It’s easy to look at the goliath company that Disney is now and forget that things were not always so. Quite aside from the history of animation and film making it’s no small feat that various Disney parks scatter the world from America through France to Japan and Hong Kong.
This fascinating documentary series tells the story of the trials and tribulations that went behind bringing such carefully thought out parks forward starting with Walt Disney’s initial dream, and the particular brand of engineers who work to make dreams come true.
Episode One of The Imagineering Story is entitled The Happiest Place on Earth. Money perhaps can’t buy happiness but when it comes to building it there was more than simply architecture in mind. Walt Disney’s vision of Disneyland was realised by a particular group of minds at his company, dubbed ‘The Imagineers’: a portmanteau of imagination and engineer.
Such people not only think about how to practically build something, but how to do so in such a way that creates that magic Disney experience from the colours, the movements, the visual framing, and even the sounds and smells.
Interestingly, The Imagineering Story is occasionally candid with the history it works through, although it does pull its punches. There are one-sentence lines that suggest things like ‘worker disputes’ rather than actually go into well-documented unionisation clashes. Notwithstanding a little whitewashing, each episode is balanced with detailing the practical work that goes into theme park construction alongside covering the boardroom level machinations that buoy up or even puncture said efforts.
The corporate history of Disney through Walt himself, various family members, the Michael Eisner and Frank Wells years, through to current CEO Bob Iger is covered, with the standing of the Imagineering department buffeted by whatever economic pressures were squeezing at the time.
So on the one hand you get a documentary that digs into the thinking behind such well-known rides as It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted House. We see the partnership (and later acquisition) of Star Wars and how an old flight simulator was repurposed into a Millennium Falcon experience. I certainly was astounded at the craft behind some of the more recent rides in the Hong Kong or Chinese Disneylands, where laser projection, invisible magnet tracks, and 4D experiences can woosh large numbers of people around rides full of talking characters where it seems like they are addressing only YOU.
And on the other hand, there’s a decent amount of warts and all story in some of Disney’s more public failings. There is much chin-stroking about the failures of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney California Adventure Park, or the resistance to perceived plastic Americana from the French with Disneyland Paris. Whilst it does feel like the show pulls its punches by never really digging into the cold corporate hand in these areas (it’s basically summed up as ‘we tried to do it on the cheap’), it’s certainly interesting to see the difference that a well-funded Imagineering department apparently makes.
The Imagineering Story is a great and easy to binge documentary series that informs, entertains, and peer’s behind the giant mouse ears adorned curtain satisfyingly enough that you feel like you walk away a-brim with knowledge.
It all wraps up happily with Pixar and the launch of Disneyland Shanghai in a manner that still skirts around the problems that certainly Pixar are having of late, but by focusing mostly on the Disney theme parks and attractions and the particular skills it takes to make them work, The Imagineering Story shows that much sweat of body and mind is needed to pump Magic into the Kingdom.
Words by Michael Record