Xavier “X” Atencio had a remarkable career with the Walt Disney company, from his early days in the 1930s working on films like Pinocchio to his later days working on rides like Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Sadly Atencio has reached the end of the ride as of this weekend. He died on Sunday at the age of 98.
“Some may not know that when he wrote the lyrics for ‘Yo Ho’ he had never actually written a song before,” Bob Weis, president of Walt Disney Imagineering, said in a statement about Atencio’s passing. “Yo Ho” is the theme song for the immensely popular Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.
“He simply proposed the idea of a tune for Pirates of the Caribbean, and Walt told him to go and do it,” Weis continued. “That was how X worked—with an enthusiastic, collaborative attitude, along with a great sense of humor. His brilliant work continues to inspire Imagineers and bring joy to millions of guests every year.”
Atencio was born September 4, 1919 in Walsenburg, Colorado and moved to California in the mid-1930s to attend the Chouinard Art Institute. He soon landed a job at Disney and worked on movies like Pinoochio and Fantasia before heading to serve in the Army during World War II.
Atencio worked as an animator throughout the 1940s and 1950s. His first on-screen credit was for Whistle, Plunk and Boom (also called Adventures in Music), and was the first Cinemascope animated film ever made. The film was so remarkable for its time that it won an Oscar® Other films X contributed to during this time included Noah’s Ark (1959) and A Symposium on Popular Songs (1962), both Academy Award® nominees, as well as Jack and OldMac (1956). He worked on the I’m No Fool series for the original Mickey Mouse Club, and in the 1960s, X provided memorable stop-motion sequences for Disney feature films The Parent Trap (1961), Babes in Toyland (1961), and Mary Poppins (1964).
By the 1960s he was moved to Walt Disney Imagineering (then known as WED Enterprises) to work on some of the most celebrated theme park attractions of all time.
“I went over there reluctantly because I didn’t know what I was getting into, and nobody there knew what I was supposed to do either,” Atencio said, according to the Disney company. “About a month later I got a phone call from Walt. He told me ‘I want you to do the script for the Pirates of the Caribbean.’”
Atencio did a short documentary for The Wonderful World of Disney describing the development of The Haunted Mansion. Here’s the video; in it, Atencio explains the famous Pepper’s Ghost illusion using the large piece of glass in The Haunted Mansion.
So much of what we think of as classic Disney today have Atencio’s fingerprints all over it.
His talents didn’t stop with animation and ride design. It was Atencio who designed both the Pirates of the Carribean and Haunted Mansion rides, but amazingly, he also wrote some of the signature music for each ride! Grim Grinning Ghosts was his work, and so was the Yo Ho song from Pirates of the Carribean.
One of the greatest lights in the Disney universe has become the gleam of starlight in our childhood dreams. Thank you, X. For everything.