Leota Toombs Thomas, longtime Walter Elias Disney (WED—now Walt Disney Imagineering) employee, model builder, costumer, and Imagineer, is best known as the disembodied spirit of Madame Leota in Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction. I spoke with her former sister-in-law, Joann Loughlin, my very dear friend, who graciously shared her memories of this special relative.
MMS: Hello, Joann, and welcome to the Magical Mouse Schoolhouse! I understand you have a unique connection to Walt Disney entertainment. Can you tell me what that connection is?
JL: Yes, of course! My brother, Hugh Thomas, was married to Disney Imagineer, Leota Toombs Thomas, until a couple years before her passing. Leota was a very kind and sweet person. The family remembers her as a gracious, sweet lady. She was always giving and loving to the children.
MMS: How did Leota meet your brother? Can you tell me a little bit about their life together?
JL: Leota had been sent to work on “the Florida Project.” My brother worked for the company that Disney contracted to landscape the grounds. He was designing the banks of the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland, and they met while she was out inspecting the progress. They fell in love and married and lived in Orlando. When her work with Walt Disney World was complete, she returned to California with my brother and resumed Imagineer work at Disneyland. They lived in Simi Valley and began the Thomas Ceramics Company. Leota designed the molds which they sold in the Lillian Vernon Catalog. The ceramics were such an instant success that they opened a second factory. Leota designed; Hugh ran the business.
MMS: When did Leota begin working for WED?
JL: I believe she began working for Walt Disney at a very young age, perhaps around age 17.
MMS: Did she work directly with Walt Disney himself?
JL: Yes! She knew the Disney family very well and worked one-on-one with Mr. Disney. She, Walt Disney, and fellow Imagineers worked a lot in his basement/garage. They would work to completion, often staying through the night at the Disney home. Walt Disney had an intense work ethic and kept at a project until it was complete and he was satisfied. Leota shared this attitude.
MMS: What kind of work did she do for the Walt Disney Company? Some internet sources describe her as a costumer.
JL: Leota was extremely talented! I believe she mainly worked with figures, designing and forming them and finishing them out to completion, including wardrobe, hair, accessories, etc. She worked with both human and animal figures.
MMS: What attractions did she work on?
JL: I know The Enchanted Tiki Room was her project. She designed the birds and placed each feather on their bodies. National Geographic Magazine featured Leota and The Enchanted Tiki Room in an early 1970s issue. She also worked on The Hall of Presidents and The Haunted Mansion. She was very particular with her projects and was even known to wade chest-deep into The Jungle Cruise river to adjust the animals. Leota was also instrumental in the design of Epcot.
MMS: Was she involved with Walt’s original vision and planning for EPCOT?
JL: I’m not sure. I know she worked for him at that time, so it is possible.
MMS: What was her role in Epcot design?
JL: She was one of the artists in on the planning. They lived in California at that time. I understand they set up an Epcot model in her basement.
MMS: Are there any special memories of Leota you’d like to leave us with?
JL: Leota always accepted the many members of our family with a generous spirit. She loved taking the children to Disneyland. Though she was gifted with many artistic abilities, she always seemed just a fun member of the family. She was very modest about her abilities. I never did get to meet her daughters (by previous marriage), but she talked about them in the sweetest ways. I did not know her well or for very long but she was a treat to know. Thank you, Jodi, for your research about her work and for asking to interview me.
MMS: Joann, thank you so much for sharing your memories with us! It sounds like Leota was a fascinating woman to whom you were very fortunate to be related and to know.
Leota’s first husband, Harvey Toombs (1909-1968), was a Disney animator from 1940-1962. His credits include such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty. When Leota wasn’t working for the Walt Disney Company, she did artistic design and finishing work, including the Americana Carousel at the famed Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
[Special thanks to Debra Jane Seltzer of Roadside Architecture for sharing this photo of the carousel. Click here to see more of Ms. Seltzer’s images.]
In 2001, Leota Toombs Thomas was memorialized at The Haunted Mansion, the attraction already bearing her image in the seance scene, with an enchanted tombstone in the ride queue. It is inscribed: DEAR SWEET LEOTA/BELOVED BY ALL/IN REGIONS BEYOND NOW/BUT HAVING A BALL. Last fall, she was posthumously named a Disney Legend in a public ceremony on September 10, 2009, the first day of the inaugural D23 Expo in Anaheim, California. Her two daughters, one of whom is also an Imagineer, accepted the award in her honor.
A few images of Leota’s non-Disney handiwork:
“Leo” the lion is one of a kind. These
other pieces are samples of molds Leota
designed for Thomas Ceramics.
Make a hologram illusion. Check out this tutorial and follow the simple instructions. It doesn’t have to be a scary scene. You could make one from a video of your recent trip to Walt Disney World!
See video of The Haunted Mansion’s seance scene and learn more about how the Madame Leota illusion is created at this very informative website.
SCHOOL SUBJECT: Science
SKILL LEVEL: Middle Grades
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