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The Artistic Connections of Disney’s Patriotic Attractions

A photo of the wall display in The Hall of Presidents which says, "Welcome to The Hall of Presidents A Celebration of Liberty's Leaders"

By: Kendall Foreman

According to D23, the Official Disney Fan Club, during the 15-year development of The Hall of Presidents, “writers, designers and painters sought to authenticate their work by soaking in the atmosphere of where our nation’s presidents worked and lived.”

While many of these same individuals had participated in bringing Abraham Lincoln to life for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the task before them was far more immense – to portray the whole of American presidential history on one stage, in one short show, for thousands of park-goers. Show writers faced a difficult hurdle, but as Disney had always done, they knew they needed to not just tell, but show. Every detail of these historic locations and unique men needed to speak loudly and, in some cases, in a matter of seconds.

No detail was overlooked when crafting the design of the audio-animatronic figures representing the American leaders. Master sculptor Blaine Gibson’s presidents were attired with accurate eyeglasses, period appropriate fabrics, and even accessories from presidential collections. But anyone who has visited The Hall of Presidents knows that the roll call featuring these amazing depictions is only a portion of the overall show.

The rest of The Hall of Presidents is comprised of a film discussing the history and importance of the office. It is there where the painters who traveled across the nation made their contributions. Led by John DeCuir, Sr., they contributed 85 paintings, some the size of murals, to be captured on film. For years, several of these works of art could be seen in the attraction’s rotunda. Today, John DeCuir, Sr.’s “The Burden of War” and Herb Ryman’s “The Presidential Campaign” can be viewed in the Disneyland Opera House while waiting to see Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

A photo of John DeCuir, Sr.'s painting "The Burden of War" which shows Abraham Lincoln standing in front of a window in an empty room of the White House.
A photo of the plaque that is mounted beneath the painting "The Burden of War" which details the background of the artist, John DeCuir, Sr.

Other works of art by several of the same individuals can be viewed in The American Adventure Rotunda. Blaine Gibson, Herb Ryman and Sam McKim have pieces hanging in the stately waiting areas of the patriotic attractions on both coasts. Pieces by these men and others including Robert McCall, Clem Hall, R. Tom Gilleon, Mike Lloyd and others exemplify various American archetypes without being identifiable as specific historical moments. For example, Clem Hall’s painting “Election Day” depicts an unknown candidate for office stumping outside a hardware store. These works of art tell the story of a nation of individuals facing changes and trials, and this theme prepares guests for the theatrical presentation they are about to see.

During the development of The American Adventure, Imagineers decided that any scenes representing moments in history before the invention of the camera should be rendered artistically instead of staged for film. With this in mind, many of the same artists who had crafted the works of art for The Hall of Presidents were called on once again. One panorama required an image of George Washington’s victory parade. In an interesting bit of trivia, according to A Portrait of Walt Disney World, when Sam McKim painted this image he included Imagineers like Marty Sklar, John Hench, Randy Bright and others among the crowd. With each scene rendered in the style prevalent at that point in time, they help to reinforce the tone and emotion of the words being spoken and the songs being played.

Also emphasizing the themes of The American Adventure are the 12 statues which flank the massive stage. These life-size figures are of anonymous individuals representing the qualities required of the founders, immigrants, soldiers, and everyday people who built America. Known as the Spirits of America, on the left (rear to front) are Spirit of Freedom (pilgrim), Spirit of Tomorrow (woman and child), Spirit of Self-Reliance (farmer), Spirit of Adventure (seaman), Spirit of Pioneering (aviator), Spirit of Knowledge (teacher) and on the right (rear to front) are Spirit of Heritage (Native American), Spirit of Independence (colonial soldier), Spirit of Innovation (scientist), Spirit of Discovery (mountain man), Spirit of Compassion (doctor), and Spirit of Individualism (cowboy).

Each statue was carved based on a life model. Disney Imagineers dressed in costume and posed to serve as references for the artists who carved smaller versions of the statues and, eventually, the large, final pieces that now rest in The American Adventure theater. Those “miniatures” can be found on display in the Disneyland Opera House while waiting for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

A photo of the reference miniatures for the "Spirits of the America" from The American Adventure, which are on display in the waiting area for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
A photo of the plaque which is mounted next to the miniature "Spirits of America" statues.  It reads, "Spirits of America - Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln inspired other inspirational Disney attractions like Hall of Presidents at the Magic Kingdom in Florida and The American Adventure in Epcot.  These 'Spirits of America,' carved for The American Adventure, symbolize many diverse people working together in unity to fulfill the hopes and dreams of our country's pioneers.

Just as a technological through-line can be traced from Great Moment with Mr. Lincoln to The Hall of Presidents to The American Adventure, so too the artwork of so many named and unnamed artists can be seen woven throughout the three attractions. Each sculpture and painting plays a role in telling the stories of individuals who came from “we the people” to contribute, lead, and change our nation.

All photos from the author’s personal collection.

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on X @kl_foreman.

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