(A version of this article was published for Pirates & Princesses on March 5, 2022).
Disney Legend Alice Davis is one of those remarkably talented individuals who could shift and pivot as needed to succeed. In an industry full of men, she forged her way with Disney contemporaries such as Mary Blair and Harriet Burns.
Alice Estes was born in 1929 in Escalon California. She was a talented artist in high school, and wished to attend Chouinard Art Institute to study animation. Unfortunately she was unable to attend for animation due to a two-year waiting list (caused by World War II and the military G.I. bill). Alice needed to get creative. She opened up her options so she could indeed attend Chouinard, but via costume design – the only program available to her at that time.
She had her proverbial “foot in the door”, which proved most helpful when she met her future husband (and fellow Disney Legend) Marc Davis. Marc was an artist with Walt Disney Studios who was also teaching a night class in animation at Chouinard. Alice managed to attend Marc’s class, and in the process started a relationship that would last a lifetime.
Following her time at Chouinard, Alice excelled in the design of lingerie, making a name for herself and advancing to head designer at Beverly Vogue & Lingerie House in Los Angeles.
In the mid-1950s Marc Davis came calling for Alice, on behalf of Walt Disney. Alice agreed to join the company, and her first (and quite iconic) task was to design a dress for a live-action reference model for Aurora in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Alice’s work with Marc on the film catalyzed a courtship that turned into a lifetime marriage, and the couple married in 1956.
In 1963, Walt tasked Alice with developing a wardrobe for an entire globe of children for Disney’s it’s a small world attraction at the 1964 World’s Fair. For this task, Alice researched the different cultures and regions being represented in the attraction, and outfitted over 150 different children. Aside from it’s a small world, Alice also assisted with some of the period-specific costumes for the General Electric Carousel of Progress.
Dirty Old Men
When Alice had finished clothing a world of children, her services were needed in a different kind of world – the swashbuckling world of pirates. She was tasked with creating costumes for all of the pirates in Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Alice jokingly stated “I went from sweet little children, to dirty old men overnight.”
At the outset of the project, Alice requested a budget to make two complete sets of pirate costumes – one for use in the attraction, and another as a duplicate set to minimize downtime in the event that replacements were needed. The bean counters in Disneyland rejected Alice’s request. But realizing the money people had virtually no idea of the costs and quantities associated with a pirate’s wardrobe, Alice purchased enough material and assembled enough costumes to reach her goal of having a full duplicate set.
As fate would have it, a few weeks after the attraction opened, a minor fire broke out in the port town scene. The fire suppression system was activated, ruining all the pirate hats in the scene. Disney’s Dick Irvine – head of design and planning for all Disneyland attractions – was in a panic, wanting to keep the popular new attraction operational. When he approached Alice to ask how long it would take to make a new set of hats, Alice said it would normally take about a week. Then she showed him the complete second wardrobe. The attraction closure crisis was averted, and the need for a second set of animatronics costumes was never questioned again.
Alice’s talents weren’t confined to this planet. Due to her versatility and creativity, she also designed the costumes for the Mission Control figures in Tomorrowland’s revamped Flight to the Moon attraction, the same year she worked on Pirates of the Caribbean.
Retirement and Romance
Alice retired from Disney in 1978 along with her husband Marc, but she has continued to consult on various projects since retiring. Her most notable post-retirement contribution to Disney storytelling is beautifully evident in the Pixar film Up. Looking for inspiration to demonstrate the theme of everlasting love that is central to the film’s message, Pixar’s storytellers sought out Alice, among several old romantic souls. In fact, it is widely accepted that Ellie and Carl’s love and romance is an homage of sorts to the love shared by Alice and Marc for 44 years, until Marc’s death in 2000.
A True Legend
Alice Davis was named a Disney Legend in 2004, and was honored with a window on Main Street in Disneyland in 2012, right next to the window of her husband.
Alice’s window reads:
Small World Costuming Co.
Seamstress to the Stars
Alice Estes Davis is the perfect combination of creativity, tenacity, and romance – attributes that are essential to success in the Walt Disney Company. If you would like to chat more about Alice, feel free to reach out with a comment here, or send a direct message on social:
Thanks for learning about another Disney Legend! Follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to highlight more of the extraordinary people who have shaped Disney’s storied history.