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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar


By Gary Scott

We meet just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, about 30 yards from Hollywood and less than half a mile from the Matterhorn. Lurking here somewhere is a mouse with large ears.

As we walk inside, through the turnstiles, I am struck by a huge, golden-orange metallic sculpture. It is the Sun Icon, Barry Braverman ’69 explains, and it remains lighted throughout the day, as long as there is even a sliver of sun in the sky; in other words, if the sun shines on California, it is reflected here.

We make an immediate left and saunter nonchalantly into the Hollywood Pictures Backlot. As we step onto the set that is not a set, I notice there has been a seamless change of scene. When I mention this, Braverman’s face curves into a smile. That was the goal, he says, to make sure there are as few contradictions in the layout of Disney’s California Adventure as possible. Each part is designed to serve the story, and the story is the thing that holds a theme park together.

He ought to know. He designed the place.

Along this street, which plays like a mirror image of a mirror image, sits Disney Animation—not the place where the animated movies are made, but a place where they are unmade. Here, the building blocks of Walt Disney’s success are revealed: from the moment a whistling mouse guided his little steamboat across a motion picture screen, Disney wound itself into the American fabric with a promise that, for a few moments at least, our world could be transformed into a happy place.

The path from the street into the auditorium is a windy one. Inside, scenes from some of Disney’s best-known animated features are projected alongside original drawings from the same films. Braverman says the aim is to give guests a glimpse of the artistry and craft behind the movies.

“These animated films are ingrained in us,” he says. “They are part of our culture.”

Through another zigzagging passage, we enter one of the interactive rooms. Two youths crouch over strips of paper. Each strip has six cells in which to draw a sequence of pictures that will become one’s personal cartoon. One of the boys finishes his drawing and places it inside the zoetrope. Braverman watches intently as the harmless little monster that the boy has created draws back behind a wall – over and over as the zeotrope revolves.

“What this is is just drawing and motion,” Braverman says as we hurry on to Ursula’s Grotto, a room that gives an oddly eerie feeling of being sucked inside a sea serpent. There, three dark-haired girls crowd around a karaoke-type machine to lend their voices to a scene from “The Little Mermaid.” They pay us little mind as we pass through to the Sorcerer’s Workshop. We watch as a boy discovers his cartoon doppelganger is the candlestick from “Beauty and the Beast.” He looks disappointed, but if he wanted something tougher he should have chosen ‘eat your friends for dinner’ rather than ‘invite your friends to dinner.’

Braverman is pleased with the engagement these young people show. The former teacher has spent much of his career with Disney working on projects that not only entertain but also inform.

All of a sudden I realize that the room has been subtly changing character, turning from bright to dark, warm browns to moody purples, welcoming to foreboding.

“It’s all about transformation,” he says as we continue back outside.

That word, transformation, will follow us throughout the visit, like when he reminds me we are standing on what used to be Disneyland’s parking lot—an interesting plot twist.

It is also a word that resounds in Braverman’s life.

He was born in Pittsburgh, but his formative years were spent in Southern California, first in Woodland Hills and later in Tustin. It was a time before suburban sprawl, when Southern California still had small places.

Like most boys, Braverman was drawn to Disneyland with its promise of wild and fantastic rides. As he grew older, it became a destination for dating. He remembers going there on cool evenings and listening to the big jazz bands of the day like Count Basie’s Orchestra.

Disney was not the center of Braverman’s world, however. It was entertainment, a place to go to and go home from. He never considered it might offer him a career.

Braverman was the oldest of three boys. Unlike his brothers, who tinkered with electrical and mechanical equipment in the garage, Braverman was drawn to exploring the world through reading and television.

“I was always a dreamer,” he says.

When he left for Pomona College, the dream included law school and, if all went well, a run for the United States Senate. He majored in economics and English, but a confluence of self-discovery and the times changed the course of his life.

“As a junior, I began to understand the right side of my brain,” he says. Braverman was also “very much” a part of the counterculture of the late ’60s. He drifted from his original plan and by the end of his college career was more interested in his creative writing and ceramics classes than plotting for the U.S. Senate.

When he graduated in 1969, the prospect of being drafted for Vietnam kept him from loafing. He followed his wife-to-be, Paula Richardson, to San Francisco and followed his mother into the teaching profession. “I decided I was going to change the world one student at a time,” he says.

He taught sixth graders for four years in Ukiah. During this time, he developed a passion for learning how children learn. He rejected the working theory that they are empty vessels to be filled with information. “I was a radical teacher. I refused to give grades, I created my own curriculum…I made it harder for myself, but it was a great growth time for me.”

He started researching and writing about cognitive and early childhood development. As he developed curricula, he began looking at how technology could offer different types of learning experiences.

“I wanted to produce, to put together artists and technologies,” he says. “This was my bridge to Disney.”

While seeking teaching materials and ideas from a Walt Disney “imagineer,” he left such an impression that in 1977 he was asked to work on a project at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center. He decided to take the job.

Braverman would eventually help develop a number of interactive attractions there and was soon named executive director of design. He spent 17 years at EPCOT, taking off for a few years in the mid-1980s to start his own software company.

After his success in Florida, he returned to Southern California and was chosen to lead a second team of designers to develop a new theme park in Anaheim. It took almost six years to bring Disney’s California Adventure from germ to reality. Braverman first proposed the concept—the California experience —during a 1995 summit in Aspen, Colorado. The goal was to expand Disneyland and create a West Coast counterpart to Disney World, he explains.

There were obvious constraints, he notes, considering the urban landscape that surrounds the park. When Disneyland was built in the 1950s, it was cut out of an orange grove, but Anaheim grew in the intervening years. This made planning a much more difficult task than anything he faced in Florida.

While creating the park, Braverman says he and his team at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, which recently celebrated its 50th year, used some of the most advanced computer imaging systems around. Four-dimensional models (the fourth dimension being time) were created using state-of-the-art computer technology that allowed the team to construct and deconstruct the park layout without building a thing. They could make instantaneous corrections for safety, space or convenience, and plan for continuity both in the way people move around the park and in making seamless transitions.

“It was all done with an eye toward the story line,” Braverman says. “We wanted everything to serve the story.”

Braverman called the cutting-edge technology a “virtual build area.” It was licensed to architect Frank Gehry for his design of the new Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

“It’s all about creativity through technology,” Braverman says, adding, “I love always being on the learning curve. Imagineering really gives me that.”

Of course, a good design is good design, regardless of technology. While standing in line for Soarin’ Over California, the orange-scented fly-by of California’s major outdoor attractions, a young man asked Braverman if it was true the ride was designed on an erector set. Braverman acknowledged that it was.

Soarin’ is located in the Condor Flats, the section of the park is meant to reflect the state’s high desert history with aircraft development and experimentation. When we enter, we find ourselves walking down the middle of a runway. The flats are designed to elicit George and Edwards Air Force Bases—a replica of a Bell experimental jet, similar to the one used by Chuck Yeager to break the speed of sound, bursts out of one of the buildings.

As the ticket taker at Soarin’ asks how many in our flight, I remember that Braverman said his father was an aerospace engineer.

Once we are strapped in, we are scooped about six stories into the air. “It is an airborne Omnimax,” Braverman tells me. Staring straight ahead at a white screen, I begin to feel an intense sense of motion. The screen has dissolved into clouds and we are sailing through them. We descend over the Golden Gate, then wind along a Northern California river, circle Yosemite Valley, crest the Tahoe range, drop back down to the desert where a pair of jet fighters scream by, skim an orange grove in the Central Valley, sweep around Malibu bay and then drop in to Disneyland for fireworks. (By the way, that mouse’s picture was on a golf ball that sailed past us in Palm Springs.)

Pictures and motion, Braverman explains again. In all seriousness, it is a moving experience.

After our adventure, we sit down in Napa and sip California wine while looking out over Cannery Row. “I like that there are places you can kick back a little. I don’t want the whole park to be frenetic,” he says.

He tells me that his immediate plan is to bring California’s cultural heritage into DCA. He admits this will take a lot of careful research and sensitivity, but says it is an integral part of the California experience.

“I look at what I do as my work, and I take it very seriously,” Braverman reflects. “When I’m not at work, I’m not Disney. I can bring more to my job if I can feed my soul and mind with a real diversity of inputs. I try to get as much stimulus as I can so when I come back to work, I have new ideas.”

He still reads a lot, plays guitar and spends time with his two teenage kids, Lily and Ben. “I love traveling, I love the diversity of life. I love to see real stuff, real people doing work. It fascinates me to see that.”

He also credits his experiences at Pomona for his creative prowess: “I am a firm believer in a liberal arts education. I was exposed to philosophy, history, literature, writing—it enables me to bring a lot of depth and breadth to what I do.”

For the next few years, Braverman says he will continue to work on evolving the Anaheim resort. This includes some renovation and preservation of Disneyland and further development of DCA. Other than that, he is not sure what’s next.

“I love my job. It’s never the same; it’s always starting over.”

—Gary Scott is a reporter for the Pasadena Star-News and
a frequent contributor to PCM.

Photos by David Zaitz.