“He [Walt] couldn’t read music, but he was fascinated that these little dots could turn into this major sound.” ~C. McNair Wilson
Recently, DisneyMusicBlog.com had the sheer pleasure of chatting with the one-and-only Mr. McNair Wilson. His insight and history into the Disney organization, specifically into the concepts of original attractions and the inclusion of the discussion of the music, make him the perfect guy for us to glean from. We hope you enjoy some of the conversation we had. Here we go!
McNair Wilson is one of the leading voices for creativity in corporate and personal life. His clients run from Chick-fil-A to the Johns-Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. While at Disney Imagineering, he worked on design teams for five new theme parks and led the original concept group for the popular Tower of Terror. Later he designed projects at Universal Studios, Sony, Warner Bros. and continues to consult with more than 20 Disney divisions. His work has taken him to 49 states and over 39 countries. McNair lives in baggage claim in a Colorado airport.
With three published books, so far, McNair is a frequent contributor to numerous magazines from Rolling Stone to Leadership Journal with articles and cartoons. (His illustrations appear in all of his books.) His newest book, “HATCH! Brainstorming Secrets of a Theme Park Designer,” is available now.
DisneyMusicBlog: For those of us who have gone to the Disney parks, resorts, and such, it’s tough for us to imagine the visual experience away from the sonic aspect, the music. As an Imagineer who helped shape these experiences, what aspects of the music element can you elaborate on for us?
McNair Wilson: Well, I think it’s chapter 8 in Hatch! is “you should hear the smell.” Walt [Disney] had this theory of designing using all the five senses – keeping in mind the look, sound, feel, taste, and smell. And, that is why music was designed into the parks – it’s everywhere.
When I speak at special add-on event conventions at Magic Kingdom, I do a thing called “Behind the Dreams Tour.” One of the things I’ll do is just stop in the middle of nowhere, not at an attraction, a store, or restaurant, and ask them what do they hear. Very often we’re listening to music, and invariably there are birds. People will ask if the bird sounds are real. And yes, they are real. The only place in the Disney parks, that I know of, where bird sounds are piped in are the Tiki Room and the Jungle Cruise. Other than that, if you heard a bird, it’s a bird. It’s not fake.
Walt said let’s use music to help tell our stories. It’s not an accident that many of the attractions have music. All you have to say is Tiki Room and all of a sudden people begin to sing the lyrics. If you say Small World, everybody knows the tune. Say Pirates of the Caribbean, people say “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirates life for me!” It’s automatic – Carrousel of Progress: “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow.” Most of those songs were written in the early to late 1960s. And they’re still a part of our culture. Not just our culture, but our life.
Music has always been a part of Disney. In fact, from the beginning, Steamboat Willie, his first cartoon, it’s Mickey Mouse whistling. There’s no dialog – it’s a song. One of my favorite pictures is a framed photograph I have here on the wall of my office [see on right]. It’s a picture of Walt laying on a couch in his office looking at the music for Fantasia. He couldn’t read music, but he was fascinated that these little dots could turn into this major sound.
Music was a part of everything we designed. I was in a lot of meetings where music was a part of the early conception phase of the project. This occurred from Downtown Disney to Disney/MGM Studios.
DMB: How many years were you a Disney Imagineer and can you let us know of some major attractions that you would have been some part of.
McNair: I came to Imagineering sort of by accident – even though I wanted to be there ever since I was maybe 11 yrs old and saw Walt on TV introduce a guy named Claude [Coats]. And he said, “Claude is our Imagineer in charge of new attractions.” When I heard the word “Imagineer” I repeated it out loud, screaming it to my mother saying I wanted to do that. Claude was the guy building the model and the sets for what would become the Pirates of the Carribean. At my first day at Imagineering they had a reception to honor a man who had been there for 50 years, and that was Claude Coats. My boss, Marty Sklar, who had invited me to Imagineering and who knew of my story as a kid, walked me over and introduced me to Claude.
In 1977 I started a renaissance company that grew to do several festivals over the years. Disney found us by accident and in 1982 we were invited to do a 3-month contract to do 10 shows a day in the Italy area of Epcot. By 1985 we were doing 45 shows a day in Epcot and other territories. In 1985 I began consulting with Disney Imagineering on projects that became Typhoon Lagoon, Disney/MGM Studios, Pleasure Island, and so on. After about 6 months or so of that first year of consulting, I was offered a full-time position. I was an Imagineer until the early 90s, where I continued to consult on various levels.
DMG: What would be the avenue for people to reach you if they’d like?
McNair: Everything is connected to my blog, which is www.TeaWithMcNair.com. Email and other information is all there.
DMG: McNair, we truly do appreciate your time in sharing your Imagineering story with us as it relates to the magical music experiences.
McNair: Enjoyed it as well. Glad to do it!
You can grab your own copy of McNair’s book “Hatch!” right here:
Here are two other books you might want to check out from C. McNair Wilson!