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Kim Irvine honors WED's pioneers with her work at the Disneyland Design Studio

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Kim Irvine honors WED's pioneers with her work at the Disneyland Design Studio

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When it comes to making changes at Disneyland, it's always been something of a delicate balancing act.

The Walt Disney Company - because it wants this theme park to remain relevant - is always pushing for new stuff to be added to the place. So that Guests will then be compelled to return to "The Happiest Place on Earth" and keep those turnstiles spinning.

The only problem with this particular corporate philosophy is ... Well, for many people (especially Disneyland's increasing vocal annual passholders), this theme park is a precious piece of their childhood / occupies a special place in their hearts. Which is why they want Disneyland to remain just as it was the very first time that they visited this place.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So how do you strike a balance between these two (obviously) very different desires (i.e. the Company's need for Disneyland to remain relevant and the hardcore fans' perhaps-unrealistic expectation that  this beloved theme park will stay exactly the same year after year after year ...)? This is where longtime Imagineer Kim Irvine and the Disneyland Design Studio come in.

And when I say "longtime," I mean "longtime." Kim actually started out in WED's model shop back in 1970. Which means that - this past June - she celebrated her 40th year to the Company.

More to the point, given that her Dad was a longtime animator at the Studio and her mother - Leota Toombs Thomas - is a full-blown Disney Legend (as was her late father-in-law, Dick Irvine) ... Well, let's just say that - given her family's strong ties to the Company - Kim takes her responsibilities at the Disneyland Design Studio very, very seriously.

Kim Irvine of the Disneyland Design Studios.
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All rights reserved

"When we make a change at the Park, it's only after long and careful consideration," Irvine explained. "Our goal is always enhance, never detract."

Of course, what really helped here is that - when Kim started out at WED - many of the folks who had originally designed Disneyland and/or created many of that theme park's signature attraction were still working at 1401 Flower Street. Which meant that she had almost daily direct contact with Imagineering giants like Mary Blair, Claude Coats, Marc Davis and John Hench.

"After I began working for the Disneyland Design Studio, John Hench would come out to the Park once a month. And we'd always make a point of walking through Disneyland together," Irvine explained. "And listening to the way that John talked about this place - 'That needs to be freshened up,' 'We could use something new over there' - was invaluable. It taught me how to really look at this Park."

Walt Disney confers with John Hench about the model of the Plaza Inn
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More to the point, the way that John took the news that the Disneyland Design Studio was planning on rehabbing / reinventing the Plaza Inn (i.e. the stylish Main Street, U.S.A. eatery that Hench himself had designed back in 1965 as a replacement for the Red Wagon Inn restaurant) taught Kim about how to gracefully handle change.

"He was just so gracious about it, saying that it was really high time that we did something different with that restaurant, plussing it in some way," Irvine continued. "He knew that - whatever changes that we made to the place - we were doing it because we wanted to improve each Guest's experience.  We wanted to give them something different, show them something new the very next time that they visited this restaurant."

Mind you, the Disneyland fan community initially grumbled about that 1999 restaurant redo. Just as they did  back in 1997 when the Carnation Ice Cream Parlor was closed to make way for the Carnation Cafe as well as the relocated Blue Ribbon Bakery.

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"While that was happening, we initially got a lot of flack from annual passholders. But once people actually got into the new Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor and saw the obvious care that we'd taken with this project,  how we'd taken Carnation's original ice cream counter and then installed it across the street, the complaints pretty much stopped," Kim said. "I think my favorite Guest comment about that particular redo was that 'I wanted to hate it. But they did a really great job.' "

That's ultimately Irvine's goal with all these rehabs & reinventions that she and her Disneyland Design Studio team do at the Park. Take an almost surgical approach to each project. Making sure that - with each change that they make - they first do no harm. That their main goal always is to plus the Park.

Which is why - whenever Kim & her team tackle a project (like adding those highly stylized versions of the Disney characters to "it's a small world" or changing the Disney Gallery into the sort of private suite that Walt had always wanted to build for his family in New Orleans Square), before those sledge hammers start a-flying - there's always hours of meetings and weeks of research. Making sure that whatever changes are being made will ultimately improve the Park in some way.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Take - for example - what just happened with the Rivers of America. Irvine heard from her friends in Facilities that - while this Disneyland waterway was down for a lengthy refurbishment - most  of the foliage along the riverbanks was going to be replanted.

"The Disneyland Design Studio immediately recognized this as an opportunity to seriously enhance the sort of storytelling that we were doing along the Rivers of America. So we did a little brainstorming with Tony Baxter and decided to designate which rivers actually made up the Rivers of America," Kim explained. "So we used plants & props along the riverbank to create these specific zones that then represented  the Mississippi, the Columbia, the Potomac and the Rio Grande."

Mind you, it took 4,000 new shrubs and 130 new trees to create these zones. But when Guests board the Mark Twain & the Columbia these days and then see those 10 new figures plus that pony corral, it's clear that the story that's now being told by this 55 year-old Disneyland attraction has been plussed & improved. But in a way which still honors & respects the original version of the Rivers of America that Walt and the first generation of  Imagineers created.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"When you work on something that's as beautifully laid out as the Rivers of America is, it's at times like that when you realize that Disneyland was not just some happy accident. That Walt and his team really knew what they were doing. They put an awful  lot of thought into this place," Kim continued. "Which is why I'm so grateful for the times that I got to talk with Marc & John and my Mom. That they were able to share all of their tribal knowledge of Disneyland with me."

And clearly Irvine's peers appreciate all of the care & thought that she's put into both preserving & improving the Happiest Place on Earth over these past 30 years. Which is why - just last month - the Themed Entertainment Association honored Kim with the first-ever Buzz Price Award. Which the TEA will now be awarding annually to that individual who has attained a lifetime of distinguished achievements in the themed entertainment field.

"It's really an honor to receive TEA's first Buzz Price award. Especially since I got to know Buzz while I was working here at the Park," Irvine said. "He was a really great guy."

Disney Legend Harrison "Buzz" Price

But just because Kim recently received a lifetime achievement award doesn't mean that she'll be packing it in anytime soon. And as long as Irvine continues on with the Disneyland Design Studio, she'll still be riding herd on changes both subtle & small (like those squirrel-shaped drainage fixtures that were added to Sleeping Beauty Castle back in the 1990s) as well as enormous (like gutting the Bank on Main Street, U.S.A. to create a brand-new home for the Disney Gallery. Which would then allow Guests to enter & exit this shop via the lobby area for "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln").

Which - I know - sounds like a huge amount of work, an awful lot of responsibility. But given all of the Disney Legends that Kim has known & worked with over the years, Kim takes her duties very seriously.

"We really owe that sort of care to Disneyland's fans and the Guests, " Irvine concluded. "After all, we don't own the Park. They do."

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  • Kim is one of the major reasons Disneyland is true to Walt's comment: "Disneyland will never be completed as long as there's imagination left in the world."

    Congratulations, Kim. It's well deserved!

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