Happy Birthday Disney Legend Bill Martin! On this day in 1917, Wilson “Bill” Martin was born in Marshalltown, Iowa. Bill was the art director in charge of the original design of Fantasyland and is responsible for attraction layout designs that shape guest experiences today at Disney Parks around the globe.
Bill was one of many live action movie art directors recruited by Walt Disney to work on his theme park project. At the time, the Disney Studios was just beginning to get into the live action film business, forcing Walt to look at other Hollywood studios for help in building the real-world “sets” he needed for his park. One of Walt’s first hires outside of Disney’s stable of artists was Dick Irvine, an art director at 20th Century Fox. In December of 1953, Bill became one of a handful of Dick’s colleagues at 20th Century Fox who joined him to work on the Disneyland project.
One of Bill’s first tasks was to research existing amusement parks. He traveled with Bill Cottrell, Bruce Bushman, and George Whitney on a weeks long trek visiting tourist attractions and amusement parks including Coney Island, Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, Palisades Park in New Jersey, Knott’s Berry Farm, as well as parks in New Orleans and Cincinnati. Nearly all of the amusement park businessmen they met with thought Walt’s theme park concepts were — well — folly.
In early 1954, Bill spent most of his days inside the Zorro Building at the Disney Studios together with Irvine, Nat Winecoff, Marvin Davis, Herb Ryman, and Dale Hennessey working on, as he puts it, “all these sketches and schemes for Disneyland.” As Walt’s park plans expanded, an art director was selected to oversee and coordinate the design and construction of each themed land. Bill was chosen as the art director for Fantasyland.
In that role, Bill designed the exteriors of all Fantasyland attractions. He also designed the layouts for the dark rides, which were innovative amusement park rides at the time. It was Bill’s responsibility to take the concept art for the attractions and find a way to make them fit inside the pre-fabricated show buildings.
In his book, The Disneyland Story, author Sam Gennawey describes how Bill and other Imagineers frantically designed and built Fantasyland dark rides, like Peter Pan, in just over a year:
“In late spring 1954, Herb Ryman started working on the concepts for the Peter Pan ride with a huge rainbow as the climax. By late September, the project was in the hands of Marvin Davis, who had to figure out how to make Ryman’s drawings work as a ride. Davis came up with the guests flying through three large rooms and suggested that the galleon’s flight path go clockwise. He added two new scenes, Crocodile Creek and Hangman’s Tree, and cut Ryman’s huge rainbow at the end. Then the project moved over to Bill Martin in November; he kept the three rooms but changed the direction of the galleons to counterclockwise and eliminated Crocodile Creek and Hangman’s Tree. By May 1955, less than a year after Ryman started work, the plan was finalized, and Ken Anderson was designing interiors and fabricating the attraction.”
As the rush to complete Disneyland grew more intense before its announced television debut on July 17, 1955, Bill wound up sleeping most nights in his office above City Hall on Main Street and would only head home on the weekends. Bill and others prioritized aspects of the park that would appear on the televised broadcast, such as having the castle drawbridge actually lower to facilitate a dramatic shot of kids running across it. Bill also confessed in an interview years later that they were only able to paint the half of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship that would appear on camera before opening day.
Bill was also responsible for the interwoven layout of the Casey Jr. Circus Train and Canal Boats (the short-lived predecessor to the Storybook Land attraction). This successful maximization of space and landscape design full of kinetic energy would become a trademark of Bill’s Imagineering work. He would later incorporate the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland along with the existing route of guests riding pack mules. Bill designed the set for the mining town of Rainbow Ridge, which consisted of a series of buildings with miniature facades where the Mine Train ride departed from. That set still stands today as part of the Thunder Mountain attraction, where guests ride past it just before their train pulls into the platform.
Bill would also play a major role in what’s known as “Disneyland’s second opening” in 1959 with the additions of the monorail, Matterhorn Bobsleds, and the Submarine Voyage. Working alongside Irvine and Claude Coats, Bill was in charge of the track layouts and architectural planning. Disney author Sam Genneway aptly described his task: “The entire area was a giant jigsaw puzzle where Bill Martin had to layer the submarines, the monorail, the Motor Boat Cruise, and the Tomorrowland and Fantasyland Autopias all in one area. At the bottom were the submarines and the motorboats. Just above were the two Autopia tracks. Up in the air was the monorail riding on its beam way.” Decades later, this area of Disneyland remains one of the most photographic and iconic examples of the park’s kinetic energy and extraordinary design.
In the years following Disneyland’s opening Bill would be part of the so-called “Walkthrough” group that accompanied Walt on a weekly stroll through the park where he would note required improvements and share ideas for the future. Others in the group included Joe Fowler, Irvine, John Hench, Tommy Walker, and Truman Woodworth.
Bill would continue working in Imagineering for 24 years. His other notable contributions at Disneyland include the layouts for the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean (both of which take guests from inside the park’s train tracks to show buildings that stand outside of the train tracks), the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, and Bear Country. At Walt Disney World, Bill was responsible for the overall layouts at the Magic Kingdom, the design of Cinderella Castle, the tunnels (or utilidors) under the Magic Kingdom, the canal systems and many of the water craft transportation that traverses them. Following his retirement in 1977, Bill also consulted on the Mexico and Italy Pavilions at Epcot’s World Showcase, as well as the master layout of Tokyo Disneyland.
In an interview with Disney Archives Founder Dave Smith, Bill described what it was like working with Walt to build Disneyland: “He spent most of his time, really, with us. I remember seeing him every day. He’d be in the office every day, dropping in and making suggestions. He asked a lot of questions because he was in with this thing, too. He had an instinct that he knew what he wanted. If something felt good, then we used it, and so far it’s worked.”