Interview with former Disney Imagineer Steve Kirk

Lou Mongello: As part of our continuing series where we get the opportunity to meet some Legends of Disney Imagineering, I’m pleased to welcome someone whose accomplishments with the company during his 25 year career fit that bill of truly being legendary. Beginning as a show designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, my next guest conceived and designed some of Disney’s most memorable characters, attractions, pavilions, and even complete theme parks. And, for more than a decade, he served as the creative leader of Tokyo Disney Sea in his role as Senior Vice President. So I am pleased to welcome former Walt Disney Imagineer Steve Kirk to the WDW Radio Show.

steve-kirk-imagineer-2.jpgSteve Kirk: Hi, Lou. How are you doing?

LM: Very well. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today. I’m really excited to have the opportunity to talk to you.

SK: Well, my pleasure.

LM: Mr. Kirk, you’ve had such a long, remarkable career at WDI. But before we get to talk about some of those accomplishments and specific projects, can you tell us a little bit about how you got started at Imagineering?

SK: Well, let’s see . . . I went to Cal State Long Beach and got a degree in Illustration, a B.F.A. And while I was there an associate of mine, a friend of mine actually, named Rolly Crump, who was the designer back with Walt who did the Tower of the Four Winds and was one of the producers, or the producer, I guess, on Small World. And he knew my brother, and he kind of recruited us to do a couple of jobs with him for Busch Gardens way back in ’75. Then in ’76, the Imagineering – it was WED then – was starting to recruit designers, and Rolly just started back there again after being gone in Florida for a while. And so I went to work there. I got an interview with some of the resident designers there, one was Tony Baxter, and Tim Delaney was another one that took a look at my portfolio. I was hired and Tony and I started working together on Discovery Bay, which was really, really exciting. I worked on a little show called Professor Marvel’s Gallery of Illusion for Discovery Bay and created a little character, a little sculpture of Professor Marvel holding his little pet dragon. And he actually popped up about a year later in an Epcot pavilion.

LM: Yeah, and again you’re leading me exactly where I wanted to go because in looking at your body of work, I want to talk some more about some of the things that you’ve done, there so much that I can and would love to talk to you about, but, specifically, one of your creations is something that I want to focus on because what we’ve been doing – especially with Epcot’s 25th coming up – as part of this Epcot retrospective series that we’re doing, is highlighting and exploring some of these pavilions and their attractions. And you really had a large hand in creating one of the most beloved characters, not only in Epcot or in the Imagination Pavilion, but one of Disney’s greatest characters in recent history; and, of course, we’re talking about Figment.

SK: Well, it’s kind of an anomaly because, again, my theme park days before Disney, during Disney, and now after Disney . . . you know, the conventional wisdom is that you really can’t introduce a character to the public in a theme park. It almost has to be via some of the media, either animation or live action or something. With a few exceptions, like Pirates of the Caribbean – which were all new characters at the time—, Small World – again, a new introduction of styling and characters — , and the Imagination Pavilion with Figment and Dreamfinder . . . they are about the only examples I can think of offhand of product, intellectual product, that came along before or, actually, exclusive of any media. So, I think it’s basically luck in a lot of ways, but it’s also, I think, the character being in the right place at the right time.

LM: Well, I think it’s the character itself, too. And we’ve talked a lot about Figment specifically because there’s something Figment has . . . this quality, whether it’s his childlike innocence or his curiosity or whatever it is that appeals to people on so many different levels. And I think that’s why he, even more so than characters that are nameless from some of the attractions like Small World and Pirates, has not only got such a following but really has become almost a cult icon to Disney fans.

steve-kirk-imagination-figment-dreamfinder_1978.jpgSK: Well, it’s interesting, and, again, I don’t quite know how to explain it. I can say one thing that, as you already know, WED and Imagineering were definitely big group efforts. While I got the ball rolling, unintentionally, with Figment and Dreamfinder in the initial design and concept working with Tony, really there were several iterations of him afterwards, an illustrator named Andy Gaskill, sculptors, and a number of other interpreters of those two characters helped both characters evolve over time. So the product that you actually see as a walk around in the park or in the ride – what it used be – really were the end evolution of quite a team effort.

LM: Yeah, and the genesis of Figment is something I think is very, very interesting: the legendary story of Tony Baxter watching an episode of Magnum PI, coming up with the idea of quantifying something about a figment of the imagination. But, really, it was you, and Andy Gaskill, and X Atencio that kind of gave him form and substance whereas Tony really came up with the name and the idea?

SK: Yeah, in fact Tony – and, again, it’s really interesting the genesis of some of this stuff, but going back to Discovery Bay, Dreamfinder – it wasn’t called Dreamfinder then, it was Professor Marvel as per that Wizard of Oz thing – that Tony really wanted to have kind of this travelling wizard and magician type, almost a Circus of Doctor Lao type of venue, show, presentation type thing. And that character stuck in Tony’s mind, I think, and I think he confirmed this, when he got into the Imagination Pavilion as being a host and kind of an embodiment of the imagining process. Using Figment as the foil to Dreamfinder, it was a great way to explore the subject matter that we wanted to explore for the Imagination Pavilion.

LM: And if you can, Mr. Kirk, for those people who may not be all that familiar with the Discovery Bay concept for Disneyland that never really took place, kind of synopsize for us what that was and how Professor Marvel ended up becoming the Dreamfinder.

SZ: I don’t want to repeat what Tony’s probably already told you, but the anecdote as I remember it was I was in my office, we’d all been taken off of every other project except Epcot, so everyone had been reassigned from Disneyland, from Disney World, you know – Magic Kingdom and so forth – on to Epcot, and everybody was part of a pavilion. Tony was in with the Kodak folks as being potential sponsors for some kind of pavilion, and I don’t think he quite knew yet what their tie-in would be. And he ran into my office in the middle of this meeting and said “Can I borrow little Figment and Dreamfinder” – or Figment and . . . yeah, Dreamfinder at the time. And he grabbed it and took it in to them to show it to them, and he said this is the kind of character development we can do as being a host for a pavilion; maybe on Imagination. And they said “that’s great, do we get the dragon, too?” And Tony said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he kind of threw the dragon in as a . . . this is how I remember him telling me the story . . . The only issue was that, at the time, the dragon was painted green; Figment was green. And Kodak thought that represented a little too much of a Fuji connection, so he turned purple as a result of that.

LM: You know, it’s so funny because you hear so many of these stories and we talk about some of these stories, and you never know if they’re true or if they’re just an urban legend. So it’s great to have them confirmed from somebody that was actually there. I’ve actually seen a photograph of some of the early sculpture work of a very different looking Dreamfinder, with his monocle and white moustache and beard holding this green, very skinny looking dragon.

SK: Yeah, that kind of represents my little more acid approach to character design – a little more edgy, kind of a sarcastic approach. And he got the edges – actually Andy Gaskill put some really nice edges on him, X Atencio took his angle on it, and then, finally, when he was sculpted dimensionally he evolved into what he is today. He got a lot cuter as he grew older, I think.

LM: There’s a quote that saying that X Atencio made him loveable in a way that kids could actually relate to.

SK: Yeah, and at the time I wasn’t quite sure, but in retrospect it really was a good call because I think that all the curves and all that business in the design really did help make him a very appealing character.

LM: The Dreamfinder character – tell us how he came to be, where you came up with the concept of him going around the universe collecting all these magical things and coming up with the Dream Port and the Dream Vehicle.

SK: That’s a good question. I’m trying to remember . . . Tony and I were – and, again , other writers and illustrators and designers – had concept, loose cry sessions, and I think Tony had the idea that new ideas are the product of collecting old ideas and then synthesizing them into a third new product. I think that was a new idea. That was kind of the basic premise of the storyline. So the idea of some kind of a metaphor for gathering creative ideas or even natural things or other concepts that had been existing before, recombining them, was the angle. And so we knew we had to start the show out with some way of showing the Dreamfinder and Figment collecting stuff. You know: scientific stuff, artistic stuff, natural stuff, whatever. For him to have a device that collected and then stored and took them back to his workshop seemed to be a pretty straight forward . . . again, it’s our model for the way the human mind works in one scenario.

I had done a lot of assemblage-type, whimsical Victorian flying machines in my portfolio and my history before that, and so Tony and I thought why not build a machine that the character can actually pilot with a vacuum bag at the back that was sucking up all those great ideas for use later on. And so I just sat down at my workbench there and, in an inch scale model, built this from just junk. Stuff I’d found; stuff I’d stolen from the model shop or the tool crib or whatever. And then, drawings were drawn of that machine, and they mass produced 6 of these things in full scale, and they were quite large: they were like 25 feet in total length or something. I remember going over to MAPO and seeing 6 of these things in full scale laid out on the construction floor, and it was just amazing, it was like something from World War II where you see fighter planes being assembled en masse. Really impressive. I was amazed that I got that far with that thing.

LM: Yeah, the concept for it and how it was all put together and the, like you said, had that kind of Jules Verne-isc quality to it, is something that was wonderful. Unfortunately, the only place we can still see it today is the one that’s up in Mouse Gear, up near the ceiling.

SK: Oh, is that where it is?

LM: That’s the only one I’ve seen outside the attraction once it was taken down.

Beyond the characters themselves and some of those initial things, how much of the actual story of the original Journey Into Imagination did you have a hand in?

SK: I just worked with the big concept group; Tony led it, and I think there must have been a couple of writers, me, I think my brother Tim was involved in some of the brainstorming sessions . . . as I said, these things were very large collaborative efforts, and, while Tony, again, was the overall torchbearer for the overall concept, it really did pass through a lot of other hands, you know, with his guidance.

LM: I think one thing that still remains fascinating about the original attraction to me – and I keep referring to the original because I think maybe some of the newer generation doesn’t remember the original, which is very different than what we have today – is how you were able to quantify things like the Arts and Literature and Science and make them into real, tangible things that we could see and smell and really relate to our own human mind.

SK: Well, if you think about everything at Epcot and most of the things at theme parks, it’s the most metaphorical model for the creative process, and it really, really was tough in a lot of ways in that a good model for the creative process is a really, really abstract thing, obviously, and has all kinds of different interpretations. We did a lot of research, a lot of reading, and, in the end, at the end of the day we just kind of sat down and thought, well, we’re creative people ourselves . . . what is the process? How do you start? What are the midpoints in the thing; what are the final products?

So, in a lot of ways, after doing lots of research we just kind of looked into ourselves and said “Well, this is not a bad model for how we work anywhere.”

LM: We talked about the attraction how there were these four basic show scenes of Arts, Literature, Performing Arts, and Science. When you started in the Arts section, one of the memorable parts about it for me was this giant, sort-of, white artist’s palette, and it was, I guess, a metaphor for us starting a journey, our mind a blank canvas. But the use of color and light and sound really gave that scene so much life, and, again, that’s something I still remember to this day.

SK: Yeah, in fact we wanted to give each one of those key scenes an attitude: audio, lighting, the sculptural forms, the animation, the vignettes that represented Figment as the story thread through all of this and how he was working in these different environments, in each different genre.

So I think they really were very distinct, but I can remember them clearly even today as far as them not being blurred or indistinct.

LM: Especially transitioning from Arts to Literature, which was very dark and very scary, and the music, being the same song, was still so very foreboding – it really had a very different feel than what came before. And then, obviously, the very fun Performing Arts Broadway-style theatre scene that came after.

SK: Yeah, I think it’s like that, like a symphony or anything else – to hit all the notes and to have the different contrast, to have the different attitudes then with the big finale at the end. I really think it was, for what it attempted to do, relatively successful.

LM: I think it was very, very successful, and, unfortunately, the attraction closed for a variety of reasons in 1998. It re-opened a year later as Journey Into Your Imagination, unfortunately without Dreamfinder and Figment. How did you feel when that change took place?

SK: Well, I was a little disappointed. I thought, “well, nothing lasts forever, except Mickey Mouse.” (Lou laughs.) And I was grateful that it had as long a life-span as it had. And then, I guess eventually I’ve been told, the guests really wanted to see the two characters come back, and that was responsible for the renaissance, I guess, and them returning.

LM: And that’s amazing . . . people have talked about the fan outcry when Mr. Toad was going to close, but it was nothing like Figment, because it wasn’t just hard core fans or people online. There were guests going to Guest Relations complaining that Dreamfinder and Figment weren’t there, and that’s a testament to how powerful the characters – especially a Figment – really were to the everyday guest.

SK: You know, it’s funny, and I’m not a very good anecdote teller, but . . . I think one of the most significant things that happened to me in my professional life was: I was in a market somewhere, and I was checking out, and the gal at the cash register had a little purple Figment glued to the top of her cash register. I said, “Oh, you’ve been to Epcot.” And she goes, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I really love Epcot, and my kids love Epcot.” I went, “I actually had a part in designing that little character,” and she was very, very excited and she says “Oh, that’s fabulous.” And she got kind of misty, a little bit, and said, “You know, it meant a huge amount to my daughter who was there on some children’s program for who’s dying of cancer. And she said that the Figment and Dreamfinder figures were hosting them, and that was one of her daughter’s fondest and happiest and last, as it turns out, memories. And I just didn’t know what to say; I kind of choked up. And I actually, finally believed that those characters did have some impact on people.

LM: And clearly they still do to this day. Fortunately, Figment came back in a slightly different form when Journey Into Your Imagination With Figment reopened. Is that anything that you had a hand in, or did they just bring the character back and put him back into the attraction?

SK: No, I was really busy on Japanese projects at the time, so I really didn’t have any input or anything to do with that, actually.

LM: How do you feel about the attraction now with Figment versus your original concepts and the original attraction when it opened?

SK: Well I have to be honest, I really haven’t seen it. I really don’t know.

LM: I can tell you that it’s really nothing like the original attraction, and, while it’s great to have him back, there’s something missing. There’s a certain quality that’s missing that was there in the first attraction. And there’ve been rumors for some time now that it’s going to close and be refurbished and, you know, creative forces like John Lasseter and Tony Baxter still want to redo it and sort of bring it back to its original glory, and – who knows? – maybe even see Dreamfinder again.

SK: That’d be great, that would be wonderful.

LM: Yeah, I think a lot of fans, especially from my generation, would love to see them come back.

You know, we just really scratched the surface on some of the things that you’ve done while you were at Imagineering. I guess we could talk for a couple of minutes about some of the other things that you did to really help turn Epcot into a reality. It’s appropriate, with the 25th anniversary coming up, to talk about some of the things that you did with Epcot.

SK: OK. The other two venues that I was seriously involved in. One was the Wonders of Life pavilion, and, again, I helped Barry Braverman generally with the overall concept, we worked together, and, specifically, the Cranium Command Show. Again, that was a message in search of a metaphor. It really, the idea of being inside someone’s head and taking a mechanistic metaphor or model for the human mind/body relationship is an old idea; it goes way back into some of Walt’s early animation with emotion and reason – Ward Kimball worked on that – and also Woody Allen did a thing for that with one of his movies, and there’ve been a half dozen other mechanical metaphors explaining different aspects of the human body.

So, we were trying to think of a way to talk about the whole mind/body relationship as far as stress-related scenarios go, and we thought why not be up inside of somebody’s head and do a cockpit type of approach to the conscious mind. And then that idea grew into more of a Star Trek-type bridge of a ship. In Creative Command right now – or was – there was one character with a supporting cast on film for different parts of the body. Originally there was a Captain, a “Mr. Spock” type, several Ensigns at each of the senses, there was an Officer for reason, there was an Officer for emotion . . . so there was a little cast of these little characters about, maybe, 2 feet tall in this pretty big theatre that was a pretty involved bridge of a ship, which was, again, inside the human head. After “value engineering,” we got it down to one character and a robot. Which is ok.

It turned out to be, I think, a relatively successful way to explain some pretty complicated message units. The neat thing about that show – and it was never done – was that it could have been reprogrammed with new software and new animation to tell a whole bunch of different stories. Because the vehicle of being inside of somebody’s head really could talk about all kinds of health habits, auto-immune diseases, how digestion works, how musculature and the nervous system works . . . but it never was. It only had one show, and that was kind of the end of it.

That was, I think, a pretty good way to explain a little more concrete information than, certainly, Imagination was.

LM: You talk about how tough it was to quantify imagination, trying to quantify what you were doing there was great. And, again, I think this was one of Walt Disney World’s Lost Treasures because it was a great show, it had a wonderful celebrity cast to make it fun, to make it something that every generation can enjoy.

But I know where you’re going with the next one, which is your work on The Land. The challenges of trying to quantify things like that versus trying to make something like nutrition exciting must have been a challenge in and of itself.

SK: Yeah, that was a challenge. And, also, to take a pretty middle of the road as far as nutrition versus health habits . . . how do you say this? . . . Kraft Foods was the sponsor, and we tried to find something that would make them happy and also not be too controversial from a sponsor-influenced message unit. And I think we hit a pretty happy middle ground: Moderation was the bottom line in Kitchen Kabaret. We always said “Everything in moderation, in balance.” “Try to hit the four food groups,” all that business. As good as the scientific information was then, we tried to reflect in that show and then put it in as wacky a context as we could, which was you were in a kitchen and all of this stuff is singing and dancing and doing all this stuff. All those food stuffs, and so forth.

So, I think those three shows, in their own way, each tried to tell a pretty serious message, but with a fun Disney-slant on them.

LM: And that’s exactly the word that I was going to use to describe them all, because while they were clearly brilliantly inspired and wonderfully executed, all of them were very, very fun. And, again, you’re talking about things like nutrition and imagination: things that are very tough to describe. And, obviously, they still have a lasting impression to this day, the characters themselves and the attractions themselves. I know a lot of people, from my generation especially, still enjoyed and miss shows like Kitchen Kabaret.

SK: I like to think that those shows represented a part of the Epcot spectrum which, again, in the best Disney tradition – you make ‘em laugh, you make ‘em cry, you make ‘em think, and all that kind of stuff – that we handled – me and my immediate associates I worked with, who I think are wonderful people – all were on the laughing, fun side in general. I think that Epcot, at one point, had a pretty good balance between the real scientific messages, the edutainment stuff, and the whole World Showcase thing.

Anybody can criticize projects because they fell short of their goals, but everyone has to admit that Epcot set some hugely ambitious goals. I’m just amazed that it was as successful as it was, frankly.

LM: Yeah, and you led me to the question, which was how much balance – you know, Epcot early on was criticized for being too much education as part of the edutainment. People considered it to be not fun, it was a learning park. How much did they rein you in, I should say, balancing fun versus education

SK: It was kind of a pendulum; it’d sweep back and forth between who you were talking to and what time in the evolutionary process you were looking at. It’s funny, because the character presence at Epcot – we were determined, everybody that I ever talked to on the project was determined not to have the traditional Disney characters there. We also had the same resolution in Studio Tour, the MGM Studios Tour with Bob Weiss and that group. In both cases, the public just demanded and were disappointed that the traditional characters weren’t there. And so they eventually migrated.

I think that, in some ways, the fun quotient is going to find its own level in these things. I don’t think we could ever be criticized for being too much fun. I do think that we can be criticized for being too didactic.

LM: Now, how do you feel – and I don’t know if you’ve seen the attractions, but, clearly, there’s a move towards bringing characters from outside the park as opposed to creating new characters inside the park. In, whether it be the Three Caballeros – classic characters – or bringing Nemo in to a pavilion like The Seas. How do you feel about bringing those characters in and changing the whole make-up of the attraction and pavilion?

SK: In my more purist, little more fanatical days, I would have been very much against it. But after being through Disney and then also being on the outside as a consultant for 6 years, I really think intellectual properties have to be exploited and used appropriately to the best leverage you can. If it’s a good product, like Nemo and the Pixar stuff and Disney characters, and it’s appropriate – you don’t want to put Snow White talking about atomic energy or something . . . If the character is a good spokesperson for that message, then I’m all for it. Completely. I think the public wants it.

LM: I agree, and I think, for example, in Nemo and The Seas, the integrity of the pavilion is kept intact, the integrity of the character is kept intact because it is such a good fit. Even though I am an Epcot purist, I have no problem with it and I think it works well. You need to do things like that for this next generation of fans that’s coming in.

SK: And I think as long as – and Florida is the particular example – as long as the boundaries between the parks, and the unique identity of the four parks, is maintained and people don’t get confused with too much cross-fertilization of material, it’ll be okay. We made the same speech to the Oregon Land Company about Tokyo Disneyland versus Tokyo Disney Sea, that you can’t present the same stuff in the same parks the same way, or people really won’t see the differentiation, won’t see the distinction. And the problem in Florida is even worse, because you’ve got four parks and two water parks, and the temptation to start sprinkling everything with a great product once it comes out – like, all the sudden we see Ratatouille in all four parks or something – that is a real danger. That has to be a self-policing thing inside the Disney Company, to avoid that kind of confusion.

LM: Two of the other products you worked on specifically for Florida are very different from some of the things that you did for Epcot, and those are The Great Movie Ride and the Tower of Terror.

SK: And, again, I was in very much a supporting role and not a lead role at all on Great Movie Ride and Tower of Terror. My brother Tim was much more instrumental on both of those in the concept teams.

But, I did enjoy my work with Bob Weiss on the Studio Tour very, very, very much, and the idea of behind-the-scenes movie making, the studio tour format was a really, really neat change from anything I’ve ever done before or, in fact, since. The vehicle of using the making of movies to tell these stories was a really fascinating challenge, and I think it, in its own way, succeeded pretty well.

LM: And, obviously, one of the things you are most proud of and, maybe, the crown jewel on your resume is the work that you did on what I understand (and I, unfortunately, haven’t seen yet personally) is one of the most breathtaking and exciting and beautiful of all the Disney Parks worldwide, and that’s Tokyo Disney Sea.

SK: Well, thank you very much. I really am the luckiest Theme Designer, probably, on the whole planet. To have been at the right place – and I’m serious – a lot of it is simply being at the right place at the right time. With the availability of a very decent, respectable budget to build it properly, and with, I think, the cream of the Imagineering talent pool, all coming together in one place. Some of it’s an accident of history and some of it is, I think, really, really . . . well, I think that a lot of people put their best efforts in their careers into that park. And I think it shows, frankly.

LM: Again, from the pictures I’ve seen and the videos I’ve seen, it’s absolutely breathtaking. And I look forward to being able to go and experience it for myself, because everyone that I’ve talked to that’s come back from it is speechless and says it’s far and away the most amazing of the Theme Parks, even people who really are Walt Disney World Fans or Disneyland Fans can’t say enough good things about Tokyo Disney Sea.

SK: Well, I think it has its place in the collection of Kingdoms and Theme Parks in Disney’s portfolio. It was a challenge in a lot of ways because it couldn’t borrow anything from Florida, it couldn’t borrow from California, it couldn’t borrow from Europe; it really had to be a new portfolio of attractions. And that was the opportunity – a huge opportunity – and, also, I think, the challenge.

LM: I hope, maybe, that you’d be willing to come on the show again and talk to us specifically about Tokyo Disney Sea, some of the other attractions and unique things that you were able to put in that park and your work overseas in Tokyo.

SK: I would love that very much, thank you.

LM: Let me just ask you quickly before you go: you’re no longer with Imagineering, you were there for about 25 years, are you still consulting now? Or what are you doing now?

SK: We’re consulting. My wife, Kathy, who was the Director of the Creative Division at Imagineering for a while, doing staffing; now she is working with me and my brother for Kirk Design Incorporated. And what we’re doing is some theme park work, some international theme park work. We’re also doing some museum work; we’ve done a museum on Science Fiction that’s been built. We’re actually applying our theme park experience and design sensibilities to other industries: to banking, believe it or not; to healthcare; to other places that want to get into more of a service-oriented and a consumer-oriented, friendly Disney approach to providing what they do. And that is fascinating, because we are taking a whole consumer approach to what would make you happy going to this place and making use of these services, again, from a Disney perspective. It’s really, really fascinating.

LM: Again, your creativity and your brilliance in some of the things that you have created in the Disney Parks is something that I can say is really appreciated to this day by generations of fans, whether it be Figment, whether it be some of the attractions that maybe are gone but still resonate in our minds as a testament to the quality and creativity of your work. I personally really appreciate everything that you have done in and on the parks.

SK: Well, thank you very much. It was a real pleasure talking to you, and I’ve had the pleasure also of working with some of the most wonderful people in the whole business in the history of the planet.

LM: Former Imagineer Steve Kirk, thank you very much for coming on the show.

SK: Thank you very much, Lou. Appreciate it.


About Lou Mongello

Lou Mongello is a former attorney who left the practice to pursue his passion, and is now a recognized Disney expert, author, speaker, and host of WDW Radio. Learn more…

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