Imagineer Spotlight: Leota Toombs….and Family

There is one Imagineer you know very well, only you might not realize you know her. Her name is Leota Toombs, and her story is amazing.

Ink and Paint Dept – Disney Animation

It all started at Ink and Paint, which was only women. These women, though, had all the same skills as the men, but it was believed that animation could only be done by men. The men did the drawings, but the “girls,” as the “men” called them, made the drawings into the art we see in the movies. There were approximately 100 women at Ink and Paint in the 1940s, mostly under 25.

The “Inkers” were considered “Queens.” Not only did they have to perfectly trace the animators’ pencil lines on the celluloid (called cels), but they also had to capture the feeling of what the animators intended. The Painters had to apply the colors (which were all made in-house) exactly in the traced lines of the Inkers and quickly so that the paint didn’t streak. An 18-year-old Leota Wharton started at Ink & Paint, and was quickly promoted to Animation as an “In-Betweener.” In-Betweeners were tasked with refining the keyframes drawn by principal animators, as well as creating in-between frames that detailed the precise movements and gestures assigned to a specific character, such as Snow White, or Pinocchio.

Speaking of Pinocchio, while working on the re-release, she met lead animator Harvey Toombs. Four years later they were married, and Leota stepped away from the company to raise their two children. Fast forward 15 years…..

Leota working on a model of Country Bear Jamboree

After Disneyland opened, Walt Disney and WED were desperately scouring all their departments for the most talented among them to keep the parks in the specific detail they envisioned. They reached out to Toombs at home and offered her a position. She started working in the model shop, as it was called at the time, only 1 of 4 women in what is now known as Walt Disney Imagineering, crafting, painting, and detailing models and figure-finishing. She was known as an “immaculate figure-finisher” and spent much of her time touching up the makeup, hair, and clothing on the swashbuckling Pirates of the Caribbean, constantly fixing and tweaking to make their expressions and styles exactly right. She first worked on the 1964-65 World’s Fair, working specifically on it’s a small world animatronics and Mr. Lincoln himself for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

After completing work on the World’s Fair, she began working on Disneyland attractions. Of course, she played a role in moving Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and it’s a small world from New York to Disneyland. She also worked on Pirates of the Caribbean, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and the Country Bear Jamboree.

Madame Leota
Blink and you’ll miss it!

But perhaps you know her head the best….that’s right, Leota Toombs is THE Leota. The Haunted Mansion took YEARS to develop. Eventually, the Imagineers envisioned a disembodied head speaking to guests via crystal ball. They had first approached Harriet Burns, but it turns out her features weren’t quite right. Enter: Leota Toombs.

Her features were exactly what Yale Gracey (that’s Master Gracey to you, foolish mortals) was after.

Daughter Kim Irvine, who was 15 at the time, said:

When Yale Gracey was experimenting with ideas for a gypsy in a crystal ball, he asked Leota if she would mind posing for the head. They were a close-knit group and mom said she thought it sounded fun. Blaine (Gibson) made a life mask of her face, and Yale, Wather (Rogers), and the rest of the team filmed her, crazy make up and all! I still remember when she wore it home that night! Then they created the “Little Leota” bride at the end of the ride. Since that figure is small, they wanted a high voice, so they kept mom’s voice because she sounded like a little girl

Kim Irvine

When Disneyland created The Nightmare Before Christmas overlay, Imagineers wanted to use a new incantation for the seance room, so they turned to Kim Irvine. She said “funny thing is, they discovered that our life masks are so similar they can just project her face on my head and they match up perfectly! Mom would have liked that!”

In 1971, Leota moved to Orlando, where she set up and trained a team of Imagineers who would be responsible for maintaining shows and attractions. She returned to Disneyland in 1979, where she trained artisans and figure-finishers. Unfortunately, Leota Toombs Thompson died in December 1991.

Disney Imagineers Kim Irvine Credit: Courtesy Disney
Disney Imagineers Leota Toombs Credit: Courtesy Disney

Kim Irvine serves as the current Executive Creative Director at Walt Disney Imagineering. Every morning, she walks into Disneyland and hears Little Leota’s voice from the halls of the Haunted Mansion, and she says “Good morning, Mom!” She didn’t want to be an Imagineer, because she said they would be hard shoes to fill, but she was hired in 1970 to work as an Intern at the launch of Walt Disney World. She ended up painting, of all things, the dolls for it’s a small world, and turned that into a life-long career (you can see her on Disney+ in many episodes of the Imagineering Story). She was trained by her mother. “It was a unique situation to be trained by your mom! She was a wonderful teacher and friend. Anyone who knew her loved her, and many Imagineers owe some of their success to her for passing on the tribal knowledge that is so important to our product.” says Irvine.

Irvine is responsible for the classic look of Disneyland, and is credited with the greatest expansion in the park’s history: Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Disney Imagineers Ali and Kim 2015 60th Animated Windows Credit: Courtesy Disney

Ali Irvine-Wheeler, Leota Toombs’ Granddaughter, is ALSO an Imagineer. She used to pretend to be sick and then go into the shop with her mom. She became an Imagineer in 2017, following the birth of her daughter, named Leota. It truly is a family affair at a family-oriented company. Ali is currently working on the Frozen-themed land for Hong Kong Disneyland. Kim knows that you have to answer to the fans and, in her position, spends a ton of time just wandering around the park.

I spend a lot of time walking through the park. There isn’t a day that I don’t spend at least an hour out there. As a mentor to the younger kids, I tell them constantly, ‘You’ve got to know your audience and understand what they like to ride, what they’re saying about the attractions, what food they’re gravitating to. Be out there in the crowd, listening to them and watching how they react to a new walk-around character, or what they’re saying when they come out of an attraction after we’ve changed it.

Kim Irvine

I mean, is this not the greatest story? THREE generations of Imagineers. THREE women. Unbelievable. Next time you hear Little Leota to tell you to hurry back, think of the First Family of Imagineering!!

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