Always interested in devising gadgets and building models, layout artist Yale Gracey’s office at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank was always cluttered with his lunch-hour experiments. One Saturday afternoon, as Walt Disney made his rounds through the deserted offices to see what his staff was working on during the week, he came across one of Yale’s mock-ups which featured the illusion of falling snow. Impressed, Walt later asked the gadgeteer to help research and develop attractions for Disneyland.
John Hench, former senior vice president of creative development at Walt Disney Imagineering, once recalled, “Whenever we needed a special effect, we went to Yale. Sometimes it took a while to get what we were asking for; however, along the way he’d develop other marvelous effects we could use. I remember one time we asked him to create a particular illusion and in the process of experimenting he developed a gopher bomb, which we all used in our yards. It worked very well!”
The son of an American consul, Yale was born in Shanghai, China, on September 3, 1910. He attended an English boarding school and, after graduation, moved to the United States. There, he attended the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles.
In 1939, Yale joined The Walt Disney Studios as a layout artist working on the animated classic Pinocchio. He did the same for Fantasia. He also contributed to the layouts and backgrounds of animated shorts featuring Donald Duck and other characters.
In 1961, Yale began the second and most significant stage of his Disney career as a special effects and lighting artist at Walt Disney Imagineering, then called WED Enterprises. With no special effects training other than his own hands-on experimentation, Yale worked as a research and development designer creating illusions. These included the “grim, grinning ghosts” featured in the Haunted Mansion and the flames of the burning city in Pirates of the Caribbean. He also contributed to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair attractions, including the Carousel of Progress; for that show, he developed a pixie dust projector that blocked out everything on stage during scene changes via the illusion of glimmering pixie dust. The technology is also used in Space Mountain to block out the surrounding roller coaster structure.
After 36 years with the company, Yale retired on October 4, 1975. He continued to consult on special effects and lighting for attractions at Walt Disney World and Epcot Center, including the breathtaking “CenterCore” finale of the World of Motion attraction.
Yale Gracey passed away in Los Angeles, California, on September 5, 1983.