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Bruce Bushman, Disney Legend

Original imagineer Bruce Bushman has not been recognized by the Walt Disney Company as a "Legend," and that's an omission—he had a tremendous influence on the design of Disneyland.

Bruce Bushman at work on 20,000 Leagues
(Photo courtesy of Chris Bushman)
Bruce was born in New Jersey on April 20, 1911, the son of film star Francis X. Bushman and his first wife, Josephine Fladune. He and his brothers and sisters were raised in Baltimore by their mother. Josephine moved to Santa Monica, California in the late 1920s and Bruce followed around 1931. He attended UCLA and the Chouinard Art Institute and made his living as an artist before joining Walt Disney Productions in the late 1930s.

Bruce was a layout artist on Pinocchio (1940), co-art directed the Nutcracker Suite sequence in Fantasia (1940), and laid out many short cartoons. His first screen credit was on the short First Aiders (1944), and he contributed to the classic short Pigs is Pigs (1954).

Bushman became a sketch artist for the live action film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in late 1953, visualizing props and adding animated special effects. He worked with Harper Goff, the film's art director, and with veteran Disney hands John Hench and Don DaGradi. As the studio's attention turned to Disneyland in 1954, Bruce was one of the leading magicians.

Comfortable working in three-dimensions, Bruce could visualize curving boat hulls and exaggerated architecture. He began sketching rides based on Disney films: a Ferris wheel styled like The Old Mill, a 1937 short; a shoot-the-chutes sliding down the tongue of Monstro the Whale from Pinocchio. He worked with kiddieland owner and ride manufacturer Dave Bradley to understand what makes rides attractive to children.

It's about showcasing the customer, Bradley said that he told Bruce. Based on the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence in Dumbo (1941), Bruce sketched a pink elephant ride where the children would be in control—raising and lowering their elephant as they pleased. Look at me! Riding a train or the steamboat, or being one of a herd of guests on a jungle launch was not the same as flying your own elephant in front of Mom and Dad and everyone.
Bruce Bushman's sketch of the Pink Elephant ride that became Dumbo Flying Elephants. The mechanism shown would not have had individual elevation controls. (© Walt Disney Company)

“I can’t draw,” kiddieland operator Dave Bradley explained, “but I could talk to Bruce Bushman.” Bushman would sketch as Dave talked, Dave would critique and Bruce would draw a new version.

Bushman studied successful rides from parks around the country and imagined Disneyfied versions. Susie the Little Blue Coupe, a 1952 short, could inspire a child's roundabout; Little Pedro, the airplane from Saludos Amigos (1942), might soar over Fantasyland. A commercially-available mirror maze could be re-themed as the scene in the queen's garden in Alice in Wonderland (1951).

The team puzzled over how to introduce Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and the other characters. "At one point, we went all Brobdingnagian," Dave Bradley recalled, and sketched a fifty-foot tall Goofy whose legs you would have to pass under to enter an area. [Bradley's vocabulary sent me to the Internet: Brobdingnag was the land of giants described in Gulliver's Travels (1726).] In the end, the familiar characters were left out.

Bumper cars, also known as Dodgems, were a perennial favorite at traditional parks and amusement piers. Riders steered individual cars inside a dark, noisy arena, and Walt didn't like it. The arena was dark because the low ceiling provided electric power to the cars. Walt wanted sunshine and light.

Bushman imagined bumper cars on water—each vehicle a big round innertube. The boats would be steered by turning their little engines, like an outboard motor, and an innovative sweep arm would corral the boats and keep them still for loading and unloading. (No Disney idea is ever forgotten—this approach was employed in 1961 for the Flying Saucers.) Brilliantly, Bushman gave each boat a post raising Donald Duck's face up high. From a distance, the Duck Bumps lagoon would seem to be a scrum of squabbling ducks.
Bruce Bushman's Duck Bumps concept with Old Mill Ferris Wheel (© Walt Disney Company)
As the ideas for Fantasyland began to come together (the Peter Pan and Snow White rides had been decided, but not much else), Bushman sketched overall layouts combining his attraction concepts. Dumbo (1941) and Peter Pan (1953) emerged as prime sources for theming. Cap'n Hook's pirate ship, docked at the quay, had been a persistent idea since 1953—pre-dating even Herb Ryman's overall rendering of the park. Everyone liked the Dumbo/elephant ride—the pink elephants became gray Dumbos during development—so Bushman began imagining a circus area around it, with decorated circus wagons, side shows, and a roller coaster based on the little engine that could--the Casey, Jr. Circus Train.

Bruce's early drawings of fanciful rides were featured prominently in the January 1955 McCall's magazine's Disneyland preview. The giant-sized Brobdingnag concept survives in the huge tea cups spinning in the wheels within wheels ride platform that Dave Bradley credits to Jack Eyerly and which was built by Arrow Development.

Walt had always wanted a carrousel (he preferred the French spelling, with two "r"s), and Bruce was assigned to art direct the carrousel as the centerpiece of Fantasyland. This made Bushman the de facto liaison with Arrow Development, a ride manufacturer in Mountain View, California that won the contract to renovate the merry-go-round. (Disney bought the vintage ride from a defunct Toronto, Canada, amusement park.) Bruce ended up working with Arrow to refurbish the carrousel—and to build Dumbo, the Mad Tea Party, the Casey, Jr. Circus Train, and the wheeled dark ride vehicles.

Bushman proposed a third dark ride, this one a frenetic, madcap ride themed to the first half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), based on "The Wind in the Willows." Though only loosely based on the film, the ride could be loads of fun—veering recklessly from one misadventure to another. Bushman sketched a ride vehicle, a caricature of a 1903 Maxwell, and asked Arrow for their opinion. To Bruce's surprise, they responded by building a prototype.

Bruce ended up designing the vehicles for all three dark rides and became something of an expert on designing ride seating. His first concept for Snow White vehicles was not used—Bruce's drawing featured Dopey peeking over the front of the car at the riders. The front wall of the vehicle was designed, in part, to preserve the modesty of women in skirts, so the sketch was a bit off-color, as they used to say.

Peter Pan vehicles (left) and unrealized Snow White concept (right). (Photo from Stuff from the Park/Matterhorn1959 © Walt Disney Company)
Bushman's design for the Peter Pan vehicles was especially clever. Many artists worked on the ride and the show elements—Marvin Davis, Bill Martin, Ken Anderson, Ralph Hulett, Claude Coats and others—so it's not clear if anyone shares the credit with Bushman for the vehicle design. The show is seen from a miniature version of Cap'n Hook's pirate galleon. The tall fantail serves as a headrest, the lower gunwales amidship allows for loading and for viewing the show over the side, and the single billowing sail in front hides the track from which the vehicles are suspended. Even the vehicle's keel acts as a stabilizer at the load/unload.

In working out the galleon vehicle designs, Bushman could call on the artists who had created the ship (it's the Jolly Roger in J. M. Barrie's play, but unnamed in the Walt Disney version) for the animated feature. Don DaGradi, who was transitioning to the Story department at the time, was apparently a sailing ship hobbyist. DaGradi and Bushman are given credit on a second-story Main Street window for their contribution: Ship Models.

Bushman didn't work alone, of course. Once the Peter Pan vehicle design was drawn, sculptor Chris Mueller realized it, full size, in clay. A company founded by ex-Disney model-maker Bob Jones was hired to cast seven fiberglass replicas to fit tubular steel ride vehicle frames.

Crocodile Aquarium, possibly inspired by Children's Fairyland. (© Walt Disney Company)
Bushman and DaGradi, with help, also created the Pirate Ship that was initially sponsored by Chicken of the Sea tuna. Another case of extreme cleverness. Consider how to park a galleon and get people aboard. A long steep gangplank? Should the boat be in a pit so that the street is level with the main deck? A bridge from a dockside structure? The designers put a door in the side of the boat and no one questioned it for a moment. Surrounded by water (not tied up to the quay), with soaring masts and rigging and an enormous fantail topped by a huge ship's lantern, who notices a door at the water line?
A door into the ship's problem! The ship is an energy-absorbing play structure. (Photo by Merica and Jim Curran)
There are few stories of Bruce Bushman's involvement after Disneyland opened. The development of Storybook Land for 1956 affected the Casey, Jr. ride, but Bruce's name is not mentioned in that context. (The Casey, Jr. ride wasn't ready for opening day and suffered because it was too harsh for a kiddie ride and not exciting enough to be a roller coaster. Perhaps Walt blamed Bruce for these problems.)

Bruce worked on the Mickey Mouse Club television show, which debuted during the park's first fall. Bushman left Disney in late 1959 or 1960 and worked with producer Ivan Tors on Tors' television productions Sea Hunt, Bat Masterson, and Gentle Ben. He worked for Hanna-Barbera on The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Jonny Quest, including sketches for a proposed Hanna Barbera Land park. Sadly, Bruce Bushman passed away at the age of 60 in 1972.

Bruce Bushman was Walt's key Fantasyland designer.


  1. Such an interesting and informative discussion introducing me to someone so influential to Disneyland, that I've never heard of. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for a great read...a nice and informative tribute.

  3. Extremely great article about some of my dad's work. You don't hear about it too much.

    Chris Bushman

  4. Definitely should be one of the 'legends'.

  5. This is a wonderful article on a true Disney Legend.

    After Bruce Bushman left Disney he went to work on designing a 220 acre theme park that was to "rival Disneyland". Planned to be built on Route 66 in the early 1960's, Bible Storyland Theme Park was the idea of ex Disney VP Nat Winecoff, who was joined by actor Jack Haley (Oz's Tin Man), and entrepreneur Donald Duncan Sr. (the YoYo King). Of course the park was never built but it does live on in an award winning feature documentary called: "Ride to Heaven" and website with dozens of images by Bushman.


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