Trowel Talk: The House That Mouse Built ... With Plaster
Walt Disney opened Disneyland to the public in 1955, and for over 53 years it has been a place of wonder and amazement for children of all ages that became a symbol of American culture shared with the entire world. Today it’s difficult to find anyone anywhere who doesn’t immediately recognize the Disney icon, Mickey Mouse. But have you ever wondered who helped Walt and Mickey turn that orange grove into a magical place filled with all sorts of wonderful buildings and features that are such an important aspect of the Disney experience? I’m going to share a little known secret with you: Plasterers and lathers were, and still are, a very important part of the creation of almost every attraction at the Disney amusement parks. From the original snow-capped Matterhorn Mountain of the original Disneyland to the granite rocks of Grizzly Peak at the center of the newest Disney theme park, California Adventure; practically everything the public comes into direct contract with is made from metal lath and portland cement plaster.
Creating the IllusionLath and portland cement plaster are used extensively to simulate brick, stone, trees and rocks. The Disney parks continue to evolve in order to offer new and exciting features to lure us back again and again. By utilizing the versatility of stucco to simulate hard items like brick and stone, the designers can shape their structures in any way imaginable, and not be burdened by the weight or other restrictions of the real item. Quite often trees and wood are also simulated; this not only allows the flexibility of creating any kind of illusion imaginable, but stucco is far more durable than wood and can withstand the abuse of the millions of little hands and feet that pass through the park every year. In photo 2 you can see how the plasterer has carved in the delicate grain of wood, even feathering it to appear weathered.
CALIFORNIA ADVENTUREIn 2001 the newest of Disney’s theme parks opened to the public, California Adventure. According to Plasterers Union No. 200 Business Agent, Russ Nicholson, over 200 journeymen and apprentice plasterers and 17 contractors were hired to create illusions synonymous with all that is unique to California. These include features like a granite mountain with a top that looks like a grizzly bear, or giant redwood trees, all painstakingly designed, modeled and created in the middle of what used to be Disneyland’s parking lot. Some of the features created for California Adventure must provide a dual illusion; Photo 6 shows an example of a granite rock that is also a bear cub, each illusion morphed successfully to achieve a magical result.
There are approximately 50 plasterers, sculptors, model-makers and shop hands who are members of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association that work at the California theme parks. Their jobs range from maintaining the existing facilities and making minor additions or changes to the stucco illusion, to making molds and casting fiberglass or composite pieces for signs, character costumes, and ride enclosures. The next time you take a ride through a pirate’s hideaway or a trip down a roaring river, remember the fiberglass enclosure you’re sitting in was probably built and maintained by a plasterer.
The relationship between Disney and the plasterers union in California has been a model of success for both parties. A small team of art directors working for Disney supervise the illusions these skilled craftsmen create. At times, it’s hard to know who is the art director and who is the plasterer, as collaboration is key to getting the details just right and bringing the dream to a reality.
California Apprenticeship ContestWith such a strong relationship, it’s no wonder that Disney played host to the California Plasterers Contest in August. The annual event was held in the parking lot of the Disneyland hotel.
Contestants from throughout the western United States, brought with them their tools and skills to showcase the future of the plastering trade; young skilled workers who are ready to take their place as journeymen in an ancient and honorable industry. Such contests have widespread support among not only the union, but management and manufacturers; after all, training is the lifeblood of any industry and no one is going to make much of a living at it unless we all take note of the need to properly train the next generation of craftsmen.
The contestants had seven hours to complete their project that consisted of running a crown mold using lime and molding plaster, plastering a colored veneer system and a white-coated ceiling, installing EPS foam board, and applying an acrylic finish. Judging was based upon a point system that critiques proper use of tools, cleanliness, safety, wasted material, and overall appearance. I have it from a good source that points were deducted from any contestant who splashed dirty water on any of the judges as they walked back and forth all day.
Even though everyone agreed that they were very proud of all of the contestants, as they say in the movies, “there can be only one winner.” And at the end of the day, after all the points were tallied, it was Michael Daquioag who traveled all the way from Honolulu, Hawaii, who took home the grand prize of $1,000, a trophy and the bragging rights for the next year of being the best apprentice in the western United States. Runners up were Abraham Rodriquez of Kingsburg, Calif., and Jose Gonzales of Downey, Calif.
Walt Disney said, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Thank goodness for that!