From 1989 to 1995, Don Carson was a major creative force in Walt Disney Imagineering. He worked during what is commonly referred to as the Disney Renaissance, particularly in films but also in the parks. He was the lead designer for Splash Mountain in Walt Disney World and he was also a lead designer for Mickey’s Toontown in Disneyland.
I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Carson about his previous work with WDI and what he’s doing today. To check out more of his work, his portfolio website is www.doncarsoncreative.com.
How did you get started with Imagineering?
Don Carson: I was an Illustration major in college and had no idea WED or WDI existed or that it was a job. I wrote and illustrated a book on drawings of Disneyland that never got published but it did get me a Show Design position, after much nagging and a hell of a lot of luck. I was always a fan of Disneyland growing up, and I love the theater. Theme park design always seemed like the perfect mix of theater and illustration… creating fantasy you could touch.
What project were you most proud of during your time there?
DC: I have worked on countless projects. Splash I am proud of because it was my first and it is still out there entertaining people. So many others have aspects that I could call my favorite, and later in my career it is much more who I get to work with than necessarily what I get to work on. When you are a young designer you want to prove yourself and have something in the world you can call your own, as you get older you realize that this really isn’t nearly as important as who you get to work with. I am currently working with a great bunch of people, any ex-Imagineers, and we are all equal peers, no matter what we work on or what capacity we contribute.
Do you have a favorite part of Splash Mountain that you really loved designing?
DC: I was incredibly green when I started out, and Splash being the “third” version of the attraction (Disneyland first, Tokyo just before Florida) it was a project few veterans felt they needed to interfere with. So, I pretty much got to run the show, art direction wise. A lot of the credit goes to Kathy Mangum, my producer, who gave me a long leash and let me get away with a lot more custom design than I think the company initially intended. Looking back, even after 23 years, I think the attraction still holds up, and I am proud of some of the choices we made regarding style, composition, and color that makes Florida Splash its own unique entity.
Since you also did a design for Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, do you have a particular favorite part of the design at these parks?
DC: I didn’t work on the original designs for Typhoon Lagoon, I mostly worked on enhancements once the park opened. I did do a lot of the images that eventually became Blizzard Beach. I was not invited to participate in Blizzard once the concept phase was over, so unlike projects like Splash and Toontown where I got to follow the design into the field, I have less emotional connections to the water parks.
What were the offices like during your time there? Do you have an stories about the design process of Splash Mountain or Toontown?
DC: I was at WDI the late 1980’s and into the early 1990’s. I was there a relatively short time, but many of my Imagineering contemporaries agree that it was a mini ‘golden age” for us designers. We were coming in as many of the Disney legends were going out. We had the opportunity to sit down and hear many of the Walt stories first hand, it created a sense of duty in the minds of us young designers, a desire to make choices that would continue Walt’s legacy into the future. We are all much older now but we feel blessed to have had the chance to work at WDI during those specific years. I have countless stories, all projects do, but I think the best part of both Splash and Toontown was that they were “low profile” assignments, so we got to do our work with little scrutiny. We got away with a lot of design choices that might have been harder to do in a higher profile project.
Were there some projects that you wish you’d worked on but didn’t? Like a specific ride or show in the parks that you really love?
DC: Oh, there are always projects you wished you could have participated in, and some you wish you could have worked on more than you did. Still, there is only so much time and so many projects. You take what comes your way and do the best work you can within the confines of the budget and schedule. In the end it is more important that a good idea/design survives and makes it into the park rather than who might have authored it in the first place. One of the projects I am really proud of how it came out is Mickey’s Storybook Circus in WDW. Although I didn’t work with the team, I did a ton of early concepts for the area that I think influenced that final design without necessarily being built verbatim from my designs.
Since you are still freelancing with Imagineering, are there any new projects you have worked on lately? What about outside Imagineering? Any projects that you’re really excited about?
DC: It’s a weird business. I am actually a staff Art Director now at The Hettema Group, so I haven’t done much freelance for the past several years. At some point or another I have worked with just about everyone, and not all my favorite projects were for Disney. One frustrating part of our job is that we created tens of thousands of works of art, but very little is ever, or will ever see the light of day. Most of the work you find from me is decades old, but I am still actively producing. Many of my proudest work is on projects that will likely never be built and I will probably never get to talk about. Ironically, you can tell how busy a designer is by just how outdated their website portfolios are. Mine is so old it still has a category called “computer” when doing digital work was a novelty… now it consists of almost all the work that I do.