If you’ve visited a Disney theme park, then you’ve most likely seen the detailed artistry of the talented scenic artist John Rayburn. But who is John Rayburn and how was he able to paint some of the most iconic and beloved attractions and parade floats? From Splash Mountain, to Abraham Lincoln’s hands, to the very popular Disneyland holiday overlays at both the Haunted Mansion and “it’s a small world,” it all came about with a bit of luck, a lot of talent, and the “Baroque Hoedown.”
I first met John when I started at Disneyland as a float driver in the Main Street Electrical Parade back in 1992. John’s long career with the Mouse started 12 years prior in 1980 when he was cast as a performer in the same nighttime classic parade. An amazing and talented performer with a seemingly unending amount of energy, John would continue to perform and entertain guests in various roles over the years until his final parade performance in the Christmas Fantasy Parade in 1998.
It was fun talking with John about his 18 years with Disneyland’s Parade Department and to reminisce about the time we were in the same unit for the “Cruisin’ the Kingdom Parade.” We had some good times during that parade, just don’t get him started on “Light Magic,” which John claims to still have vivid nightmares about. I’ll definitely have to save that story for another time. For today’s blog post, I want to share John Rayburn’s talent as an artist that began when he picked up a paint brush at the age of six.
It Was a Game Changer
John Rayburn is a self-taught artist and has been painting nearly his whole life. At the age of 12 years old, he was painting models so expertly that the Military Shop, a local model hobby shop, asked him to paint their display models. He was too young to work for them, so instead, he was paid in merchandise. Being able to choose whatever he wanted from the store, as payment, was a deal John gladly accepted.
It was at this hobby shop in Lakewood, California where he met an employee named Jim Murphy. John likes to make the objects he paints look real and credits Jim with his first breakthrough into doing just that. John told me that the painting techniques Jim taught him, like which colors to look at for shading, were a game changer that would inevitably end up giving him a career.
Art and the Disneyland Connection
In the late 1970’s, John’s older sister worked in the Parade Department. He said some of her friends from the parades would come over to the house and one of those friends was a guy named Richard Ferrin. John told me that Richard would always make a point to look at John’s models when he came over. At that time, Richard was not only a ride design Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company, he also moonlit as a performer in the Main Street Electrical Parade.
John reconnected with Richard Ferrin in 1980, when John was finally old enough to work as a parade performer at Disneyland. Richard let John know that he was leaving Imagineering to start his own company with his friend Rick Bastrup called R&R Creative Amusement Designs, Inc. (R&R). As a ride engineer, Richard explained to John that he would need people to build architectural study models and asked John if he’d be interested in creating and painting the models. John jumped at the chance and started to work for R&R in Anaheim, California.
After approval of one of John’s completed architectural model builds and paint samples for a job, John shared with me a conversation he had with Richard. It was a brief conversation that would further propel John on his career path:
Richard: “What if you did that a bit bigger?”
John: “What do you mean?”
Richard: “You’ve already done the paint finish that we wanted, it’s approved, and now it needs to be done on the job site. Why can’t you paint it bigger? Instead of using a small brush (like the ones used on models) get bigger ones. Instead of a small air brush, get a larger one.”
It was not an outrageous suggestion, but it would take Richard in that moment to illuminate John’s mind to the possibility of taking on a new endeavor and hone new full-scale artistry skills. From that moment, John’s life as a model builder and painter would forever change, he was now a full-scale scenic artist.
Living Close to the Castle Has Its Advantages
Richard started to send John on various job sites where he would meet folks from Disney who would end up pulling him in on various projects. Plus, folks from Disney knew Richard from Imagineering and would ask if he knew anyone local that can paint finishes fast and Richard would always recommend John as he could fix and match paint faster than anyone, plus he was a local and could get to the park faster than someone from Los Angeles. That’s how, as John says he, “got the in” at Disneyland.
At first Disney would use John to produce quick paint finishes, as well as paint repairs and paint blending for attractions including, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, and the Jungle Cruise.
You May Get Wet at This “Laughing Place”
Paint repairing on existing attractions to perfection undoubtedly proved to Disney that John was up for his first big job at Disneyland. For this project, John was assigned to scenic paint a new attraction, one that would be billed by Disney as the “Tallest, fastest, thrillingest attraction this side of Star Tours,” and that of course is none other than Splash Mountain, based on Disney’s 1946 film, “Song of the South.”
John, along with an estimated 10 to 12 other scenic artists, age and grain artists and as John said, “a ton of general painters,” all contributed to the painting of the exterior and interior parts of the mountain. For any scenic elements that were added to the attraction after it opened, however, John became the sole scenic artist.
Splash Mountain would open the summer of 1989, after a few months of delays, but in the minds of many guests, it was certainly an attraction that was well worth the wait.
The Work Keeps Coming
John would continue to work on several more projects for Disneyland throughout the years, including painting the brand new Mickey’s Toontown, which opened to guests on January 24, 1993. John was also made the sole scenic artist the year after it opened, tasked with maintaining the land’s vivid hues as well as painting any and all upgrades.
1993 Toontown Photos Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
AND…ACTION…CUT…CUT…MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN!
By 2001, John was a proven scenic artist. So much so that he was assigned as a scenic artist for the brand new, yet to open, Disney California Adventure Park. John would work on the initial paint for the Park all the way up until the February 8, 2001, opening date. He was also the only scenic artist approved to be in the Park the full day prior to opening, as he was tasked specifically by Chris Runco, Concept Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, to touch up paint at surrounding restaurants and the iconic Grizzly Mountain.
John shared with me about an incident that I had all but forgotten until he brought it up, which I thought was quite humorous.
By 2001, I was now working mostly in the TV Productions/Broadcast Services Department at the Disneyland Resort and was working on a commercial film shoot for the new Disney theme park. We were supposed to film Grizzly River Rapids, but we couldn’t get a clean shot because there was a man painting on the mountain. Turns out, that man was John.
John was given a mandate from Imagineering that he had full run of the entire park for 24 hours, allowing John to scan the park for needed touch ups. He had until 8AM on opening day July 8th , to complete the job. What John thought would be a relaxing day of just him and his paint brush, turned into something quite different.
John told me, “I was doing a lot of touch up work on Grizzly for Chris (Runco) and I caused a big problem. There were about 300 people, all over the mountain. They were going to film a commercial but failed to ask Imagineering if they could have permission to do it. Runco’s answer was no, they couldn’t have permission because little old me needed to do a bunch of paint in the waterways. The film crew was furious with me! They had to remove their cameras and proceeded to stare at me for an hour and a half until I was finished.”
We were both able to laugh at it now, and it was certainly a good thing the film crew waited, not that we had a choice, but because of John’s extra touch of paint on Grizzly Peak mountain and it’s River Run waterways, it made for even more gorgeous scenery, not only for the crew to film, but for the guests who would be introduced to the park for their very first time once Disney California Adventure Park opened the next day.
John Meets Garner Holt
John was introduced to Garner Holt by Richard and Rick of R&R. They would work together on various projects, like the MGM theme park in Las Vegas. Garner would build the animatronics and John would paint the set pieces.
During the 1990’s Garner had been trying to get his foot in the door with Disney to get some jobs going. But that proved difficult as Disney was using mostly internal staff and only a few outsourced vendors. Since John was working on projects with Disney, he was able to take some of Garner’s products to Lloyd Bressler, who was in charge of Imagineering Construction, and suggested that he should really take a look at Garner Holt because he was doing some amazing things with audio-animatronics.
Garner’s first breakthrough with Disney was the creation of the puppetronic character Phil for the “Hercules’ Victory Parade” in 1996.
Who’s This Garner Holt and Rayburn Fellow?
Garner Holt Productions was now beginning to work more frequently on jobs with the Walt Disney Company, from parade float builds for Disneyland to set pieces for Tokyo DisneySea. But it wasn’t until after John Rayburn and Garner got into the Great Moment’s with Mr. Lincoln Theater that Garner Holt Production’s reputation was solidified.
John said, “Redoing Lincoln Theater caused some nervous moments because it was something that Walt worked on. You had people on the internet wondering who was doing this stuff and who is this Garner Holt Company? Who’s this John Rayburn guy doing the paint? What are they doing and are they going to wreck this attraction?”
Brad Kay, Imagineering Art Director, would assign John with the solo job of painting one of Walt Disney’s most beloved attractions. John painted the entire theater. He even painted Lincoln’s chair and touched up Lincoln’s hands.
The rehab was a great success for both John and Garner Holt. So much so, that they were both hired on for one more project of that year.
One More Job For 2001
While working on Lincoln Theater, John shared that Brad Kay had told him that there was something coming up in the works for both he and Garner, but, he couldn’t tell John what it was. John persisted, and all Brad would say was that, “It’s going to be a very haunted overlay.”
John said, “So I thought cool, it might be an overlay for the Haunted Mansion. I didn’t think too much of it. Then it came down from Brian Sandahl, Senior Art Director at the Disneyland Resort, to hire Garner Holt Productions for the overlay and Brad said I should paint it. So we ended up doing the overlay.”
This last big project of the year for John would prove difficult, painful, but oh so memorable. I am of course talking about the Haunted Mansion Holiday which is themed after Tim Burton’s film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
‘TWAS THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS…
Contrary to popular belief, the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay at Disneyland was not dreamed up nor produced by Walt Disney Imagineering, rather, it was a collaboration between Disneyland’s Creative Director Steven Davison (who has since been promoted to Creative Director/ Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment) and Senior Designer Brian Sandahl, (who has since been promoted to Senior Designer/Show Development and Producer at Disney Entertainment Productions).
After the success of “it’s a small world” Holiday, which opened in 1997, Davison’s next idea for an attraction overlay would be for the Haunted Mansion. Davison, along with Senior Writer Carolyn Gardner, would rewrite the classic poem, “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” for the attraction overlay.”
Once guests enter into the foyer of the Haunted Mansion, the Ghost Host begins to recite the following “‘Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas poem:”
‘Twas a long time ago (now longer than it seems). In a place that perhaps, you have seen in your dreams. For the story that you are about to be told Began in the holiday worlds of old. I know you’re curious to see what’s inside. It’s what happens when two holidays collide!
(Guests now enter the stretching room and the poem continues)
Welcome, my friends, to our Christmas delight. Come witness a ghoulishly glorious sight. It’s time for our holiday tale to begin. There’s no turning back now-please, come all the way in. Our holiday tale is a tale that’s quite charming. But during this season, it’s sometimes alarming. So relax and reflect, feel free to take pause, While we tell you a tale about dear Sandy Claws. ‘Twas the nightmare before Christmas, And all through the house, Not a creature was peaceful-not even a mouse The stockings, all hung by the chimney with care, When opened that morning would cause such a scare. The children, nestled all snug in their beds Would nightmares of monsters and skeleton heads!
Blacklight Paint, Blood, and More Blacklight Paint
John shared with me that the installation of the overlay was a huge build out. There were a lot of unknowns for them because nothing had ever been taken into the ride since it’s opening on August 9, 1969, especially as an overlay.
“The Install was horrendous. It was crazy. They had to get these big giant pieces back into places that had no access. The piece that really comes to mind that was really hard to bring in was the pumpkin mountain.” John said.
John explained to me that the famous pumpkin mountain, which is made up of “3 to 4” pieces that stack on top of each other, are built within a metal frame. The problem was they had to get the mountain, piece by piece, to where it sits for the overlay, which is located behind the statues in the graveyard scene. There was no way to get the mountain into that area without having to tie ropes to each one of the pieces. The crew would then have to get up to the catwalks that are located high above the tracks of the attraction to be able to lift the pieces up on pulleys.
John describes it as such, “The pieces had to all be swung over like Tarzan while crew were up on the high catwalks. Then they’d have to get the piece into position to bring it down in front of where the statutes are located because you can’t just slide it over. Below the statues is about a 15 foot drop down to the projectors below. It all had to be lowered in there, piece by piece.”
By the time the pumpkin mountain was Tarzan swung below the catwalk and put into place, it had been chipped up pretty bad, so John had to spend several weeks to repaint and repair it. The problem with the mountain, was, it’s situated in the pit where the projectors are. The tallest ladder they had that would fit in that area only got John halfway up the mountain, so he’d need to get a 15 foot pole to attach his paint brush to so that he would then be able to paint the areas located at the top half of the mountain.
John tells me, “What sticks with me, is, it’s a lot of long hours, and you’re in the dark a long time and you kind of lose perspective. Is it day? Is it night? Everyone’s tired, and all of a sudden I begin to see these blotches going up the mountain. I was thinking, what is going on? I’m wearing socks, because I don’t want to leave shoeprints on it (blacklight paint picks up everything). I’m in my socks and so dust my socks off and climb back up the mountain but I keep seeing these big giant black blotches of something. I’m tired, my feet hurt really badly for some reason, and it’s cold! WHAT IS THIS STUFF?! I’m trying to wipe it off, I don’t have any regular latex paint on here, what have I got on this thing?! I’m trying to clean it off, but it’s semi dried. I didn’t know what was going on, so I had to start to paint over it, but see that it’s coming through the paint…and…OH MY GOSH, it’s going from bad to worse!”
Then John Realized…
Those black splotches he saw all up and down the mountain was blood! John’s feet were bleeding! Located down below in that area are dead broken Manzanita branches used for scenery. Those branches were slicing up John’s feet as he was going up and down the mountain, leaving a trail of blood. Seems rather fitting, being the Haunted Mansion and all, but poor John. He tells me he had to get peroxide to clean up the mountain to get it pristine again so that he would be able to reapply the blacklight paint. He tells me, “IT WAS CRAZY!” Every time I go past Pumpkin Mountain now, I’ll forever think of John leaving his trail of blood.
John would paint all the lettering on the signs for the attraction, he’d paint the Jack Skellington and Zero animatronics that Garner Holt created, he’d paint the wreaths and design their snake like eyes in the stretching room, as well as paint the singing Venus Flytraps, and so much more. An installation that was supposed to last 3 years, has gone on to be an 18 year tradition (due to park closure the attraction did not run in 2020).
Photo Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
With a Disneyland Entertainment Art budget, Art Director Brian Sandahl did not have enough in his budget for an animatronic Sally for the 2001 opening, which he so desperately wanted. He would eventually get a Sally several years later…but not until Tokyo Disneyland got their’s first.
Chris Crump, Larry Nikolai and Tokyo Disneyland Open Their Haunted Mansion Holiday with Multiple Animatronic Versions of Sally in 2004
Shortly after the success of the Mansion’s holiday overlay, John was back at Garner Holt Productions working on something else when he gets paged to go to the phone and it’s to talk to Larry Nikolai, an Artist and now former Art Director/Producer at Imagineering. Larry asked John if he had any paint left over from when he painted the Haunted Mansion Holiday. John let him know he that he did. Larry then immediately told John that he’d meet him at Garner’s the next day.
John continued to tell me, “The next day both Larry and Chris Crump (former Principal Show Production Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, and son of Disney Legend Rolly Crump) walked into the shop at Garner Holt Productions. Larry introduced me to Chris. He’s a great guy that likes to have fun, he’s always laughing and is a very sharp designer. So they walk in and asked if I could produce all new paint samples, exactly as I had done it before for the mansion’s holiday overlay. I asked why, what’s going on?”
The build for Tokyo Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday went quite smoothly. John painted everything the exact same way he had done for Disneyland. The banners requiring lettering were all done the same way, same lettering, same colors, as he was able to use the original artwork as reference. He said all that was simple, the only difficult part was getting Sally’s lip color perfect.
“The only colors that I had to do differently were for Sally. Larry came down for the day, he wanted to make sure Sally was perfect. He said ‘I want a perfect red. Once you get it, I’ll go home.’ I got the specific skin tone color he wanted, he signed off on that. But the lip color was his big thing, reds are extremely hard to mix. If you go one way a little bit, it’s wrecked. You have to throw it out and start all over again. You can’t add any black that’ll make it go too dark, because then it turns grey. You have to bring the color down to the purples and magentas. It’s a very fine line you have to walk. If you put just a tiny drip, it changes everything and it could go too brown, and then you have to throw that out and try again.
I can mix color really fast. I can go into Splash Mountain and they would say the ride is opening in an hour and we’ll need you out of here; I can field mix it and it’s done. It’s fast. But reds are really hard to mix. Even spectrometers, if you go to a hardware store, and ask if they can mix a specific red… (John laughs) GOOD LUCK because spectrometers can’t do it either. But, I finally got it set and Larry approved it. I saved the colors and have the documents Larry signed approving the colors in case Magic Kingdom or another Disney park ever wanted to add the holiday overlay. (Did you hear that Walt Disney World?!)”
John now had the colors and painted all the Sallys. The only exception, was he did not paint her pupils. Larry wasn’t sure where she would be positioned exactly at the Haunted mansion in Japan, so instructed John to not paint her pupils. Chris Crump would end up painting her pupils once she was installed into her positions at the mansion.
All of the set pieces would be delivered to a facility called the “Airport” where Imagineering had a hangar for the staging and packing of items to be shipped overseas. John would met Chris Crump at the “Airport” for one last minute touch up and to provide him with a paint kit before their overseas departure.
It was at this time that Chris shared some fun tidbits with John about his father Rolly Crump, retired Imagineer and Disney Legend who worked on the design of the original Haunted Mansion.
One of these fun tidbits was a story Chris would go on to recount about the ballroom dancers in the Haunted Mansion. He told John that as a little kid, he was walking through the mansion with his dad and the other Imagineers when he noticed something in the ballroom scene.
Chris said to his dad, “Why are the women leading the men?”
Rolly looks at everyone and shouts, “SEE! Even my kid sees it!”
What had happened was the figures were set up with the men leading the women in the first room, but, when their image is reflected back into the ballroom, for the Pepper’s Ghost Optical Illusion, their image is reversed, so it appears as though the women are leading the men in the ballroom dance scene. Next time you go on the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, make sure you look at the dancers, the women are leading the men!
John went on to tell me that the Nightmare Before Christmas project for Tokyo Disneyland was all the fun from the first show, but without any of the problems they had originally encountered. No blood trails were left by John this go around! John said they could all relax and have fun while working on Tokyo Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday, that’s why John said it was one of his all-time favorite projects at Disney to date.
Brian Gets His Sally!
And as for Brian Sandahl and his dream of a Sally at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday, well he would get one, eventually. Brian had always intended to have a Sally, but Disneyland Entertainment Art and Imagineering are two different beasts with two vastly different budgets to work with. Now that Garner had the molds, because he created them for Tokyo Disneyland, and John saved all the color information for her skin color and lips, the dream of a Sally at Disneyland was becoming a closer reality for Sandahl, but, it would take 15 more years from the time the holiday overlay first began for Brian’s dream to come to fruition. In 2016, Sally finally made it into the Holiday Mansion Overlay. After being painted to perfection by John Rayburn, she now resides in the graveyard scene, lovingly looking at Jack Skellington.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Garner Holt Productions was the first outside company Disney has ever used to create an animatronic character for one if its attractions. Since then they have created more than 400 figures for Disney and its theme parks around the world and now are the world’s largest manufacture of Animatronics and Animatronic figures, parade floats, and so much more. When Disney shut down its Walt Disney Imagineering’s MAPO division, back in 2012, they turned over all the manufacturing of the attractions to Garner Holt Productions. In a statement made by Disney Legend Bob Gurr, he said, “Garner inherits all of Imagineering’s historic animation and show production designs and tooling.”
And as for the Scenic Artist? John Rayburn has never been busier. His scenic artistry can be seen on Mount Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, throughout Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Shanghai Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland, and of course Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park.
Photo Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
John works on many projects outside of Disney too. His top two favorite projects he’s ever painted were painting both the Timber Mountain Log Ride and the Calico Mine Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm, a theme park located just 7 miles from Disneyland.
John Rayburn has his own business and you can find him on Facebook at John Rayburn Consulting. He paints themed paint, Trompe L’oeil, Faux Finishes, Glazes, Artistic Refinishing, Portraits, Aging, Graining, and Marbling.
John has a diverse clientele, whatever you can dream up, John will be able to create it. From adorable nurseries to dental offices, to even backyard scenic artistry, like the famous Orange County backyard of architect David Sheegog. Imagine having a model of Splash Mountain in your backyard painted by THE GUY that painted the original Splash Mountain.
I’ll be writing more about John in future. This blog post is just the tip of the iceberg.