An Interview with Disneyland’s Buena Vista Street Imagineer

During my recent visit to Disneyland, our group had the opportunity to interview Imagineer Lisa Girolami about the story and theme of Buena Vista Street, the new “Main Street” of Disney California Adventure. Below is a recap of the interview!

Lisa to group:

We worked on Buena Vista Street.  And what we, from the very start, what we realized was that Disney California Adventure, you know, wasn’t performing like we wanted it to.  Let’s, let’s face it, you know.  We, we, we as a company had tried things and sometimes it, you know, they don’t work.  But our company is fantastic, is, um, it’s courageous enough to say, let’s make it better.  Let’s fix it.  So we sat down and said, what do we want to make stronger here with the park.

What we decided was, um, for the main entry, is that we needed a stronger sense of place and time.  We needed a stronger kind of connection back to Walt.  Um, so it’s a two-part design of the street, with those, both of those things in mind.  We also wanted to create a complement to Main Street in Disneyland.  And with Main Street in Disneyland being patterned, you know, the way Walt wanted to create, um, kind of an idealized Marceline, Missouri, which is their home town, you think about going down Main Street in Disneyland or Walt Disney World and in Magic Kingdom.

And then as you walk down that Main Street and think of them, you know, as a child growing up.  And you think of him as a child, um, and then all of a sudden you’re opened up to all these worlds that he might have thought of as a child.  I mean, who as a child doesn’t want to be a cowboy, doesn’t want to go to the jungle in Adventure Land.  You know, and, you know, go into space, you know, in, in Tomorrow Land.  And so you see all of that laid out before you.  Disney California Adventure, we wanted to create a street in 1923 Los Angeles.

Which is the year that Walt took the train from Missouri, ended up in Los Angeles, with a cardboard suitcase, forty dollars in his pocket, a couple reels of animated film, and, um, and started with his adventure.  And at the time, with Hollywood with, you know, starting up, you know, being this huge place in the twenties, you know, with all the- all the movie business and everything, many people were coming out.  And it was this time of optimism, opportunity, you know, excitement.

And we wanted to create that and so we want you to be able, the guests, to walk down the street as Walt might have seen it and get inspired like he was, and then when you get to the end of the street, just like Walt started his adventure, you get to start your adventure in California.  Now, um, just a little bit about the street.  There’s- we, we designed the street so that it was very reminiscent of 1923.  All the way, you know, from- from the architectural ornamentation.

That in the twenties, you know, was so elaborate and so detailed.  The music that plays on the street, the red car trolleys that traversed up and down the street, which was the major mode of transportation back then in Los Angeles.  With the catenary lines across the street.  And, um, the citizens of Buena Vista Street, which you might have seen, the window- there are three windows upstairs and you walk down the street, that you can hear, you know, businesses, you know, a drawing class, uh, an optician, and, um, a dance studio.   You know.  We wanted to create all the details that you would have seen on that street.

Uh, and, and if you think about, you know, we at Imagineering love to do layering.  And we have layers that are as, as kind of right there simple and visceral as what I just described.  All the way to the deep-deep layers, where you can actually see the Disney DNA, you know, connection in, in place.  And what I mean by that is we usually have a backstory to all of our attractions.  And, you know, Haunted Mansion is about the bride, you know, and the wedding day.

You know, and you look down, you know, on the table and it’s the wedding party, you know, they’re all ghosts now, but it’s a wedding party.  In the attic you see her, you know, in her bride’s outfit.  And there’s a whole backstory there that you may not know, but we need back stories to hang, you know, our elements on.  You know, because we need a reason to do things.  And, um, our backstory is kind of a reverse backstory.  It’s kind of hard to explain but, um, we wanted to create a street that if Walt has just arrived, his characters don’t really exist yet and he’s going to be creating them.

But we wanted it to feel like, maybe Walt walked down the street himself, and was inspired by different things.  Mortimer’s Market, for instance, is our fruit market.  If you look up on the top, we’ve- we’ve layered in little clues and little details that, um, for instance if you’re a kid, you just want to have a visceral experience.  You know, kids don’t necessarily care about trivia, history, you know, all that.  They just want to you know, run down the street and just kind of feel it, right.

I do that too but usually before the park opens.  And, um, and that’s okay.  We create that for them.  But if you want to stop and kind of look and look at the details and kind of get that connection, we have that there too.  Um, as an example, Mortimer’s Market, if you look up top, there’s architectural ornamentation, very elaborate in detail, that you would have seen in downtown Los Angeles, well you still see, you know, obviously evidence in, in a lot of old cities.  It’s called Bah Relief sculpting.  And you see these cornucopias with fruit and vegetables and then you see these beautiful little mice sculpted in.

And as you go by, you look up, if you want to stop for a minute, you go mice, Mortimer’s, there’s a backstory there, right.  And as the story goes, Walt got here in Los Angeles, created a mouse, named him Mortimer’s, goes home to Lillian, his wife, and says, you know, look at this, Mort- Mortimer the Mouse.  And Lillian said, not a good name.  Why don’t you name him- why not call him Mickey.  And that’s a true story.  So Lillian actually named Mickey Mouse Mickey.

And, um, and so you look and you go, I get that connection to Walt.  Clarabelle’s Ice Cream, you know, our proprietor is a woman who loves everything bovine and has this great little ice cream, ice cream shop in our backstory.  Walt might have, you know, gone in there often, might have taken his daughters in there and bought Clarabelle, that’s kind of a cute name. So I come up with a, a cow figure, you know, a cow character, I’ll name her Clarabelle, which of course, he did.  Uh, the most interesting I think connection, although they’re all over the street, street numbers have significance in Walt’s life.

You know, home addresses and things like that.  Um, Elias and Co, of course, is named after not only, it’s not only Walt’s middle name is Elias, but his father’s name was Elias.  Uh, in Fiddler, Fifer, and Practical Café, our backstory is we’ve got three sisters that used to, you know, be Silver Lake sisters that were- that was an act that went on the road.  One played the fiddle, one well, the fiddle violin, one played the fife or the flute, and the other one was the practical sister.  She played the piano but she used always the one going, we have to get on the road.

You know, and, uh, and of course the reference, does anybody know what Fiddler, Fifer, and Practical are?  The three little pigs, right.  Well we don’t show pigs in there, we don’t talk about pigs.  But Walt might have thought, oh my gosh, how cute.  You know, what about a story about, you know, these three little pigs.  Their last name is Bounds, which is Lillian’s last name, or I’m sorry her maiden name.  And again, don’t have to get that detail.  But if you do, you know, you get again that sense of time and place that’s just a little more there.

Um, and all the way to Carthay Circle Theater, which of course, um, the Carthay Circle Theater was, uh, the place in December of 1937 that Walt premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  And the significance to that, other than it being our version of, you know, the castle at the end of the street, uh, the significance is no one had ever seen an animated film that was a feature length film before then.  They were all shorts that played at the beginning of movies.  And Walt had a vision to start creating these longer animated films.

No one thought they would do well.  He- he literally mortgaged his home, Walt mortgaged his home, they were up to their eyeballs.  And that one pivotal night, when the press was calling it Walt’s Folly, Disney’s Folly, they didn’t think it would do well at all.  Who wants to sit for ninety minutes and watch a cartoon?  Uh, that night was going to make or break Disney, both Disneys, and, and determine probably whether they were going to even stay in Los Angeles or not.  As we now know it was a huge success.  The profits he used to build Disney Studios.

And, you know, the rest as they say is history.  But, but if that night hadn’t been a success, we all wouldn’t be sitting here right now.  And that’s, that’s why pay homage to that building, which in, in our building, we have this, um, beautiful restaurant and lounge.  And, um, and it, and, and it just is, is the perfect complement again to Disneyland, Main Street to the Castle, Buena Vista Street to Carthay.  And then along the way you will see a statue, it’s the storyteller’s statue of Walt and Mickey.

And the difference between that and, and the one in Disneyland, in Disneyland, um, he’s an older gentleman, more established.  Ours is actually standing on the ground, life size, you can walk right up to him, take a picture with him.  Because at that time, when he stepped off the train, he was like everybody else.  He was just the everyday man.  And you might have bumped into him, you know, when you were walking down the street, who knows.  So that’s why he’s, you know, there on the street and, and accessible.

Disclosure: Disney/Pixar sponsored travel, accommodations and activities during my stay in Los Angeles. Thoughts are my own.