12 Fascinating Things Inside Disney’s Secret Vault
Did you know that Disney has a hidden treasure trove filled all sorts of cool artifacts and memorabilia? Here’s a sneak peek into its hallowed halls.
So, you think you know everything there is to know about Disney? Think again. No matter how many times you’ve visited the parks and no matter how much Disney trivia you know, there’s still plenty to uncover. You’ll find some of those secrets in the Walt Disney Archives, the official historical repository, research facility, and archive for the entire Walt Disney Corporation. While its home base is in Burbank, California, at the Walt Disney Studios Lot, it also has secret warehouses across southern California.
“We cover everything at Disney—from things that are obvious like the parks and the studios and television, but also cable TV, ESPN, all of the movie studios (including Marvel, Lucas, Pixar, and now 21st Century Fox), and anything else under the Walt Disney umbrella,” says Rebecca Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archives. Not only do the Archives keep the history of the whole company, but they also have information from the earliest history of Walt Disney’s life as a child and some unusual and nostalgic artifacts from the happiest places on Earth.
How did the Walt Disney Archives get started?
Founded in 1970, four years after Walt Disney’s death, the Archives just celebrated its 50th anniversary in June 2020. It was the brainchild of Walt’s brother, Roy O. Disney, who took over as CEO after Walt died. He had been approached by a librarian at UCLA, Dave Smith, who was looking to put together a bibliography of books written about Disney up until that point. “Walt Disney’s office had been closed up since his passing in 1966, and they hadn’t really done anything with the materials or the furnishings in the office,” says Cline. “In 1969, Roy hired Dave to spend a year inventorying Walt’s offices. That’s where they got the idea that it would be a good idea to keep the company’s history. So many people at the time were passing away or retiring, and they were losing the institutional knowledge that they had about the company’s history.”
The Walt Disney Archives started out as just one person in one office in the old animation building. Since then, it’s grown to a staff of 30, hosts exhibitions, and engages in fan support with the official Disney fan club, D23. One item of particular interest to Smith was Walt Disney’s last known written message.
How many items are in the Archives?
The short answer: millions. “Now that Fox is part of the Walt Disney Archives, we recently combined their archive into ours. We had five million photos in our archives, and with their addition, we now have 25 million!” says Cline, who co-authored the new book Holiday Magic at the Disney Parks: Celebrations Around the World from Fall to Winter, which features both vintage and recent photos of the parks from 1955 through the present. “We have 25 million photos, thousands and thousands of costumes and props, hundreds of ride vehicles and real vehicles, huge boxes of merchandise, and all kinds of files from all over the company. It’s [also] every video ever produced, every DVD, pretty much every book published by the company, sheet music, and every piece of collateral given out at the parks. It’s a massive amount of material.”
So, what’s actually in there? Let’s take a look!
The Redhead from Pirates of the Caribbean
When Disney announced that it was redoing the auction scene in the classic ride Pirates of the Caribbean, some fans were upset. They were even more upset when the original Redhead was replaced in 2018 with a more modern female pirate named Redd (who, admittedly, presents a more empowered, less sexist portrayal of women). The original Redhead from the auction scene is now stored in the Walt Disney Archives, and she’s sometimes on display for cast members (aka Disney employees) to see as they walk through the hallways. Disney regularly revamps its attractions. Next up? A long-overdue makeover for Splash Mountain.
The snow globe from Mary Poppins
When Mary Poppins debuted in 1964, it was an instant classic. Unfortunately, many of the props and costumes were destroyed or sold because the Walt Disney Archives didn’t exist yet. One priceless prop from the film, however, was saved: the snow globe that’s featured in Walt Disney’s favorite song, “Feed the Birds.” When the Archives were founded, Smith searched through basements and closets on the studio lot, and that’s when he found the snow globe—it was sitting on a shelf in a janitor’s office after it had been literally taken out of the trash. By the way, this is what Mary Poppins‘ author really thought of the original movie.
Roger Rabbit’s iconic silhouette
When it premiered in 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was utterly unique, combining live-action storytelling with modern animation techniques in a way that felt completely real. The movie has many memorable scenes, including when Roger blasts through the blinds in R.K. Maroon’s office. The blinds have a super distinct cutout of Roger that fans adore. In fact, the movie was featured in an episode the Disney+ show Prop Culture, which discusses movie props like this one in the Walt Disney Archives.
A vintage Parade of Pumpkins picture
Cline’s book provides a glimpse into true Disney history with vintage photos from Halloweens past, like one depicting a cavalcade of kids in the Parade of Pumpkins. When the first event was held in 1959, a thousand real pumpkins were delivered to Disneyland, and on October 24, kids 12 and under were allowed to pick a pumpkin for free and take it home to carve. The next week on Halloween, all of the kids were welcomed back to Disneyland to have their pumpkins judged and paraded through the park. To create your own spectacular (or spooktacular) design, check out these 51 simple no-carve decoration ideas for pumpkins.
Old-school seasonal props
Not everything at Disney stands the test of time. But when certain things are retired, like decor from a restaurant or an attraction, they’re often put in the Archives instead of trashed. “We have things from window displays from Main Street that are holiday-themed. We’ve got props and things that are carried in parades—[for example, horns, puppets, and props] from the Tapestry of Nations parade at Epcot, the Christmas parade, or Candlelight Processional ceremonies,” says Cline. While things will be different this year because of the pandemic, take a look at how Disney normally celebrates the holidays.
A very special countdown to Halloween
The Haunted Mansion is one of Disneyland’s most popular attractions. During the fall and winter, the ride gets one of the park’s biggest seasonal layovers and becomes Haunted Mansion Holiday. This version of the ride takes you on the same track as the regular ride—but it has a Nightmare Before Christmas twist. The overlay starts outside, where the entire queue and grounds of the Haunted Mansion are decorated with white and black striped ribbons and garlands a la Jack Skellington. While the props for this holiday extravaganza are still in use, Walt Disney Archives does have the countdown register from the town hall set used in the original film. This register was the inspiration for the countdown clock you’ll see outside of the attraction before entering the foyer and stretching room.
Toy soldier costumes
In 1960, Walt Disney debuted the Parade of Toys to get people excited about the upcoming film Babes in Toyland. In one of the film’s iconic sequences, toy soldiers come to life, and that was a huge part of the parade as well. Fast-forward almost 60 years, and visitors can still see toy soldiers march down Main Street U.S.A. during the annual Christmas celebrations. As costumes get worn out or retired, says Cline, they are packed up and sent to the Archives for storage. Did you love toy soldiers as a kid? Find out what the most popular toy was the year you were born.
Walt Disney’s Tom and Jerry set
“Walt Disney and his family liked to do what were called Tom and Jerrys, which is a kind of hot eggnog drink. In his apartment at Disneyland, there was an eggnog set, and it’s still there at his apartment at Disneyland,” says Cline. When the Walt Disney Archives restored Walt Disney’s office at the studio lot five years ago, Cline bought a similar set to put into Walt’s office, which is now managed by the Walt Disney Archives. The team from the Walt Disney Archives also decorates Walt’s office with holiday decorations from the ’50s and ’60s. Check out these vintage Christmas decorations that are worth money today.
Walt’s Christmas list
Walt did his best to make the holidays extra special for those around him—and a very special box stuffed with index cards shows just how thoughtful he was. “Walt would always send gifts to the families and children of his employees and business partners,” Cline explains. “His assistants had a box that had index cards, and every index card would have the family name, then the name of the child, and what gift they were given that year. It was dated so that he didn’t accidentally give them the same gift twice in a row.” Every year, as Walt sent out gifts, it was logged on the cards. When kids reached a certain age, they were then sent a corporate Christmas card. “We have a few that were signed by Walt and Lilly, so we know those were ones that they hand-wrote,” Cline says. Check out 24 of the best vintage Disney Christmas cards from every decade.
Stained-glass windows from the Disney Candlelight Processional
Disney’s Candlelight Processional and Ceremony is the oldest holiday tradition at the Disney parks. It debuted in 1955, grew bigger over the years, and even expanded to a second location at Magic Kingdom in 1971 (which then subsequently moved to Epcot). The procession brings together a group of singers, a celebrity narrator, and a live orchestra. In the Archives, says Cline, you’ll find some of the big stained-glass windows that were retired from the Walt Disney World festivities.
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Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train was a beloved attraction at Disney California Adventure. The classic ride was closed in 2018 to make way for Avengers Campus at the park, and when the attraction closed, the Walt Disney Archives received one of the ride cars that looked just like Heimlich from the Pixar animated feature A Bug’s Life. Here are some more discontinued Disney rides we wish could come back.
A crown fit for a cat
If you’ve ever seen The Princess Diaries, then you know that the main character Mia, played by Anne Hathaway, has a cat named Fat Louie. During the beloved film and its sequel, Fat Louie wears this tiny bejeweled crown. It’s one of the smallest prop crowns in the Walt Disney Archives collection. Next, find out just how well you know your favorite Disney movies.