Disney Historian

Jim Korkis

(August 15, 1950 - July 28, 2023)

by Werner Weiss, July 29, 2023
Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Jim Korkis proudly showing the initial volume of his Vault of Walt series

Jim Korkis—the Disney historian whose books, printed and online columns, and podcast appearances delighted Disney fans for decades—died Friday in Orlando of stage IV colon cancer after successful heart surgery earlier this year. He was 72.

James Patrick Korkis was born on August 15, 1950, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When Jim was five, the Korkis family moved to Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb adjoining Burbank, home of Walt Disney Productions. For the next 40 years, Jim called California home. One of his elementary school teachers was Mrs. Disney, the wife of Walt’s brother Herbert. Always the entertainer, Jim even worked as a close-up magician and balloon artist in Spillikin Corners at Magic Mountain.

Jim earned his master’s degree from Occidental College and then worked as junior high school teacher, actor, director, and voice-over artist. From the time he was a teenager, Jim made a point of meeting and interviewing Disney animators and Imagineers and writing about them. After all, many lived nearby and were in the phone book. Jim also found time to be a contestant on a number of TV game shows—another advantage of being near Burbank.

In 1995, Jim’s parents were living in central Florida. They were ailing, so Jim moved to Orlando to help them. He found employment with Walt Disney World. First, that meant doing magic and balloon animals at Pleasure Island. He then put his acting skills to work at Magic Kingdom Park, portraying Prospector Pat in Frontierland and Merlin for the Sword in the Stone ceremony in Fantasyland.

In 1996, Jim became a full-time instructor at the Disney Institute, teaching hands-on animation classes, animation history, and improvisational acting. When the Disney Institute fizzled, Jim joined Disney Adult Discoveries, writing and facilitating Walt Disney World backstage tours. Jim’s next move was to Epcot as a Coordinator for the College and International Programs. Then he became a Coordinator for the Epcot Disney Learning Center, creating and delivering presentations on Disney history for Cast Members and Disney corporate clients.

Jim was the off-camera announcer for the syndicated television series Secrets of the Animal Kingdom. He wrote articles for numerous Disney publications, and worked on special projects for The Walt Disney Company.

In 2004, Disney awarded Jim its prestigious Partners in Excellence award.

So what promotion would Disney next offer to someone so respected, talented, versatile, and knowledgeable—and skillful in all forms of communication?

Why, of course, the next step was being shown the door in a mass layoff of non-guest-facing Disney Cast Members in 2009, when Disney pruned 1,900 jobs due to the recession.

Jim found himself without a job. Nobody was eager to hire someone who was almost 60 and “far too qualified” for available jobs.

Jim had been writing columns for MousePlanet under the pseudonym Wade Sampson. He switched to his real name. Out of necessity to earn a living, Jim became a prolific author of books.

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Werner Weiss and Jim Korkis hamming it up for the camera

I had the privilege of having Jim as a friend. Beginning in 2008, we would get together whenever I would visit Florida. We would walk through various parts of Walt Disney World and have dinner. I always carried a camera, so please enjoy some photos of Jim Korkis around Walt Disney World.

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

Jim Korkis with podcaster Lou Mongello at the shuttered Adventurers Club

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

Striking a fun pose with Cinderella at the World of Disney store, Walt Disney World

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2012

With a wanted poster at Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom Park

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2012

At Casey’s Corner, Main Street, U.S.A., at Magic Kingdom Park

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2013

With the cigar store Indian, Main Street, U.S.A., at Magic Kingdom Park

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by a friendly Perkins employee, 2013

Left to right: Sam Gennawey, Werner Weiss, Ron Schneider, Jim Korkis

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2013

Jim signing The Vault of Walt, Volume 2

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2015

With the bust of Walt Disney at the Television Hall of Fame Plaza, Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2016

With a large photo of Roy O. Disney and Mickey Mouse at Walt Disney, One Man’s Dream

In 2016, Jim invited me to write the foreword for one of his books, More Secret Stories of Walt Disney World. It was a pleasure to accept the honor. Here’s what I wrote:

February 8, 2008, was one of those perfect days at Walt Disney World. The temperature was around 80 degrees, with a breeze keeping things comfortable. But what really made it perfect was walking around World Showcase Lagoon at Epcot with Jim Korkis.

At that time, Jim worked at the Epcot Learning Center, an educational resource for Disney cast members. Jim and I had been reading each other’s online articles for quite some time and had occasionally traded emails, but we had never met in person. Although our time was limited to Jim’s lunch period, we made the whole loop of the lagoon, stopping at the old Yakitori House for lunch and at the American Adventure lobby to listen to the Voices of Liberty.

As we passed the countries of World Showcase, Jim pointed out details that lend authenticity to each of the pavilions, even though guests seldom know their significance. He mentioned plans proposed for the areas that were never built. Jim wasn’t reciting trivia or statistics. He offered genuine insight that would increase a guest’s appreciation of the park.

When I read the first volume of Secret Stories of Walt Disney World, I was reminded of that day at Epcot with Jim. Once again, Jim made Walt Disney World a more interesting place.

Jim has spent a lifetime collecting historical details about Disney parks, Disney animation, Disney live action, Disney merchandise, Disney publications, the talented people who created them, and the life of the genius who started it all, Walt Disney.

He has absorbed this information from many sources, including directly from the people responsible. Perhaps Jim doesn’t know everything about Disney, but that’s not from lack of trying. There might not be anyone who knows more about such a wide variety of Disney topics.

Jim is generous with his knowledge. His articles and books are a reflection of who he is. As a columnist, author of books, and speaker, Jim shares stories about all things Disney with appreciative audiences.

It’s not just the quantity of Jim’s knowledge; it’s also the quality. Jim knows the difference between real back stories and the myths that only seem real. Jim knows the historical context that gives meaning to how things are today. And Jim knows the stories beyond the carefully crafted corporate Disney versions.

Since we first met at Epcot, Jim and I have walked around other parts of Walt Disney World. Somehow, we haven’t yet made it to Disney’s Animal Kingdom together. (Hey Jim, when can we change that?)

As you read this book, think of it as walking all over Walt Disney World with Jim. You’ll find yourself in corners you never knew about. Sometimes, you’ll travel back in time. You’ll meet some of the people who created the “World.” You’ll experience places that never escaped from the planning process. And you’ll see familiar spots in a new way.

In this book, Jim gives you succinct, fun-to-read, two-page articles. There are far more secrets than you would get from a week of walking around with Jim. And you don’t even have to bring an umbrella in case it’s not such a perfect Florida day.

More Secret Stories of Walt Disney World is just one of many books by Jim Korkis available from Amazon.

Jim was divorced and had no children. He is survived by his brothers Michael and Chris. Jim is also survived by his dozens of books and a vast number of columns. Jim’s goal with his writing (in addition to earning income) was to share his research with future Disney fans and future generations of researchers.

Jim Korkis, the man, is gone. The Disney fan community is mourning. But the work of Jim Korkis is not gone. His research and writing will continue to delight and enlighten readers and researchers well into the future.

Jim Korkis (1950-2023)

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2012

Goodbye, Jim. We miss you.

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Updated July 29, 2023

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