When you’re tooling around any of the Disney theme parks, seeing the animatronic figures move around and sync with a soundtrack, or are just amazed at how well organized and clean the park is, you have Imagineers to thank. These are the people that Walt Disney hired, starting in the early 1950s, to execute his vision of magical attractions inside a magical park. A new Disney+ docuseries gives some new perspective on how those parks came together.
THE IMAGINEERING STORY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Shots of figurines, heads and more. Angela Bassett’s voice intones, “Within these walls, an eclectic group of creative people bring ideas to life. Outliers flourish here, a place best described as equal parts artist’s studio, design center, think tank and innovation laboratory.”
The Gist: The docuseries The Imagineering Story is directed by Leslie Iwerks, whose father Don is literally a Disney Legend, and whose grandfather Ub helped Disney create his first characters, Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Episode 1 concentrates on how Disney took an orange grove in Anaheim, California, and created Disneyland, which opened in 1955 and has been one of the country’s top tourist attractions ever since.
In 1952, Disney founded WED Enterprises — the “WED” being his initials — which was to be the engineering and design arm of what to that point was purely and animation studio. What he was looking for when he hired his “imagineers” were people who were creative and driven, who would take an idea and design and execute it on their own initiative. The construction and opening of the park is covered in this episode, including the bad reviews the first days got as the park got overwhelmed by more visitors than it expected (sounds like the analog predecessor to Disney+’s bumpy launch, doesn’t it?), and it also goes over all the rides and attractions that were added to the park over its first decade.
A large chunk of the episode was given over to the attractions created for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, like It’s A Small World, and just how complex they were to pull off. Those attractions were moved to Disneyland after the fair was over, and there’s a segment about how the Small World ride’s famous facade was created, complete with the audio-animatronic clock. The creation of the Matterhorn and the Haunted Mansion was also covered, as well as the beginnings of Disney’s desire to make a larger world in Florida, including his vision of EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Our Take: I had two feelings pulling at me when I was watching the first episodes of The Imagineering Story: “Wow, this is fascinating!” and “Wow, is this boring!” How can I have these two feelings simultaneously?
Well, I’ve always been fascinated with the history of the Disney theme parks, even though I have never been to Disneyland and haven’t gone to WDW or Epcot in over 30 years. The level of detail and, yes, “magic” that characterize Disney’s attractions have always been a source of interest, and to get an entire docuseries that shows how Imagineers created things like the audio-animatronic Abe Lincoln or the dozens of birds in the Tiki Room or the amazingly complex Pirates of the Carribean had me riveted.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the show’s presentation could have been livelier. The interviews former Imagineers — many of which are from archival footage, since many of them are no longer around — were fun, but hearing from current Disney people lecturing about the greats from the company’s past felt like a history lesson. Watching some of the technology in its early stages was great, but hearing from Disney CEO Bob Iger wasn’t. There was so much about the first episode that played out like a real docuseries, but so much other stuff that played out like a promotional movie you might watch on the way into a Disney attraction.
Disney is about creativity, vision and innovation. And not enough people appreciate the chances Walt Disney took when his company wasn’t the juggernaut it is today, and how much these Imagineers ran with Disney’s visions. So to see the first episode play out in such a static format was a disappointment. However, we’re hooked, especially for part 2, which is about the development of Walt Disney World in Florida, detailing how the Imagineers pressed forward after the Disney’s death in 1966.
What Age Group Is This For?: This is for all ages, but we see this appealing more to Disney superfans than casual Disney consumers.
Parting Shot: Dick Nunis, Disneyland’s director of operations in the ’60s, says as we see pics of Disney in the park, “The day Walt died, we opened. It was the right decision; Walt would say the show goes on. I think that Walt wanted to do more than just a Disney land. He was trying to leave us with a vision of the future.
Sleeper Star: The Imagineers themselves, including the very colorful Rolly Crump, who worked as a concept designer from 1959-70. He’s one of those guys that makes you happy that he’s still around to talk about his experience and that his memories are so vivid.
Most Pilot-y Line: Like we mentioned above, having Bob Iger be the first voice other than Bassett’s that you hear on the show makes it feel more like an ad and less like a docuseries. Completely not necessary.
Our Call: STREAM IT. We’re hoping that as the history of the Disney theme parks and other Imagineering projects go along, the pace of The Imagineering Story picks up. It certainly is a story worth telling.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.