Shanghai Disneyland

December 11, 2023 • Louie Mantia

I want to start by talking about one of my friends, Greg Maletic. He’s an incredibly smart human who has great taste. He’s directed a documentary about pinball, worked to create some shockingly good software (and hardware) at Panic, has an amazing collection of vintage calculators, and also… sometimes makes art for Disney Parks.

I don’t remember when I first met Greg, but I do remember thinking he was definitely two different people. Since I was introduced to Greg and his work from different directions, “Panic Greg” and “Disney Parks Posters Greg” were separate people in my mind. (There was no way this was the same person.)

When Cabel me asked if Pacific Helm would be interested in designing an app for Disney with Panic, I think that’s when I realized 2 and 2—in fact—equals 4. “Panic Greg” and “Disney Parks Posters Greg” are the same person.

Before a trip up to Portland for XOXO (a festival for makers who live on the Internet), I asked Greg if it would be okay if I brought my newly-purchased Poster Art of the Disney Parks book with me, to have him sign next to his artwork. He said not to bring it, and I felt a little embarrassed to have asked.

Panic threw a party in their office during XOXO, and Greg brought me over to his desk, opened a drawer, and inside was a copy of that book, a gift for me. He said he had everyone sign it (including himself). It is one of the sweetest gifts anyone has ever given me.

Soon after, Greg told me Walt Disney Imagineering needed some new illustrations, but he didn’t have time to do them. (Little did I know at the time, what prevented him from being able to work on this project was that he was busy making Playdate.) He asked if I could do it. I had basically no experience illustrating like what they needed. But Greg thought I could do it. I tailor-made a version of my portfolio for Disney.

In September 2013, I got an email from Christopher Merritt, an Imagineer working on Mickey Avenue, the entrance area for Disney’s newest park, Shanghai Disneyland. (Chris is perhaps famous amongst fans for his incredible concept of an attraction based on The Nightmare Before Christmas as a student.) Chris told me they had a “tight deadline.” The park opened in a little under 3 years from then. (I sometimes think about this project’s scope when app developers use the term “tight deadline.”)

The photo above is from The Clip Joint, a barbershop façade in Mickey Avenue. The shampoo label, hair tonic label, and calendar were illustrated by me.

This project needed flat graphics for props; some things were as simple as “Clearance — now on sale!”, while others were more elaborate character illustrations. Some of them would need Chinese language text on them. I started worrying that I was biting off more than I could chew. But I also knew this was maybe my only shot to be able to do something like this. All the paperwork was sorted within 4 days, a feat I basically never see these days.

WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering) provided me with rough sketches for almost everything, so I wasn’t starting from zero. For character illustrations, they would have a character artist redraw the WDI sketch first, and if necessary, an animator would then draw over those before I did anything. For the next several weeks, I was typesetting, illustrating, and cobbling together all the things necessary to finalize about 40 pieces of art.

Occasionally, I’d get to a character I’ve never seen before (which was mostly tricky because I needed to know what colors to use for them), like Sir Giles the Dragon Slayer from The Reluctant Dragon. Chris is a really big appreciator of some obscure Disney things, not that The Reluctant Dragon is entirely obscure.

The one I was more shocked about was The Gremlins, a Roald Dahl and Walt Disney collaborative film project from the 1940s that was never released. Yes, there’s a Disney character that never really appeared in any media at Shanghai Disneyland, on the side of a firework sitting inside a shop window façade. There’s another with the Martian Mastermind, from a single 1957 episode of Disneyland.

The kinds of questions I needed answers for on this project still seem very funny to me.

What’s the address for the Clarabelle’s art studio?

(Clarabelle is a cow.) “The number is 39 but we haven’t named the street or the courtyard.”

Is… Clarabelle married? Should it be signora or signorina?

(Again, Clarabelle is a cow.) And, by the way, she is not married.

Are you guys totally comfortable calling [Donald Duck] ‘Don’? I saw it on the original sketch but hesitated for a moment while typing it.

The answer was no; we shipped with “Donald.”

What is the exact color of Donald’s bill?

It shocked me to know there wasn’t an easy answer here. I was instructed to make my best guess. When coloring characters, I looked at various references to pick color from, trying to color-correct old video and averaging a color region.

I don’t think anyone ever asked me to change a color that I picked. But there was one piece that I wanted to intentionally recolor a character for effect.

The photo above is from Chip ’N’ Dale’s Treehouse Treats, a snack stand in Mickey Avenue. All product labels and signs are illustrated by me. The Nuts Cracked Fresh sign is also motorized.

On a jar of El Diablo Brand Extra Hot Habanero Peanut Butter was a character illustration for Dale (of Chip ’N’ Dale fame), with steam coming out his ears. I made one version with a “normal” color scheme, and another where he was “red hot” with yellow eyes. I braced myself for rejection, but to my surprise, everyone really loved it!

In fact, most of the feedback I received from WDI was either “perfect!” or “love it!” I know part of that had to do with the tight deadlines, but it sure was validating nevertheless.

When we were making something specifically with Chinese text, I received cultural guidance from Leia Mi, art director for Shanghai Disneyland, without whom I’m sure I would have made several mistakes.

For example, at The Clip Joint, we needed a “be back soon” sign for the glass door around the corner from the main window. I made that in red, using a translation from Leia. She advised against red, as red ink was historically used for prisoners’ names. (We went with blue.)

To give a little background for The Clip Joint, this barbershop is run by the weasels from The Wind and the Willows, part of the 1949 two-segment film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. In the story, Toad makes a deal to exchange the deed to his mansion for a motorcar. I thought— what if the weasels (who take over Toad Hall in the film) irreverently scrawled “be back soon” on the back of the deed?

I comped it up and showed it to Chris. “Great, great idea!” The deed is fairly ornate, and this film was not released on Blu-ray at the time, so I couldn’t even grab a high-resolution still from the film to trace it. Chris called the Animation Research Library, and within 24 hours of my original concept, they pulled the original art from the film and photographed it for me to use. “That never, ever happens.”

The photo above is from The Clip Joint, showing the deed to Toad Hall. On the wall are other illustrated advertisements by me. The red swirling hairdo in the foreground references the short-lived “soft serve” hair Ariel once had in the California Adventure attraction.

I was given a fair amount of flexibility, especially when filling out ambiguous parts from the sketches, allowing me to make tiny little details for probably no one to find. One of my favorites is seen from peering into the Flowers & Trees florist window; there’s a bag of potting soil. If you look down inside the window, you’ll see EVE’s plant directive symbol from WALL•E. And at the very bottom: “Produced by MAPO.” (MAPO is short for Mary Poppins, and is the organization once responsible for manufacturing basically everything at Disneyland.) I am almost certain no one has noticed this organically.

We worked beyond the initial scope of several weeks, well into about April the next year. They asked me to create a few extra things, including the street sign for Mickey Avenue and a logo for a hard hat, both of which ended up atop a shelf.

I feel very fortunate to know someone like Greg to recommend me for a project like this, grateful that Chris was so enthusiastic and appreciative of the work, and proud of myself for having done it.

As of this writing, it’s been about 9 years since I worked on Shanghai Disneyland, and I’m sure I would do it all very differently today. In my career where so many things I make are temporary due to hardware and software constantly evolving, it’s comforting to know at least some of these things I made for Mickey Avenue could potentially be there for decades.

I visited the park in its first operating year, and I walked Mickey Avenue deliberately avoiding the locations I knew my illustrations were in. I think, as a Disney fan, it was difficult for me to emotionally accept that something I made was actually there, living in a theme park. That was the thing of dreams before, and I was not ready for it to be a reality. But when I finally looked up and saw it, I absolutely cried.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do something like this again, but it was really special and I cherish it.

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