Larry Nikolai Part II

Larry Nikolai was a young boy when he first saw the humanoid Audio-Animatronic of President Abraham Lincoln take the stage in “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland in 1965.  From this moment on, he was inspired.  Not only by the Walt Disney Imagineering marvel of the audio-animatronic technology, but by Lincoln himself.   Much like Walt Disney who recounted the following on an episode of Wonderful World of Color titled, “Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair,” “Ever since I was a small boy in Illinois, I have had a great personal admiration for Abraham Lincoln…”  so too would Larry Nikolai develop a deep admiration for the famous president (which you can go back and read about in Part 1 if you haven’t read it yet). 

“Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” opened Larry’s eyes to a whole new world of show creation and Imagineering possibilities, it only seemed fitting that Larry Nikolai would begin his first day at Walt Disney Imagineering as a Senior Show Designer on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th right at the beginning of what has commonly been referred to as the “Disney Decade” and as Larry tells me, “The New Golden Age of Imagineering.”

THE PARTNERSHIP

Michael Eisner and Frank Wells

I do not believe there would have been a Disney Decade nor a “New Golden Age of Imagineering”, if it were not for the partnership of the then President of the Walt Disney Company, Frank Wells and its Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner. Their partnership, which began in 1984 until Well’s untimely death in 1994, was as important to the Walt Disney Company as its original partners, brothers Walt and Roy Disney.  Eisner was the man seen out front, the strong head of the company, while Wells was the man behind the scenes.

After Well’s passing, Disney Legend and former Attractions Chairman Dick Nunis commented in the April 5, 1994 Orlando Sentinel, about the partnership of the two men, “We had the combination that made our company great from the very beginning.”  

When Wells and Eisner were first brought together in 1984, the Walt Disney Company had been floundering for years. According to fiscal reports, the reported net income fell 18% in 1982 followed by another 7% drop in 1983. But with the partnership of Wells and Eisner, together, the two men helped revitalize the company and as a result, annual revenues shot up from $1.5 billion to $8.5 billion within ten years, Disney stocks increased 1500 percent, and the theme parks and resort revenues tripled.  What these two men set in motion at the Walt Disney Company would propel what would be known as the Disney Decade.

THE DISNEY DECADE

As a Cast Member who began to work for the Walt Disney Company in 1992, I felt as though the next ten years working for the Mouse was truly a very exciting time and what I believe to be one of the most magical eras in Disney history.  For Disney, the years 1990 – 2000 was an unbelievable time of creativity and growth. Set forth in motion by the team of Eisner and Wells and further fueled by the beginnings of the Disney Renaissance of Walt Disney Animated films, which started with The Little Mermaid in 1989, followed by hit after hit, Beauty and the Beast 1991, Aladdin in 1992, and The Lion King in 1994.

That forward momentum would be the impetus into the creation of new lands, hotels, attractions, and theme parks, all of which were imagined and created at a seemingly rapid pace.

Just the year prior to the official Disney Decade era, MGM Studios would open in 1989, Walt Disney World’s 3rd theme park. Four new resort hotels opened at Walt Disney World in 1990 alone.  Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom opened in 1992, but only after Tokyo Disneyland opened their Splash Mountain the day before. Euro Disney, Disney’s second international park opens in 1992.   Mickey’s Toontown, a whole new land opened in 1993 at Disneyland. New attractions and dining locations were opening left and right at MGM Studios including Twilight Zone Tower of Terror which opened in 1994. Tomorrowland reopened after refurbishments at Magic Kingdom in 1995 and that same year, Blizzard Beach, WDW’s second water park opens. Back at Disneyland, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye opened in 1995.  In 1996, Tokyo Disneyland opened their Toontown.  Downtown Disney had a groundbreaking ceremony in 1997, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, and the list goes on and on, and let’s not forget two additional theme parks that would have their opening dates in 2001, Disney’s California Adventure Park followed by Tokyo DisneySea.  The two parks opening dates would spill out of the official Disney Decade by one year, though I think should be included, as the planning and building of these parks began much earlier.

Larry had worked for the Walt Disney Company as a consultant prior to his hire in 1990 at WDI, he would help to design such characters as the colonel for the Adventures Club at WDW’s Pleasure Island. But now the dream he had of becoming an Imagineer had finally come to fruition. On February 12, 1990 Larry would begin his career as an Imagineer during one of the most exciting and magical eras in Disney design, the New Golden Age of Imagineering. 

THE NEW GOLDEN AGE OF IMAGINEERING

During the Disney Decade and the New Golden Age of Imagineering, Larry would work on several projects both at Disneyland Paris, at what was then called Euro Disney, and at Tokyo Disneyland.  I asked Larry about these projects.

C:  What was the first project you worked on for Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI)?

L:  I was assigned to work on the post show for “it’s a small world” at Euro Disneyland, which was currently being built in France.

C:  Was there someone at WDI who inspired you or you looked up to when you first started your journey with the Disney company? 

L:  I was inspired by Tony Baxter and Tom Morris, and the other creative lead producers of the lands in Euro Disneyland.  I could see how extremely important their creative input was to the design of the park.  And of course, I was inspired by all the former ex-Disney folks that I had worked with leading up to my actual hiring at Disney.

During the Disney Decade, Nikolai would spend his time working on projects not only for Euro Disney, but he would also work on many attractions at Tokyo Disneyland as well.  Having worked at Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) for many years, I wanted to know more.

C: During the Disney Decade it seems you were primarily creating the magic at Tokyo Disneyland, correct? 

L: Even though I worked on Tokyo attractions for a total of 13 years, I actually bounced around a bit, and projects between parks frequently overlapped.  TDL Swiss Family Treehouse (Larry was the Show Designer for the exterior sets and props based on the classic Disney film) which was after Jingle Bear Jamboree (show designer and art director).  Then after TDL Splash Mountain (art director for the audio-animatronics animation, figure finishing and prop painting) I went back to Euro Disneyland in 1992, though still working on TDL Critter Country props. 

Larry would go on to inform me that at Euro Disney he was the concept and show designer for the unrealized expansion project for a Beauty and the Beast theater attraction as well as the very much realized Storybookland “Le Pays Des Contes De Fees.” 

Le Pays Contes De Fees” Photo Credit Disneyland Paris

Larry truly did jump around from Disney Park to Disney Park the first half of the 1990s, he even worked on the San Francisco Disney Store update in 1994, then back to Tokyo Disneyland to work on props for Critter Country and Splash Mountain.  By 1995, Nikolai was promoted and would be assigned to a very special project, The Arabian Coast a brand-new port of call located inside a brand-new Disney theme park called Tokyo DisneySea.

TOKYO DISNEYSEA

My hubby and I at Tokyo DisneySea

As a cast member working for the Oriental Land Company (O.L.C.) in 2001, the opening of Tokyo DisneySea was truly an exciting time.  I was able to preview the brand-new park before it opened to guests, and I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, it is the most beautiful of all Disney theme parks I have ever visited.  I would be very happy to pay for an entrance ticket and not go on any attraction.  The landscape of the park alone is well worth the price of admission and my favorite land, or as Tokyo DisneySea calls it, port of call, is without a doubt, The Arabian Coast.  To be able to ask THE LARRY NIKOLAI, the overall art director AND lead show designer for this entirely distinctive land, questions about his work was so very incredible for me.  I’m still getting a bit giddy thinking about it, so I’ll calm down a bit, and share with you what you’re really hear to read about, my interview with Larry Nikolai.

C:  I have long believed that Tokyo DisneySea is the most beautiful of all the Disney Parks.  When I worked in Japan, I was under the impression that O.L.C. (The company that owns and operates the Tokyo Disney theme parks) were held to a higher standard than the Parks in the states and elsewhere because the Japan Parks are not owned by Disney and instead are under a strict licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company.  While I do not think that is necessarily 100% true, I do understand that O.L.C. licenses the rights to use the Disney name and contractually all items designed must come directly from WDI.

L: This all takes some explanation.  The Japanese parks are not necessarily held to a higher standard than the other parks.  Oriental Land Company owns only the two parks, so the budgets for their attractions are very focused, and I found that they have an intense cultural desire for perfection.  As I’m sure you know, the Japanese audience for Disney parks is extremely enthusiastic, making them two of the most attended parks in the entire world.  Expectations for “Disney Magic” are high so O.L.C. is expected to deliver the best possible.

THE ARABIAN COAST

The Arabian Coastline

Delivering the best possible was certainly delivered when it comes to this enchanting seaport.  It’s here where the streets of Agrabah seem to be calling you into its story.  One of seven ports of call at Tokyo DisneySea, the Arabian Coast is stunning, and every last bit of detail is pure perfection.  TDS describes this area as an “exotic world of The Arabian Nights.” 

My favorite part of the Arabian Coast is its marketplace.  The sites and scent of curry in the air sets the stage for the adventures that await you.

I can certainly envision Aladdin running through the streets of Agrabah, can’t you?

In fact, you can find Aladdin, Jasmin, Genie, Jafar and other friends to meet and greet in this lovely coastal port.

But what really grabs you, is its scenery, the architecture, it’s all so very stunning.  As I write this I remember Larry telling me that buildings are characters too, and you can certainly see what he means when you look at the buildings that surround you in the Arabian Coast. Stepping into this port of call is like you are venturing into a land that is so incredibly immersive that you could quite easily forget that you’re in a theme park and we have the talented Imagineers like Larry Nikolai, Concept Architect Oscar Cobos, in-field Art Director Chris Crump, and many more artisans to thank for that.

C:  Was your project at Tokyo DisneySea primarily focused on The Arabian Coast?

L:  I was the lead Art Director for all of The Arabian Coast.  Chris Crump was the in-field Art Director for the whole land as well as the Producer for the Magic Lamp Theater.

I also did concept work on Mermaid Lagoon and designed some attractions for American Waterfronts that were never built. 

C:  Not only was The Arabian Coast my favorite land at Tokyo DisneySea (TDS), Sinbad’s Seven Voyages was my favorite attraction.  Can you tell me more about your process in creating this attraction?

L:  Sindbad’s Seven Voyages (the original attraction name) was a project that went through many phases.  It started with a very rough early concept of a Pirates style attraction, and then morphed into a boat ride with small, puppet sized characters (“mini-matronics”) that followed the classic stories of the 1001 Arabian Nights.  I was asked to be the Show Designer/Art Director after this particular concept was deemed to be impractical in scope and character count.  It then became more centered on just the Sindbad stories.  We did decide to keep the overall theme of a boat ride through an elaborate puppet show, however, with the human puppets now being of a larger size- around 1 meter tall or so.  We ended up with over 160 animatronic characters- mostly the 1-meter size but also some pretty huge ones like the Ruhk, Giant and Whale.  The human figures were very animated for their size and the show was quite elaborate in scope.  Overall, the attraction took 6 years to design, produce and install.

The trouble started almost immediately upon installation completion.

It’s important to understand the original concept for Tokyo DisneySea overall.  The guests that the park was originally supposed to appeal to were supposed to be dating couples and an older audience- thus the emphasis on “ports of call” that featured a strong sense of adventure and romance.  Sindbad’s Seven Voyages was designed to be a dramatic retelling of the sailor’s adventures in the Arabian Nights.  The music was to be reminiscent of a Bernard Herrmann cinematic score, full of danger and drama.  Disney Legend Buddy Baker was the composer and conductor, and he was a joy to work with.  Unfortunately, even though the music came out great, it was the first thing to arouse criticism by Disney executives as being too dark and ponderous- and things went downhill from there.

We had been told all along that the Japanese audience was familiar with the Arabian Nights tales.  Now we were informed that they weren’t, and that the guests were confused with the attraction’s storyline.  The attraction was also underutilized- the large queue was never very full.  There were two good reasons for this: as a through-load boat ride it had a high theoretical hourly ride capacity (THRC) of 3600, a real “people eater”.  It also was located at the furthest point from the main entrance in the back corner of the park- nobody ran for this attraction at park opening!

The redesigns started after a short while.  I participated with some new scene ideas until OLC declared that they wanted a fresh perspective, and I was off the project.  That’s when the attraction was given a radical new lighthearted theme with an Alan Menken song and score.  One prominent OLC exec didn’t like Sindbad’s beard- voila! He’s given a makeover.  Now he needs a cute sidekick in order to sell merchandise- here’s a cute little tiger to accompany him on his adventure.  All the menacing monsters are too scary?  No problem- we’ll make them friendly and helpful to our newly youthful protagonist.  And now a new name was needed for the altered attraction- thus it became what we see today: “Sindbad’s Storybook Adventure”.

The attraction is still about 80-85% of what was originally designed, but it is so radically different in tone now that it no longer resembles the show I was the Show Designer/Art Director for.  My only consolation is that our creative partners at Pixar declared that it was their favorite attraction at TDS, and they were surprised that we were changing it.

Larry with his mini-matronics

C:  Are there any Easter eggs (hidden Disney references or inside jokes) that are hidden on the attraction?

L:  I can point out the biggest “Hidden Mickey” that I know of in an attraction – he’s on the front of the whale.

The entire land is so immersive. I loved meeting the camel and street merchant, riding the two storied Caravan Carousel in the Royal Courtyard and of course gazing upon the beautiful Princess Jasmine fountain.

Me with a Puppetronic Camel

L:  That camel was designed by Chris Merritt, built by Garner Holt.

C: What inspired your design of The Arabian Coast?

L: I traveled with two other team members to Spain and Morocco to research Islamic and Moorish architecture, and we found that fountains were important elements there

Indiana Jones! Oh wait no, that’s Larry Nikolai at the Djemaa el-Fna Marketplace in Marrakech, Morocco
Larry in The Mezquita; Cordoba, Spain

 L: Princess Jasmine seemed like the perfect character for a decorative fountain.

L: I designed the tile mural and tiger “spitter,” and the overall fountain architecture was designed by our Creative Architect, Oscar Cobos.

Me and my husband back in 2001 in front of the tiger fountain.

L: The Genie blacksmith forge was designed by me, and I sculpted the little Genie that appears as an illusion in the fire.

C:  The two-story Caravan Carousel is a marvel to me; can you tell me more about it?

L:  I designed and art directed all the custom animals for the Caravan Carousel.  The originals were hand-carved out of wood in the traditional carousel way.  The elaborate color designs for the other horses were done by Andrea Bottancino.

Larry was not able to attend the official opening of Tokyo DisneySea on September 4, 2001, he was already assigned to new projects by then, like Flik’s Fun Fair ride vehicles for the new A Bug’s Land being built at Disney’s California Adventure.

Larry Nikolai has worked on, in some capacity, every Disney Park except for Disney Hollywood Studios in Florida.  I of course had to ask him which was his favorite park.

L: My favorite foreign park will always be Tokyo DisneySea, because I feel it is the most beautiful park we ever built.  I was the overall art director for The Arabian Coast so I was involved from the beginning and even after the park had officially opened. 

Larry continues to consult as a freelance designer on projects for Tokyo DisneySea.

C: Do you have a favorite project, foreign or domestic?

L:  There are three projects that hold a special place in my heart, foreign and domestic:

  1. Tokyo DisneySea
  2. The Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare for Tokyo Disneyland
  3. The Little Mermaid– Ariel’s Undersea Adventure at Disney California Adventure

C: Which of the three is your favorite?

L:  The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Disney California Adventure

Oh, I’d love to learn more about Larry’s creative direction and design of this attraction, why this project is his favorite, and learn about a very cool hidden Easter egg that many do not know about.  Wouldn’t you?

TO BE CONTINUED…

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