This week we learned of the passing of Disney Legend & Imagineer Francis Xavier (X) Atencio. At age 98, he has joined Walt, Marty & the rest on the other side, where they are (I'm sure of it!) creating even bigger & better attractions from scratch.
For me, it's a very sad moment, along the lines of Marty Sklar joining the others. Both of them have had a tremendous impact on my life as a theme park fan, but also for creating the parts of Disney that most resonated in my soul.
In the case of X Atencio, he's responsible for some of my most memorable moments in my life as far as Disney goes. Historically speaking, his efforts & creative imagination brought us two iconic rides which are still the gold-standard of attractions to this day: Pirates of the Caribbean & Haunted Mansion. While Walt created the imagination to make these attractions reality, it was the efforts of Hench, Sklar, Gurr & Atencio who brought them to life - and to reality. X was, in so many ways, the critical part of turning Walt's vision into an artistic reality.
With Pirates of the Caribbean, X created the art and the characters which live through the ride's story-line. It shows a diversity of ideas that were made prime & whole. And his own hands were involved in the creation of these efforts, of turning a vision into what thousands of people daily - and hundreds of millions over 50 years - see and experience.
What many don't realize is that in fact his heart & soul are in these rides - down to the creation of two of the most iconic Disney songs in history: "Yo Ho! A Pirate's life for me", and "Grim Grinning Ghosts". Both of these are facets of my Disneyist mind; indeed, both are part of my Disney collection, permanently installed into my iPod. And I'll admit, they have led to two of my best experiences - with X in spirit with me.
2013 was a VERY rough year for me, transitioning in life from one role to another, and to the aging that was going on around me. To say it shook me hard was an understatement - there were some days where it wasn't quite certain if I was going to be there the next. Through the help of my friends & adopted family, I got through it - and grabbed a plane to go to Disneyland/SoCal for a week...including the DLR for a much-needed mental reboot.
The first day I had in the park was on-my-own - which if you're a Disneyist is a beautiful thing. Combine that with a nearly-deserted park (Walk on Matterhorn, Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain...) and I was able to do things that I had wanted to do for a while: Let my inner child out to breathe. And he did just that. With Ears in tow (Yes, I still have my Ears, I wear them with pride...) I did the Mountain Run (Space, Matterhorn, Thunder & Splash) in under 30 minutes - a new record for me. And I had my requisite Dole Whip(s). And then I headed to my must-do at DL: Pirates Of The Caribbean.
On an empty park day like this, you get some unusual opportunities to enjoy the park, including (and this is a one-off, I'm sure) having my own private boat on Pirates! So off we went into the ride's insides, past the Blue Bayou, and down the waterfalls into the ride itself - and I began to sing. (After all, there was nobody else around me... who's going to care!) And sing I did.
For those of you who do not know me, to say that I have a flawless singing voice is a deception. Picture squeezing a broken accordian... or a REALLY out of tune tuba. But hey! Private boat ride! And so I sang... "YO HO! YO HO A PIRATES LIFE FOR ME..." for the entire duration of the ride. And as we headed up the waterfall at the end, and into the station, I picked up and headed out refreshed & relaxed. Only to be greeted by two Plaid Vested Disney staff people.
"Sir, we're glad you're enjoying your day at Disney... but we need to ask you to sing with a MUCH lower voice."
"Why? I wasn't that loud...."
"Sir, you could be heard three scenes in either direction..."
Bright red, I realized that the music & moment had gotten to me - and that X's influence in revitalizing me was a gift that was intangible - and beautiful.
X's influences on me go back a lot further - and again to Disneyland.
In 2012, I'd headed to LA for a weekend trip, and would be spending the day at Disneyland. It was a particularly harsh February for me, one that started off with receiving dissolution papers for a failed relationship. I was in a dark funk, replacing a lot of what I was normally known to be with a black cloud and heavy darkness that had immersed me in deep and heavy depression. The trip to LA was already in the works when this all came down, and it carried itself with me in my roll-aboard.
The day at the resort was quite good - surrounded with friends & adopted family to begin with - and a good collection of people no less. A lot of love for a lot of people began to crack the darkness around me. After a bit, I went my separate ways to enjoy some of the key Disneyland attractions I'd yet to experience - namely, Haunted Mansion. The lines this evening were quite long, as Disneyland was in the middle of their Mardi Gras celebration, making lines (and crowds) a bit thick; indeed, Haunted Mansion was a 30 minute wait - though one I was happy to deal with. Entering my doom buggy, the notes of the background music surrounding me made it feel right; the smells and the sights of X's creativity began to open my mind - and as we moved through the various scenes & sounds of Haunted Mansion I realized two things: I was singing along - and I was happy. And that I was finally cracking that negativity that was immersing me - and that X's work was part of it. And that Disney's magic was resolving me that though I had ghosts I had to deal with - I could do it.
I rode Haunted Mansion again - and felt even better afterwards, as if a weight had been lifted off of me. Being in something where the ghosts of the past aren't always evil or mean or damaging - and showing that there can be better memories reminded me that I had a road with pain ahead of me - but it would eventually be BEHIND me.
X's influences on me are some of the best I can say I've experienced. His artistic mind and creative personality is a gift we all can receive. And for the millions of people he touched through his works, I say thank you - You altered my life and my mind in beautiful ways. You lifted my soul when I needed it. And you gave me something that others could not: You gave me hope - and with that, happiness. And I will feel your spirit with me every time I head into Haunted Mansion - knowing you are a good ghost who will reside there forever.
Francis Xavier (X) Atencio
September 4, 1919 – September 10, 2017