Monday Morning Imagineer – The Process


In 1953, Disneyland was just a 160 acre orange grove. In 1965, Walt Disney World was largely undeveloped swamp. Transforming these plots of land into the kingdoms and resorts we know today took more than just ingenuity and hard work, it required a new degree of creativity. Rather than just created the amusement park rides the world had already seen, the Disney Parks would give visitors the sensation of stepping into the well known animated worlds of their films. They created everything from an idealized version of Americana to a travel agency in a galaxy far, far away.

That dedication to transporting guests extended beyond the gates of the parks and into the resorts and even the shopping centers that line the properties. When Walt Disney assembled his first team of Imagineers, the job would require them to think outside the box and even cultivate new skills. Imagineer X Atencio, for example, was an animator who worked on such classics Fantasia and Mary Poppins. He’d never written lyrics before when he was tasked with working on the story for a new Disney attraction. The song in question was “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life For Me”. He would later go on to write for other attractions and would write “Grim Grinning Ghosts.” Atencio’s story wasn’t the only Imagineer with hidden talents the job unlocked.

Over the years, the Imagineers have refined the process of taking a simple concept(say, a Toy Story themed attraction), refined the idea into something more specific(“What if guests were transported into Andy’s room, where the toys were playing with a new midway games playset?”), and then worked out how to execute that idea, work around all of the logistical problems and create a new attraction for guests around the world to enjoy(Toy Story Mania).

This week, I’m going to give you a little insight into that process, and introduce you to a bit of the lexicon that’s been created to help Imagineers along the way.

And before we begin, I should say that there’s no way I can do much more than scratch the surface and give you a very basic overview of the Imagineering process in one column. Honestly, I could probably take up the entire summer with this subject and still be forced to whittle down what I talked about. And as I said before, being someone looking from the outside in, that limits my perspective. As with my History of Imagineering post, I’d love for this to be a starting off point for people to learn more.

From Story to Attraction

It all begins with one word: Story.

Story clearly influences the look, design and experience of Barnstormer.

The genesis of a new attraction can come in many forms. Sometimes it starts with a popular film or franchise that the powers that be feel should be represented in the park, like Frozen. As I’ve mentioned before, Journey into Imagination began with Kodak sponsoring a pavilion in Epcot and wanting something imaginative. Sometimes a particular type of attraction might be needed to fill a gap, or to test a new technology, like Star Tours with motion simulator technology. No matter where the idea comes from, though, the concept will always revolve around story.

The idea of story doesn’t stop at the attractions, however. The individual lands within each park have stories to tell, and even the various resorts have intricate back stories of their own. Even the refurbishment of Downtown Disney to Disney Springs was based around the story of a community that built up around a natural spring in the 1900s. The story is the backbone along which all of the design decisions are made, and there’s more to it than you might think.

With the framework of a story in mind, Imagineers will launch into the first stage of development, a period that’s known as blue sky. As you might expect from the name, this stage is one without limits. Imagineers begin to dream up how the audience will experience the attraction and what it will consist of, without yet taking into consideration any potential limitations. At this point, the team will focus on the show, or what the guest experiences. This isn’t limited to just sights and sounds, though! Successful attractions have used increased heat or cold, or even the smell of oranges or smoke to enhance the experience. Most importantly, at this point the Imagineers make a point to avoid using “stopping” words, like if, but, or can’t.

Those kinds of word do come up as Imagineers try to translate the ideas into workable design attractions. There’s a saying at Imagineering that no good idea never dies, and there are countless examples of ideas that have come back years later. Sometimes it takes technology a little while to catch up to their ambition. This often doesn’t stop the Imagineers from dreaming up innovative solutions to their problems, whether it requires a new ride system or the application of an optical illusion from the 1800s to achieve their goals.

The Haunted Mansion might be one of the most well known facades in the parks.

Since the original Imagineers were drawn from the animation and film studios, and given Walt’s own experience in the medium, much of the planning for an attraction resembles a Hollywood production. Imagineers will often craft storyboards to depict key scenes in the ride, and maquettes(scaled down versions of key features) and now computer simulations often help with the planning stages. This secondary stage is also when the space allotted for the attraction. For dark rides this would include both the show building, the entire space that houses the ride, in addition to the facade, or section of the building that’s presented to the guests as part of the show.

Space Mountain is a good example of a wienie that fits perfectly within its land.

The fit of the building’s facade into its surroundings is actually a delicate balancing act that involves two design principles that are sometimes at odds. Walt Disney coined the term wienie for a visual element that guides the audience, in many cases to an attraction. The various park icons, like Cinderella Castle or Spaceship Earth in Epcot, are great examples. At the same time, the Imagineers work hard to eliminate visual intrusion, any element that breaks up the illusion of an area.

A good example of these conflicts, and the creative way Imagineering can handle them, comes from the Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios. The looming form of the Hollywood Tower Hotel is a textbook example of a wienie, but its size meant it would also be visible from Morocco in World Showcase at Epcot. As a result, the entire rear of the hotel is styled to match the buildings and color scheme of the Morocco pavilion, to the point many guests don’t realize they’re looking at the Tower. Many of the parks also have a berm, or landscaped barrier, that eliminates visual intrusion from outside the park.

An example of fun details your can find in the queue for Jungle Cruise

While you might consider Imagineering a job that focuses on the attractions, it’s actually much more than just ride design. Imagineers are responsible for everything you see in the park, and thus they cover a wide range of disciplines. Everything from the colors of the buildings and the queue to the landscaping outisde and the music you hear in line is meticulously planned to match the theming. Imagineers aim to control every aspect of the experience to assure complete immersion into the worlds they’ve created. If you’ve going to step onto the “wildest ride in the wilderness,” you’re not going to want visitors to be seeing palm trees out front! This stage also allows Imagineers to sprinkle in elements of an attraction’s overall story, as well as hide the ever popular hidden Mickeys, which can mean both hidden Mickey Mouse symbols or hidden joke and homages in general.

Once a ride has been constructed, there will often be a soft open before the formal opening date. Unannounced, a new attraction or restaurant will open its doors to guests so that any final bugs can be worked out with a live audience. This can sometimes expand beyond a single site, however. At the time of this writing, the entire park of Shanghai Disneyland is having its soft open.

However, even with an opening the process isn’t over, as Imagineers will often find ways to plus an attraction, which as you’d suspect involves adding more to improve the overall experience. One of the latest ways Imagineers have worked to plus the experience for guests is by adding interactive queues to the most popular attractions, thus giving guests in a long time something to experience while waiting.

The process isn’t always seamless. Some attractions will go through these phases multiples times, as certain elements might not be clicking or the experience isn’t up to Disney’s standards. Everything from budget concerns to changes in leadership or what the public wants can alter an attraction. There were plans at one time to convert the submarine ride in Disneyland to an Atlantis The Lost Empire themed attraction, but the film’s disappointing performance at the box office scuttled those plans1. On the other hand, the immense success of Frozen led Imagineers to rework the Maelstrom attraction in the Norway pavilion to one themed on that film.

Again, I can’t stress enough that this is really just a very basic overview of what Imagineers will look at when they design a new attraction. I hope at the very least I’ve managed to give you a bit of appreciation of just how difficult and involved the work of Imagineers can be. The end result of all that hard work is a magical place where, for all its faults, can still transport you away from the worries of the day and take you back to a time when you believed fairies could fly, wookies were real and magic can be found around every corner.

That’s perhaps the greatest feat of all.

A Daily Weekly 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.

The Haunted Mansion – Imagineering a Disney Classic – If this column made you interested in the process of Imagineering(or you’re curious just how badly I represented it), then you’ll want to take a look at this book by Jason Surrell. It traces the development of the Haunted Mansion through its various stages and how it was adapted to other parks. It’s also written by a former Imagineer, so you know it’s giving you some solid insight into the process. And who doesn’t love Haunted Mansion?

What’s to Come

Wednesday I enter the home stretch of the Disneymoon portion of our honeymoon, with a return to my favorite park from our trip in the 1980s, Epcot. How does it hold up? How loud do I scream over the current Journey into Imagination? All that, and we learn a valuable lesson about how to enjoy a Disney vacation.

Normally my Freeform Friday posts aren’t planned in advance and I don’t mention them here, but I will this week. A lot of people have been taking up the Disney vs. Universal banner like it’s Team Cap versus Team Iron Man. But I consider myself a theme park atheist who loves them both. I’ll give you a few of my thoughts on the pros and cons of each, and why I think a trip to Orlando should include both parks in the itinerary.

And next week, Monday Morning Imagineer returns to “going down the road and booking the territory” as Steve Austin might put it, as we’ll return to Future World, and I share my thoughts on what I’d do with the former Wonders of Life pavilion. What’s in store? How about a whole new building with a new theme and a new license? So get ready for a trip to the International Museum of Robotics, and get ready to welcome a certain super fighting robot to my version of Epcot.

Not So Hidden Mickeys(AKA Footnotes)

1 – The box office underperformance of Atlantis baffles me to this day. The films’ aesthetic was stunning and it told a great story. Maybe it broke the mold a little too much, with a more mature story that owed a debt to steam punk and even film noir.

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