“Born 1906 South Bend, Ind., of English parents. Learned to speak English in 1910. Went abroad in 1920. Sentenced to salt mines in Siberia for soaping royal wind shield of Czar Nicholas’ carriage. Escaped to California in 1923. Attended Occidental College in 1920. Awarded consistent freshman medal 1926, ‘27, ‘28, which included a paid vacation at Lincoln Heights, the third year. Two years behind the crank at Disney’s camera and has never been in focus yet.” -published in the June 20, 1931 edition of The Motion Picture Daily
Bill Cottrell, nicknamed “Uncle Bill” by his colleagues, was the first president of what is today known as Walt Disney Imagineering, the design and development arm of the Company. During the planning and construction phases of Disneyland, Walt relied heavily on Bill’s creativity, wisdom, and foresight to make his dream come true. Fellow Disney Legend Marvin Davis once said, “It was Walt who said, ‘Let there be Disneyland,’ like the good Lord said, ‘Let there be a world.’ But it was Uncle Bill who was Walt’s counselor and right-hand man.”
Born in 1906 to English parents in South Bend, Indiana, Bill graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, where he studied English and journalism. After working for a time on George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip, he was offered a job working cameras at The Walt Disney Studios in 1929. He soon moved into the Story department and contributed ideas for shorts, including Who Killed Cock Robin? Fellow Legend Joe Grant recalled, “Bill was a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan and you will see elements of that, such as the jury box chorus, in Who Killed Cock Robin?”
Bill went on to direct the Wicked Witch and Evil Queen sequences in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and contributed to story on Pinocchio. In 1938, he married Lillian Disney’s sister, Hazel Sewell. In 1941, Bill and Hazel joined Walt Disney and a small group of artists on a goodwill tour of South America on behalf of the United States Government. The trip inspired The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos, for which Bill also helped develop story. Bill later contributed to Victory Through Air Power, Melody Time, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.
During the 1950s, he carried his interest in story over to WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering), where he helped develop storylines and dialog for such Disneyland attractions as Snow White’s Adventures.
Bill was also keen on nomenclature. As former senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering John Hench recalled, “He was a talented writer and helped shape how we referred to events and attractions at Disneyland. For instance, he encouraged us to quit using the term ‘ride’ and to refer to attractions as an ‘experience,’ which is exactly what they are—‘an experience.”
Among his many contributions to Disney, Bill helped develop the popular Zorro television series and, in 1964, was named president of Retlaw Enterprises, the Walt Disney family corporation. He held that position until 1982, when he retired after 53 years of service. A lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes, Bill’s idea for a movie about an animal detective inspired the 1986 animated feature The Great Mouse Detective.
Bill Cottrell passed away on December 22, 1995, in Burbank, California.