Don Edgrren, 83; engineer helped create Disney parks

Times Staff Writer

Pirates of the Caribbean was already being built as a walk-through attraction at Disneyland when Walt Disney decided to transform it into a boat ride that would open in 1967. Suddenly, Don Edgren and his engineering crew had to figure out a way to take the expanded ride deeper underground.

“Don knew it was an engineering challenge, but he had that can-do spirit. Nothing was impossible,” Marty Sklar, an executive vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, told The Times this week.

Edgren, who also had a major role in the building of Disney parks in Florida and Tokyo, died of a hemorrhagic stroke Dec. 28 at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, Ore., said a daughter, Kathlee Partee. The Murrieta resident had been visiting relatives. He was 83.


His 33 years of Disney problem-solving began in 1954 when the engineering firm he worked for was hired to help ready Disneyland for its opening the next year. After an “engineering baptism” that included overseeing construction of the Matterhorn attraction, Edgren was hired by Disney in 1961, Sklar said.

“Many of the engineers said the Matterhorn couldn’t be built,” Harriet Burns, an original Imagineer, told The Times.

“They said it wasn’t feasible to put toboggans, a sky ride and waterfalls in an edifice inside the Matterhorn, but Don got it built. ‘Cool’ was his middle name. He was a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor.”

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Edgren built the Imagineering engineering staff, Sklar said.

In 1963, Edgren went to New York for a year as a project engineer on Ford Motor Co.’s exhibit at the 1964 world’s fair, one of four shows Disney created for the event. The huge rotunda featured audio-animatronic dinosaurs and moved people through the building in vehicles on a fixed track, a setup that became a fixture of many future Disney rides.

After leading the engineering team that completed Disneyland’s New Orleans Square in 1966, Edgren went to Florida as chief of field engineering for Walt Disney World. He led the team that built the first Space Mountain, which opened there in 1975.


Four years later, he became director of engineering for Tokyo Disneyland and particularly enjoyed living in Japan, his family said.

Last fall, Edgren was named a Disney Legend in a hall-of-fame program that honors those who have had a lasting effect on Walt Disney Co. Fellow honorees included singer-songwriter Elton John and broadcast journalist Peter Jennings.

“Walt Disney was a great man. To think I worked for Disney studios -- my god, it was great. It wasn’t just a plain old job,” Edgren told the Riverside Press-Enterprise in October. “People treated each other like family.”

A Los Angeles native, Edgren was born Sept. 11, 1923, to a mason and his wife.

After graduating from Fremont High School in 1942, he joined the Army Air Forces and flew 45 combat missions in the Pacific theater during World War II, his family said.

Back home in 1945, he married his high school sweetheart, and they raised two daughters in Whittier. While employed as an engineer, he attended USC part time and earned a civil engineering degree.

He liked to share anecdotes about working at Disney, including the story of his hiring. While Edgren interviewed with a company vice president, Walt Disney strolled in with plans for the Swiss Family Treehouse and peppered Edgren with questions about building it. He was hired on the spot, his family said.


At Disney World, a low-key tribute to Edgren was painted on a second-story window on Main Street, where he is listed as a partner in the imaginary engineering firm Super Structures Inc.

In addition to Evie, his wife of 61 years, and daughter Kathlee Partee of West Covina, Edgren is survived by another daughter, Colleen Ramme of Eugene, Ore.; a sister, Burdette Chaddick of Glendale; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.