‘The Imagineering Story’: An inspiring and intimate look into Disney’s theme parks

The Disney+ documentary series delves into the fascinating birth and development of Disney’s theme park division, providing brilliant insight to the creative minds of the group of talented Imagineers who designed it all.

So, it’s been just over a fortnight since the launch of Disney+ in the UK and, on top of the mountains upon mountains of nostalgia-inducing Disney Channel content, along with National Geographic, Star Wars, Classic Disney and The Simpsons to wade through, along too come Disney+ Originals. I have already reviewed High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (The Curse of the Overly Long Series Title) which, quite frankly, is a masterpiece of the modern time, but here I come with an altogether more cultured affair. The Imagineering Story is a documentary about the development and growth in Disney’s theme park division, from its conception as what was considered a pipe dream from Walt Disney (he was even refused funding from his own company, necessitating a deal with ABC) into the Goliath that exists in the modern age.

I know exactly what you’re thinking.

Of course this is essentially just an advertisement to book a holiday at Disneyland next summer. And, sure, that would be nice, but at this point quarantine will have me booking a holiday to just about anywhere. Additionally, the documentary does somewhat glaze over the more unsavoury elements of Walt Disney’s character, and generally portrays him as a childlike, wise, all-together standup American gentleman. I mean, after all, the documentary was directed by Leslie Iwerks, who is a third-generation Disney kid, daughter of Disney executive Don Iwerks and granddaughter of Disney animator Ub Iwerks, who co-designed Mickey Mouse. So, understandably, from one so intimately linked with Disney, she – and Disney+ executives, and the Disney brand as a whole, are incredibly protective of their brand and image. Setting that to one side, however, what you’re left with is a remarkably surprising and candid exploration of how the Disney theme parks came into existence, exploring the difficulties with funding, as well as changing priorities within the company, as well as the particulars of designing and building beloved attractions, such as The Haunted Mansion, the Mattahorn, Space Mountain, It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean (which was a ride first. I mean, lots of people may know that, but I only discovered it from watching this documentary).

One of the great selling points of the documentary series is its structure. Writer Mark Catalena deftly takes us through what is a mammoth amount of information within an hour-long instalment. The first episode alone takes us from Walt Disney’s original imaginings of Disneyland, through to its opening day, to the 1964 New York World’s Fair (in which Disney cunningly managed to get It’s a Small World and The Carousel of Progress built without using Disney money, thus capitalising hugely upon their success without any expenditure on Disney’s part) and finally through to Walt’s death in 1966. Within the second episode, we are led through the creation of Florida’s Walt Disney World, including the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, as well as opening Tokyo Disneyland (which, amusingly, was only built because the Imagineers gave Tokyo impossible terms that they thought would be refused, but were accepted, and they had to follow through). Within all of this content, we are also spoken to at length about the laborious design process that was necessary in order to bring Disney’s vision to life. Disney was not at all interested in something that looked fake or artificial; he wanted to lend the guests at his theme parks the true feeling of escape, and that necessitated movie techniques of forced perspective and smoke-and-mirrors to make it feel entirely organic and truthful.

This isn’t merely being talked at, however. Instead of something that relies heavily upon narration (though Angela Bassett as the narrator is delightfully soothing), we hear lots of these stories first hand from Imagineers involved at the time, both through archival footage and through modern talking-head interviews. These modern talking-head interviews are conducted around the Disney parks themselves, adding a brilliant level of colour to these segments, and sometimes even involve the creative minds involved venturing out into the theme park proper, such as seeing into the depths of the Mattador attraction. Archival footage is also used to give us a better understanding of the design process undertaken before constructing different areas and rides. We see rides being tested out, and small models being intricately and painstakingly painted to create the highest levels of realism and depth.

On top of this, the entire series is just delightfully fascinating and my only criticism would be that it’s too short. Mark Catalena manages the Herculean task here of cramming a massive amount of content into what is a short amount of time. While this does serve the purpose of keeping the documentary pacy and keeping up the audience’s interest, it also kept me longing to know just a little bit more before the episode moved on to the next topic.

Obviously, by the close of the series, the documentary has caught up with real time, making the possibilities of a second series somewhat small. However, I would be absolutely delighted to see more information about some of the key attractions and the construction process. The mechanisms and the designs that they went through before being available to the public. Furthermore, as all of the Disney parks line up huge expansions, with new areas that are Avengers themed, Star Wars themed and Frozen themed, that would be a perfect opportunity to shed some light upon the construction of those projects. While it would be terribly fascinating for me, I imagine it would also further serve to entice holiday-goers to the Disney parks. Just saying, Disney. Your move.

If you are looking for something more intellectually engaging out of Disney+ somewhat overwhelming levels of provided content, then I would thoroughly recommend The Imagineering Story as a starting point. Even if you are not especially fascinated by theme parks, you will be hugely impressed by the stories of human tenacity and creativity that led to these people creating such wonderful things, even in areas they had comparatively little experience in. It truly left me with a newfound respect for these enormously hardworking and innovative people, who often go without recognition from the ordinary theme park goer. It definitely gave me a new lens to appreciate Disney’s theme parks through.

The Imagineering Story is streaming now on Disney+. New episodes are released every Friday. Episodes 1 – 4 available now.

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