On this day in 1906, Disney Legend Bill Cottrell was born in South Bend, Indiana. Known as “Uncle Bill” on the Disney Studio lot, Bill was the first president of WED Enterprises, the predecessor to Walt Disney Imagineering.
After attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, Bill was hired by the Disney Studios, then still located on Hyperion Avenue, on February 14, 1929. As Bill told Disney biographer Bob Thomas, “. I applied for a job as an artist and started in the usual procedure of going through painting and inking and on the camera, cutting, and foreign versions and one thing after another. I wasn’t too good an artist, so I didn’t last at that. Ultimately, I got in the Story Department and I was in there up until about 1952.” According to his Disney biography, Bill directed the “Wicked Witch and Evil Queen sequences in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and contributed to story on Pinocchio.” He married Hazel Sewell, Lillian Disney’s sister, in 1938.
Bill briefly left the Disney Studio in the early 1950s to work at Paramount before returning in 1952 when Walt formally created WED as a separate businesses to develop his plans to build a park. At WED, Bill explained to Bob Thomas, “Well, we all did a lot of things. It was the same formula as the early days of the Studio. This was part of the great pleasure of WED. We began all over again doing anything and everything that was needed to be done. You worked on the concepts of rides. You wrote dialogue for spiels, anything that had to be done, copy for signs, nomenclature—all of these things developed.” Bill also helped manage the contracts of the various lessees in the park who operated stores and restaurants in Disneyland’s early years.
According to Bill, Walt insisted on creating a special experience for his Disneyland guests by, for example, crafting exquisite cars and stagecoaches. As Bill said later “these beautiful things were all made and they were not practical and he knew they were not. He knew that they were not going to make money because they couldn’t carry enough people. But they were part of the concept that the main gate establishes a certain show for people. And not everything has to make money. You pay to get in the place and so what do you see? Everyone’s in costume. And the streets are clean. And you have flowers. And you have these vehicles that a few people can ride and so forth.”
Disney Imagineering John Hench credited Bill with insisting they use words to separate Disneyland from typical carnivals, “He was a talented writer and helped shape how we referred to events and attractions at Disneyland. For instance, he encouraged us to quit using the term ‘ride’ and to refer to attractions as an ‘experience,’ which is exactly what they are—‘an experience.”
After working at Disney for more than five decades, Bill retired in 1982. In 1994, Bill was named a Disney Legend. There is a Main Street, U.S.A. window tribute to Bill in Disneyland above the Market House, which reads W. Dennis Cottrell, Detective Agency, Private Investigator. “We Never Sleep”. Bill passed away on December 22, 1995.
He once shed some light on what it was like working at Disney and the rapid pace of working from one project to the next, “There is no way to know as you are going along day by day whether you are doing a good job or not, you just hope you are. You know what you are doing for the most part, but it’s the end result that matters. Whether it’s accepted by the public, that’s the praise that you get that you didn’t get from Walt, because he couldn’t go around praising everyone or he would have a bunch of prima donnas on his hands.”