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Shanghai Disneyland concept art reveals how good the Imagineers are at hiding things

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Shanghai Disneyland concept art reveals how good the Imagineers are at hiding things

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I got an e-mail asking me what I thought of that concept painting of the Shanghai Disneyland Resort which was shown at The Walt Disney Company's 2011 Investor's Conference yesterday.

Concept art for the Shanghai Disneyland Resort. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

To be honest, I thought that it looked an awful lot like that image of the Shanghai Disneyland theme park which was briefly unveiled at  a Walt Disney Family Museum event back in July of 2010 ...

Concept art for the Shanghai Disneyland theme park. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... in that it really didn't show you a hell of a lot. But just gave you a rough sense of what this yet-to-be-built project might look like from 5000 feet up.

Given that John Hench had a hand in the overall design of so many Disney theme parks during the 60+ years that he worked for the Company ...

Peter Ellenshaw painting the now-famous blacklight image of Disneyland. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... I once asked this Disney Legend if there was a secret to putting together these early-early concept paintings. And what John said in response kind of surprised me.

"You can't really be concerned about getting all of the details right. After all - at that point in the project - the design of the Park is actually pretty loose, subject to change," Hench explained. "So you have to be a good enough artist to give people the illusion of detail when what you're really doing with an image like this is working in broad strokes."

According to Hench, his longtime friend & colleague Herb Ryman ...

Disney Legend Herb Ryman working on concept paintings for Euro Disneyland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... was the absolute master when it came to these sorts of images. Using roughly sketched-out lines & splashes of color to make viewers think that they were seeing far more than they actually were when they looked at one of WDI's early-early theme park concept paintings.

Herb Ryman's concept painting for EPCOT Center's entrance plaza and Spaceship
Earth. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Of course, it's not really a surprise that Herbie was the very best at these sorts of paintings & drawings. Given that he was the one who worked with Walt over that infamous "Lost Weekend" back in September of 1953. Putting together the very first overview drawing of Disneyland. Which Roy O. Disney then took with him to New York City so that he'd then have something to show the network people & money men which Roy hoped to get to invest in Walt's dream project.

Herb Ryman's 1953 overview drawing of Disneyland. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I then asked John if there were any tricks-of-the-trade were when it came to putting together these sorts of early-early theme park concept paintings. And Hench said "It's all about distracting people. Putting something in there that catches their eye. In the original Disneyland painting ...

Walt Disney in front of John Hench's blacklight painting of Disneyland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... we put in a red observation balloon. People noticed that ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... but not the yet-to-be-designed part of Disneyland that was directly below and behind that balloon. So I'd have to say that that was a successful bit of misdirection."

According to what Hench told me, this balloon gag was thought to be so successful on Disneyland's concept painting back in 1954 that -- ever since then -- the Imagineers have used this same bit of artistic bait-and-switch over & over again ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... whenever they needed to hide the fact that the theme park which they were doing a concept painting of wasn't fully designed or developed yet.

Overview concept painting of the never-built Disney's America theme park project
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

John also talked about the Imagineers would often use banks of clouds to fill in blank spots on these canvases ...

Overview concept painting of Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... or deliberately position shafts of sunlight ...

Overview concept painting of the never-built DisneySeas theme park
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... or insert multiple spotlights that then racked the night sky ...

Overview concept painting for the never-built WESTCOT Center
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All right reserved

... as a way to give the people the impression that they were seeing a lot more in this image than they actually were.  More importantly - when in doubt - a colorful burst of fireworks and/or an explosion at the very edge of your concept painting was another great way to pull people's eyes away from those seriously under-designed & developed areas on your painting.

Overview concept painting for Disney-MGM Studios theme park
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"You have to understand that the whole point of a concept painting like this is that Imagineering is trying to sell some corporation or Disney's board of directors on funding this very expensive proposition. So all your concept painting for this proposed theme park really has to do is convey a sense of energy, the excitement of this place," Hench continued. "So accuracy isn't all that important when it comes to creating an image like this. What you're really looking to capture here is the sizzle, not the steak."

Which isn't to say that John was a fan of theme parks that were sold to Mouse House management using this somewhat deceptive method. As Hench famously said after attending an Imagineering preview night for Disney California Adventure back in January of 2001 ...

Overview concept painting for Disney's California Adventure theme park
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

.. "I liked this place better when it was a parking lot."

One hopes that John (who sadly passed away in February of 2004) would have had a far different opinion of the revamped version of DCA that's currently under construction at the Disneyland Resort. Given that the Walt Disney Company is reportedly spending $1.1 billion to remove all of that sizzle that fizzled and then replace it with one big honking steak of a theme park.

Concept art for DCA's now-under-construction Buena Vista Street area
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But what about you folks? Do you have a favorite piece of Disney theme park concept art? And - if so - have you ever noticed how little that image actually reveals?

Your thoughts?

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  • I remember hearing Tony Baxter talk about  this type of painting before, too, saying that there's not a lot of substance in these paintings, but they're really good at tricking you into thinking there is, and getting you excited about what they're proposing.

  • Jim,

    I'm 99% sure that Peter Ellenshaw painted that backlight painting of Disneyland, and that it is Ellenshaw, not Hench, in the photo above. Hench's comments are nonetheless interesting, but I know you'd want to credit the right artist.

  • I do agree that the artist does look like Peter Ellenshaw, but it is just a young John Hench. We are so used to seeing him as an older gentleman. Thanks for the nice asortment of art. Whether we can see it or not! :)

  • I just checked the Ellenshaw website:


    Take a look. They have the same photo. So, it is certainly Peter, not John Hench (I'm sure Harrison knows his own father).

  • Perter Ellenshaw has always been credited for the painting of that piece and is indeed the person standing in that picture.

  • Damn. You're right. My apologies, guys. That photo caption has now been corrected. Thanks for pointing out my error.


  • Did anyone ever ask Herb why he filled with men in suit jackets strolling along like they were on a boardwalk?

    Also, you hardly see any children in his paintings.  What was that about?  Were they trying to get investors to think they were building a convention center?

  • Nice post.  I love these romantic, tantalizing early birds-eye paintings.

    But one thing to note: with the two Shanghai pics, much of the indistinguishableness (new word) comes from the fact that the blurred versions we've seen have been taken from someone's camera/phone from a slide at a lecture or conference.   I expect that the actual artwork, once clearly revealed tells us a lot more about Shanghai (but of course not all), than these blurred re-captures do.

  • Randy --

    Only the second image (of the Shanghai Disneyland theme park) was captured with a cell phone. The first image (of the entire Shanghai Disneyland Resort) was the actual image that was shown to folks who physically attended yesterday's 2011 Investors Conference at the Disneyland Resort. Those who watched / listened to this presentation online also got to see this slide in all its specific-looking vagueness.

    I love how that particular concept painting uses so many of the tricks-of-the-trade that John Hench talked about (i.e. the colorful burst of fireworks, the spotlights, the clouds, etc. ) to distract us all from noticing how little there actually is to this image. But -- then again -- given that the Chinese government has to give its final, formal permission for The Walt Disney Company to proceed with construction of this multi-billion project ... Well, you can then understand why the Mouse is being extremely cautious when it comes to what images it's allowing to get out there in regards to the Shanghai Disneyland Resort.

    After all, it wouldn't be smart -- this late in the game, anyway -- to suddenly make Chinese government officials mad and then make them decide to withhold those crucial final construction permits for this project for another couple of months.


  • This is the Chinese government, Jim. Thanks for the tip.

  • Thanks Jim for the info on 1st Pic.  In that case, it looks like yesterday's painting was deliberately anonymized - as you sometimes see with photos of crowds of people.  I hope that when the official announcement comes we get to see the underlying, clearer version (at least on par with the Disney's America or Animal Kingdom paintings) of yesterday's painting - it looks epic.

  • I met Mr. Ellenshaw years ago. He was a fantastic artist. Some of his best work is in Mary Poppins (that view of "the rooftops of London" is his, that you see when Bert and the kids ascend up the chimney). Thanks for posting that picture of him, Jim. Brought back fond memories.

  • Jim, I love the site. It's my go to place for up to the minute Disney news. But on a page like this, I sure wish I could click and enlarge those pictures. So much awesome detail that I just want to sit and analyze on a larger scale. Hopefully it's something to think about in the future. Keep up the great work!

  • Even for lesser projects, concept art doesn't give much info.  Just look at the WDW Downtown Disney concept art they released last year.  That used some of the "tricks' and looked pretty, but revealed nothing.  In other situations, it can give us some details, like the concept art that was released for DL's Soundsational Parade.

  • Love your articles: imagining details in projects to be built and having one's concepts survive from 'pitch' to construction is the essence of mastering architecture school !  No different if designers happen to be making theme parks.  Although Disney developed the mastery of surround environment, 'slight of hand' or 'tricks of the trade' were what Walt Disney himself must've been referring when Walt (himself) called Disneyland a 'tourist trap' in his Cinerama, Radio City Music Hall release - 'Disneyland USA'  ( ! )

    I love and respect the character of Walt Disney the man very much, but prophetically Walt is correct again as DIS-Co in modern era treats all it's theme park consumers like PT Barnum 'suckers' with arm/leg amputee pricing.

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