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.
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 have 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 and perhaps even months, 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Have you ever read this famous quote before? Perhaps you saw it written on an inspirational poster or a meme made on the internet? Have you seen it printed on a souvenir coin or on countless shirts and plaques sold by creatives on their do-it-yourself ETSY sites? Do you, like many others, incorrectly attribute this quote to something Walt Disney said?
If so, it is not your fault. When my oldest child was in the 3rd grade, he was given a homework assignment to come up with a family motto or saying. One such example given on the worksheet he brought home was the “If you can dream it, you can do it” quote wrongly giving credit to Walter Elias Disney, the famous pioneer of animated films, audio-animatronics, co-founder of the Walt Disney Company, and creator of Disneyland, to name a few of his many accomplishments.
When I saw my child’s homework assignment, I was livid. I knew third party companies like Hallmark and Etsy small shop designers were falsely claiming this quote as Walt’s, but now it is being taught in a school? How could this be? Even the Anaheim Police Department shares this quote in their training manuals.
What’s the Source?
Do you still believe Walt Disney spoke these words? Then what is its source?
Let me ask you a few more questions. Have you ever seen this quote printed from an interview Walt did in publication, such as an article in a newspaper or magazine? NO?
Perhaps you heard a recording of a radio broadcast of Walt Disney saying these words? NO?
Maybe you saw Walt Disney on television during a “Wonderful World of Color” segment and heard him speak these words directly into camera? NO?
Well, then, did you read this quote inside some secret diary of Walt’s? NO?
Perhaps, it was on a search engine, like Google for example. You type in the following words… “Walt Disney Quotes” and up on your computer or mobile device’s screen pops countless quotes and memes. Some quotes Walt did in fact say, while many other supposed credited quotes, Walt did not.
As a Cast Member working for the Walt Disney Company for more than 20 years, and a self-proclaimed Disney history enthusiast, I knew this quote was proven to be something Walt neither said, nor wrote down in any journal he had ever kept. There are no recordings of Walt saying this quote in publication, radio, or film. Nor had any Disney family member or colleague ever recall Walt Disney saying, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
And yet, this quote had to come from somewhere, and why are people attributing this quote to something Walt Disney said?
To understand the origins of this quote, you will first have to learn about corporate sponsorships that helped propel the attractions and exhibits over the years at the Disney Parks.
When Disneyland first opened in 1955, Walt and Roy Disney looked to corporate sponsors in order to ensure some of the Park’s attractions would be in operation on opening day, like Kaiser’s Hall of Aluminum Fame.
Years later, though Roy was ready to retire prior to his brother’s passing on December 15, 1966, Roy Disney decided to remain on the job to tackle one of the greatest projects the Walt Disney Company had ever been tasked with to date, the creation of Walt Disney World.
While Walt Disney was indeed the dreamer, Roy was the businessman and doer. He would be the one to find ways to obtain the money to do the ideas Walt dreamed up, like finding the funds to finish Walt Disney’s first full length animation film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” as just one of many examples.
Roy would again find a way to find the funds to honor his brother’s dream of building Walt Disney World in Florida. Five years after Walt’s death, through hard work, leadership and great creative financial prowess, Walt Disney World would open debt free in 1971. The late Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar once said, “Without Roy Disney, this (Walt Disney World) would never have happened.”
When it came to opening Epcot in 1982, although the budget was well over $1 Billion dollars, the Walt Disney Company again turned to corporate sponsorships to fork the bill. It would be these sponsorships that would end up paying for the majority of Epcot. It was the countries, like France, and Japan who would pay for and sponsor their country’s pavilion in the World Showcase, while corporations would pay millions of dollars a year to see their brand’s name alongside the Disney name on its attractions. The corporations would in turn, have some say on what the attraction they were sponsoring ended up looking like.
KODAK AND FIGMENT
One such sponsor was Kodak which sponsored the attraction ‘Journey into Imagination with Figment.’
The loveable character Figment was originally drawn with a green pigmentation in original concept sketches.
Concept Drawings of Figment Credit: Walt Disney Archives
Green was a problem for Kodak, as it was the color of Fuji-Film, Kodak’s competitor. Figment was then changed from green to purple, wearing a red and yellow sweater, the color of Kodak’s logo.
In the Imagination pavilion there was the Magic Eye Theater. During its preshow, an 8 minute long presentation featuring a song called, “Making Memories,” written by the Sherman Brothers was heard while award-winning amateur’s photos were displayed on a screen.
When I listen to the ragtime catchy song, to me it plays more like a commercial jingle for Kodak, than anything else. It starts:
“Long before the old Model T
‘Round about the turn of the century
Folks discovered a barrel of fun
Taking pictures by the light of the sun
Smile, hug, look at the camera
Hold your breath and say cheese!
Little did they realize back then,
They were making memories.
Making memories, making memories
Taking pictures is making memories
Catching little pieces of time
Making them yours and making them mine...”
How can memories reappear exactly? Why, by taking a snapshot with your Kodak camera on Kodak film of course.
General Electric, Disney, and EPCOT
“When Walt first advanced his idea of EPCOT he said WED (Walter Elias Disney – precursor to Walt Disney Imagineering), couldn’t do it alone. We’re in the entertainment business and, obviously, we felt our strength was to entertain people and communicate through our entertainment. But we had to bring in other companies, like GE, to add their expertise in developing our communication about the future. It was important to the credibility of EPCOT that we create a synergism – with Disney as the communicator, the entertainer, and companies like GE and Exxon and Kodak as the experts, the people who really are in the businesses we’re portraying. How do you start out interpreting a corporate culture? Just like there’s a Disney way to our company, there’s a GE style. Every company has its distinctive culture and legend and ways that it sees itself. Our job was to create a pavilion specifically for GE, whose theme is ‘the achievable future…” Marty Sklar, WED’s Executive VP for Creative Development at the time.
“Both our cultures are always changing – tuning to different times, adopting contemporary styles without giving up valued substance. It’s the spirit that led the Disney people to propose what they did and that led us to approve it – a vision of the future firmly rooted in what we know can someday be done.” – Karl Koss General Electric’s Liaison to WED.
From 1955 throughout the 1980’s, it was an absolute great investment for a corporation to share their brand messaging at a theme park where hundreds of millions of guests visit each year.
Just like Kodak sponsored ‘Journey into Imagination with Figment’, General Electric sponsored ‘Horizons’ in Future World.
The Horizon’s attraction that opened in Future World at Walt Disney World’s Epcot on October 1, 1983, was an attraction that was “dedicated to humanity’s future.” It was sponsored by General Electric until September 30, 1993. After the sponsorship ran out, The Walt Disney Company would continue to operate the attraction until late 1994. The attraction closed briefly and then reopened one last time in December of 1995, until finally closing forever on January 9, 1999.
Wait. Perhaps I am jumping into this too fast and too deep. What does this all mean? Why am I talking about Epcot and the Horizons attraction that no longer exists? Okay, let us step back and let me introduce some folks to you who I lovingly call, The Players.
Player #1 Dave Smith – The Disney Legend, Archivist and Historian
Dave Rollin Smith was the founder of the Walt Disney Archives in 1970 and worked for the company for 40 years. He received the prestigious Disney Legends Award in 2007 and retired after his 40th anniversary in 2010. As Chief Archivist Emeritus, Dave stayed on with the Walt Disney Company as a consultant for another nine years until his death in 2019.
Dave was first hired by Roy O. Disney in 1970, 4 years after Walt’s passing. His very first assignment was to catalogue every single item that was inside Walt’s office, which had been left untouched since his passing. During Dave’s four decades at the Walt Disney Company, it was his duty to preserve all things Disney, from film to television, theme parks, animation and so much more.
Bob Iger, Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board of the Walt Disney Company stated, “He was the unsung hero of Disney’s history who, as our first archivist, spent 40 years rescuing countless documents and artifacts from obscurity, investing endless hours restoring and preserving these priceless pieces of our legacy, and putting them in context to tell our story, Dave was a true Disney Legend, and we are indebted to him for building such an enduring, tangible connection to our past that continues to inspire our future.”
Dave was a treasure and well known amongst Disneyland Resort Cast Members. My husband Marlon, who has worked for the Walt Disney Company since the early 1990’s, recounted a memorable time when he first met Dave Smith. In 1998, Marlon was in Glendale at the Walt Disney Studios and he wanted to meet Dave. He, along with another Cast Member, approached his secretary and asked if they could meet him. His secretary gave a warm smile and invited them right into Dave‘s office. Dave stood up from his desk and gave my husband a firm handshake and a big smile. He then began to give them a tour of his office. At one point Marlon noticed an Academy Award under glass and asked Dave if that was a real award. Dave told Marlon that it indeed was real, and in fact it was the Honorary Academy Award Walt had won in 1939 for his 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Dave then took the Oscar out of its case and gave it to my husband and let him hold it. More than 20 years later, my husband still talks fondly of that first meeting with Dave, when he let him hold one of Walt Disney’s Academy Awards.
I myself would run into Dave from time to time, during the construction of Disney California Adventure Park, or after he had a speaking engagement or interview held at Walt’s Apartment above the firehouse in Disneyland. On a few rare sightings, I would catch a glimpse of Dave in the early mornings before the Disneyland Park opened. I worked in the TV/Film Production Department for the Disneyland Resort and our call times were often before sunrise.
On those few occasions, I would see a man walking onto the set. I would go to investigate and see that it was none other than Dave Smith. Sometimes Dave would be alone, and sometimes he would have a newly hired historian or archivist he was showing the ropes to. Dave would always have a clipboard in his hand with a blank piece of paper. He told me that if he had a clipboard and walked with a purpose, very rarely did anyone stop to ask him any questions. He liked to visit Disneyland in the early mornings, before it was opened to the guests, he was always taking note of all the changes happening inside the Park.
Dave was a kind man, he always wore a smile and graciously never tired of my questions, well, perhaps he did, but he never showed me that he was tired of providing me answers about the company. One of those questions I asked him about was if it was true that Walt never said the “If you can dream it, you can do it quote.” Dave told me it was a myth.
Though Dave never told me personally it was written by someone else, he simply stated at the time that Walt Disney never spoke nor wrote those specific words.
It would be many years later when I would come across the same question being asked to Dave, while reading his book Disney Facts Revealed. In the book, Dave answers questions from his readers he has received over the last 30 years. On page 252 of the book, Dave shared a question asked of him from a fan from Chicago named Todd.
Todd asks, “I’ve always been under the impression that Walt Disney himself said, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ But I’ve never been able to find a source. Any idea if this quote was ever actually said by Walt himself?”
Dave’s Smith response was, “This is a very common urban legend. It is not a Walt Disney quote, but rather was written by Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald for the Horizons attraction at Epcot.”
Player #2 Tom Fitzgerald – The Imagineer and Script Writer
Enter Player 2 into the scene…
Tom Fitzgerald is a Senior Creative Executive of the Walt Disney Imagineering Management for the Walt Disney Company
For the past 42 years, Tom has worked for Walt Disney Imagineering bringing such iconic attractions to Disney Parks around the world like Star Tours to Disneyland in 1987.
Tom was a little boy when he went to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and saw Disney’s ‘Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.’ Seeing the audio-animatronic Lincoln as a young boy gave Tom the inspiration to one day work for WED.
After graduating from Northwestern University, Fitzgerald would head to California to fulfill his childhood dream. Mission accomplished! In 1979, Tom was hired in the communications department at WED and by 1981, he was tasked to help write the script for the GE pavilion at Epcot.
“Tom Fitzgerald was the main story person as the Horizons project got rolling. Tom added the warmth of story to scenes I was designing and modeling in small scale.” wrote George McGinnis, the last Imagineer hired by Walt Disney.
In 1983, Fitzgerald would explain in an interview he gave for a General Electric Promotional Booklet about the Horizons attraction that, “We wanted to emphasize the family unit. Some people think that it may not exist in the future, but our feeling was that advances in transportation and communication will bring families closer together.” He would go on to include, “The GE credo ‘Better than the best,’ is a phrase that we at Disney understand well.”
Horizons – The Quote Connection
When guests first approached the Horizons attraction, instrumental music could be heard through speakers playing the “New Horizons” theme song along with GE’s familiar musical notes to their tagline “We Bring Good Things to Life.”
Once guests arrive inside, a large sign was seen displayed next to the left of the sliding glass door entrance. It reads “If we can dream it, we can do it”
Did you notice how this sentence does NOT read, “If you can dream it, you can do it”?
For the first time in the Walt Disney Company history, “If we can dream it, we can do it” is displayed on an attraction wall, 17 years after Walt Disney’s death.
Guests would see this sign and then begin to queue for the flight from the Future Port. Flight 83 is what they will take, 83 is significant because that is the year the Horizons attraction first began taking passengers.
Before the guests were cleared for departure an announcer’s voice could be heard saying, “GE Horizons passengers…you are now cleared for departure to the twenty-first century.”
The attraction took guests to see new towns of tomorrow, like desert farms, floating cities, and space colonies.
Throughout the flight, we witness Tom Fitzgerald’s script writing in action while the audio-animatronic family members recite various dialogue Tom wrote for them, like when the Mother character says, “I suppose people have always dreamed of the future. We sure do.”
To which the father character responds, “The only difference is that today, with what we know and what we are learning to do, we really can bring our dreams to life. It takes a lot of work, but the truth is, if we can dream it, we can do it.”
Did you recognize that the use of General Electric’s tag line, “We bring good things to life” has been integrated and reimagined into Tom Fitzgerald’s script? He has adapted “we bring good things to life” to “we really can bring ourdreams to life.”
Remember, this attraction is a corporate sponsored attraction paid for by General Electric. The corporation is spending millions of dollars a year to have their logo and messaging interwoven throughout the ride. Fitzgerald has cleverly adapted a familiar tagline that almost everyone who rode the attraction would have been very familiar with at that time.
At the end of the attraction, similar lines are once again spoken by Father
Father: Well, we’re almost back from the future.
Mother: Oh, it went by so quickly.
Father: Yes, but one of the nice things about traveling into the future is that the journey’s just beginning.
Mother: That’s right
Father: And I’ll tell you something, if we can dream it, we really can do it and that’s the most exciting part.
A GE Logo was seen and then the following announcement is heard as guests begin to approach the exit platform.
Announcer (1983 version): All of us at General Electric thank you for exploring Horizons. Please take small children by the hand and watch your step…
Announcer: (1984 version) All of us at GE look forward to bringing good things to life for you, today and tomorrow. Now please take small children by the hand and watch your step…
Dave Smith asks Tom Fitzgerald
A few decades after the Horizons attraction first opened, The Walt Disney Archives shared a question from their Ask Walt Disney Archives on the D23.com website.
This time the question is from a Krystina from Arizona.
Krystina: “I heard that Walt Disney did not, in fact, ever say the famous quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Is that true? If so, who did say it?
Dave Smith responds: “He never said this quote. If you check my book, Disney Trivia from the Vault, you can find the true story:
“Despite its frequent publication, that is not a Walt Disney quote. We checked with Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald for the definitive answer: ‘I am very familiar with that line because I wrote it! It was written specifically for the Horizons attraction at Epcot and used in numerous ways, from dialogue in the ride to graphics. I find it amusing that the Science of Imagineering DVD series attributes it to Walt Disney, but I guess I should be flattered.”
Does the Misinformation begin with “The Science of Imagineering” DVD Series?
What I would like to know, and I apologize if my tone changes briefly here, but, who decided to add this quote to the intro of the DVD series? I could find one writer, two producers, and a director listed for the series along with Disney Education Productions listed on IMDB (Internet Movie Database). I attempted to search for the four names listed and could not track anyone down to ask who thought to insert this quote.
I would like to ask them what source did the writer or producers use to claim Walt Disney ever said, “If you can dream it, you can do it” when the foremost expert in Walt Disney history never found any such source with the entire archives at his disposal? Could a writer simply make a mistake? Perhaps they thought a quote by Walt Disney in the introduction of the DVD would make a good setup for the preface of what was about to be taught in the video series and he simply googled “Walt Disney quotes” like so many others, relying on Google to always provide the answers? Could someone truly be that careless?
Having worked in the Broadcast Services Television department, for the Walt Disney Company, you have the great minds of Disney at your disposal to verify and confirm information. Dave Smith was alive at the time the Science of Imagineering was produced. Why was this quote not verified prior to it being sold to the public and pushed for school usage? I would like to know those answers. The Walt Disney Archives have long disputed that this quote belongs to Walt Disney. I would like to better understand this apparent failure to do due diligence. This educational series has been played at schools for many years and can still be purchased on Amazon, shopDisney, and can be seen on YouTube as well. It appears, by all intents and purposes that Tom Fitzgerald is accurate that this could quite possibly be the origin of the falsehood that Walt said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Way to go Science of Imagineering DVD! Now I know why my then 3rd grader came home with this false information.
First, when I talked to Dave Smith about this quote, it must’ve been in the late 1990’s. He never mentioned Tom Fitzgerald to me at that time. But years passed and the internet usage grew more wide and false quotes were beginning to surface more than before and at an alarming rate. In 2012 or so is when I began to first hear that Tom Fitzgerald originated the quote. As soon as I read about Dave’s source being Tom Fitzgerald and Dave, being a Disney Legend with unparalleled knowledge of all things Disney, how could I question that it could be anyone but Tom Fitzgerald? Dave had already long proven the quote to not be that of Walt’s. Dave was the founder of the Walt Disney Archives, remember? Chief Archivist Emeritus? The only person to enter Walt Disney’s office 4 years after he passed away to carefully chronicle Walt’s entire office space, piece of paper, record, everything. It was the information he received from Tom Fitzgerald, claiming the quote as his own, that finally had some weight to it, Tom is a credible source. It made sense. Tom Fitzgerald is the source of the quote. Right?
MY QUEST TO SHARE THE TRUTH
By 2014, I had left Disney due to a progressive illness after 22 years of service with the company and was missing my home away from home. Starting at the age of 17 in 1992, Disneyland is where I met my husband. It was a magical place of friends and family that I was missing so terribly.
By 2019, I discovered Instagram, very much late to the social media game, it was not until last year that I finally joined Facebook, though that may have been a bad decision, but I digress.
But on Instagram I had found a wonderful world of people who liked Disney. At first, I was intrigued by how much these people liked Disney, like…WOW! These people really LOVE Disney. I mean REALLY LOVE Disney! Then I thought…hmm, maybe this is not for me. I had only viewed Disney from the perspective of a Cast Member and I didn’t relate to their perspective on Disney. But then I began noticing folks posting information that was blatantly inaccurate, unresearched, not verifiable. That is what rejuvenated me, though no longer a Disney Cast Member, I could at least attempt to share accurate information and set the record straight. I began to post historical content, information told to me firsthand by the Imagineers and historians that I worked with.
While scrolling through some posts on Instagram, I pause. I see it. THE QUOTE. “If You can dream it, you can do it” credited to Walt Disney!
Seeing this posted as a picture on someone’s feed, then another and then another. NO! Don’t they know?!? If they are truly Disney loving diehards, why are they sharing incorrect information?
I took it upon myself to share the story, share Dave Smith’s legacy and the perceived fact that Tom Fitzgerald came up with the quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I shared this quarterly on my Instagram page. Reminding people that Walt Disney never said this quote. It was my mission that I took on full force. I am a stay-at-home disabled mom; it was my ONE thing! THE ONE mission I gave myself.
THE PANDEMIC AND THE SPARK
It is now almost a year into the worldwide pandemic. While staying safe at home, I began to organize my Disney treasures I have collected over the years. I have a signed concept drawing lithograph of Jessica Rabbit by Imagineer and Disney artist Marcelo Vignali. I was curious of its value and if anyone else had one. It was a Cast Member exclusive when Mickey’s Toontown first opened in 1993. So, I hopped onto a site called Worthpoint, to see if my art piece had value. Though nothing resembling my piece could be found, I did notice a Walt Disney World Epcot GE Horizons 1983 puzzle with the GE Logo and the words If We Can Dream It We Can Do It tag line on the side of the box.
My AHA moment! A spark went off. GE. Horizons is sponsored by General Electric. IF WE CAN DREAM IT WE CAN DO IT. No lower case lettering. Wait. Read the script! READ THE SCRIPT!
I then began to devour the Horizons script, word for word. There are only two places in the script where Fitzgerald writes these words for “Father” to say, in the beginning of the attraction and at the end. By all accounts, “If We can dream it, we can do it,” is not the same as, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Different pronouns were used. “We” inspires the collaborative aspect in a society, much like the hope of future in the Horizons attraction. While “You” is to inspire one person. Do YOU have what it takes? What can YOU dream up? If YOU can dream it, YOU can do it.
Though Tom took credit for the famous quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” for Horizons, he was clearly referring to the line he adapted it to be, “If we can dream it, we can do it” as nowhere in the attraction is there signage or words heard spoken, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
This made me think, since Tom adapted General Electric’s, “We bring good things to life.” To “We really can bring ourdreams to life” for Horizons, is it just as possible that Tom saw “If you can dream it, you can do it” within the chronicles and journals of GE for inspiration? I went on a hunt to find the source.
THE PODCAST – RetroWDW
First stop, a podcast. I never listen to podcasts. Not because I do not like them, I just do not feel I have the time. But this one caused me to stop. The Podcast is called RetroWDW and is a podcast of the Lake Buena Vista Historical Society. “Ok,” I thought, “it’s a historical society, I can listen to this.”
While listening to the broadcast, four hosts, Todd McCartney, How Bowers, JT Kuzior and Brian Miles interview a woman by the name of Sheralyn Silverstein. A woman claiming to have written, “If you can dream it, you can do it” for General Electric in early 1981.
After hearing Sheralyn’s interview on RetroWDW, it all made sense. She was the missing link. She was the AHA moment I was waiting for. But I needed to talk to her myself. I needed to know the who, what, where, when and why’s. I needed definitive answers.
Player #1: Dave Smith had already long proven that Walt Disney NEVER said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
Player #2: Tom Fitzgerald clearly wrote. “If we can dream it, we can do it” for the Horizons attraction at Epcot, SPONSORED by General Electric.
What then was Sheralyn Silverstein’s part? How does she fit into this tale?
PLAYER #3 SHERALYN SILVERSTEIN – THE COPYWRITER
Enter Player 3 into the scene.
I reached out to Sheralyn Silverstein via email at the end of January this year seeking an interview. My email was simple, but straight to the point, was she THE Sheralyn Silverstein that had claimed to have written that all too famous quote.
She responded, “Yes, you are contacting the right person. I’m Sheralyn Silverstein, and I did indeed write, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
I was so very joyful when Sheralyn agreed to be interviewed via that device we all have become familiar with this past year, Zoom.
The following are excerpts from this interview:
After I received permission to record our audio conversation, we got right into her story.
I asked Sheralyn how she felt about her quote being passed around as Walt Disney’s quote.
S: Over time I was getting increasingly annoyed that Walt Disney was getting credit for this. What you write is coin of the realm. Your work is all you have to show for who you are and what you’ve done. How does he (Walt Disney) get credit? He had everything, but he didn’t have that. That was mine.
C: When did you write this quote?
S: Going back to the beginning of things, I got a job as a young writer with a company called Marsteller New York (subsidiary of Young and Rubicam, Y&R). At that time, I was the only female on the creative staff. It was rough and tough. It was competitive and a very hard environment, but it was also a great place to learn.
At that point in time, I was the youngest and lowest on the pay scale. I would often get the jobs that nobody else wanted to do. I would do the little ads for little publications. At one point I had to write an ad for a bank for Playbill Magazine and nobody wants that assignment, but I believed if I make something out of even the smallest thing, it is going to build my reputation and portfolio.
Sheralyn continued to tell me that the ad she wrote for Playbill Magazine won her an award in the ad business, and soon, people began to take notice of her. She began to earn more assignments and then the president of Marsteller New York, Lou Magnani, took notice of her too and saw to it that she would get the better assignments.
S: In 1981 General Electric (GE) was a big company and the ad agency they worked with was BBD&O in New York (Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn originally founded in New York City in 1891). BBD&O is one of the best ad agencies and their tagline for GE was “We bring good things to life.” But General Electric was looking for another ad agency that would do some of the smaller types of ad work.
At any rate, GE asked us to pitch them with an idea about their recruitment division and ideas for other things. Of course, the bigger guns of the agency, the ‘big boys’ wanted to work on television for GE.
While the ‘big boys’ were working on their television pitches, Sheralyn was assigned to work with a man by the name of Bob Green. Green was her senior, with many awards under his belt, who was annoyed by the assignment because he was paired to work on the recruitment pitch ideas with her, a Junior Copywriter.
S: Bob and I worked on the recruitment and what I decided to do was I said, ‘Why don’t we use quotes for teachers and professors, and I’ll make them up.’
One of Sheralyn’s ideas was a picture of a kid with a teacher. The quote Sheralyn wrote for the teacher to say to her student was, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
Sheralyn recalled Magnani telling her that he did not know if he liked it and thought her tag line was too ‘pie in the sky.’ She further reminisced that Bob, who did not want to work with her in the first place, seemed to express that it was the only good pitch she had come up with for the entire campaign. Sheralyn stuck to her guns and told Magnani that she liked her idea and that she believed in it.
Sheralyn was too junior to be able to attend the meeting with GE. The Senior Copywriters at Marsteller New York would be making the pitch to GE with the new Charmain and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, in attendance. The Marsteller team had all the work lined up on a wall, TV ads, along with other smaller ad ideas including Sheralyn’s “If you can dream it, you can do it” were all in a line on the wall awaiting the pitch.
After the meeting, Lou Magnani, came straight over to Sheralyn’s tiny little office space and told her that they could not have asked for a better meeting. He informed Sheralyn that Jack Welch came straight over to the wall and pointed to Sheralyn’s, “If you can dream it, you can do it” quote and he said, “That’s the reason I’m going to sign your agency!”
S: It was like winning the lottery. This is something you dream about as a kid. I also got a bonus and a raise. It doesn’t happen like that very often.
Sheralyn went on to explain that GE was not going to be giving up their tag line, “We bring good things to life” because it was a brand line. What was happening was GE wanted to buy her line and keep it for recruitment advertising.
It was during this time that Sheralyn begins to show me the brochures and pamphlets she had kept from the original recruitment pieces she did for GE. Starting with this large brochure printed by General Electric in 1982, which includes GE’s brand messaging on the left, with the quote Sheralyn wrote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” on the right.
Photo Credit: Sheralyn Silverstein
The Proof Continues
HEIGH HO HEIGH HO OFF TO GE SHE GOES
S: They sent me off to Schenectady to their Research and Development facility. I got to meet some great scientists and a Nobel prize winner. GE was interested in attracting the top talent; the life blood of the company is its research.
After meeting the great minds of General Electric’s R&D division, Sheralyn was set to write the words, while Marilyn Lowther, a talented art designer would design the brochure’s artwork. Several months after the brochures for the recruitment had been published, the president of the company, Magnani, called Sherlayn into his office to share some exciting news.
S: He said they are going to use it (If you can dream it, you can do it). For their tag line (for Horizons) at Epcot. And that’s what they did.
That is most certainly what Disney did. Somewhere, somehow, someone saw a tag line that was seen in GE documentation, a line Jack Welch bought from the Marsteller New York ad agency that Sheralyn Silverstein wrote in 1981. The line was taken, and it was reworked. Sheralyn’s tag line for GE, “If you can dream it, you can do it” was beautifully rebirthed by Tom Fitzgerald to fit the communal futuristic landscape of the General Electric sponsored Horizons attraction with his reimagined line, “If we can dream it, we can do it” that was completed at Epcot in 1983.
WALT DISNEY DID NOT SAY IT
C: When did you first notice or become aware of your quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” was attributed to Walt Disney? Did you just go online one day, or did someone bring it to your attention?
S: I think partly because with Google coming along, there was so many things you could find out that you might have been curious about years ago, and when I started to put together my portfolio, I always keep my portfolio updated, I started to think about this, and the one reason why I kept it (Sheralyn is holding up an original pristine condition 1982 GE folder with the GE logo and her tag line, “If you can dream it you can do it” written inside) was because of that line, because it was going to get me jobs, and it did. It helped me. I wanted to protect what’s mine and I kept it along with other pieces of the campaign. So, I thought one day why I hadn’t ever put this quote on my resume.
And so Sheralyn began to look online to see if her quote was out in this new internet world. It was a great quote, one that won her a promotion and several high-profile accounts. I am sure Sheralyn was excited as she began to search for her quote, and then…she sees it. She sees her quote. But wait, it is not attributed to her as the author.
Sheralyn recounts her first memory seeing her quote attributed to Walt Disney:
S: I had found out (online) Walt Disney had said it. Wait. Wait. WAIT! No. He did not. HE DID NOT! That is not true. GE had it. If GE were going to use it, Disney would have said wait a minute. GE loved it. EVERYONE loved it. Then I kept looking into it and looking into it then I said no! No! NO! Then I dug this out (Sheralyn holds up her folder for me to see). Fortunately, I’m not a hoarder but I am a pack rat. I have portfolios from my entire career, things have changed, they’re all digital now, but I have the big black portfolios. I dug it out and I said, ‘There it is.’
It’s funny because you remember, always when you’re an author of things, where you were when you did it. I remember being in my house and freaking out. I was so worried I wasn’t going to be able to do it. It was very intimidating to work with Bob. He would tell me now, “What are you kidding?” But he was very good and he came from a very disciplined background and he wanted a good variety, I always had a lot of anxiety about that and self-doubt. But I remember this.
C: Do you think you would ever contact the Walt Disney Company about this?
S: No, but if they want to talk to me about it, I’m open. I’d be glad to talk to Walt Disney the man if he were still alive. I’d say, we both know. And as for the Imagineer (Tom Fitzgerald), I respectfully say he is incorrect.
It’s like I said, when you write something, and you’re a writer, if you see someone else taking credit for it. You think, that is something you would never do. It’s the only thing you have to get other jobs, to get recognition, you have to be vigilant about your work and protect it. And when people say you shouldn’t blow your own horn, yes you should, yes you should. (laughter) I’ve been in plenty of rooms with people blowing their own horns.
“If we can dream it, we can do it” – Tom Fitzgerald
Most diehard Disney history aficionados know that Walt Disney the man never said, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” that has long been a proven myth by Dave Smith and the whole of the Walt Disney Archives. The origin has become clear, to me, that Sheralyn Silverstein is the first to write these specific words for a campaign piece for General Electric in 1981. But why would Tom claim the quote as his own after the Science in Imagineering DVD series started to misquote this line?
Tom never wrote “If you can dream it, you can do it” for Horizons. He wrote “If we can dream it, we can do it.” An obvious reimaginated line, brilliantly written to not only bring together GE’s brand, the ride’s corporate sponsor, but also the futuristic possibilities the message of the attraction was telling. We, the people of the world can do it if we, together can just dream it.
I reached out to Tom Fitzgerald requesting an interview and was informed by the WDI Communication team that, “Unfortunately, we are unable to offer an interview or email Q&A with Tom at this time. We appreciate the opportunity though!”
Thank you anyway WDI Communication team. I am hopeful I will be able to interview Tom Fitzgerald in the future, I am a huge fan of his and I will make myself available for whenever Tom is ready, I’ll be ready too!
My best conjecture as to why Tom claimed the If YOU can dream it… is that for the last 42 years of working in Walt Disney Imagineering, he has worked on a multitude of projects. From supervising the story development and production for Soarin’ Over California to story supervising one of my favorite of all time attractions, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland. Fitzgerald is a script writer and story developer for countless WDI projects. He wrote and produced Star Tours, worked on the blending of the cinematic Pirates of the Caribbean world to the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, including the famous pirate Jack Sparrow. He took over the creative direction of Epcot in 2014 and has been dreaming up and creating the magic for the Walt Disney Company since he was first hired in 1979. Is it just possible, that maybe, when hearing the misquote from the Science of Imagineering DVDs, the, “If you can dream it, you can do it” that Tom came across while working with GE triggered a memory, that made him think, hey, I wrote that! When, in reality, memories tend to get a bit muddled. Could that be? Because Tom did not write THAT quote. What he wrote, once again for the attraction’s script and signage, was, ‘If WE can dream it, WE can do it.”
ASKING JIM KORKIS – THE AUTHOR, HISTORIAN, ALL AROUND GREAT GUY
Whenever I begin my research of any story I write for my Instagram posts or my blog, I tend to lean towards two historians and their books to help me verify and corroborate any information, Jim Korkis and the late great Chief Archivist Emeritus, Dave Smith.
While researching my story, I thought to turn to Korkis to ask for his thoughts on the subject as he has written on the subject previously in various publications. And, like me, he has also confirmed the famous quote as Fitzgerald’s in the past. I think of Korkis as the Disney Detective. He provides corroborative evidence and never takes one account as the true story without dissecting countless other stories first to confirm the truth. He is everything a historian should strive and aspire to be like.
Korkis has written 30 books about Disney and several other books about animation and has an additional two new books coming out the first week of May, Kungaloosh! The Mythic Jungles of Walt Disney World, which I hear has half the book devoted to Jungle Cruise, Trader Sam’s, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, with two interviews with legendary Imagineer alumnus Joe Rohde! His 2nd book coming out is called Hidden Treasures of Walt Disney World Resort Hotels, which sounds like a great book sharing the histories and stories behind the resorts, and so much more.
Having learned about Sheralyn, I thought Jim would be the person to turn to. To date, I have not yet seen Jim write about Sheralyn Silverstein and I wanted to know what he thought on the subject. What he thought of Tom’s claims from over a decade ago, but mostly, I wanted to know where he now stands on who authored the tag line, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
C: Do you agree that Tom must have forgotten how he reimagined the wording in the script he wrote for Horizons?
Korkis: I don’t think Fitzgerald consciously borrowed that phrase to claim as his own. As a writer, you read tons of stuff and sometimes something gets buried in the subconscious that seeps out when you need something and it just seems right somehow. I have never heard of Fitzgerald ever taking credit for something from someone else.
Korkis also stated: “However, that wouldn’t be the first time an Imagineer “borrowed” a phrase from elsewhere… the Imagineers dubbing the Epcot model at Carousel of Progress “Progress City” because sponsor GE was using the phrase at the time “Progress is our most important product.”
C: Do you know about when the quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” first started to appear as Walt’s?
Korkis: As soon as Horizons opened (1983), people who saw it on the wall of the queue immediately assumed it was a Walt quote since Disney had often done that in the past including Epcot’s Living with the Land attraction.
C: In your opinion, what is your stance on who first wrote “If you can dream it, you can do it”?
Korkis: In my opinion, it seems like Silverstein should get credit for the line that we all know today.
Who is Sheralyn Silverstein?
So now we all know Sheralyn Silverstein wrote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” for GE in 1981. What happened to her after she wrote the quote Jack Welch bought? The following are more excerpts from my interview.
S: I was given opportunities to work on other things at Marsteller New York. I worked on ads for cars, women did not work on cars back then, they just didn’t. I never wanted to be pigeonholed into so called feminine products because you are female. You should be able to work on everything. So, I worked very hard to try to change that.
After a few years Sheralyn would go one to write tag lines for everything from Dannon yogurt to Grape Nuts.
S: I tell people if you walk down an aisle in the supermarket, every single aisle there’s something I worked on, every single aisle.
Now a Creative Director/Copy Writer, Sheralyn Silverstein has gone on to create some amazing campaigns. For Olive Garden in 1997 she wrote, “When you’re here, you’re family,” which ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’ ended up buying in 2016 and for Bank of America she wrote, “What would you like the power to do?”
Another campaign she worked on while working at BrandUnion, NY (now SuperUnion) was for the Lead the Way Fund. She was apart of a team, including Executive Creative Director Jamie Ambler, assigned to work on the project. Sheralyn sounded so very passionate about this campaign and these group of men and their families. She told me this was another campaign that she was most proud of to work on.
She explained that it was started by James P. Regan, who’s only son, Sgt. James (Jimmy) Regan was killed by an IED which targeted his vehicle in northern Iraq in 2007. His father turned to Sheralyn and Jamie to create a campaign that would help motivate people to donate.
S: I came up with a line, “PEACE CAN BE HELL TOO.” It was rewarding for me to do this for them. ‘PEACE CAN BE HELL TOO’ is one of the best things I ever did. That’s for sure.
Talking with Sheralyn Silverstein was an absolute privilege. Yes, I wrote her first AND last name…AGAIN! Maybe, just maybe, I’m trying to get you to remember it. So, the next time you hear or see that someone is quoting Walt Disney incorrectly as the person who said, “If you can dream it, you can do it” or even Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald, you can politely educate them with the history of the quote and the name of the Junior Copywriter who did not think her quote was too ‘pie in the sky’ for General Electric back in 1981.