Walt Disney World is a business, there’s no denying it. The place exists to be profitable, to be lucrative, and to keep the Walt Disney Company, as a whole, afloat. And, thankfully, WDW does all these things quite well. But despite a spartan purpose, the hallmark of the Vacation Kingdom, or any enterprise of Disney’s, is to be artful and academic. Yes, the purpose is rooted in profit, but the prose used to get to that point can be meaningful, surprising, and rich in character. One of the oldest features of Disney World are her tile murals, and they are all of these things.
Cinderella Castle’s foyer is adorned by one of the more famous murals in Walt Disney World. There, five shining mosaic panels illustrate the story of Cinderella, as told by WED’s Dorothea Redmond. The actual construction of the murals was overseen by Hanns-Joachim Scharff and took over two years to complete before they were lifted into the gothic arches of the castle. Each of the scenes was first illustrated by Redmond, only later to be redrawn by Scharff, only this time to be life-size and on heavy, brown craft paper. The entire finished work was then divided along the natural lines of the artwork so as to be added into the walls of the castle.
Tiles were then glued in reverse and backwards, corresponding to the color and design of the panel in question. These were then shipped from WED in California to Disney’s unfolding venture in Florida where they were sprayed with water to prevent the glue from cracking and bulging. When they were reassembled, the glue and the paper were intricately sponged off. With this in mind, the murals are completely self supporting and a single “sheet” of tiled glass is suspended on the foyer walls of the castle. The five finished murals contain thousands of shards of glass and tiles, some fused with silver and 14-carat gold. Additionally, more than 500 individual hues are used in the mural’s imagery.
This is only one of Disney’s stunning murals, as another resides in the Contemporary Resort Hotel and could not be more different from Redmond’s and Scharff’s work. Massive in scope, the Contemporary’s Grand Canyon Concourse stretches several stories high and its focal point rests on Mary Blair’s largest installation and the most expansive project she undertook in her career. Themed to represent the spirit and culture of the Grand Canyon (for which the massive atrium of the A-Frame hotel is named after) and the southwestern Native Americans, a bold spectrum of colors and textures makes for a stunning and artistic vista. Based off of Navajo and Pueblo ceremonial art, the towering mural is a testament to Disney’s dedication to the arts. Mary Blair herself said that “Children and animals are such a vital part of the art of Disney that they were chosen for the mural to show the activities and culture of the people of the Grand Canyon, with the whimsical touch of fun”.
The mural’s hues match those of the Grand Canyon Concourse itself, intended to be vibrantly evocative of the earth and sky of the southwestern United States. Ceramics are heavily featured in the mural and provide contrast to the forest of clear plexiglass trees that decorated the floor of the concourse. Brilliant oranges, yellows, blues, and greens paint a lurid scene of native children and the flora and fauna of the Southwest region.
Using a full scale paper rendering of the mural, tile sections were fired and painted and lifted into place using a massive network of scaffolds and lifts. The mural was a 54-ton jigsaw puzzle and took more than two months to complete the nine story installation.
All photos and information from this article (including the title!) may be found in Walt Disney World Vacationland, Summer 1976