One of Magic Kingdom’s most iconic Christmas traditions is the march of the toy soldiers, having appeared in many holiday parades over the years including the current “Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmastime Parade.” Figures of these wooden soldiers also serve as decoration in Main Street U.S.A.’s Town Square, both as human-sized figures and a toy-sized regiment underneath the massive Christmas tree, as seen above. Beyond getting guests into the Christmas spirit, the toy soldiers also serve as a reminder of Disney Studio’s brief interest in stop-motion animation during the 1960’s.
Released in 1961, “Babes in Toyland” was a live action Disney musical loosely based on the Victor Herbert operetta of the same name. During the film’s climax, a shrunken Tom Piper (played by Tommy Sands) leads an army of living toy soldiers from Toyland against the villainous Barnaby (played by Ray Bolger, best known as The Scarecrow from MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz”) to rescue Mary Contrary (former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello). To create the illusion, live action footage was combined with stop-motion animation of the toys created under the direction of animators X. Atencio and Bill Justice, but this was far from the only time these Disney Legends experimented with this laborious animation process. During the 1960’s, the pair directed several stop-motion projects together ranging from the opening titles to films like “The Parent Trap” to charmingly quirky short films such as “A Symposium of Popular Sings.”
In addition to their work as animators, both Justice and Atencio contributed to Disney theme parks in numerous ways as part of WED Enterprises, the forerunner to today’s Walt Disney Imagineering. Among Bill Justice’s varied accomplishments were the designs for many of the early character costumes for Disneyland including the larger-than-life toy soldiers that debuted during the park’s 1961 Christmas parade. Not-so-coincidentally, these costumes were made to resembled the toy soldiers Justice helped bring to life in “Babes in Toyland,” which was released in theaters that same year. Whether on the silver screen or marching down Main Street U.S.A, Justice’s toy soldiers have brought joy to generations of Disney fans over the past 55 years and will no doubt continue to do so for many holiday seasons to come.
For more about the history of Disney’s “Babes in Toyland and how it relates to the Disney theme parks, check out this post from the Disney Parks Blog.