Last week, I shined a spotlight on former Imagineer and concept artist Mary Blair, a brilliantly talented woman who helped develop some of the most iconic films and theme park attractions in Disney history. This morning, on the heels of International Women’s Day, I want to continue that theme with a profile of another formative member of the Imagineering department: model-maker and figure-finisher Harriet Burns.
You can’t visit Disneyland without running into something Harriet got her hands on, whether you’re scarfing down powdered sugar beignets in the back alleys of New Orleans Square or staging a selfie in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. Her intricate models and meticulous attention to detail helped some of Walt’s wildest ideas come to life and, more importantly, left a legacy that today’s Imagineers continue to build on.
While researching this piece for Theme Park Tourist, one of my favorite things to learn about Harriet was the way in which her passion and commitment to precision and innovation rivaled that of Walt Disney himself. In an anecdote pulled from the archives of The “E” Ticket magazine, historian Sam Gennawey notes that Harriet and her fellow Imagineers crafted “hand-hammered locks and pulls” and real copper gutters for the models of the Storybook Land Canal Boats — an attraction decorated almost entirely in intricate miniature sets.
“Nobody could really see [the details],” Burns told the magazine, “but Walt knew it was there — that was the good part.”
Even when Walt picked up and then accidentally shattered a stained glass window she was working on, she chalked it up to his signature brand of curiosity. Like her, he was interested in the details of how everything worked together, a shared trait that came in handy as they collaborated on projects like the Enchanted Tiki Room, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and a whimsical failed experiment called ‘Rock Candy Mountain.’
Walt may have supplied the creative spark behind his theme park, but Harriet made every last little detail come alive.
“Today, it takes thousands of Imagineers to take new attractions, lands, transportation systems, advanced Audio-Animatronics, shows, and nighttime spectaculars from conception to implementation in Disney’s six theme parks. Back in the 1950s, however, there were just three founding members of Walt Disney Imagineering (then termed WED Enterprises): Fred Joerger, Wathel Rogers, and Harriet Burns. Together, their small team helped shape some of the most iconic attractions in Walt’s original park, including Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Enchanted Tiki Room, even Sleeping Beauty Castle itself.
While all three were pioneers and Disney Legends in their own right, Burns held a unique and coveted distinction as the company’s very first (non-clerical) female Imagineer. Not only did her tenacious, creative spirit and fastidious attention to detail distinguish her among her peers, but her contributions stood the test of time as the parks expanded in scope and style. Here’s a little history about one of the most influential women in Disney Parks history.”
Find the rest of the article at Theme Park Tourist here.