Francis Xavier Atencio–was born on September 4, 1919, in Walsenburg, Colorado. X is best known as an animator, and as an Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company. His biggest claim to fame with Disney is writing the scripts–song lyrics included–to two of the most popular Disney theme park attractions, The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Interestingly, X joined the Walt Disney Company when he was only 18 years old. When he graduated from high school in Colorado, he went to California and attended the Chouinard Art Institute. At the end of his first semester there, a few instructors told a handful of the best students to put together their portfolios, and they would be sent to the Walt Disney Studios to receive critiques from the professionals there. X had developed a character in art school called Poncho, who was a cowboy in Colorado. X had even done a storyboard for Poncho.
Thinking he would never be hired as an animator at Disney, X went to the studios himself before the critiques were done to see if he could get a menial summer job there to earn the money, he needed for another semester of art school. When he arrived, a man from the studios named George Drake asked X if he would wait in his office for a moment. When X went in there, he saw three other guys from his class at art school, all of whom had been asked to submit their portfolios to Disney. When George came back to his office, he told the boys in the room, X included, that the company liked what they saw in their portfolios, and offered them jobs there as animators.
X took the job and worked as an animator for the Walt Disney Company from 1928 to 1965. After that, he was promoted to be an Imagineer. In this job, he helped to design the Primeval World diorama portion of the Disneyland Railroad. He also made design contributions to other Disneyland attractions. Soon, he was asked to write the script for the Adventure Thru Inner Space Ride, then for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. On the Pirates ride, he also wrote the lyrics to that ride’s famous “Yo Ho Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me” song. X contributed his voice to Pirates of the Caribbean, as well, voicing several animatronic characters there, including the skull that warns riders just before the waterfall, and the drunken pirate who heckles the auctioneer in the auction scene.
X did such a good job on those projects that he was asked to write the script for the Haunted Mansion ride. As with the Pirates ride, he also wrote the lyrics for the ride’s theme song, “Grim Grinning Ghosts–The Screaming Song.” Also, as with Pirates, he lends his actual voice to the ride, being the spooky voice coming from the coffin in the Mansion’s conservatory, and the disembodied voice in the Disneyland version of the ride who reads the emergency notice when the ride halts.
In addition to these voice roles, X also voiced the Bridge on the Submarine Voyage Thru Liquid Space ride. As a lyricist, he wrote the lyrics to the theme song on the now-retired If You Had Wings ride.
X took a brief break from the Walt Disney Company to serve in the US Army from 1941 to 1945 during WWII, working as a photo interpreter there, and reaching the rank of Captain of the 2nd Photo Tech Squadron. He was stationed in England and was part of a team that analyzed aerial surveillance.
After being hired by the Walt Disney Company at such a young age, X was pretty excited. The first film he worked on for the company was Pinocchio. He came right out of the training center to that film and primarily worked on Monstro the Whale and a little bit on Jiminy Cricket.
X once said that the biggest compliment he ever received from Walt Disney the man was when they were at the Ford plant in Detroit to make a presentation on the planned EPCOT park in Florida. After X made his presentation, he jumped on a Disney plane and went to New York City to attend the World’s Fair. While on the plane, Walt Disney went to the back of the plane to take a nap. After his nap, Walt came out to the part of the plane where X was riding and told the company’s VP of Advertising and Sales to open up the bar. Once that was done, all the animation guys, including X, went to get a drink. While in line to get a drink, Walt came up to X and put a hand on his shoulder. He told X that he had done a good job with his presentation, but to not let the success go to his head. In remembering the event, X said that this was the way Walt Disney was–complimenting you and challenging you at the same time.
In between being an animator and an Imagineer, X also did some work at the Disney company as a stop motion designer and animator. People often asked him which phase of his career he enjoyed the most. X would always say he enjoyed his time as an Imagineer the most. This was mostly because of one particular assignment he received directly from Walt Disney. Walt called up to X’s office directly and asked him if he would like to be an Imagineer. He said that the company had been wanting X in that position for a while, and he thought that right then was as good a time for X to make the move as any if he wanted to. X did want to, and he changed jobs immediately. He was always particularly proud of being an Imagineer because Walt Disney personally asked him to be one.
X spent his entire career working for the Walt Disney Company, except for his time in the US Army. He retired from the company in 1984 and was named a Disney Legend in 1996. X passed away in Los Angeles, California on September 10, 2017, at the age of 98. He is still remembered fondly today.