January 17, 1913 – Birth of Disney Legend Claude Coats.
Claude Coats (L) showing the Pirates attraction to Julie Reihm and Walt Disney.
“His energy, curiosity and drive to create new experiences for our Disney park guests made him a leader and a teacher for all of us. He was a genuine one-of-a-kind.” – Marty Sklar, Walt Disney Imagineering President.
Claude Coats had a prolific career at the Walt Disney Studios: He began with creating the fantastical watercolor backgrounds in Pinocchio, and eventually became one of the lead developers of Walt Disney World attractions, including several World Showcase Pavilions at EPCOT Center. One of the few employees to receive a 50-year service award, Coats retired in 1984 after 54 years with Disney.
Born January 17, 1913, in San Francisco, Coats was raised in Los Angeles, and attended the University of Southern California, graduating with a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts in 1934. He attended the Chouinard Art Institute, studying watercolor painting and becoming an active member of the California Water Color Society. Through the society, he was hired by Disney as an apprentice background painter in June 1935. Coats worked on backgrounds and color stylings of such films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Dumbo, Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, and Peter Pan. His watercolor background work on Pinocchio, however, continues to be lauded by animation critics and art collectors alike. Coats took the paintings of the village and Geppetto’s workshop by artist Gustaf Tenggren, and turned them into backgrounds “with the most appetizing appeal,” said animation historian, John Culhane. Coats’ eye for color was also used on several acclaimed short films, including The Old Mill and Ferdinand the Bull, both Academy Award winners.
Coats took on a new role in1955, when he became one of the elite artists brought in to work with WED Enterprises (now known as Walt Disney Imagineering). As part of the development team for several attractions, beginning with Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Coats helped bring Disney’s vision for Disneyland into being. He worked on several popular attractions, including The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and Submarine Voyage. Coats and Imagineer Herb Ryman were tasked with the darker rides in Fantasyland, including Peter Pan’s Flight. Coats also used his skills while working on the The 1964 New York World’s Fair attractions, including The Carousel of Progress and It’s a Small World.
Coats appeared in the Disneyland 10th Anniversary Episode on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (see the January 3rd entry), introduced by Walt as “the Imagineer in charge of the pirate project.” He explains staging a scene in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, where one character is being forced to walk the plank, to Walt and Julie Reihm during the episode.
Coats went on to design attractions for Walt Disney World, including The Mickey Mouse Review, Universe of Energy, and several World Showcase pavilions. He also worked on the international parks, including the Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour for Tokyo Disneyland. After 54 years of work for the Disney Company, Coats retired in November 1984, and was inducted as a Disney Legend at the October 22, 1991 ceremony. He passed away in Burbank, California, on January 9, 1992.