Larry Nikolai Part 1

Written By Catherine Ramirez

The 20th anniversary celebration of Tokyo DisneySea is on the near horizon.  In my opinion, it is the most beautiful of all Disney theme parks I have ever had the privilege to work at and visit. Because of this momentous occasion, I thought the perfect person to reach out to would be the Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) Lead Art Director for my favorite port of call, Arabian Coast, one of seven themed ports of call (lands) located inside Tokyo DisneySea.  I have been wanting to learn more about the inspiration that led to the design of this beautiful land and knew that I needed to speak to none other than WDI alumnus, Larry Nikolai.

With a career at WDI spanning 28 years, I was excited to talk to Larry about many of his other projects as well, like “Ariel’s Undersea Adventure” at Disney California Adventure Park, Tokyo Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare,” his work as a Disney Gallery Artist, and the merchandise collectibles he designed for the Parks like the Main Street Electrical Parade Collectibles from 1996.  

I know where I want to end my blog, but where to begin?  My initial interview with Larry led me down a path craving for many more questions to be answered.  Larry graciously answered another round of questions about a month after our initial interview.  What I’ve come to realize is that although I knew Nikolai was an Imagineer who worked on many projects, (all of which were during my years of working for Disney and the Oriental Land Company (O.L.C.)), what I understood after my interview was how truly little I did know about ALL of his projects. I yearned for a better understanding so that I could, in turn, introduce or reintroduce him to you.  You may think you know Imagineer alumnus Larry Nikolai, but I’m not so sure you truly do, yet.  My hope over the next few weeks, as I continue to write my blog about Larry and his many contributions to the Walt Disney Company and its theme parks around the world, is that both you and I will have a better understanding of his many talents. 

Ah yes, I must not forget, where to begin?  Well, I do believe at the beginning is almost always the best place, so we’ll start there.   

It All Started When He Was Two Years Old

Larry Nikolai was born in Kansas City, Missouri and moved to California in 1956 when he was just two years old.  It would be that very same year his parents would take him to Disneyland.  Larry explained to me the impact visiting the park had on him.

L:  When my family moved to California from Kansas City in 1956, we visited Disneyland the first year we were here.  After that it became an annual event, and I grew up with the park.

Larry Nikolai at two years old in 1956 with his pal Donald Duck

L:  I was always fascinated with the attractions and in later years I made my own crude versions in my garage and backyard. 

C:  Can you tell me more about that?

L:  I have always felt compelled to make dimensional objects with my own two hands- my early visits to Disneyland inspired me to want to have some of the magic in my own backyard and garage, so I had to create it myself!

C:  What were some of the attractions you built and out of what materials?

L:  I made some small Jungle Cruise elephants at first and graduated to very crude Lincoln figures after seeing the show when it first opened at Disneyland (1965).  When Pirates came along (1967), I had to make my own walk-through version with a few figures and lighting effects.   Everything I built was of the crudest materials- scrap wood, cardboard, wooden produce crates, paper mâché, plaster, used clothing and some homemade vacuum-formed plastic faces.  I also made a number of Tiki birds with string-puppeted mouths.

C: Do you have any photos you could share?

L: I am WAY too embarrassed to show any photos of those very crude early creations!

Although Larry was too embarrassed to show me any photos of his childhood creations, he did let me know that his parents and family were all very supportive of him, sitting through many “garage-based Lincoln shows.”  There were apparently many shows as Larry would continue to work on his Lincoln, improving his version overtime.  Nikolai’s Pirates of the Caribbean however, as Larry states, “lasted just a season and a few viewings.”

C:  Were you always an artist? Even as a young child?

L:  I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or creating something.  My favorite first cartoon character was Popeye, so he is the first thing that I drew.  I never really cared for coloring books because I wanted to make the pictures myself, and when we made cards for Mother’s or Father’s Day in school I used to put characters in them.  And I’ve always had a desire to paint, even if I didn’t know how to properly use the materials.  I once painted a portrait of a sea captain using tubed watercolor paints straight out of the tubes on canvas.  I treated them like oil paints.  It paid off in the end, though- I entered the painting in a junior art show at a local shopping center and won second prize.

C: I had read that you are both a classically trained fine artist and animation designer.  Where did you obtain your training?

L:  I took art classes in high school, but to be honest I didn’t pay much attention to them as at the time I was more interested in theater and film making.  After high school I attended California State University at Northridge where I concentrated more on my art and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art 2-D painting.  When I say I’m a classically trained artist I mean that I went through the classic process of life drawing and learning the various mediums and how to properly use them.  I also took the required art history courses and available 3-D design classes to round out my education.

“I OWE EVERYTHING TO THIS MAN”

C:  How did you get into theme park attraction design?

L:  I was working in the Merchandise Department at Six Flags Magic Mountain during and right after college, and one day it just struck me that- because I loved Disneyland since I could remember- it made sense to bring my art and Disney together for my career.  I applied at WED (Walter Elias Disney Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering) but did not have enough experience to get hired there at the time.  I stayed at Magic Mountain and a couple of years later I met David Gengenbach, an ex-Disney executive who was also working there.

David Gengenbach worked for the Walt Disney Company as both a project engineer, project manager, and later the vice president of Walt Disney’s WED Enterprises. He oversaw many of the Magic Kingdom’s attractions at Walt Disney World including Space Mountain, the Mark III and Mark IV monorail systems, and the Carousel of Progress.  After twelve years with the Walt Disney Company, David left Disney to work for Six Flags Corporation as Manager of Corporate Engineering. 

Larry’s little raccoon maquette was created as a suggestion for some atmosphere in Magic Mountain’s Spillikin Corners

L: He saw a little raccoon sculpture I had done and said that the company was planning to do a dark ride at the Atlanta Park, and that I could join the team if it was approved.  I owe everything to this man and mentor who took a chance on me, because the ride “Monster Plantation“ was approved and suddenly I became a professional artist working through the Six Flags Engineering department on a real theme park attraction.  

L:  On that project (Monster Plantation) I worked with some very talented ex-Disney (and non-ex-Disney) folks, and with their help I ended up working in the theme park, movies, publishing, and cartoon animation industries for the next 12 years before finally being hired at Imagineering.

Almost an Imagineer…But First…One More Question

C:  Please tell me a little bit more about the 12 years before finally becoming an Imagineer with the Walt Disney Company.  Films you worked on, cartoon animation, and theme parks.

L:  The 12 years includes a couple of years still at Magic Mountain before I met Dave Gengenbach and was brought onto the Monster Plantation project.

After Monster Plantation it turns out that Six Flags no longer needed me, so I made the move over to the company that produced all of Monster Plantation’s animatronic figures, AVG Productions.   I mostly worked on shows that fulfilled the pizza restaurant craze of the 1980s.  I also worked on a show for Six Flags’ Movieland Wax Museum, “The Black Box.”  While at AVG I met and worked with many Disney alumni, including Rolly Crump and “Big Al” Bertino. 

Shortly after this, my mentor Dave Gengenbach was hired as president of Advanced Animations in Connecticut, and he invited me and some other AVG colleagues to join him there.  I moved my family to the East Coast, where we thought we would be for at least 5 years.  We did a number of conceptual proposals and some small to mid-size shows for the mostly local eastern states, including a chance for me to finally sculpt a real Abraham Lincoln animatronic figure for a museum in Gettysburg.

Nikolai Meets Lincoln

Advanced Animations animatronic Abraham Lincoln.

In 1965, at 11 years old, Nikolai became instantly fascinated with Abraham Lincoln when he saw the 16th President of the United States stand on Disneyland’s Lincoln Theater stage in “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” Just as Walt Disney was fascinated with the beloved president at a young age, so was Larry Nikolai, who would go on to study Lincoln’s life.

The opportunity to finally sculpt the head of Abraham Lincoln must have been exhilarating for Nikolai. The many childhood attempts of creating Lincoln in his garage would finally pay off.  Larry would sculpt the head while another sculptor created the body for the animatronic figure who would deliver the Gettysburg Address at the Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg. 

Larry personally owns copies of the famous Abraham Lincoln life mask and hands that were created by Leonard W. Volk, Chicago sculptor, on March 31, 1860.  Volk created the mold prior to Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate.  It involved a process that encased Lincoln’s face and ears in plaster.  The plaster was left on his face for about an hour to dry and set and was then carefully removed from Lincoln’s face.  A process Lincoln is reported to have said was, “anything but agreeable.”  It would be this mold that would become the reference for artists who would create busts and statues of Lincoln including Imagineer Blaine Gibson who would also use the Volk mask for Walt Disney’s audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln.   Nikolai explained that the Volk mask that both Blaine and he used as reference for Lincoln were invaluable as it provided them both with the measurements they would need to bring Lincoln to life.

Walt Disney with Blaine Gibson Photo Credit: Walt Disney Archives

Returning to California…Why So Soon?

 L:  A Warner Communications Company (the parent company of Advanced Animations), fell on hard economic times and they cancelled our projects and laid us off after only one year.  Rather than look for work locally or start commuting to New York City I moved my family back to Los Angeles, the true hub of the entertainment industry.

After returning to LA, I was unexpectedly hired into the world of Saturday morning cartoon animation at Ruby Spears Productions.  Ken Spears and Joe Ruby were the creators of Scooby Doo during their years at Hanna Barbera before leaving to start their own studio.  I had never worked in 2-D or cartoon animation before, and I was lucky to be around some amazing artists who taught me the business.  I was initially hired as a maquette sculptor, but I ended up transitioning and was lucky to have five years of working around some amazing professionals in the industry where I got the solid practice I really needed at drawing both background scenes and animated characters.  I also did character and show concept work between seasons when new series ideas were being pitched to the networks.

Also at that time my network of friends and associates had grown considerably, and I did many freelance jobs: magazine illustration, film and television character design, collectible merchandise concepts, puppets and costumed character design for both Disney, and Universal Studios- among many other opportunities.  I worked on a couple of “Nightmare on Elm Street” films, and I even got to work with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark on her first movie.  They were busy years full of good practice in many fields.

All of this led up to 1990, when I was finally hired at WDI.

To be continued…

My Best Day Ever!

To celebrate the debut of “Muppets Now” premiering on Disney+, I wanted to share a memory of my BEST DAY EVER working for Disney. It was a day when my two loves of film making and The Muppets merged into one.

For a brief time during my 22 year career with the Walt Disney Company, I was a puppeteer at Disneyland. A small group of us puppeteers would be sent out by Disney to perform at local Anaheim area elementary schools for their anti-drug education. I performed as Tiva, the rock diva puppet who battled Rock Cocaine. Yes, it’s true, there was a Rock Cocaine puppet.


I went on to being cast as one of the opening cast members of “Playhouse Disney Live on Stage” at Disney California Adventure Park. My role was to puppeteer Tutter, the mouse from Bear in the Big Blue House, as well as Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Woods sequence. We received amazing direction and training from a Henson Company puppeteer. I enjoyed it so much, that for a very brief moment, I considered going to Puppeteer College, yes, there is such a thing.

I Got Sidetracked.

Hubby and I on contract at the Tokyo Disneyland Resort

I did indeed become sidetracked from puppeteering, because both my husband and I were given an amazing opportunity to perform at Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. After many years of working in Japan, we finally bid a fond sayonara and we returned home to the United States and the Disneyland Resort. Except now I was armed with a clear vision that TV and Film making is what I was always meant to do and that became my main career focus.

It was a career that had always been there, a thread that had been interwoven in and out of my life for the longest time, having worked on an eclectic array of production shoots, like ABC TV’s Extreme Makeover, to working on music videos, like Eminem’s “Superman,” with Director Paul Walker, to plethora commercial filmings and special events for the Walt Disney Company. I had already had a long career in film and TV, but I was finally ready to focus on production work and say goodbye to performing.

Now focused and in my dream role as a TV/Film Production Manager, let’s get on to my favorite day, shall we?

I had by this time, worked with Roy Disney Jr., Jon Voight, Carol Burnett, Kurt Russell, Rance Howard, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and several other celebrities on many different projects. I was never star struck on set. “Let’s get this shot and done!” was my mentality. That is until ONE shoot. On ONE Day. This would be the day when my two loves of Muppets and Film Making BECAME ONE!

Finally! The Best Day Ever!

This ONE day happened in 2004 for the filming of the Disney Parks Christmas Special. My inner nerdom came out this day. I couldn’t help it! I tried! I really did. I tried so hard to be professional. I was the Key, put in charge to manage the Camera B Unit, which is a small roving unit. There’s only one camera operator, one grip, one PA, two guest control cast members, production manager (me) and the talent, who would happen to be non other than Dave Goelz, who may be better known to some as Gonzo. The object of our Unit B Crew was to move fast, get in and out, with not a lot of set up to our shots, “run and gun” is what is used to describe this method of shooting.

I MEET DAVE GOELZ AND THE GREAT GONZO!

Me, The Great Gonzo and Dave Goelz

For the first half of the day, I worked with my all-time favorite Muppeteer, Dave Goelz and his Muppet, Gonzo! When Dave wasn’t shooting he had Gonzo in an unassuming black case. I insisted that I carry the case when traveling from set locations. Dave said that wasn’t necessary, but I assured him, near forcefully, that it was (of course I had to carry the Great Gonzo). I really hope my geekiness didn’t show this day.

Me holding Gonzo’s case, I’m such a geek!

We shot on stage in Disneyland near the entrance to Tomorrowland.

My photo of Dave Goelz and Gonzo in action

We also shot some green screen scenes in a warehouse at Disney California Adventure Park.

Dave Goelz and Gonzo the Great

In between shots, I asked him silly questions, like if his thumb knuckles cracked a lot. You see, for a puppeteer, it’s very important to keep the puppet’s eyes focused forward. It’s the thumb that is used for most of the mouth’s movements, you don’t want the puppet’s eyes looking up at the ceiling while they’re talking, so the other four fingers are pressed together, with the middle finger’s knuckle elevated slightly, to help bridge the forehead, or nose area, depending on the puppet. In any case, to this day, my thumbs still continue to crack from my brief moment in puppeteering. In case you were wondering, the great Dave Goelz told me that his thumb knuckles did not crack. Aren’t you glad you learned that? After I wrapped Dave, I was on cloud nine.

Me on Cloud Nine!

Could This Day Get Any Better? Yes. Yes It Could!

After Dave and the Great Gonzo were wrapped, I then headed to the next shots of the day, working with Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobsen, the Muppeteers for Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.

Their performance stage was near the front of the Plaza Inn, the restaurant at the end of Main Street that’s famous for its fried chicken. Well, Eric and Steve didn’t have to shoot for a while, and they were smelling that famous fried chicken and geeting hungry, so I treated them to a tasty lunch, consisting of fried chicken, green beans and tasty mashed potatoes, all of which they chose to eat beneath the stage, rather than at a table. I thought that odd at the time, but I guess it’s true that Muppeteers are most comfortable in cramped dark spaces.

It’s Jennifer Garner!

While Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobsen were eating their lunch down below in the belly of the stage, I was standing outside, next to it, keeping watch. While standing there, I was approached by a very nice lady asking if she could take a picture with the Muppets. I looked at her, then looked across the way into Disneyland’s hub, where I noticed Ben Affleck standing looking at me. I then looked back at the beautiful lady who was looking at me with a gorgeous smile and bright eyes opened wide with anticipation. She was staring at me, waiting for me to reply. I finally realized that it was Jennifer Garner, who just so happened to be at the park with her family the day of our filming. Not that she wasn’t immediately recognizable, I had been on set since 4:00 AM, and was still a bit euphoric from my close encounter with Gonzo, that it took me a second to reply.

She had seen Kermit and Miss Piggy rehearsing earlier and was eager to have her picture taken with them. I agreed, I did tell her yes, perhaps a bit too quickly, but like me, I could tell she loved the Muppets, perhaps just as much as I did, so how could I refuse her? And I also enjoyed watching her in the TV series “Alias” at the time (now streaming on Amazon Prime), so I have to be honest, that did help with her request.

Thankfully, Steve and Eric were gracious to oblige. I truly should have asked them before I committed them to taking the photograph. Thankfully, they were so kind about it and happily agreed. PHEW! They then quickly popped Kermit and Miss Piggy up for the photo with Jennifer Garner. Although, thinking about it after the fact, with them having just eaten fried chicken, just moments before, in the belly of the stage with just a few napkins, I’m almost certain the insides of those famous Muppets became a bit greasy. Poor Kermie and Piggy! But, the end result was a beautiful photograph of Jennifer Garner, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy that ended up making it into PEOPLE magazine that year, which was fun to see.

My photograph, not the photo that was in PEOPLE

Back To Work. Filming Continues…

Kermit and Miss Piggy on set.

The taping the rest of the day went smoothly and when we finally wrapped the day, I was the last person to leave the set. It was a long 18 hour day, but, I think I smiled every second of it. I had many memorable days working for The Mouse, but, I do believe that this…this was my BEST DAY EVER.

It’s Refurbishment time at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park

The end of the holiday season at the Disneyland Resort means only one thing…it’s refurbishment time! Because of this, both Disneyand and Disney California Adventure will have a few closures. Many are routine, like “it’s a small world” Holiday and Haunted Mansion Holiday are being transformed back to their classic state.

There are also unexpected closures like Snow White’s Scary Adventures. But this closure is for such an exciting reason, as this attraction is just one of a few that will turn 65 this year and I couldn’t think anything better than the Snow White attraction receiving a reimagining for its birthday.

Following is a list of attractions at Disneyland that are scheduled to be closed.

“it’s a small world” Holiday

*”it’s a small world” is down just a few more days, it’s set to reopen January 17

*The Mark Twain Riverboat is down now through January 31st.

Haunted Mansion Holiday

*The Haunted Mansion Holiday goes down January 21st until Spring (I was informed it’ll be about a 3 month refurbishment). But good news is that you still have one more week to see Jack Skellington!

*King Arthur’s Carrousel is down beginning January 21st until late May, this 98 year old antique always needs a little extra special care.

*Snow White’s Scary Adventures is down now through summer. “Why so long?” you might ask. As one of the original park’s attractions celebrating its 65 years this year, it will receive a whole new reimagining! Gosh I love that word, don’t you? For this classic attraction, Imagineers are implementing state-of-the-art audio and visual technology throughout the attraction. It will include new music, LED black lighting in some areas, laser projections, brand new scenes, a new ending and a new animation system!! I cannot wait!!! The exterior of the attraction will also receive a new coat of paint to match the nearby Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

*The Sailing Ship Columbia will go down briefly for its routine maintenance from February 4 to 6, reopening on the 7th.

Following is a list of attractions, stores and restaurants that are scheduled to go down at Disney California Adventure Park.

*The Red Car Trolley is now down, most likely returning late Spring or early summer as construction is underway for the Avengers Campus. The trolley’s gate entrance will be blocked as Imagineers are getting ready to create this new and exciting land.

*Both the Carthay Circle Restaurant and its Lounge are currently down for refurbishments and both are set to return on January 31st.
*The Bakery Tour, located on the Pacific Wharf, is scheduled to close for refurbishments on January 21, returning on Feb 11th.

*Both Grizzly River Run and it’s neighboring store, Rushin’ River Outfitters, are also set to go down for refurbishments on January 21st, returning on February 14, just in time to celebrate getting soaked with a loved one on Valentine’s Day🥰

*Feb 24 Jessie’s Critter Carousel is set to go down briefly for routine maintenance.

*I will continue to update my blog with closures in hopes it’ll help you to enjoy your day at the Disney parks without any surprises. So check back often as I will continue to update my site.

Even though there are a few attractions down right now, it’s still a great time of year to attend the parks. Crowds are fewer, and with Luna New Year beginning this Friday, January 17th at Disney California Adventure, there’s still plenty of magical experiences to be had.

I’d love to know, when’s your favorite time to visit the Disneyland Resort?