From Backyard to Showpiece: How the fireflies I created became a classic at Disneyland
By Tim Carter
Summer of 1985
What is no doubt the most amazing adventure of my life, began as a fun idea back in the summer of 1985. I had been visiting my mother and helping her out with some things that needed done around the house and yard. When I was finished, the results I had achieved seemed not enough. It seemed to me that when a place is in good shape it's just then ready to do something creative with; to give it its life, instead of leaving it neglected in mediocrity.
Every environment functions best in a distinct theme, even of the vision of fancy. It suggests to guests or regular inhabitants that the air has creative spirit in it. The observer has a place where he or she may explore their own personal dreams that they envision when they come over for a visit. I knew instinctively that this would not be achieved from things one bought at the corner hardware store, and to this day I look at people in wonderment who own such fabulous estates that only succeed in reaching their own borders, just taking up space with nothing original distinguishing it from every other structure in the world.
At my mother's there was this old rundown tool shed which was quite a nice work in it's day in the 1950s. It looked like a fantasy doll house in "make-believe" lavenders then. In its present neglected state it looked more the prospector's shack of the 1850s to me. I began to see the rickety old structure appearance as good and authentic. With this artistic leverage I realized I had a ready-made relic. I decided to turn it into a centerpiece for parties and get-togethers.
I found some old boards, cut them to size for veneer and began whittling the edges to make them look ravaged. I nailed these on the face of the structure, over a window opening and in place of a door, since there was no longer anything inside that needed protection from the elements. Next I took some rocks and made what appeared to be a campfire site to the side of the front door. I found some large antique frying pans and hung these on hooks on the front. I made a flickering orange light for the inside to represent a stove fire, and found something to suffice in appearance for a stovepipe and even put a bend in the middle with a conic top on the sloping roof. (Just a touch of the Big Bad Wolf".) My mother had some old rabbit furs that she wanted to get rid of and I cut them out in the shape of little animals and hung these on the front as though tanning. I recorded some banjo music to play in the inside from a cassette.
That evening I just sat and dreamed. Believe me, those are the Backyard Imagineer's most memorable moments, to be in the process of fantasizing further while observing the work in progress. A dream really is a wish your heart makes. The flickering "firelight" coming from inside through the chinks I had cut; listening to the lazy clinking banjo of the "prospector" reflecting so alone to himself inside. I even added an array of blinking eyes of the "animals of the forest" in the dark recesses beside the structure who were "looking" to you, also, as though in wonderment of who you are to be out there in the middle of the night. I half expected that if I were to make a noise the prospector would make an appearance with his rifle to see what it was! I realized I had followed fairly closely the design of the shack in The Pirates of the Caribbean. Thinking about this, I realized that I needed the quintessential touch, the Tinkerbell if you will: FIREFLIES.
The Quintessential Touch: FIREFLIES
I had a pass, so I went straight to Disneyland the following day. I had to see up close for myself how the Imagineers made those wonderful fireflies. I strained from the boat. I peered over the railing at the departure point with a fixed stare. What I saw looked like a dome like a half a walnut shell, with a small light continuously shining inside of it. This was hung from a spring that also supported the electrical wires. The whole was being blown slightly by a hidden vent. At intervals it tipped showing a little light from underneath. I thought about it on the car ride home. I had some experience with miniatures for Christmas displays, like Santa's house. Maybe I could make something that works, but a little different. I remembered the little light called a "Grain of rice". I went to Radio Shack and bought a few of those and some hair-like, insulated wire, and began experimenting and eventually came-up with a good design of my own.
Boy I had fun with the fireflies I made. They were clearly a superior innovation. Instead of flying within a small area of a few feet, they flew around a very large area and never the same path twice; would seem to go out and appear again in a place you couldn't guess. The dream now seemed a living reality. Even I looked at what I'd created, blinked a few times and thought: "incredible..." My mother was my eager audience; I'd bring her out to show her my latest innovation, strategy, and design. She'd laugh happily and watch in wonder, offer some ideas before going back inside.
When the first guests arrived for the party I, of course, held in honor of the novelty, they stood quietly in astonishment, and yet in relaxation--it was a success! The banjo, the flickering fire, the fireflies, the eyes in the darkness...The main question was: "What are you trying to do, create another Disneyland?" My immediate response was: "Yes". They were astonished they had such atmosphere in a private intimate gathering. The calm and the enjoyment and happiness of my guests in their conversations was rich. We were in a magic place, and everyone was brought closer together, were very relaxed and enjoyed themselves immensely. That's what it's all about.
The spreading fame of my fireflies happened rather quickly.
I operated a neighborhood window cleaning business then, with about 150 clients. In Los Angeles, where I live, you met a person who worked at Walt Disney Studios or knew someone who did in about once in thirty people. I worked for a few who knew Walt Disney quite well in those wonderful days. One was a lady whose father in law is John Howard, a Disney artist who mainly animated Goofy in the 1930s, and had something to do in the creation of Thunder Mountain. I mentioned to Mrs. Howard when next I cleaned her windows that I had created these fireflies that were quite superior to those of Disneyland. She said she was impressed and we arranged to have a show in her backyard that evening.
It was good to have a dress-rehearsal of a portable show for what was to come. I arrived and set up the equipment. I got it all rigged and we hit the lights, and I lit the fireflies. She was floored, and immediately made plans for getting in touch with Disney Studios the following morning. I was on cloud nine. The Walt Disney Company has always honored their old-timers with a red carpet. Their treatment is better than what is afforded to any out-of-date stars at any other major studio in Hollywood. I don't remember if Mr. Howard was involved in any way, but apparently just being his daughter-in-law got me an appointment for a demonstration at Walt Disney Imagineering Monday morning---then known as WED, for Walter Elias Disney.
Presenting to W.E.D.
Being Friday, I had two days to rehearse and Imagineer a good portable unit. I came-up with clip-on fireflies, that attached to a bare spot on the power source, and invested in a few new standing fans, an instrumental part of the show.
The story goes that back when Walt Disney and his Imagineering staff were putting in the finishing touches at the Loading Dock at Pirates of the Caribbean, Walt felt, that as good as everything was, and perfect to the period it represented, there still seemed to be something very important missing. He put his staff to work that day trying to come-up with what it was that would give it the ultimate appearance. A young man who was sweeping the area finally got his nerve up, put down his broom and approached Walt Disney saying, 'Back home on a Summer night we see FIREFLIES,' to which Walt's face lit up and the young man was given a raise and who knows what else. Walt invited every Imagineer to help come-up with an electronic firefly. In the meantime, Walt had live ones imported! That must have been interesting. I thought, with a little luck I, myself, will have also come to the call over twenty years later.
Let it be known: Almost NO ONE is allowed to demonstrate a special effect, or submit a new idea to anyone at Disney without an invitation to do so. It just isn't done. What happened here is just short of a miracle. In fact, it was a miracle. I know I am one of the few in history who has enjoyed this incredible privilege.
One of the only other person this happened to was Salvador Dali! We had been told that a notice would be put up on a bulletin board for the Imagineers there to take note of and attend if it possibly fit into their schedules. The Imagineers, you know, the ones who create ALL the attractions at every Disney theme park on earth? I arrived an hour early and hung out at the bowling alley next door, the lanes where the Disney people were known to frequent.
At the appointed time I introduced myself to the receptionist and she was very happy to see me and said she'd been expecting me. She didn't just find any Imagineer to come greet me, but the Head Of Special Effects at the time, Kelley Forde. He was very friendly and gave me a genuine handshake, and even went with me to my car to haul everything in. Now I was floored.
The environment was like a sound stage, in that, it had many stories going on in different places. Mr. Forde made sure that the black curtains were pulled tightly around a secret project. How delicious that was. We set up on a stage, and he, assisting me, and taking MY instructions, how humble can you get? It is a sure sign of an Imagineer: thirst for new things, and respect for their designer.
Before we were finished, about ten minutes, I turned around and the place was really beginning to fill up with Imagineers. When we were ready, I was amazed. I had hoped that some might come, but apparently the whole turned out to see the new effect!
We pulled blackout curtains, I gave the command to hit the lights, and turned on the fireflies. The place hummed with enthusiastic observations. The light from the flies reflected in a sea of eyeglasses. A room full of geniuses. They hung around for half an hour talking about what I do not know. I remember it seemed to have the same affects on them that it had had on my guests, a calming and a delight.
My personal feeling was that it had definitely inspired them. Some came up and complimented me on a good effect and asked a few basic questions and asked to hold the firefly and see it up close. As they left, one, then another, thanked me, offered encouraging words, and waved goodbye. I can't think of when I've been more honored. It was as good as could possibly have been dreamed of. A dream came true that day.
If the experience were not enough, Mr. Forde offered an impromptu tour of the entire complex. It was his first time doing it for such a visitor, and certainly a unique experience for me. He showed me the original model for Sleeping Beauty Castle that was being freshened up for display at the Gallery in New Orleans Square. It had rained that weekend and as an incredible coincidence was resting directly below the only leak in the ceiling. Fortunately when they had arrived back to work that morning the damage was very minimal.
He took me around and I again met some of the Imagineers in the midst of their very special work. Some were working in very good 3-D holograms, others were painting and sculpting as I mentioned. I saw a wide variety of contraptions and gadgetry hanging from the ceiling and around. It was reminiscent of It's a Small World in all its pleasant clutter.
Along the way I had gotten into the subject of Imagineering for Disneyland, and what I would do there if it were up to me. Mr. Forde was genuinely keen on my ideas and advised me to fill out an application to become an Imagineer. As he helped me load my project back into the car he said he didn't do the hiring himself, but that I should go for it. It seems today that he liked the way I had designed not only the effect, but in how I had prepared it for an makeshift demonstration.
As Fate Would Have It
As fate would have it, I wasn't hired. There are aspiring Imagineers who have spent years in college preparing for their chance. I suppose the compliment was enough. I believe I would have been good at it. After all, Walt never painted or sculpted, and he was king of them all. When encouraged to run for President of the United States once by an admiring dinner guest, Walt teasingly replied: "Why do I have to be President for? I'm already King of Disneyland!"
It's the natural ability to envision and to inspire others in that vein that will always be the greatest asset of the Imagineer. Imagineering in spirit is doing it just the same. --Oh, if you want to know how it all turned out, you have simply go to Pirates of the Caribbean today. My fireflies are there, right next to the old shack with the banjo plunking its lonely tune. They're seen all around the place, as a matter of fact. I would have paid a fortune to have this so. They were installed at the very next refurbishing of the Attraction, after I demonstrated them at Disney Imagineering. Millions of Disneyland guests, and guests at Disney parks all over the globe are being entertained every day by something that came from me. I feel the honor of this at the level of my soul.
It represents something very deeply important to me as well now, as quite tragically my mother passed away after a terrible struggle with cancer. Now the dream she and I shared of our backyard scene actually and really does exist in the backyard paradise of Disneyland, forever. Every time I'm floating the Pirates of the Caribbean I'm visiting our dream and those times of laughter and fun we shared in her yard those nights, yet alive and immortalized. The work that I did to show her. How fitting it is in my heart. What an outstanding memorial. Whether in name or in spirit, the question remains, if I really did get the job I'd dreamed of after all.
Happy Backyard Imagineering!
Thank you Mrs. Howard, you made a dream come true.
And: God bless you Mr. Forde.
Thank you, Tim, for contacting us with your inspiring story! The staff here at ImagineeringDisney.com has always been fans of those great Disneyland fireflies. Stay tuned for more information about how the original fireflies came to pass and how Walt decided to add them to Pirates of the Caribbean.