Harriet Burns: The First Lady of Imagineering

There have been many, many, many Imagineers over the years, and they have each played an integral role in the development of all things Disney Parks. But back in 1955, Harriet Burns became the first female Imagineer. She was known for her sleek styling, continually dressing in high heels and stylish skirts. This, naturally, made her stand out amongst her male counterparts and the power tools used in building sets and models. She was hired in 1955 to work on the Mickey Mouse Club. There, she helped build and design the Mouse Clubhouse, which served as the centerpiece of the show.

Burns shared a work station with Fred Joerger, who was a model builder for WED Enterprises. Together, they worked on models for Disneyland Park, in addition to Burns job as a set builder. Originally, WED Enterprises had 3 members: Burns, Joerger, and Wathel Rogers. WED Enterprises then became the WED Model Shop, before officially becoming what is now known as Walt Disney Imagineering.

“It was the 1950s,” she later explained. “I wore color-coordinated dresses, high heels, and gloves to work. Girls didn’t wear slacks back then, although I carried a pair in a little sack, just in case I had to climb into high places.”

-Harriet Burns

Harriet Burns first began work designing the model for just this one tiny thing for Disneyland: Sleeping Beauty Castle. You know, no big deal. Next, she began working on the model for the Matterhorn Bobsleds, a 1/100 scale of Switzerland’s Matterhorn Mountain. She also built the model for, and designed, New Orleans Square, including the Haunted Mansion, Storybook Land, Pirates of the Caribbean, and more.

In addition to model-building, she was also seen doing figure-finishing, or applying paint and other finishing touches to attractions and mannequins to create the “finished” look. Famously, she personally feathered ALL of the Tiki Birds in the Enchanted Tiki Room, and gave them their lifelike appearances, including making them appear to be breathing. She also finished the pirates, going so far as to give each pirate ACTUAL LEG HAIR.

I’m not sure if you know this, but Harriet Burns is, in fact, responsible for the fact that birds sing words. She built a miniature model of the entire Pirates of the Caribbean ride, placing each scene and pirate meticulously out so that everyone could visualize what they would design. I mean, absolutely incredible.

She personally designed and painted the set pieces and underwater figurines for the submarine voyage ride, in addition to the famous magic of the Haunted Mansion.

But not only did she do this work at Disneyland, she also worked on designing for the 1964 World’s Fair, where she did figure finishing and set design for both the Carousel of Progress and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. She also made regular appearances on The Wonderful World of Color with Walt Disney himself.

Harriet Burns was the first woman in Disney History to be honored with a Main St USA window, located in Walt Disney World. She is also memorialized in the Haunted Mansion’s graveyard. So many great Imagineers are honored in these ways, and I encourage you to pay close attention the next time you’re there!

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