The First Lady of Imagineering

Disney Legend Harriet Burns is famous for being the first female Imagineer and the tremendous style she brought to the many attractions she worked on.

Harriet Burns painting dwarfs for Disney World in 1970. Photo from Disney Archives.

In fact, former Imagineering President Marty Sklar said:

“I think Harriet was Walt’s favorite imagineer. She was a fabulous artist. She had a wonderful sense of color and design. And she was the best-dressed. That never changed.” 

Yesterday, The Walt Disney Family Museum hosted a virtual event titled “Crafting Disneyland Magic: The Life of Harriet Burns with Pam Burns-Clair and Haley Clair.” Pam is Harriet’s daughter, and Haley her granddaughter. The two shared photos of Harriet from her private life and many years working at Imagineering. They shared anecdotes about Harriet’s legendary contributions to Disney theme parks, starting with her efforts during the hurried construction of Disneyland in 1955. In addition to building models of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Pam explained how Harriet painted and decorated as part of the around-the-clock last minute push to get everything done before the park’s July 17, 1955 opening.

Harriet Burns window on Main Street, USA in Disneyland (found above the Emporium close to the Fire Station)

Pam and Haley shared how in addition to building models Harriet really set the standard, which remains to this day, for the extraordinary level of detail found on audio-animatronic and other figures found in Disney theme parks. She is responsible for the finishing details on the audio-animatronics Disney fans love so much on attractions like the Tiki Room and Pirates of Caribbean, among others. In fact, if you’ve every noticed, and perhaps strangely appreciated, the filth on some of those pirates, you can thank Harriet for those grimy details. 

Dirty pirate from Pirates of the Caribbean

In perhaps my favorite story from the event, Pam and Haley recounted a wonderful memory about the design of Pirates of the Caribbean. As many Disney fans know, Pirates would be the last attraction Walt would be involved with before his death in 1966. While Walt was never able to experience the finished attraction, Pam and Haley shared that when he visited Harriet and others working on the design in the model shop Walt was eager to view the attraction as the guests would. So they lined up the models for the various scenes, put Walt in a chair with wheels, and pushed him past the models at eye-level. It’s easy to picture him, smiling of course, wheeling past the models. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Harriet, Pam and Disney Historian Don Peri have put together a tribute book, Walt Disney’s First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns, that you can find in The Walt Disney Family Museum online gift shop, or on a Harriet Burns tribute website created by Pam.

Design People

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