In 1952, Walt Disney hired art director Richard “Dick” Irvine away from 20th Century Fox to act as liaison between Walt Disney Productions and an architectural firm being considered to design Disneyland. After a few preliminary meetings with the architects, however, Dick and Walt concluded that the people who could best design the Magic Kingdom were members of Walt’s own staff.
Walt Disney Imagineering Senior Vice President John Hench recalled, “Because Dick had worked with movie set designs, creating structures and settings, he understood our needs more than standard architects, such as ‘forced’ perspective, making things smaller to give the illusion of being farther away, and other optical values.”
Dick was convinced that Disney motion picture artists, art directors, and technicians, with their imaginative know-how and theatrical experience, could produce an outstanding theme park. And so Walt proceeded with his own staff, forming what is now known as Walt Disney Imagineering—the design and engineering arm of the Company charged with developing theme parks.
In launching the world’s first theme park, Dick helped establish and lead the new team of artists, architects, designers, and engineers, known as Imagineers.
With such a brilliant staff of dreamers and doers on board, anything seemed possible; as Dick once recalled, “Heavens! The dream was wide open.”
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 5, 1910, Dick moved with his family to Southern California in 1922. The son of a prominent Los Angeles ophthalmologist, he attended Stanford University and the University of Southern California, followed by Chouinard Art Institute.
In the early 1930s, he entered the motion picture business and, in 1941, earned an Academy Award® nomination for his art direction on Sundown, a United Artists film directed by Walter Wanger.
Soon after, Dick joined the Walt Disney Studio where he worked for a short time on films that combined live-action footage with animation, such as The Three Caballeros. After World War II he went to Fox, but returned eight years later when Walt asked for his help with Disneyland.
Until his retirement in 1973, Dick headed design and planning for all Disneyland attractions, ranging from Haunted Mansion to Pirates of the Caribbean. He also guided the creation of attractions featured at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, including it’s a small world. Dick went on to help shape the master plan and attractions for Walt Disney World and, in 1967, was appointed executive vice president and chief operations officer of WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering).
Richard Irvine passed away on March 30, 1976, in Los Angeles. Walt Disney World’s second paddle wheel steamship, the Richard F. Irvine, was named in his honor until it was re-christened Liberty Belle in 1996. Subsequently, one of the ferries that transports guests across the Seven Seas Lagoon to the Magic Kingdom was re-christened Richard F. Irvine so as to continue to honor Dick’s contributions.