Christmas memory Lane – Let’s share Christmas memories with Tracy Eck, Imagineer

Christmas is a special time to share precious moments with the ones we love, especially at Disneyland Paris. To put us in the holiday mood, we’ve asked Imagineers and Cast Members to share their most cherished Christmas memories with us.

Today we have Tracy Eck, Imagineer and Artistic Director for Disneyland Park.

What images come to mind when you think about your Christmases as a child?

As a child, our memories are always the most wonderful. During those years, I lived in Chicago. There was always snow and the houses were very decorated. My father would put up the garlands right after Thanksgiving, and then we would go as a family to buy our Chrismas tree. We would go to the forests where they grew pine trees for that very purpose. We would choose our tree and cut it down. It was extraordinary. Afterwards, we would go with a few people from the neighborhood to a chalet to sip hot chocolate. Thus, for me, Christmas reminds me of the cold weather, the snow, the Christmas tree, the smell of the tree, the decorations but most of all, it reminds me of family. We always had big family parties. We were about twenty children, not counting the aunts and cousins… In all, there must have been more than forty of us. On Christmas day, we would get together around three o’clock in the afternoon, be dressed in our new clothes and open our presents; it was very festive.

Then, you came to live in France. How did you manage the changes in your way of celebrating Christmas?

It was totally different. The cold weather in Paris is nothing like the cold weather in Chicago. We rebuilt a kind of surrogate family with our neighbors and friends, with whom we celebrate as I did with my family. We invite them every year. There are games with gifts. It’s kind of our way of thanking all the people we grew close to and strengthening the ties that connect us. Once we have children, Christmas is even more magical because we prepare it for them and live it with them. When I was a child, I had a Christmas stocking that would hang from the fireplace and on Christmas morning, I was allowed to look into it even before my parents got up. I reproduced this with my own children in France. Our neighbor knitted socks for my husband and myself, and then for each of our children. Every year, we take them out. I always put an orange in them. When I was little, it was something exceptional. Today, it’s a more of a common fruit, but I still keep this tradition. The important thing is to adapt while preserving this spirit.

What surprised you the most in France?

It’s the meal on December 24th and not on the 25th. Here, many families open the gifts on Christmas Eve, after dinner. That’s nice too, but I’ve never managed to make the transition of opening gifts then. I have always waited until Christmas morning to see the gifts left by Santa Claus. I wanted to keep that magic from my childhood with the idea that Santa would come into the house and find all the things we’d left: The cookies and milk for him, the carrot for his reindeer.  It was important to me that my children experience this in our own home.

Before becoming Art Director, you were Lighting Designer for the Imagineering teams at Disneyland Paris. This is particularly important over Christmas at Disneyland Paris.

Night falls very early at this time of the year, so light is very important. At Christmas time, the various lights in the Park are lit as early as late afternoon. This luminous ambiance is already enchanting and magical during the rest of the year but during winter, we get to enjoy it even longer! It’s extraordinary to be able to walk around the Park and appreciate these magnificent lights. 

Moreover, there are special extra lights for Christmas: The garlands, the colossal Christmas tree, the trees lit in the restaurants, Sleeping Beauty Castle with it’s fairy-tale like lighting and the snow gleaming from the lights… All this is magical!

Do you have any special memories about the decorations and lights at Disneyland Paris?

I remember creating the current Christmas tree on Main Street, U.S.A. It was in 2013. I had recently been appointed Artistic Director and as such, I worked with the Entertainment Division on the design of this tree. We really let ourselves get into the spirit of Christmas. We went to Germany to visit stores specializing in tree decorations. Every country celebrates Christmas differently and we studied all the traditional ornaments throughout Europe : Every single one of our guests, regardless of their country of origin, can find something from their culture on our tree. Our tree’s ornaments reflect both the Victorian era  which is the history of Main Street, U.S.A., and too,  reflects the histories of the various European countries.

Then we completely redid the lighting with new technology and, in particular, the Christmas bulbs. They are really magical and change color. There are little lights everywhere. But let’s not forget the star at the top of the tree with lighting that is also magnificent. Everything is programmable. The tree and the lights seem to dance with the music. There’s a feeling of lightness and simplicity, meanwhile there’s huge machinery churning behind the scenes. That’s the art of what we do at Disneyland Paris.

You also worked directly for Santa Claus!

Collaborating with the Entertainment Division, we have created all kinds of sets and stagings for Santa Claus. They have a lot of skills to design, produce and install. Plus, they are used to being very fast and efficient. It’s really ideal, being able to work with them on sets for the seasons. With Show Director Emanuel Lenormand and his team, we always try to make sure that the set fits into the history of the place where it’s installed.

For a period of time, Santa settled in at the Cottonwood Creek Ranch, near the Frontierland train station. The ambiance was both traditional and western. In that spirit, we set up an old-fashioned toy workshop using bark, big burlap bags and of course, lots of toys. It was wonderful! Afterwards, Santa Claus moved to Meet Mickey Mouse. To welcome him, we totally transformed the backstage area from a magician’s loge to a real living room with a fireplace.

Do you have special memories of Disneyland Paris with your family?

Of course! When they were little, we always took our children to the Park for Christmas. Often they would go ice skating at Disney’s Hotel New York ice rink and afterwards we would drink hot chocolate.

Christmas is also a very special time for the Cast Members.

I really am fond of our Cast Members’ Christmas parties. We get together with colleagues and our families. Such great ambiance! When our children got older, I sometimes volunteered to help out with the service, like serving drinks at the Chalet de la Marionnette or giving out candy on Main Street, U.S.A.. I really enjoy seeing children and making them happy. My best memories are with them.

I remember  the time when we were working on the construction of Walt Disney Studios Park. We had a Christmas party that was absolutely unforgettable. Daytime we were on the construction site with our boots and vests and suddenly, during the evening, spruced up and well groomed,  we were transformed. There were even some colleagues who didn’t recognize me without the hard hat!

This year, we are living an extremely unusual Christmas season. How do you see it?

That’s a real question. Because Christmas is about being with the people you love but when it’s not physically possible, how do you do it? In other words, how do you manage to get together if you’re avoiding one another?

I worked on these questions with the Entertainment Division for last Summer’s reopening and we managed to find many solutions to protect our guests. That’s why I’m confident. Every one of us at our own level, will find a solution to be together in one way or another, while respecting the health of all.

Whatever the conditions, magic always finds a way…

Disney and me, it's a long love story. I fell into it as a child and never got out. From movies to theme parks, through the history of the Walt Disney Company, to comic books, everything fascinates me.