Exclusive Interview with Imagineer/Author
Author, Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom
to the Movies and The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom
to the Movies
spoke with Walt Disney Imagineering's Jason Surrell
regarding the upcoming release of his book about the
Pirates of the Caribbean. Jason recalls the path he
took to his role in Imagineering, and reveals some
interesting secrets about Disney's famous swashbuckling
attraction.. and even sends one fabled rumor straight
to Davey Jones' locker.
Note: If you haven't already
ordered your copy of the book, you can get one at
a fantastic discount by purchasing it from Amazon
Tell us briefly about your history with
the Disney Company. Additionally, how did you make your
way into an Imagineering career? (Starting originally as
a Disney CM
) What drew you toward using your particular
talents in the world of theme-park design?
I started my Disney Career with the Walt Disney
World College Program in the summer of 1989. I was a skipper
at the Jungle Cruise, which is just about the best first
Disney job you can have. The following summer, I transferred
over to Epcot Entertainment, where I worked as a performer.
In January of 1991, after I had moved down to Florida full-time,
a fellow Cast Member and I pitched an idea for a character
Christmas show at Epcot. Somehow, the concept managed to
work its way through the approval process and I actually
got produced. I got to write the script and serve as something
of an "apprentice Show Director." Then I transferred
over to the Disney-MGM Studios, where I continued to pitch
shows as a kind of "extracurricular activity."
A couple of them involved attractions, which obviously fall
under the purview of Walt Disney Imagineering.
That's when I met Senior Show Producer Mike
West, who was my first mentor at WED (sorry, couldn't resist).
That's also when I realized that I didn't need to be an
artist, architect or engineer to work at Imagineering.
|| Mike encouraged me to get as much experience
as I could, which I did by going off to Universal Studios
for almost five years to work as a writer and director
of live shows and, toward the end of that period, attractions.
I wrote the scripts for A Day in the Park with Barney
at Universal Studios and the Jurassic Park River Adventure
at Islands of Adventure, both of which are still open.
At the end of those five years, I had the experience
to come back to Disney as an Imagineer and I've been
here ever since.
What is it like to have access to the
Disney archives, and how did you keep yourself focused on
the task at hand?
As a Disney fan, the opportunity to dive into
the Walt Disney Archives at the studio and our own library
of art and photography is like discovering Isla de Muerta,
no corniness intended. When it comes to original Imagineering
art in particular, it's VERY hard not to explore for hours
on end, but stiff deadlines generally keep me focused on
the task at hand. Fortunately, I've wound up working on
books on all my favorite attractions, which means I'll eventually
be able to take the time to look through almost everything
that means something to me.
In the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction,
there's a popular story that one of the faces is based on
Sid Caesar. It's also been said that the Imagineers themselves
used their own facial features for the pirates. Is there
any truth to either of these rumors?
That's probably the biggest misconception
about Pirates. Blaine Gibson told me point blank that not
one pirate is based on a specific person, including Walt
Disney and Sid Caesar. I know the pirate you're referring
to, and he does bear some resemblance to Sid, but that wasn't
a conscious thing on Blaine's part. The Auctioneer is in
fact inspired by an actual person, a WED architect at the
time of the show's development, but Blaine would like to
keep that person's identity anonymous. But even the Auctioneer
isn't a "direct lift" of that person's appearance.
Some of the designing Imagineers have
tombstones in the Haunted Mansion graveyard, but their names
are scrambled. Are there any inside jokes of this nature
in the Pirates of the Caribbean attractions?
There is a very direct reference to the master
himself, Marc Davis, at the end of the Walt Disney World
version of the show. I'll leave it to fans to find it
read the book, of course!
In the POTC queue line at WDW, two skeletons
are locked in an unwinnable game of chess. Whose idea was
this, and how did he or she come up with the placement of
the pieces? (We love that level of detail, by the way!)
The chess game was the brainchild of Marc
Davis, which isn't a surprise. We found out just how specific
he was during a rehab of the attraction in the 1990s. No
one was sure how to put the chess pieces back they way they
until they found a diagram of the board on the
back of the original concept sketch. Marc wanted to make
sure his eternal stalemate remained eternal!
In regards to your upcoming book release
of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies,
due out in early October), can you give a synopsis of what
is covered? Were there any facets you weren't able to cover
or include? Will your next book on the attraction cover
more of the movies, or focus on the attractions?
The Pirates book is almost identical in structure
to the Haunted Mansion book. It covers the history of the
attraction from the very beginning through its opening in
four Magic Kingdoms. The middle section is a scene-by-scene
"ride-through" of the Disneyland version, calling
out the differences in the other parks. And the last section
covers the making of the first film. I would have loved
to have gone into even more detail, but there are only so
many pages. There will be another book on the making of
all three films, but I am no longer writing it. The production
wanted someone who was on set every day to write the book.
The upside is that fans will now get a truly first hand
account of the making of the movies. The downside is that
I won't get to spend nearly as much quality time with Keira
Knightley. I can tell fans that the production team will
be including more nods to the attraction in the second and
third films, and they are a lot of fun!
What contributions did you make to the
recently released "Imagineering Field Guide to the
Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World"?
The author, Alex Wright, came to me with the
idea, thinking that it might be something I'd like to do
for Disney Editions. He wound up writing such an incredible
proposal that there was no reason he shouldn't do it himself.
So I hooked him up with my editor, Jody Revenson, and he
was off and running. Beyond that, I just chimed in with
tidbits about my favorite attractions. The book was Alex's
baby all the way, and I LOVE what he did with it. I found
out a bunch of things I didn't know, and I think that's
saying something. He's wrapping up the Imagineering Field
Guide to Epcot as we speak. We're also developing a project
together, something we're referring to as a "geo-biography"
of Walt Disney that focuses on the effects Walt Disney and
the State of California had on each other. It'll cover everything
from the history of the Burbank lot to CalArts to Mineral
King up in Northern California. It's not a done deal yet
by any means, but we're very excited about it.
Can you shed any light on your next book
Right now I'm starting work on my next book,
Disney Mountain: Imagineering the E-Ticket Range, which
will focus on our mountain thrill rides at parks around
the world. All the classics are in there: the Matterhorn,
Big Thunder, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain - even Mount
Prometheus at Tokyo Disney Sea. I'm also going to include
some attractions that were never built, specifically Western
River Expedition. I'm also developing From Star Tours to
Indiana Jones Adventure: The Creative Force of Disney and
George Lucas. That one's not a done deal, but both Disney
and Lucas are interested in making it happen if we can.
Be sure to join the TellNoTales.com
Mailing List to be informed about new interviews and
insights from insiders published here!