A peek into the very early years of Disney Interactive

During yesterday’s cleaning frenzy, I came upon this under my son Aleks’ bed:

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This is a relic from my very early career (the early 1980’s) when I designed educational software for a brand new, tiny — and definitely experimental — department called Walt Disney Personal Computer Software which lived within the (now defunct) division of The Walt Disney Company (then, simply called  “Walt Disney Productions”) called Walt Disney Educational Media Company (WDEMCO).

Our offices were down the street from the Disney Studios in Burbank, on the top floor of an old worn-down building  with a giant sign jutting from the roof (“HYPMOVATION”!)so passers by on the Glendale Freeway could, I assume, be motivated to be hypnotized from miles away.  There was no mention anywhere on the building of a bunch of young media producers and educators who created educational films, books, comic books, and (get this!) filmstrips for classrooms.

Way back when Aleks was very young, this ancient computer was already very old.  Now it’s positively ancient.  My current resume in a simple Word doc is 30K.  It alone would have barely fit on this computer.

But at the time “32K” was exciting enough to include right on the front of the computer because it was a huge amount of memory!

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Here are some more features of this vintage 1982 personal computer:

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Wait!  Is that the earliest known emoticon?!

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Obviously, this was a personal computer for people who wrote code.  I never was one of those people!

I couldn’t hook this thing up to anything today…

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…which means that I can’t run the software that we designed for it:

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This was “my” game and I loved designing it!  It was for really young kids – pre-school and kindergarten – and taught letter recognition, differentiation of upper and lower-case letters, and very early reading.    And it ran on this software:

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Yes, that’s an audiotape – and yes, that’s 600 BPS… which stands for “Baud per second.”  What is a “baud”?  I have no clue, but it was state-of-the-art software back then.  Huge stuff!  Fast!  (Not.)  If you look really carefully, you can see the copyright date – 1983 (the year Tom and I got married!).

It took about 10 minutes for all 600 Baud to load on to the machine, and we even alluded to the long wait time, as well as to the very likely chance of an error, in the user’s manual:

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Unfortunately, because the Panasonic Computer never saw the light of day, Winnie the Pooh’s Lucky Letter Game was never released. 

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But we also designed for the Apple II and the Commodore 64, and the Personal Computer Software Division (does five people constitute a “division”?) created three games that year:

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And the technology has improved by leaps and bounds, just within a few months. Instead of ancient 600 BPS audiotapes, we now designed for this:

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A 5.5” floppy!  Astounding!  And instead of designing for a 32K machine, we had loads of room… 64 whole K!

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By the time Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood adventure game was released (yes, these games actually hit the market – and did quite well), Elisabeth was almost 2 and sat for hours in from of our old Apple II computer, pressing the up, down, left, and right keys to move Winnie the Pooh around the Hundred Acre Wood, in search of objects to bring to Christopher Robin, and always weary of the Blustery Wind “blowing” her items away, or Tigger over-enthusiastically bouncing her to another part of the forest!

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(We partnered with Sierra Online when the company really was in the Sierras.  We’d fly to Fresno and then drive to Oakhust, near Yosemite, where we’d design with Ken and Roberta Williams on the deck of their beautiful riverfront home.) 

Our next venture was the design of Disney’s Comic Strip Maker and Disney’s Card and Party Shop, which we created in partnership with Looking Glass Software.

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As ridiculous as it seems now, this was Disney computer art at its finest:

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The technology simply didn’t exist to make it any better than this!  Hell, there’s only so much you can do with 12 pixels per square inch!  I remember, in fact, a meeting with the President of Disney’s Consumer Products division (the umbrella we lived under) who sent us away, telling us not to come back until we could make Mickey’s ears perfectly, smoothly round and make our work “live up to Disney standards.” 

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It took a bit of explaining to convince him that the technology simply didn’t exist to make Disney characters anything close to the quality he was used to seeing in Disney animated movies!

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So yeah.  Now I feel really, really old.  But I also feel really, really fortunate to have played a part in the very, very beginning of what is now Disney Interactive – where Mickey’s ears are now, again, perfectly, smoothly round.

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One Response to A peek into the very early years of Disney Interactive

  1. Lynn says:

    I forgot you worked with Mary Balcer! I had the, uh, “privilege” of working with her at the Learning Company. Dennis works with someone who has a sort of museum of computers/video game machines going, so if you’re looking to find a home for the old Panasonic I’ll ask if he’d like it! We’ve given him several of our dinosaurs.