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Remembering Bruce Gordon (1951 - 2007)

Jim Hill

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Remembering Bruce Gordon (1951 - 2007)

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Bruce Gordon was this great big bear of a guy.

Ask anyone who was ever in a meeting with Bruce when he was fighting for an idea that he believed in. They'll tell you that this man was tenacious.

Whether it was getting Disneyland's first flume ride built and/or preventing that theme park's "Submarine Voyage" attraction from getting plowed under forever, Gordon never ever gave up. Even when WDI management tried to hush Bruce up, keep him from rocking the corporate canoe, Gordon still fought on.

Of course, there was a reason that Bruce was so combative with his co-workers. This guy truly loved the Disney parks.

Mind you, this love affair started early. Like so many kids who grew up in Southern California in the late 1950s & early 1960s, Gordon spent his formative years in front of a television set. With his favorite program being (What else?) "The Wonderful World of Color." And -- of course -- Bruce's favorite episodes of this Sunday night show were the ones where Walt would reveal what he was going to build next at Disneyland.

The fact that "The Happiest Place on Earth" was a work in progress just fascinated Bruce. He used to talk about how -- in the early 1960s, when Disney had actually stopped all construction on New Orleans Square -- Gordon would climb to the top of the Swiss Family Treehouse and then stare down into that empty cellar hole next door. Wondering what it was exactly that Walt was planning on building down there.

To hear Bruce tell the story, it was this delay in the construction of "Pirates of the Caribbean" that eventually inspired him to start building these miniature recreations of Disneyland rides out in the Gordon family garage. But even then he was a stickler for getting the details just right.

Bruce used to love to tell the tale of how he once built this plaster-of-paris model of Disneyland's "Jungle Cruise." But when it came time to fill that miniature waterway, he knew that plain old ordinary tap water just wouldn't do. He had to have the authentic stuff. Which is why -- the very next time the Gordon family went down to "The Happiest Place on Earth" -- Bruce smuggled an empty milk carton into the park.

You can guess where this story is going, right? With Gordon now insisting that his family ride "The Jungle Cruise." And then -- when the pilot of their boat & his parents weren't looking -- Bruce takes that empty milk carton out from under his jacket and quickly dips it into that gross, green water. And once this carton is filled to the top, Gordon seals it back up.

And for the rest of that day in the park, Bruce clutches that carton. He doesn't spill a drop. Just so -- when the Gordon family finally gets back to Palo Alto -- Bruce can then add authentic "Jungle Cruise" water to his miniature recreation of that Adventureland favorite.

You getting a sense of Gordon's passion, his dedication to the Disney parks yet? Well, can you then imagine how Bruce felt -- in the late 1970s -- when he actually got hired by WED to come work on Epcot Center and Tokyo Disneyland?

To put it bluntly, Gordon felt that it was a honor & a privilege to work on the Disney theme parks. Which is why he always strove to make the attractions that he was associated with the very best that they could be.

 David Mumford (left) and Bruce Gordon at "The Nickel Tour" signing in 1995.
Photo by Jeff Lange

And given that Bruce was such an obvious fan of the parks and their histories, he began talking with many of the Imagineers who had designed & built all of those rides, shows and attractions that Gordon had so loved as a child. And over the years, Bruce collected so many of their stories that -- with the help of collaborators like the late David Mumford and Jeff Kurtti -- he then went on to create this acclaimed series of Disney history books. Among them:

  • "The Nickel Tour" (two editions)
  • "Walt's Time"
  • "Disneyland: Then, Now and Forever"
  • "Art of Disneyland"
  • "Walt Disney World: Then, Now and Forever"
  • "Art of Walt Disney World"
  • "A Brush with Disney : An Artist's Journey"
  • "Ellenshaw Under Glass"

And right to the end, Bruce was still creating. Still doing what he could to make people aware of all of the hard work & artistry that went on behind-the-scenes to create that Disney magic. Whether it was working with Wally Boag on his upcoming autobiography, "The Clown Prince of Disneyland," or helping Diane Disney Miller get her Walt Disney Family Museum up out of the ground at the Presidio ... The man never stopped working. He was always eager to tackle the very next project that came along.

Now some people will tell you that Gordon was gruff. That he was this W.C. Fields-like curmudgeon. You know? One of those "Any man who hates kids and dogs can't be all bad" types ?

But that wasn't really the case. Deep down, Gordon was this soft-hearted guy with a very sweet nature. As was demonstrated by his appearance at the 2001 N.F.F.C. convention, when Bruce brought along the Aibo that he'd just purchased. And because Gordon wanted to demonstrate to the crowd how this robotic dog  "played" ... Well, he first needed a volunteer.

So Bruce wades out into the crowd. And out of all the kids there, he selects my daughter and then brings her up on stage with him. And then -- for the rest of that seminar -- as Gordon goes on & on about what the Imagineers have in the works for Disneyland, Alice and that Aibo are cavorting on the stage directly behind him.

Now a lesser person might have insisted on having the spotlight all to themselves. But Bruce was a big man with a very generous spirit. More to the point, he was no W.C. Fields. Which is why Gordon really had no problem sharing the stage with a cute little girl and/or a robotic dog.

The picture below was taken just minutes after that talk wrapped. Bruce is now seated at a table, getting ready to sign copies of his latest book. And lurking directly behind him is my daughter, Alice. Who obviously wants to have another go at that Aibo.

Some curmudgeon, huh?

Photo by Jeff Lange

That's what I think I'm going to remember most about Bruce Gordon. His generousity. Whether it was the way that he shared his toy with my daughter, or all those great behind-the-scenes stories that he had collected over the years, or his obvious love for the Disney parks, or even those silly movies that he used to obsess about (like "Back to the Future") ... Bruce's passion was infectious.

In fact, if you like JHM and the stories that I regularly tell here ... You can thank Bruce Gordon for that. You see, he's the guy who actually showed me how it could be done. How if you sprinkle your Disney history with a little humor and some backstage gossip, it then becomes this tasty dish.

Which is why my world -- as well as the world of hundreds of Imagineers & thousands of Disneyana fans -- suddenly seems a whole lot smaller today. You see, I always thought there was going to be a Bruce Gordon. This great big bear of a guy who was ferocious & tenacious & generous & funny. Who'd keep on writing those wonderful books as well as fighting the good fight.

But now that Gordon's gone -- at the far-too-young age of 56 -- what are we supposed to do? Other than tell his father & his sister how much Bruce meant to us all. And how dearly he'll be missed.

JHM wishes to extend its heartfelt condolences to the friends & family of Bruce Gordon during their time of sorrow

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  • The entire Disney community has lost a man who shined the light not only on the magic of the Disney Theme Parks, but on the talents of the Disney Imagineers.

    I remember hearing how Disney let Bruce go around 2005.  It was certainly a loss for Imagineering.  However, Bruce still wrote the books on the Disney theme parks.  Now we have lost him entirely.

  • I was first "introduced" to Bruce at the online chat sessions he and David Mumford used to do. What a blast those were, and I still can't believe that Disney let these unscripted events take place.

  • I met Bruce Gordon when I worked over at Corporate.  He truly was someone who loved Disney.  He sat next to Tony Baxter and the two would talk about new creations all the time.  If some folks felt he was gruff, I felt he was a kind and dedicated person who knew what folks wanted and how ideas could come to reality.

    Folks like him don't come around often.  He always fought with management and the accountants and knew what would produce for Disney:  a quality product laced with creativity.

    He will most definitely be missed.

  • Truly tragic news. I met with Bruce Gordon, along with Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller only last week as we talked about plans for the Walt Disney Family Museum. I looked forward to working with Bruce on this fascinating project.

    We have no guarantees in life, I guess. Who would think that we would lose Bruce at such a young age? However, for all of us who shared his love of Walt's magic factory, Bruce Gordon will be remembered for his many contributions to the Disney legacy.

  • Has the cause been mentioned?  Just curious.  

    Last time I saw Bruce was down in the Westside Diner during my lunch break...time period was construction of Pooh at Disneyland...got to join up for a chat during my "30 minute feeding time"...as usual his jovial self at that point...but, that was a few years ago.

    As I am seeing 53 this year (a few weeks, in fact) this hits home all that much more.  54 is far, far too young.  

    Take care of your health, folks.  I hate hearing about people checking out when they should be holding on.

    Bruce, you'll be missed.

  • I agree with Skipperwest.  Jim, when somebody goes way too young at 54, everyone wants to know what happened.  It seemed like a gap in an otherwise wonderful tribute you wrote.

    Sue in Texas

  • What a terrible shame. I'm sorry to say I never had the opportunity to speak to Bruce so see him outside of a few NFFC and Disney events, but I always looked forward to seeing what he had to say.

    Bruce was the person who reminded me that you can't hold on to the Disney park attractions of the past so tightly that you miss out on new opportunities for excitement and adventure (or as he more succicintly put it, "Disneyland is not a museum").  He was the kind of person that could point out that even "cloned" attractions have a uniqueness that make them all worth experiencing. He was careful never to let the cat out of the Imagineering bag (well, okay, he might let it slip out for a second or two when he was pretty sure nobody was looking), but no NDA was going to keep him from letting people know what he thought.

    I'm glad he has a legacy of attractions and books to continue to speak for his passion for Disney, and I hope the work that he'd already done for the Walt Disney Family Museum will serve as a good foundation for the final product.  Rest in peace, Bruce.  

  • I met him once when he was working on Splash Mountain.  He was very kind and took the time to talk to me about what was going on with the ride.  He was just a very nice man.  It's really a very sad thing to lose someone at such an early age.

  • I never had the honor to meet Mr. Gordon, and it sounds like that was my loss indeed. Thankfully many of us do know him through the numerous marks he left on the parks and his other Disney-related efforts. He will be missed.

    My thoughts go with him and his family. God Bless.

  • Jesus & Walt must have needed him for that park they're building.

  • I had the privilege to meet Bruce Gordon in 1997 during a visit at WDI. Tony Baxter introduced me to Bruce Gordon, who had his office right next to Mr. Baxter, to show him my portfolio.

    I remember Bruce Gordon as a very funny man, he was kind in his words about my portfolio and he talked about his book “The Nickel Tour”, which, being from Germany, I did not know. All of a sudden Mr. Gordon opened a big box and gave me a brand new sealed copy of “The Nickel Tour” with the words that it would be difficult to get overseas anyway. I was so speechless and blown away, I did not think of asking him to sign it for me.

    I always thought I would ask him next time...

    A very generous man. He will be missed.

  • My prayers go out to his family.  It is sad to lose someone as great as Bruce Gordon.  

  • Jim,

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute.  I think your words have captured Bruce perfectly.  How he will be missed.

    However as I have said on other sites, we can all walk around the Disney Parks with a good feeling in our hearts because we truly knew some of the special magic Bruce created for everyone to enjoy.  

    Thanks to sites like this and opportunities to meet the "Makers of the Magic" at NFFC and other events, the Disney Parks are not simply "Theme Parks", but a place built from love, passion and magic, all instilled by Walt Disney.  Thank goodness we still have some folks who remember what Walt wanted in his Park.

    I'll just bet Walt, Bruce and David are having some great talks right now!

    Bruce, we will miss you, and we all thank you for your wonderful contributions and your passion and love of things Disney.  You will not be forgotten.

    I printed out your article and will keep it with one of Bruce's books.

  • His memory will always be alive through the parks that he helped make so great.

  • When I was a kid, I wrote him a letter about one of the articles he'd written for "Starlog" magazine discussing the time-travel logistics of the "Back to the Future" series.  He was nice enough to write back, answering all my questions about time travel and getting a job as an Imagineer.  What a guy.  He'll be missed.

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