Walt Disney World Chronicles: Partners Statue

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the June 11, 2013 Issue #716 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.


Partners StatueAlmost as iconic as Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom is the distinctive "Partners" statue in the Hub just in front of the castle's elaborate entrance. Guests from around the world have taken photos of this statue from every angle every hour of the day.

Ironically, while he was alive, Walt Disney was extremely adamant that he never wanted a statue of him made and certainly not one that would be placed in his theme park. His widow, Lillian, continued to respect his wishes for decades after his passing.

So, what is the story behind this striking statue and how did it end up at Walt Disney World?

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk with Disney Legend Blaine Gibson when the original "Partners" statue was installed at Disneyland in 1993 and then later when the Roy O. Disney "Sharing the Magic" statue was placed in Town Square at the Magic Kingdom in October 1999.

Gibson was the sculptor of both statues. He spent 10 years working as an effects animator in Disney Feature Animation and then briefly was the assistant animator for Disney Legend Frank Thomas.

Walt Disney himself noticed Blaine's interest and skill in sculpting figures and had him transferred to Imagineering.

Gibson became the primary sculptor for Disneyland producing everything from mermaids to bathing elephants to, eventually, President Abraham Lincoln for the New York World's Fair, Haunted Mansion ghosts and raucous Caribbean pirates. He retired from the Disney Company in 1983. He became a Disney Legend 10 years later in 1993.

Even in retirement, Gibson continued to work for The Walt Disney Company. He had sculpted all the U.S. Presidents in the Hall of Presidents attraction and continued to sculpt a new president almost every four years for show. (President Obama is the only president he did not personally sculpt, but he still consulted on the head.)

Interestingly, Gibson also had experience sculpting Walt Disney. In 1962, Gibson sculpted a bust of Walt as a "thank you" gift. However, when he presented it to Walt in his office, Gibson did not get the reaction that he expected. Gibson claimed that Walt said, "What am I going to do with this? Statues are for dead people."

Gibson wanted to destroy the bust but couldn't bring himself to do so and the clay original was kept in his garage for decades. 

He later used it as reference for a bust of Walt for the Academy of Television Arts & Science (ATAS) headquarters in North Hollywood, California. Walt was inducted into the ATAS Hall of Fame in 1986. A duplicate casting of that bust done by Gibson is also at Disney's Hollywood Studios in the ATAS Hall of Fame Plaza next to the American Idol attraction. On the back of the bust are Gibson's signature ("B. Gibson") and the date "1991." (The ATAS Hall of Fame Plaza was officially dedicated at Disney-MGM Studios on November 20, 1993.)

In 1981, in honor of the 200 millionth guest at Disneyland, Disney Legend Charles Boyer was commissioned to make a special lithograph, titled "Partners", to honor Walt and Mickey Mouse. The original edition was limited to just 2,500 prints that were only available for sale to cast members. Walt and Mickey are holding hands and the image became quite popular. While the image does not look like the statue, its name and concept made a strong impression.

When Michael Eisner came on board in 1984 as CEO of the Disney Company, one of his goals was to increase the attendance at the theme parks. At Disneyland, he staged short-term promotions like "Blast to the Past" and "Circus Fantasy" that filled the Hub area in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle with huge props that almost completely obscured the iconic structure.

Imagineers Marty Sklar and John Hench were particularly concerned by these temporary intrusions and worried that the success of these events would escalate into other similar and perhaps larger additions. They reasoned that if something significant were put in the Hub, it would be difficult if not impossible to continue to put massive items in the area and destroy the view of the castle. They were also worried than in the two decades since Walt's death, he was being forgotten and a new generation had grown up without seeing him on television each week. They felt there needed to be a reminder in the park about the man who started it all.

They were able to convince Eisner that a statue commemorating Walt and Mickey and titled "Partners" would help promote the Disney brand. The major challenge was convincing the surviving Disney family members to allow it, but eventually that hurdle was cleared.

Of course, with all his experience, Gibson was a natural choice to sculpt the statue even though he had retired from the company. Gibson made several sketches. One version had Walt with the rolled up blueprints of Epcot in his hand and pointing forward. Another version had Mickey holding an ice cream cone and eagerly tugging Walt forward to enjoy the park. Another had Walt waving while Mickey held a small black globe of the world.

Imagineer Marty Sklar, Disneyland President Jack Lindquist, and Imagineer John Hench consulted with Gibson on the final design, which they all loved.

Gibson said, "I chose to depict Walt as he was in 1954. I think that was when Walt was in his prime. It was tough trying to match the media image of Walt Disney, the one the public knows, to the real Walt, the one we knew. I think Walt is admiring the park and saying to Mickey, 'Look what we've accomplished together,' because truly they were very much a team through it all. 'Look at all the happy people who have come to visit us today.' "

Gibson made the figure of Walt larger than life, roughly 6-feet, 5-inches tall. In real life, Walt was barely 5-feet, 10-inches tall. Gibson paid close attention to detail. The "STR" logo on Walt's tie refers to the Smoke Tree Ranch vacation area in Palm Springs where Walt had a home. The logo was on some of the ties that Walt would wear. On Walt's right hand is the Irish Claddagh wedding ring that he and his wife wore in addition to his regular one on his left hand. Walt bought them in 1948 on a trip to Ireland where his ancestors once lived.

Partners StatueThe size of Mickey Mouse was chosen based on a brief moment from the animated short, The Pointer (1939).

"When he recorded the voice, [Walt] couldn't help but feel like Mickey and he added all these little gestures that were spontaneous with him. At one point, he put out his hand like this (to indicate that Mickey was about 3 feet tall), it was the only time we knew how big Walt thought Mickey was," animator Frank Thomas recalled.

Marty Sklar remembers being amazed seeing Gibson and Hench spending hours discussing just exactly how Walt's five-fingered hand should hold Mickey's four-fingered one. It was finally decided to base it on the one time that an animated Mickey held the hand of a real person.

In Fantasia (1940), Mickey shakes the hand of conductor Leopold Stokowski.

At a Disneyland event called "Mickey's Worldwide Kids Party" on November 18, 1993, to celebrate Mickey Mouse's 65th birthday, the statue was unveiled by Roy E. Disney. There was a plaque by the statue that remains there today: "I think most of all what I want Disneyland to be is a happy place... Where parents and children can have fun, together. -- Walt Disney."

At the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World the plaque states: "We believe in our idea: a family park where parents and children could have fun -- together -- Walt Disney."

The Walt Disney World "Partners" statue was unveiled in Florida in June 1995.

A statue of Walt's older brother, Roy O. Disney, seated on a park bench beside Minnie Mouse at the Magic Kingdom, is located approximately where Roy stood when he dedicated the park in October 1971. It was installed in October 1999 and is called "Sharing the Magic".

Gibson told me when it was installed, "Roy is sitting back in the bench which indicates he was there first and Minnie came to him, not that he came up to her to ask why she was sitting down and not working or coming up to harass her."

Gibson, who based the pose on photographs taken of Roy in the park in October 1971 sitting on a bench with Disney costumed characters, added, "Also, he is holding her hand underneath so he is supporting it, just like he always supported Walt's dreams. Roy was very underrated."

Originally, the statue was put behind a low fence, but so many guests climbed over the fence for photographs that it was moved out of the fenced area.

There is no "Partners" statue at Disneyland Paris but there is one at its sister park next door, Disney Studios Paris. There is also a "Partners" statue at Tokyo Disneyland and outside the Team Disney building at Disney's corporate headquarters in Burbank, California. Purposely, all the "Partners" statues are slightly differently colored to blend in with the hues at each location. For instance, the clear blue skies of Florida are different than the red, smoggy skies of Southern California.

Imagineer Marty Sklar happily told the media that at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, a guest now can get a picture of all three symbols of Disney (the castle, Walt and Mickey) in just one photograph.

While, amazingly, the original "Partners" statue celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, it is hard for Disney fans to imagine a time when it was never there.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Photos of Magic Kingdom Partners Statue by Erin Blackwell and AllEars.Net Picture This! Photoblogger Scott Thomas.

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RELATED LINKS
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Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives:
http://allears.net/ae/archives.htm

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Jim KorkisABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis will be guest speaker at the Winter Park Public Library at 2 p.m. on July 21. Jim will be discussing Song of the South and Splash Mountain.

Jim is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of two new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:

-- "Who's Afraid of the Song of the South"

-- "The REVISED Vault of Walt": Paperback Version / Kindle version


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.