Monday Morning Imagineer – A Quick History


Walt Disney once famously said he wanted no one to forget it all started with a mouse, but for Disney theme parks, it all began in disappointment.

As the story goes, Walt found himself sitting on a bench in Griffith Park while his daughters rode on the Merry-Go-Round. As he waited patiently with his popcorn, his attention wandered to the unkempt, dirty look of the park around him. He noticed others parents meandering around and waiting for their children to finish playing, clearly wanting to be anywhere else. And in that moment, a flash of inspiration struck, combining with his dream of telling stories in three dimensions. While it would change from that first moment to its completion, Disneyland was born that day. That very bench now resides in the Opera House on Main Street USA in Anaheim.

Of course, to make his vision for a new kind of theme park a reality, he needed a highly talented team of artists and technological innovators to make it happen. As luck would have it, Walt had an entire studio of artists to call upon. In short order, he began to recruit talent from his studio team and tasked them with creating what would become the Happiest Place on Earth. With their backgrounds in storytelling and design, the focus became as much about creating an immersive experience that would take guests to new worlds as it was about innovative and thrilling ride experiences. That combination of imagination and engineering is today summed up with one simple word: Imagineering.

My Imagineering History

Growing up with a Disney fan father, the word imagineer took on special significance. I read through articles and books on Disney history, even though I was too young to take in many of the details. I watched specials about the Disney parks as well, and though I respected the technology and innovation, there was always a magical quality about their work that felt out of reach.

I’ve talked before about the distance I kept from Disney, particularly the parks, for many years before. But when I started listening to various Disney podcasts in preparation for my trip, I was fascinated by the stories and started to learn names like Mary Blair, Harper Goff, X. Atencio, Marc and Alice Davis and, of course, the one who would quickly become my Imagineering hero, Tony Baxter. When we arrived in Walt Disney World, I wanted to take in the details of the backstories and appreciate the details of the attractions and locations around the parks and resorts. Then, once we got back home, reading books, listening to podcasts and visiting web sites became my connection back to Disney World. Having been on the attractions and walked the parks so recently, I fell more in love with the not only the world of the parks, but the behind the scenes details as well.

At the beginning of the years, I made the decision to revive my personal web site and commit to writing several pieces a week. Monday-Wednesday-Friday felt like a natural schedule to keep, and I knew at least one of the days I wanted a consistent theme. I’d made a few postings on Disney message boards talking about ideas for FastPass or how to change Epcot. In one reply, I started off by saying “Well, not to play Monday Morning Imagineer here…” When I stumbled across the idea of doing a weekly piece about Disney, that name came back to me, and I couldn’t think of a better title.

Of course, there will be people who visit this site who aren’t Disney fanatics, so I might lose them as I fling around terminology, drop names and mention the history of an attraction. So this week, I thought I might take a step back from talking about specific attractions or features in the Disney parks and give everyone a wide angle view of what Imagineering is all about.

A disclaimer first… I’m still relatively new to all of this, and I’ve certainly had no hands on experience, unless you want to count some really nice setups in Thrillville1 and Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 Platinum Edition. There are dozens of books that go into far greater detail than I can manage here. If anything, I hope what I do on a weekly basis fosters an interest in the subject, and people have a desire to go out there are read more about it.

That said, let’s delve into a little bit of the history of Imagineering, as seen through the attractions, parks and resorts the team designed(Down the line, we’ll come back and meet more of the specific Disney Legends who brought the parks to life).

History, As Told By Attractions

“I always believed the reason Walt built Disneyland was that he wanted one. He wanted the biggest train layout; he wanted a place for all his toys.” – Imagineer Bruce Gordon

It took some time for the seed planted on that bench in Griffith Park to germinate into the Disney parks we know today. But like so many things with the company that bears his name, it started with Walt Disney, who is widely acknowledged as the first Imagineer. In fact, the first attraction he designed and built wasn’t in Anaheim, but in the backyard of his Holmby Hills home. The Carolwood Pacific Railroad was designed by Walt and a machinist from the Disney studio, Roger E. Broggie, with a track that stretched over 2,500 feet. Walt named the train’s engine the Lilly Belle for his wife, a decision that perhaps softened the blow of her backyard being taken up by her husband’s new toy2.

With the Carolwood Pacific growing in popularity, Walt briefly considered moving it to the studios and even considered a small amusement park on a plot of land nearby. But when that idea combined with his musings on the Griffith Park bench and blossomed into what would become Disneyland, Walt knew he would need a far larger plot of land to house it all. But more importantly, he would need more people like Roger Broggie to help him make it a reality.

A scene from Jungle Cruise, one of the first Disney attractions.

While work on Disneyland began prior to its creation, WED Enterprises was founded in 1952 with a primary focus on the design and construction of Disneyland. The team was drawn from talent at the Disney Studios, who approached the Disneyland project less as a standard amusement park, but instead an exercise in three dimensional story telling. They would apply the techniques of developing a film story to the attractions. That simple edict, that story would drive all aspects of Disneyland, can be seen today. While dark rides, indoor amusement park attractions that takes riders on a guided tour of various scenes, existed as early as the last nineteenth century3, Disneyland attractions like Snow White’s Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Peter Pan’s Flight advanced them to a whole new level.

A modern Audio-Anamatronic from The Seas with Nemo and Friends

In 1963, the opening of The Enchanted Tiki Room ushered in the use of Audio-Animatronics, a WED pioneered form of robotics. These became a major feature of Disney’s famous involvement in the 1964 World’s Fair, for which WED created some of the most well known Disney attractions: It’s a Small World, the Carousel of Progress and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the precursor to the Hall of Presidents.

Walt Disney’s passing in 1966 led to a new era for Imagineering, one without its leader and guiding voice. In the years following his death, Disneyland and later Walt Disney World saw the opening of the last attractions Walt was directly involved with, ones which would among the most iconic in the park even to this day. They included the Country Bear Jamboree(originally planned for a ski resort project Walt had started work on), Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion4. Perhaps most notable among the technological innovations of the Haunted Mansion was a ride system that changed the attraction from a walk through to a guided tour. The omnimover could not only follow a predesigned track, but change the direction of the car, focusing guest attention on particular scenes and details.

Roy Disney’s commitment to fulfilling Walt’s dream of the Florida project led a great deal of Imagineering’s focus to be on the design of Disneyland East, which would eventually become the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Interestingly, WED didn’t originally plan to duplicate the Snow White, Peter Pan and Mr. Toad rides in Disney World, and discussed the Magic Kingdom instead having dark rides based on Sleeping Beauty, Mary Poppins and Sleepy Hollow. Roy eventually nixed those plans, opting to duplicate the familiar, already successful attractions from Disneyland5.

Big Thunder Mountain railroad

The two major attractions to open in the 1970s represented a significant milestone in Disney history, with two popular roller coaster attractions bridging the gap to a new generation of attractions. Space Mountain, which opened first in 19756, had roots stretching back to Walt Disney, who considered a space themed roller coaster after the success of the Matterhorn. In 1979, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened in Disneyland, an attraction designed by Tony Baxter, widely considered to be the vanguard of the second generation of Imagineering.

Spaceship Earth, the first non castle Disney park icon

Epcot Center represented one of the most unique challenges in Imagineering history. Epcot Center would be the third Disney park, but the first without a castle or the familiar lands that made up Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. Ultimately settling on the themes of international relations and advancements in technology, the opening of the park in 1982 marked yet another significant milestone in WED’s history. With what was to come, that experience would prove invaluable.

A fourth Disney park opened in 1983, with Tokyo Disneyland marking the first international park, but the arrival of Michael Eisner as Disney’s new CEO would radically transform the company, including WED. In fact, within two years of his appointment, Eisner rechristened WED as Walt Disney Imagineering, or WDI. It was only one example of the major imprint Eisner’s tenure as CEO would have on Imagineering.

New technology and Eisner’s connections to Hollywood started transforming the parks as early as 1986, when the Michael Jackson 3-D film Captain EO, produced by George Lucas and directed by Academy Award winner Francis Ford Coppola, came to the Imagination Pavilion. Even more significant was the end result of Imagineering’s experiments with motion simulator technology. Originally conceived to be based on the Black Hole with multiple paths the guests could select, the partnership with Lucas and his Industrial Light and Magic effects studio instead produced Star Tours7. But Eisner was only getting started.

1989 not only saw the opening of the popular Splash Mountain, but a third Disney World park, Disney-MGM Studios. The Great Movie Ride, one of the signature attractions on opening day, was originally planned as a new pavilion in Epcot Center’s Future World, but Eisner was taken with the idea and tasked the Imagineers with creating an entirely new park to house it. The Studios originally served as both a theme park and a functioning production facility, with guests able to attend actual television and film productions, and watch animators at work. With his continued success, Disney would unveil even larger plans for expansion.

Announced in 1990, the “Disney Decade” didn’t quite live up to its ambitious promises, thanks in part to the almost catastrophic failure of EuroDisney. However, from 1990 to 2000 saw a massive expansion to the theme park side of the business, with a host of new resorts and a fourth park in Walt Disney World, Animal Kingdom, as well as the groundwork for what would become Disney California Adventure. While a number of popular attractions would debut during this time, such as the Tower of Terror and the Indiana Jones Adventure, scores of designs would be unproduced. Entire parks, like Westcot Center and DisneySea8, would be scrapped, and some longtime Disney fans grew uneasy. Popular attractions like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage and the Disney World version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride closed without warning.

The complaints within the parks were among the issues that led to the resignation of Roy E. Disney and the subsequent second “Save Disney” campaign(the first in 1984 ironically led to Eisner being named CEO). In turn, Bob Iger was named the new CEO, and his legacy of acquisitions would become the latest strong influence at Imagineering. With the Pixar purchase in early 2006, John Lasseter would be named chief creative consultant to the department, and the Lucasfilm acquisition in 2012 would set the stage for one of their most ambitious projects to date.

Modern Imagineering

“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” – Walt Disney

Today, the current crop of Imagineers must face a series of challenges that even Walt Disney couldn’t have imagined in the early days of Disneyland. Perhaps the most notable is the close proximity of a potent rival, Universal Studios. With several former Imagineers working in their creative department and the successful launch of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter now on both coasts, the Disney parks have a competitor that can challenge them both financially and creatively.

The rapid ascent of technology has likewise created new challenges. Advancements in various areas have made future themed areas and attractions, like Tomrrowland in the kingdom parks and Future World in Epcot, show their age far faster. New ride systems and technology have changed the expectations of guests, and the rise of rapid communications and social media mean that the buzz for a new ride travels quickly… as does bad word of mouth. It’s hard to imagine, for example, the outrage over the new Journey into Your Imagination spreading as quickly without the internet.

Interactivity and immersion have become the buzzwords of the current generation of theme park lands and attractions. While Horizons in Epcot Center first toyed with this concept by letting riders select their own ending, the concept has expanded in recent years. Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin and the immensely popular Toy Story Midway Mania allow riders to play an interactive shooting game, and the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor and Turtle Talk with Crush allow animated characters to talk and interact with guests. New ideas, like the StoryMaker technology, are the next step forward.

Immersion has always been a big part of the Disney parks, with their intricate back stories and hidden details, but the Wizarding World of Harry Potter revealed that guests want to walk in the worlds of their favorite movies beyond the confines of a dark ride. The upcoming World of Pandora in Animal Kingdom and the dual Star Wars lands that are currently under construction will take the concept to a whole new level. When introducing the Star Wars land, emphasis was placed on the fact that everyone you meet will be a resident of that planet, and will remain in character. This will create a whole new set of challenges for Imagineering to maintain the illusion of that world.

And of course, at the same time Imagineering must, and will, continue to innovate. In 1996, plans for the upcoming California Adventure included Ultra Flight, a hang glider based attraction. However, the original design was unsatisfatctory to the design team, and it was almost scrapped. It was saved by Imagineer Mark Sumner, who came up with a new ride system that he first demonstrated with an Erector set. That ultimately let the Imagineers complete Soarin’, which was gone on to become one of the most popular attractions in the Disney parks. The solution illustrates the combination of imagination and innovation that are the hallmarks of this remarkable department, as well as shows the application of several of the most import edicts of Imagineering. But that’s a story for another time.

In the meantime, I’ll go on dreaming.

A Daily Dose of Disney

Like most Disney fans, I like to find ways to feel closer to the parks when I’m half a country away from them. Each week, I’ll highlight little ways you can bring a little Disney magic into your lives.

Connecting with Walt – If you’re interested in some of the history so briefly outlined here and want to dig deeper, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to start than this event podcast presented by The DIS Unplugged. DIS historian Michael Bowling and Craig Williams discuss the history of Walt Disney World, from the background of the Florida project to the park’s construction, with lots of fantastic details and entertaining stories. It’s well worth your time to listen and learn more about how Walt Disney World came to be.

What’s to Come

Wednesday I invite you to step into Animal Kingdom with us as we explore the newest of the four Walt Disney World parks. What does a self professed zoo nerd think? And of course, you’ll find out if that fireworks cruise plan of mine went off like planned.

And next week, I’ll talk more about Imagineering in general. This time, I’ll introduce you to some of the terminology you’ll encounter, and discuss the principles and process Imagineers go through to create the memorable attractions. If you don’t know a berm from blue sky, this will be the MMI for you!

Not So Hidden Mickeys(AKA Footnotes)

1 – It’s worth noting here that Thrillville was published by LucasArts and developed by Frontier Developments, which also did both Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 and the Disneyland Adventure Kinect game, so if Disney really wanted to, they could bring it back. Just saying.

2 – Legend has it that Lillian put her foot down on Walt’s train cutting through her flower beds, which necessitated the tunnel. Also, the story of Walt’s train will be a good one to share with my wife if she ever thinks my Transformers collection is getting out of hand.

3 – While researching this article, I found a fascinating thesis by Graeme Stanley Baker entitled An Anatomy of a Dark Ride, which explores the history of the dark ride from its earliest origins to Universal’s Transformers: The Ride 3D. If you’re a theme park aficionado you should give it a read.

4 – Advertisements in 1961 promised the opening of the Haunted Manion in 1963, and the facade was completed in New Orleans Square in 1963, but between the World’s Fair projects in 1964 and Walt’s increasing interest in the Florida project, the Mansion fell by the wayside, and after Walt’s passing its design became a contentious subject between the Imagineers, as some wanted a scary attraction and others wanted a sillier design. You could write a whole book on this one attraction’s development… and a few people have, though they’re still on my “To bu at some point” list.

5 – Before his passing in 1966, Walt focused much of his attention on Progress City, the original concept for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and had little interest in the Magic Kingdom, so it will forever be a mystery if he would have given the okay to these alternate attractions, but his love for Mary Poppins might have won the day for the new designs.

6 – Sadly, this opening date also reveals that one of pro wrestler Nature Boy Ric Flair’s favorite quotes is completely wrong, as Space Mountain is neither the oldest ride nor has the longest lines. To be fair, calling himself Snow White’s Adventures or the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train probably wouldn’t have sounded as good.

7 – That thing about multiple paths sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Sure enough, proving the Imagineering mantra that “a good idea never dies” holds true, the multiple path concept would eventually happen in Star Tours – The Adventure Continues.

8 – The DisneySea name wouldn’t go away, although it would take on a very different form when the company opened Tokyo DisneySea in 2001. While the California version would have been built in Long Beach and been themed around the ocean and marine research. The DisneySea in Tokyo had an exploration theme and introduced the concept of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, inspired by Downtown Disney’s late, lamented Adventurer’s Club. It’s worth noting that the S.E.A. has been making appearances in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, via mentions in both Trader Sam’s locations, Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar and, most recently, the Skipper Canteen. Just an Imagineering in joke, or a possible hint they may have bigger plans?

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