Abraham Lincoln inspired Larry Nikolai to make robots and work for Disney.
Nikolai, an artist and Disney Imagineer, had always been a fan of Disneyland, but seeing the park’s animatronic Abe Lincoln captured his attention, while the later introduction of “Pirates of the Caribbean” cemented his fascination with animatronics.
Throughout his childhood, Nikolai drew and created 20 of his own versions of the Lincoln he saw, and pirate figures in his backyard. “They were terrible,” he confesses, but the start to building a portfolio worthy of his goal: Disney.
“What fascinated me so much was the idea that these things were lifelike, and you could program them to give a show,” Nikolai said. “It’s the idea of creating life that’s always stuck with me. You get to a certain point when constructing an animatronic figure and they’re alive for you.”
While working as a cast member at Six Flags Magic Mountain after college, Nikolai met David Gengenbach, former vice president of Walt Disney Enterprises, who had worked on rides like the Disney World’s monorail, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Space Mountain.” Gengenbach saw one of Nikolai’s sculptures and invited him to work on the “Monster Plantation” ride, now “Monster Mansion,” which was being developed for the Six Flags Over Georgia theme park.
“That’s when I learned that there were other people doing the same things that I had seen with Disney like fantastic sculpture and painting and that I didn’t have to work for Disney to do this,” Nikolai said. “That ride was a real trial by fire because we built it in nine months and we had about 100 characters. This was a good opportunity for me because got my foot in the door and allowed me to work my way up at a few different animatronics shops. When I finally did get hired at Disney I actually knew what I was doing.”
For the next five years, he continued to build animatronics, mainly focusing on pizza parlor shows until he left the industry, swearing to only return to animatronics if it was with Disney. Nikolai, who graduated with a degree in fine arts, worked on Saturday morning cartoons for five years as both a sculptor and background designer for shows like “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
Finally, 12 years after he first applied, Nikolai was hired by Disney as an imagineer and began doing show design for Disneyland Paris. Though it was a long road to reach his ultimate goal, Nikolai recognizes the value of his journey, saying he gained valuable drawing and character design skills that continually helped him develop his earlier dreams.
“My first day was Feb. 12, 1990, Lincoln’s birthday, of all things, and it was like heaven,” he said.
The biggest differences between working for Disney and for smaller animatronics companies for Nikolai are that Disney is more compartmentalized into departments while at the smaller companies he had a hand in all stages of development, and also that while there is still the demand for Disney animatronics, many of the other shows he has worked on have since shuttered.
“There’s a sense of working on something bigger and more important than myself working for Disney, which is why I said I wasn’t going to work on animatronics anymore unless it was for them,” he said. “And it wasn’t like I gave up working on those other stages completely because I worked with those people doing those jobs, I just wasn’t as hands on.”
Nikolai once again began to work on building, rehabilitating and art directing animatronics. Some of his career highlights are art directing the Arabian Coast land and the “Sinbad’s Seven Voyages” ride for Tokyo DisneySea, and “Ariel’s Undersea Adventure” at the California Adventure park.
“My favorite animatronic would be Ariel, and I knew about her before, but after I worked on the ride, I formed this bond with her and she became my favorite Disney character,” he said. “We got the motors in her to where she could lip synch, and when I first saw that, even though she wasn’t finished or painted yet, she seemed alive to me.”
Chris Merritt, a lead show designer, first met Nikolai as a mentor while a student at CalArts and was eventually hired by Nikolai for his first Disney job creating character models for “Sinbad.”
“I’m constantly in awe of how clear and specific Larry’s designs are and how clean his art is,” Merritt said. “He’s always been very effective at communicating his ideas clearly which is incredibly important in theme park design. He’s always positive, even when giving criticism, which is not a skill that everyone has. If anyone has a right to brag about their talent it’s Larry, but that’s just not him.”
Model builder Leonard Yee first worked with Nikolai in 1989 on Tokyo’s “Splash Mountain” and the two have collaborated on many projects since. Yee said Nikolai’s firm, but fair style of leadership made him beloved at the company.
“When I was told that I would be working on Tokyo DisneySea, I specifically wanted Larry to be my art director, because he pushes you, but is also reasonable,” Yee said. “He’s the kind of guy who you know is in charge but he never has to say it, because you just respect him so much. His passion is infectious. At his retirement party, we wanted to do a roast, but no one had anything bad to say about Larry.”
Though retired from imagineering since 2018, Nikolai still works for Disney painting for their galleries. One of his friends even began a Facebook page “The Art of Larry Nikolai,” which Nikolai has since taken over. He’s uploaded photos of his work over the years.
“My favorite part of my career is having worked for Disney with characters people know and love, and having my work become part of Disney history and stored in the archives,” he said. “It’s just being a part of the Disney family, because I believe Disney is a force of good in the world. What Mickey Mouse represents is the good side of humanity.”