was a part of the package. It was structured more towards advertising, though. I received a BA from Purdue University. To be honest, my plan was to work for Disney for a year and have it on my resume, then go to an ad agency in Chicago. That clearly didn't happen!

So how did you come about working for Disney?

ROLONDA: I wanted to work for Hallmark first. But I did have some help in picking Disney. My uncle was the manager for Engineering at the time, and he knew of an opening at Buena Vista Design. So I came down a month after graduation and was put on a trial basis for a month, then they hired me a week later!

As a graphic designer working on the Village, what did your job entail?

ROLONDA: I had a wonderful opportunity to work with some very talented graphic designers and learned so much in my first year there. This was before computers, you know. So I became a draftsman for the designers, doing the sign packages for construction. I hand lettered most of the lettering for the "Empress Lilly", and my first complete design package was the golf signs for the Buena Vista Golf Course.

What prompted your move to WED?

ROLONDA: I wanted to work on the Epcot and Tokyo projects. It was a personal decision, but eventually I was promoted into a managerial role as Supervisor for Production. I am assuming that it was a "step up" in the company, so to speak, and I liked it, so I stayed there.

What does the job of Artist Preparator entail?

ROLONDA: An artist preparator is a figure finisher. Just a fancy name for it.

Did you put any "personal touches" on some of the figures?

No. That was a big no-no back then! We had strict documentation to follow, though we did try new ideas sometimes. We presented them and did change some of the painting, especially on 20K Under The Sea.

What animatronic figures were you "finishing?" Did you have any personal favorites you worked on?

ROLONDA: I finished many of the birds for the Tiki Room show. But the elephants for Jungle Cruise were my favorite, along with the sea turtles for 20K. Both of which I did propose a few new colors for, and they were allowed. So kind of a personal touch there!

From your moves inside the company, it would seem that you are a very creative-minded person. How different was it being a graphic designer and designing parades?

ROLONDA: Actually, it was my drafting and construction experience from previous jobs that qualified me to design parade floats. There is so much to consider in the design of a float - perhaps that is why I did so many. The two went hand in hand, in a way, just on a grander scale.

Aside from the ones you mentioned, did you have a hand in designing other parades?

Oh, sure! I wasn't the art director on all of them, but I did help with the Spirit of America Parade, the 15th and 20th Anniversary Parades, the Muppets on Parade, Christmas Parades from 1984-1994, the finally Indianapolis 500 Parade in 1987 (my hometown, no less!).

What does the Art Director for Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom do?

ROLONDA: The main responsibility was to be the creative link to all the disciplines: Merchandise, Foods, Ops, and so on, for WDI. Our role was to ensure the stories we were telling stayed intact across all the brands.

You mentioned working on the Magic Carpets of Aladdin ride. As a show producer, what were your responsibilities?

ROLONDA: I led the creative team for the project. It is always a challenge to try to keep elements of the story in the project and keep the budget in mind. You trade off quite a bit, but focus on the key story parts and fight to keep them in!

One of the tales of the Carpet ride is that the design in the concrete surrounding the marketplace used tiles from the mosiac that used to be in the area. Did you have anything to do with this design?

ROLONDA: Yes, I did! They came from the old buildings and merchandise shops. It was partly to homage what was there before, and I thought it was a wonderful idea.

What did the Emporium expansion entail? I know the "official" story that Osh's business kept expanding, so he kept buying out the store fronts until eventually the Emporium was the entire side of the street.

ROLONDA: Well, actually he just expanded his existing shop. In Europe, he had seen the new grand shops being built and wanted one for himself. So "Center Street" was history, and his vision became a reality!

Show Quality Support isn't just limited to the attractions, correct?

ROLONDA: Absolutely. All Disney properties, worldwide, have it. There are SQS groups at all Parks and Resorts, including the cruise ships!

Looking back on your time there, is there anything you would have done differently?

ROLONDA: Oh, you look at everything like that. Your work begins one big tale of "what ifs." But you didn't have time to think about it too much then, because the next project was already underway. I usually had a least three major projects going at a time, and the challenge was keeping all the details in my head. Because it is all about the details, just like John Hench said.

You worked there for close to 30 years! That's incredible, and to me, shows that you really loved what you were doing. Any specific highlights in your career at Disney?

ROLONDA: I worked with Jim Henson and his designers for the Muppets, which was great. And I met my favorite illustrator, Michael Hauge! My travels were a huge perk, too. WDI had what they called "paint aways" during which we were sent to different places for a week to paint and rejuvenate - places like Paris, Italy, Montana. Trust me, I didn't complain!

Thank you, Rolonda, for sharing!

If you haven't done so already, please don't forget to subscribe to our podcast! We have lots more interviews coming your way, and you don't want to miss them.

If you are (or know) a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and be featured here on Disney Dispatch, email me at jeff@bamferproductions.com. I'd love to hear from you!