The late Leota Toombs Thomas, longtime Walter Elias Disney (WED—now Walt Disney Imagineering) employee, model builder, costumer, and Imagineer, is best known as the disembodied spirit of Madame Leota in Disneyland’s and Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion attraction. Not long ago, I chatted with her former sister-in-law and my very dear friend, Joann Loughlin, who graciously shared her memories of this special relative.
Leota began working for Walt Disney at a very young age, perhaps around the age of 17. She worked directly with Walt Disney himself and knew the Disney family very well. She, Walt Disney, and fellow Imagineers worked a lot in his basement/garage. They would keep at a project until it was completed to Walt’s satisfaction, often staying through the night at the Disney home.
Leota was extremely gifted artistically and worked mainly with figures, designing, forming and finishing them to completion, including wardrobe, hair, accessories, etc. She worked with both human and animal figures. Disneyland’s The Enchanted Tiki Room was her project. She designed the birds and placed each feather on their bodies. National Geographic Magazine featured Leota and The Enchanted Tiki Room in an early 1970s issue. *See if I can find link to this* She also worked on Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Caribbean and, of course, The Haunted Mansion. She was very particular with her projects and was even known to wade chest-deep into The Jungle Cruise river during construction of “the Florida Project” to adjust the animals, which is where she met her second husband, Joann’s brother Hugh Thomas.
Hugh worked for the landscaping company Disney contracted to install the grounds work. Leota visited the site to inspect the progress, met the handsome gardener, and fell in love. They married and lived in Orlando until her work was complete. The couple then returned to California, where Leota resumed Imagineer work at Disneyland. There they established the Thomas Ceramics Company, designing molds which they sold in the Lillian Vernon Catalog.
Joann, remembers Leota to be a very kind and gracious person. She says Loeta loved taking the children to Disneyland. Though she was exceptionally gifted, Leota always seemed just a fun member of the family and was very modest about her abilities. Joann never did get to meet Leota’s two daughters (by previous marriage), but remembers the fondness and love with which Leota spoke of them. Unfortunately, Joann did not know Leota well or for very long, as the Thomases divorced a few years prior to Leota’s passing, but says she was a treat to know.
Leota’s first husband, Harvey Toombs (1909-1968), was a Disney animator from 1940-1962. His credits include such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty. When Leota wasn’t working for the Walt Disney Company, she did artistic design and finishing work, including the Americana Carousel *insert photo* at the famed Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 2001, Leota Toombs Thomas was memorialized at The Haunted Mansion, the attraction already bearing her image in the seance scene, with an enchanted tombstone in the ride queue. It is inscribed: DEAR SWEET LEOTA/BELOVED BY ALL/IN REGIONS BEYOND NOW/BUT HAVING A BALL. On September 10, 2009, she was posthumously named a D23 Expo in Anaheim, California. Her two daughters, one of whom (Kim Irvine) is also an Imagineer, accepted the award in her honor.in a public ceremony, the first day of the inaugural
- Haunted Mansion Hitchhiking Ghosts Animatronics Return, Adventureland Bridge, Fantasyland Update, Mickey Mouse Meet & Greet – Photos and Video (jefflangedvd.com)
- WDW Backstage Tidbit – The Attic Bride of the Haunted Mansion (meetthemagic.com)