Official Disney fan club D23 has announced that former Imagineer, animator and Disney Legend Xavier Atencio died September 10 at the age of 98. “X”, as he was known to friends, began his impressive career right out the gate with Pinocchio, and later was key to the creation of some of Disney Parks’ most iconic attractions — including Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion.
Atencio was born Sept. 4, 1919 in the western settler town of Walsenburg, CO, and moved to Los Angeles in 1937 to hone his talents at the Chouinard Art Institute — which would later become CalArts. Pushed by instructors to submit his portfolio for his dream job, Atencio was hired by Disney the next year, running all the way from Hyperion Ave. to his aunt’s house shouting the good news. He first got to see his work on the big screen at the premiere of Pinocchio in 1940, and was deeply moved by the audience’s reaction. That year, Atencio was promoted to assistant animator for the production of Fantasia.
Atencio’s animation career was interrupted by the war. He left the studio to sign up with the US Army Air Forces. Here he turned his studied artistic eye to the task of interpreting photos taken by aerial surveillance for intelligence-gathering efforts. Based in England, Atencio served from 1941 to the war’s end in 1945, attaining the rank of captain.
The artist quickly got back in the swing of things back home, returning to Disney to begin the next phase of his career animating on short films. Artencio’s first on-screen credit was for the Oscar-winning musical history Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953), later working on Academy Award nominees Noah’s Ark (1959) and A Symposium on Popular Songs (1962), and Jack and Old Mac (1956). He also contributed to the Jiminy Cricket “I’m No Fool” educational shorts for The Mickey Mouse Club, and provided stop-motion sequences for Disney’s live-action features The Parent Trap (1961), Babes in Toyland (1961) and Mary Poppins (1964).
At Walt Disney’s personal request, Atencio moved over to WED Enterprises (later Walt Disney Imagineering) in 1965 to help bring the Disneyland Railroad’s “Primeval World” diorama to life. According to D23, he later recalled: “I went over there reluctantly because I didn’t know what I was getting into, and nobody there knew what I was supposed to do either.” As a Parks pioneer, Atencio went on to script Pirates of the Caribbean — and co-write its iconic song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)”. He also wrote the dialogue and co-wrote the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts” for The Haunted Mansion, and recorded a brief voice-over for one of the coffins.
At Walt Disney World, Atencio contributed to If You Had Wings and Space Mountain, Spaceship Earth, World of Motion and the Mexico pavilion at Epcot. Atencio retired in 1984, but continued as a consultant to the Imagineering division for many years. He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1996.
“X was an enormous talent who helped define so many of our best experiences around the world,” Walt Disney Imagineering President Bob Weis stated. “Some may not know that when he wrote the lyrics for ‘Yo Ho’ he had never actually written a song before. He simply proposed the idea of a tune for Pirates of the Caribbean, and Walt told him to go and do it. That was how X worked—with an enthusiastic, collaborative attitude, along with a great sense of humor. His brilliant work continues to inspire Imagineers and bring joy to millions of guests every year.”
X Atencio is survived by his wife, Maureen; his children Tori McCullough, Judianne, and Joe; his stepchildren Brian Sheedy, Kevin Sheedy, and Eileen Haubeil; sons-in-law Mike McCullough and Chris Haubeil; daughters-in-law Kathy Atencio, Trish Sheedy, and Beth Sheedy; and nine grandchildren.