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Figuring out what was wrong with Disney's original Abraham Lincoln AA figure

Jim Hill

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Figuring out what was wrong with Disney's original Abraham Lincoln AA figure

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Back in the late 1950s, when Corky Wilds was working for Mitchell Camera Corporation, he'd make the trek from his home in North Hollywood out to Glendale.

"This was before the highway got built. So the only way to get to Mitchell Camera's offices in Glendale was to drive up Riverside Drive. Which took me right by Walt Disney Studios," Corky remembered. "And every day as I drove by that place, I wondered about what it might be like to work there."

Walt Disney Studios circa 1959

Now jump ahead to November 1963. When Wilds was working for Con Air on actuators that help control missiles & helicopters. And word got back to Corky that one of his former co-workers had recommended him for a job at Disney.

"They had just built the first Abraham Lincoln figure. But because they built Lincoln's control system out of surplus equipment that Disney bought from the military, he wasn't working properly. So they wanted me to come on over and figure out what was going wrong with this figure," Wilds said.

So after all those years of driving by Disney, Corky finally got the chance to drive onto the Lot. And the memory of what Wilds saw once he walked into one of those soundstages towards the back of Disney Studios still makes him smile.

Walt checks out one of the cavemen that the Imagineers built
for the Ford Motor Company's "The Magic Skyway" attraction
at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"They were getting all of those shows ready for the New York World's Fair. So there were dinosaurs and cavemen and singing dolls," Wilds continued. "And for a guy who like me - who had previously been working on things that were deliberately designed to hurt people - to suddenly be assigned to work on projects whose sole purpose was to make people smile ... Well, you couldn't ask for a better job than that."

Mind you, it wasn't all that easy a job. It took Corky a while to figure out what was actually going wrong with Abraham Lincoln's control system ("It was the actuators they were using. They hadn't been sized properly"). Plus the team from WED was under tremendous pressure to have "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," General Electric's "Progressland," Ford's "The Magic Skyway" and Pepsi-Cola's "it's a small world" ready for the New York World's Fair's April 22, 1964 opening date.

We literally worked 'round the clock on those shows. With one team coming in from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., while the other group worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.," Wilds recalled. "It was tough but we finally made it."

Walt inspects some of the props that had been created for
Pepsi-Cola's "it's a small world" ride. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And where was Walt when all of this work was going on? According to Corky, the Head of Walt Disney Studios regularly made appearances on that soundstage. Sometimes coming by two & three times a day to see how the work was progressing.

"The first week that I was working for WED, I had built some brackets for this stand that we used to hold the heads of the AA figures while we were programming. And as I was installing those brackets, here comes Walt with some guests that he's taking on a tour of the soundstage. He stopped by, asked what I was doing, said that it sounds like a great idea and then continued on with his tour," Wilds continued. "I must of seen him hundreds of times after that. Walt was a great boss. Always quick to praise your efforts or come up with a way to improve whatever you were working on."

Of course, what's kind of ironic about all this is the way that Corky learned about Walt's passing. Which was while he was working on the AA figure for "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"I was down at Disneyland working on the version of that show that we'd installed in the Main Street Opera House. And I remember someone coming into that theater while we were working on that figure and telling us that Walt had just passed away," Wilds said. "We obviously had to finish what we were doing. But I remember the Park being awfully quiet and the Guests & employees being very subdued once we finished working in the Opera House."

And after that ... Well, Walt Disney Productions went through a scary six months or so. When nobody knew for sure if Roy O. Disney would continue with all of the projects that his brother had started. Or he'd just sell the Company off to the highest bidder.

"That was a time of some real apprehension. A time when Disney's stock price really didn't reflect what the Company was worth. So we all wondered what Roy was going to do there," Corky said. "But he stuck in there. Which is why all of the guys I was working with at WED & MAPO stuck there as well."

Claude Coats and Fred Joerger ride herd on the construction of Disneyland's "Pirates of
the Caribbean" attraction. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And from the Summer of 1967 right through to January 1, 1991, Wilds had a hand in the creation of such classic Disney theme park attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, The Country Bear Jamboree, Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Not to mention spectacular theme parks like WDW's Magic Kingdom & Epcot Center as well as Tokyo Disneyland.

"It was just an amazing job. As Superintendent of Ride Manufacturing, I got to travel the world. For the Tokyo Disneyland project, I actually relocated to Japan in March of 1980. And I stayed over there through July of 1983. Just to make sure that Tokyo Disneyland got off on the right foot," Corky said.

And when it came time to build Euro Disneyland, Wilds was asked if he was interested in going back overseas to help the Imagineers turn that 5000 acres of beet & wheat fields in Marne-la-Vallée into a world-class resort. But Corky respectfully declined that assignment.

Euro Disneyland construction site circa the Summer of 1991
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"I had a great time working at WED. I worked with this terrific team of people who always made my job a whole easier to do. But by 1991, I didn't want to go to the field anymore. I was ready to start having my own adventures. So I retired on January 1st of that year and it was the best decision I ever made. My wife and I got the chance to travel the world while we were still in good enough health to enjoy these trips. So we went on cruises, visited Alaska, flew to Ireland and Wales. I don't regret my decision to leave WED in the slightest," Corky concluded.

Which isn't to say that Wilds doesn't like looking back at the time he spent at the Mouse House. Reminiscing about the various projects that he worked on and/or some of the talented artists & engineers that he spent those 18+ years working with.

Which is why - on September 18th - Corky will be onstage at the Disneyland Hotel. Where Wilds - along with Rick Berryman, Butch Borcherding, Roger Broggie Jr. and Rudy Pena - will be taking part in a "MAPO Magic - The History of Animatronics" panel. Which will be one of the highlights of that "Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom" event that Ape Pen Publishing & the 1313 Club will be holding at this Anaheim Resort.

So if you'd like to hear some Disney history directly from the guys that actually made it happen, then I suggest that you snag a ticket to this once-in-a-lifetime event. Which will feature dinner, displays as well as great guest speakers like Corky Wilds.

For further information on the "Marvelous Mechanized Magic Kingdom" event (including ticket prices, times, etc.), please click on this link.

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  • I've worked with Corky on mant projects. I've done every project since the Hunted Mansion at D/L, All of WDW Florida and France.

    my last project California Adventure D/L

    John A Sullivan ( Sully 2)

  • That entire story is a total re-write of history. Don't know who you're talking to, but someone has lost their mind.

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