The Minds Who Built Disney: John Hench

March 21, 2013

This is a guest post from James Marshall, lead writer at The Orlando Vacation Tips Blog.

“There are so many stories to tell from my years of traveling and working with John.” – Marty Sklar (visa president of creative development 1974-2006, international ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering 2006-09 and and recognized as a Disney Legend in 2001).

“If you think about it, right now, at this very minute, somewhere in the world there are people enjoying John’s special gifts. John has given us all something more, something special – magic.” – Frank Gehry (Pritzker Prize-winning architect responsible for building Walt Disney Concert Hall).
In his 65 years as an employee of The Walt Disney Company, John Hench has seen the creative of nearly every Disney animated feature and theme park. He began his career with the company in 1939 in the animation department. Hench was very respected by Walt as one of the studio’s most gifted artists and teamed him with Salvador Dali on the animated short “Destino.” By 1954, he had moved to the studio’s love action department and was working as lead developer of the hydraulic giant squid in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, helping to win an Academy Award for Best Special Effects in a film.


He eventually moved to WED Enterprises (now known as Walt Disney Imagineering), to help with the construction of Disneyland. In his time spent on the project he was also responsible for “Space Mountain,” “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln,” “It’s a Small World” and “Carousel of Progress.”

Hench had a lot of resemblance to Walt Disney and on the many occasions that he visited Disneyland, he was often mistaken for Walt himself. Guests would approach him asking for an autograph and to pose for a picture.

John was once asked to replace Walt Disney (not because of his resemblance) at ribbon cutting ceremony in a reconstructed New Orleans. At the ceremony the local press asked him what he thought about the cleanup and changes, expecting a nice quote. Walt always told John to share his expert knowledge with everyone and so John replied with “Disneyland would never stink like this.” As you can imagine, that hit the national wire and Walt read it. When John flew back, he was greeted by his driver for the ride home – it was Walt! Walt asked him, “What were you thinking?” For half the drive home Walt was visibly upset at him and John said it made for a very difficult ride home. But about halfway home, Walt said the real reason that he came to pick him up was that he was thinking about a new project and wanted to talk it over with John. By the end of the drive home, John was put in charge of the project.


In 1990, he received the Disney Legend award which is the company’s highest honor.

Hench continued to maintain an office at Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, CA. and worked there daily until a few weeks before his death. His name tag and 65-year service award are displayed in the main lobby, and tributes by fellow Imagineers line its hallways.

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