LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Most of the visitors to Disney World each year are unaware of the role sheet metal has at the park.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - For more than 30 years, millions of families have come to Walt Disney World to experience the magic created by replicas of 15th century European castles, picture-perfect recreations of small town Americana and rides that go far beyond traditional amusement part attractions.

But most of the visitors to Disney World each year are probably unaware that some of the magic they see is the result of architectural sheet metal. Walt Disney architects and "imaginers," as the Walt Disney Co. calls the people responsible for creating the attractions and resorts, have used the versatile covering to help make everything from futuristic, metal-covered "trees" to giant cans of Coca-Cola.

A tour of the theme parks are resorts that make up Disney World's 30,000-plus acres reveals a wide variety of architectural sheet metals in use.

"We put a lot of effort into trying to pick the right material, whether that would be galvanized or aluminum or copper," said imagineer Rob Brown.

For Disney, the decision of where and whether to use sheet metal is determined by the mood or theme imagineers are trying to create.

"Anything we build? the material has to be in conjunction with the storyline," Brown said.

In Disney's case, the material their designers and architects turn to quite often turns out to be sheet metal, because it offers long-term durability with less need for maintenance - a big plus when you operate one of the world's top year-round vacation destinations.

The themes used for the All-Star resorts include music, sports, and popular culture. Photo supplied by Walt Disney Co.

Part of the story

Sometimes the use of sheet metal is subtle, such as when it's used to create rainspouts or flashing on the theme buildings throughout Disney World's four parks. Other times, such as in the overhaul of the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland in the mid-1990s, the presence of sheet metal is quite apparent in the metal-covered palm trees and shiny columns that reflect Tomorrowland's dramatic nighttime lighting. Deep purples, reds and blues illuminate the pseudo-futuristic, 1930s Buck Rodgers, art deco-style buildings.

The largest and perhaps most publicly accessible example of architectural sheet metal at Disney World is probably the All-Star Resorts. This sprawling complex was originally conceived for Disneyland Paris as a homage to the golden era of American roadside motels. A sort of highly stylized rendition of 1950s-era U.S. Route 66, plans originally called for the resort to represent such American images as cowboy boots and Indian teepees.

But when the project was moved to the Florida theme parks, designers decided to use the resort's 173 acres to celebrate popular culture - sports, movies and music. That gave imaginers the chance to create some larger-than-life icons, such as a 45-ft.-high fire hydrant, and sheet metal proved to be the material of choice for much of the project.

The All-Star Resort is loud, painted in vibrant shades of blue, red, yellow and white. Most of the exterior walls are covered in porcelain-coated sheet metal panels, which according imagineer Doug Esselstrom were used because the material shows off bright colors particularly well. Standing seam metal roofs cover the buildings of the resort complex.

Sheet metal was a major part of the Tomorrowland renovation at the Magic Kingdom in the mid-1990s.

Coke cans to surfboards

Many of the resort's icons are covered in sheet metal. At the All-Star Sports Resort, huge surfboards seem to hold up the hotel's balcony. A gigantic Coke can - made from large metal panels - encloses a staircase at the end of one of the buildings. The All-Star Music Resort has 50-ft.-high electric guitars and giant jukeboxes.

It's the opportunity to participate in such unusual projects that makes many contractors jump at the chance to work for the Disney organization. However, there's more to getting a Disney contract than just submitting the lowest bid. Applicants must go through a rigorous screening process. Contractors are educated about Disney's standards and methods. The company's reputation for attention to detail means that contractors have to work closely with Disney officials, probably much closer than many contractors are used to, Esselstrom said.

"We don't just buy a product and have it shipped to us," he said. And all work must be done to spec; there is no such thing as "close enough," he added.

While you might think the contracting firms hired by Disney to help create this "magic" would love to talk about their work, the fact is they can't. Most companies hired by Disney must sign agreements promising that they will not talk to anyone publicly or use the fact that worked on a Disney project to promote their businesses. The reason, according to Esselstrom, is not only to prevent details about project leaking out before Disney is ready, but also to keep firms from using Disney's reputation for its own promotions.

"The Disney name is a very important trademark. We hate to see it used recklessly," Esselstrom said.

Citing the agreement, contractors contacted by SNIPS for this story declined to comment.

Although third parties do most of the work for Disney park projects, the company does operate its own welding, sheet metal and mechanical assembly shops on-site. Known as Walt Disney World Central Engineering, it mostly serves as an emergency maintenance facility - something that comes in handy for an operation that runs 365 days a year.

"If (something) breaks, they need it fixed tomorrow," Brown said.