An Interview with former Imagineer, Tim Kirk

Tim Kirk might be the most relatable Imagineer for us fans. He loves Disney, but he’s a fan of all things fantasy, particularly “Lord of the Rings.” When he studied for his Master’s Degree in Illustration from California State University, Long Beach, he completed his thesis with a series of paintings for the series. When I heard this, I knew I had to reach out and I was lucky enough to get an interview with him. Check out what he has to say about his “Lord of the Rings” love, his Disney creations, and what he’s doing today.

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Concept art for fairy book. Photo courtesy of Tim Kirk

How did you get started with Imagineering? 

Tim Kirk: In 1979 I was working for a greeting card and stationery company in Colorado Springs, Current Inc.  My brother, Steve, had been working at Imagineering since 1976, on the design of Epcot Center in Florida, and he said they were looking for designers. I submitted my portfolio, was hired, and moved back to southern California to begin work in the Fall of 1980.

Can you tell me a bit about the projects that you worked on there?
TK: I worked on quite a wide variety of Imagineering projects, some large and some small; some that were built, like a couple of Epcot attractions, the Disney MGM Studio Tour at Walt Disney World in Florida, Tokyo DisneySea in Japan.  And some that were not, like America, Mickey’s Movie Land, and the Port Disney project in Long Beach, California, which included the Queen Mary. I worked with a lot of teams on Florida projects, including the original Tower of Terror, Pleasure Island, and a themed merchandise facility for the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street, the Main Street Athletic Club. I was also part of the design team on a Disney feature film, The Haunted Mansion, which was released in 2003.
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The former entrance to Pleasure Island in Downtown Disney, now Disney Springs. Photo courtesy of greyloch on Flickr

I previously wrote a post on the design process of Tower of Terror but it would be nice to get an insider’s story. Can you tell me a bit about the design ideas that the ride almost was, like when it was almost a Mel Brooks ride?
TK: Yes, we considered a number of pop culture media themes before settling on The Twilight Zone. The Mel Brooks version was envisioned as a walk through experience; that was discarded as being too low in capacity, though it would’ve been fun! We also thought of Stephen King and, I think very briefly, H.P. Lovecraft. The Twilight Zone wound up being the final  choice, for recognizability and availability. And we briefly considered adding a real “haunted” boutique hotel as a wing of the Tower of Terror; for various business reasons, this did not happen.
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View of the Tower of Terror from Sunset Boulevard in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Photo courtesy of Michael Gray on Flickr

What projects are you most proud of? 
TK: I’m particularly proud of Tokyo DisneySea. With that park, I really think we set the bar quite high for what an immersive destination experience can be; the levels of detail and story we were able to build in are truly astonishing, if I do say so myself! Recently, as a contractor, I’ve been working with the WDI interior design team on character concepts for hotel rooms at the Tokyo Disney Resort, for the Mira Costa and Ambassador hotels.
Can you tell me a little about what it was like to work on DisneySea? Was it different from working on projects in Walt Disney World?
TK: The process of designing and building DisneySea was similar to other parks Imagineering had produced, but the complexity and sheer scale of it was new to me. I had never been part of such a massive undertaking from initial blue sky and concept design all the way through to opening day. It was also my first opportunity to work on site on a project outside the United States. Japan was a fascinating place, and I was privileged to make several trips; including one that lasted 7 months. I got to know the Hilton Hotel very, very well! It really gave me a new appreciation of what a remarkable organization Imagineering was, and is.
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View of Mermaid Lagoon in Tokyo DisneySea. Photo courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Having worked in Imagineering for 21 years, what were the offices like during your time there? Did they change a lot from when you started to when you left?
TK: The changes I noticed most were in personnel. The size of Imagineering expands and contracts according to the needs of the projects on hand. And certainly, with the coming of the digital age in the 1990s, changes in the design and project management process were many. When I started work at Imagineering, there was no Internet, no email or texting, no Wacom tablets, SketchUp or Photoshop. We were still carrying beepers!
Who were some of the people that were on your teams there? What were the team dynamics like?
TK: I was extremely fortunate in all of the projects, built or not, that I worked on. So many amazingly talented colleagues, so much creative stimulation and interaction. When team chemistry is working and right, there seems to be nothing that can’t be accomplished! Tokyo DisneySea is one truly shining example: it was a wonderful team, managed, creatively, by my brother Steve Kirk, the best creative leader I’ve ever worked with. Earlier, we got to collaborate with Disney Legend Ward Kimball on a conceptual project called Mickey’s Movieland; he was wonderful, uniquely one of a kind, and a real link to the old Disney Studio days. Ward was one of Walt’s original “Nine Old Men.”
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?
TK: It was a bit before my time, but I would’ve loved to work on the initial concept for The Haunted Mansion. I think Animal Kingdom in Florida would also have been very interesting to work on.
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Entrance to Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Photo courtesy of commons.wikimedia.com

Outside of Imagineering, can you tell me a little about your work with Lord of the Rings? 
TK: I first came across The Lord of the Rings in my junior year of high school, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. One of those books you encounter, if you’re lucky, at just the right time of your life. I had been drawing continuously since I was 5 or 6 years old, wanting to tell stories with pictures, inspired by the Donald Duck comics of Carl Barks, and I planned to be an art major in college. I received a Bachelor’s Degree in illustration, and for my Master’s Degree project I proposed to my committee that I produce a series of paintings, in a variety of media, illustrating The Lord of the Rings, which at the time, the early 1970s, had never been extensively illustrated by anyone but Professor Tolkien himself. I received my degree in 1973 with a gallery showing of 26 paintings, in oil, acrylic and water color.  Soon after that I exhibited the paintings at a local regional science fiction convention.  By great good fortune Ian and Betty Ballantine, of Ballantine and Bantam Books, were attending that convention; they liked the paintings well enough to purchase them and issue 13 of them as the Ballantine Lord of the Rings calendar for 1975. This really kickstarted my career as an illustrator.
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A concept drawing of Kirk’s recent work in illustration. Photo courtesy of Tim Kirk

Can you tell me a little about what you are working on today?  
TK: After leaving Imagineering in 2002, my brother and I and my brother’s wife, Kathy, founded Kirk Design Inc. For 10 years we worked on a variety of theme park and museum projects, including the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, for Paul Allen, and the Parsonage of iconic evangelist and faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Foursquare Church, here in Los Angeles. Since then I’ve done a lot of contract work for Imagineering, including concept work on Mickey Avenue for Shanghai Disneyland, which just opened this Spring. I’ve also done character design for a couple of (non Disney) Chinese theme parks. I’m currently employed by a wonderful themed entertainment design company, The Hettema Group, in Pasadena, California. I also still do book illustration work and private commissions.

 

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