Do you remember that moment when you first saw something at a Disney Park that you fully believed was real? Where you fully surrendered yourself to the magic of childlike wonder? (For me, it was the first time I saw the dancing ghosts in the Haunted Mansion!) Well, the team of talented artists and inventors who brought you that joy are called Imagineers, and their documentary on Disney+ provides a rare look at how they make the impossible possible.
For anyone who hasn’t heard, The Imagineering Story is a fascinating deep dive into Disney history, specifically around one of the most enigmatic parts of the company—Walt Disney Imagineering (or WED Enterprise, as it was called in Walt’s days).
The Imagineering Story’s first episode begins with the story of Walt and his dream to build Disneyland. In the last episode, which is now streaming on Disney+, you see how that initial dream has been manifested into the present-day 12 theme parks that span the globe in reach, each packed with impossible ideas that have been made into reality by Imagineers.
Episode Six, entitled To Infinity and Beyond, brings the story of Imagineering to the present day, exploring some of the most recent technologically advanced and innovative projects to date, including the creation of Shanghai Disneyland, Pandora — The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom park in Walt Disney World, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort. (And for all you Star Wars fans who can’t wait for a peek at Rise of the Resistance, we got you. Seeing how that attraction came together is a real highlight!)
As a lifelong fan of the Disney Parks (and TBH a bit of a history nerd as well), I’ve been queuing up new episodes of The Imagineering Story every Friday like clockwork. Prior to the official release of the last episode, I was ecstatic to be given the opportunity to go on a brief tour of the Imagineering campus in Glendale, before a screening of the last episode and a panel discussion with director Leslie Iwerks and several of the Imagineers that appear in the last episode.
The tour was carefully curated to match some of the moments we would see in the last episode. From the statues of the sculpture studio, the dimensional designs of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and the engineering marvels like a Star Wars-inspired AI droid, the interior of a Na’vi Shaman, and a Tron lightcycle—I’ve never felt more awe than when I was in front of the people that created this magic. If anything, that’s the feeling I get from The Imagineering Story every time I watch it. As Imagineer Scott Trowbridge describes, “Really talented people coming together can create the impossible. It can propel the world forward.”
The project came to director Leslie Iwerks through Disney Imagineering Legend Marty Sklar, who was a fan of her documentary about the origins of Pixar. Leslie recounted, “When Marty said ‘When are you going to do our story?’ I was like a little kid all over again and so for the last seven years, I’ve been like a little kid running around the world—all over these parks and interviewing all these great people. I’d like to say that the minds, the brilliance, the humility of the Imagineers blew me away and the kindness and the accessibility that they gave me—the access was unprecedented and I never took that for granted. I actually was just always in awe that they gave me the opportunity to speak to so many people and keep so many secrets, years before anything was out to the public.”
Now that it’s out in the world, the Imagineers have rejoiced at the possibilities of what it means to expose their work in this new type of way. “I’m excited about it in the sense that the world now can dial-in and see—for the one person or the kid that’s interested to be an artist, or be a writer, or be a conceptualist. They can actually see it’s a viable business, a viable career. This whole piece in my mind is telling the mothers, the fathers, the kids—you can do it.” shared Imagineer Doris Woodward.
More than just the fun parts of the job, there is also a real honesty to all of The Imagineering Story that many have connected with. Bob Weis, President of Walt Disney Imagineering, was floored by Leslie Iwerks’ commitment to the truth of what it was like to bring these dreams to reality. “That first shot [in the last episode] that you had with the mud [before Shanghai Disneyland was built] just hit me… because I can remember us literally sitting in Shanghai thinking this will never open. Not that it will open late, but that it will NEVER open. That is a real feeling, and I think you captured it.”
Imagineer Scott Trowbridge expanded on this theme, remarking, “I think it is one of Imagineering’s core missions to provide examples of that optimistic possibility. That kind of drives a lot of what we do… This work is hard… because invention is hard and there are disappointments and there are challenges and there are unforeseen consequences of decisions made years down the road… but the hard work is ultimately worth it because it is the service of a larger mission.”
The next time you feel yourself wanting to be inspired, or just want to soak in some of that behind-the-scenes Disney magic, we can guarantee that the hardworking Imagineers of Walt Disney Imagineering can definitely point you in the right direction. The Imagineering Story is streaming now on Disney+. Sign up on DisneyPlus.com!