A new documentary series takes an unvarnished look behind the curtain at Walt Disney Imagineering and its secretive creative laboratory where the theme park magicians design and create Disney’s fantasy worlds and attractions.
“The Imagineering Story” documentary series debuting on the new Disney+ streaming service on Nov. 12 traces the 65-year history of the Disney artists and engineers who design and build Disney theme parks and attractions around the world.
The first episode of “The Imagineering Story” documents the successes and failures of what skeptics called “Walt’s Folly” and the creative team that dreamed up and built Disneyland with a blend of artistic skill, risk-taking spirit and high drama.
“The Imagineering Story” might be too esoteric for casual fans if it appeared as a series on ABC or dropped all at once on Netflix, but Disney+ is the perfect venue for the documentary. Hardcore Disney fans will eat it up and pore over every frame looking for new wrinkles in the often-told story and hidden secrets revealed in the footage about what’s next.
The six-part docuseries offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at Disney’s secretive creative studio and features interviews with Imagineers Bob Gurr, Alice Davis, Rolly Crump, Tony Baxter, Joe Rohde and many others.
The documentary takes viewers on a six-decade journey as Imagineering forebearer WED Enterprises creates Disneyland and every Disney theme park in Florida, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
The first episode of “The Imagineering Story” covers what will be fairly familiar ground for most Disney fans — the conception, birth and early years of Disneyland. The debut episode follows a story arc that spans from early plans for the park, its frantic construction and a disastrous grand opening to the 1959 E-ticket expansion, 1964 World’s Fair and Walt Disney’s untimely death.
What separates the debut episode of “The Imagineering Story” from other Disneyland retrospectives are the detail, depth and magnitude of the material. The first show is full of never-before-seen construction footage of the park being built in an Anaheim orange grove.
A helicopter flies over the earthen berm surrounding the park. Walt Disney rambles by in a Jeep along a rutted path. A 1950s station wagon travels along the Jungle Cruise route void of water and foliage. The Tomorrowland TWA rocket gets trucked into place. Crews hurriedly install the teacups. The Mark Twain riverboat takes shape.
The docuseries tells the story of Imagineering through the growth of Disney parks around the globe and the groundbreaking attractions that accompanied them.
The first episode of the docuseries captures the wonder, ingenuity and courage of the Imagineers as they embarked on Walt Disney’s grand experiment to create a theme park unlike anything the world had ever seen.
Nothing went according to plan during the lead-up to Disneyland’s grand opening in 1955. Record rainfall turned the denuded former orange groves to a muddy muck. The Rivers of America leaked and remained stubbornly dry.
The star-crossed opening of Disneyland that became known as “Black Sunday” and the chaotic days and weeks that followed play out in all their calamitous details. The Dumbo elephants had to be unloaded with step ladders, the overloaded Mark Twain nearly sank, the tea cups fell apart and needed to be welded back together.
The trackless Autopia course was surrounded by dirt. Gleeful grade schoolers T-boned each other with the cars. The Tomorrowland motorway devolved into demolition derby madness.
“They all had the attitude that they were going to ride those cars no matter what,” Imagineer Bob Gurr says in the documentary. “Instead of waiting in line like they should, they were jumping over the fence, running up the track and commandeering cars coming back into the load area and pulling people out of the cars and taking over the cars themselves. Nobody had anticipated this and it was a complete madhouse.”
There are also lighter moments. Walt Disney glides past in a Skyway bucket or takes the wheel of an Autopia car. Mermaids sun on a rock in the lagoon as the military gray submarines sail past. The short-lived but always-beloved Flying Saucers bounce on a cushion of air in Tomorrowland.
But much of the mood is darker than you might expect from a Disney-backed production. Midway through the first episode, Walt Disney provides a foreboding quote that anticipates the dysfunction and disarray that will soon follow his untimely death.
“I told them I said, ‘Look, the old man is getting old here,’” Walt Disney says in the documentary. “If anything did happen to me where I might become incapacitated in any way or anything would happen where I wouldn’t be here tomorrow, that thing has got to go on ahead or a lot of people would be hit. I’ve got to find a way.”
During the segment on the 1959 expansion, the documentary presents fascinating footage of the submarine voyage, monorail and Matterhorn mountain under construction. Imagineers in business suits and hard hats take stripped-down Matterhorn cars on test runs along the coaster track through a warren of steel girders that would eventually form the frame for the faux mountainside.
The highlight of the first episode has to be Imagineer Bob Gurr’s behind-the-scenes tour of the long-rumored, rarely-seen basketball court inside the peak of the Matterhorn mountain. Gurr sinks an underhanded free throw and adds his signature to a wall filled with the names of virtually every ride operator who has worked on the attraction.
Imagineer Rolly Crump recounts the birth of the Enchanted Tiki Room and tells a decidedly un-Disney story about Walt’s colorful concerns about early plans that conceived of the bird show as a restaurant.
“Walt always wanted a tea room, but instead we’re going to do a little restaurant,” Imagineer Rolly Crump says in the documentary. “John Hench was asked to do a rendering and in there he had birds in cages. Walt took one look at it and said, ‘John, you can’t have birds in cages.” John says, ‘Why not?’ Walt says, ‘Because they’ll poop in the food.’ That’s exactly what he said. We all cracked up. John said, ‘No, no, no. Maybe they’re little mechanical birds.’ And Walt said, ‘Oh, little mechanical birds.’ And that’s how it all got started.”
Imagineers program the movements of early audio-animatronic figures for the Carousel of Progress at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Costumeless animatronic dolls await their international attire inside It’s a Small World. The overwhelmed Imagineers try as they can to get the glitchy one-of-a-kind Abraham Lincoln animatronic figure to work in time for the World’s Fair.
“Lincoln would go into a complete spastic fit,” Gurr says in the documentary.
The most bizarre scene in the first episode of “The Imagineering Story”: A motley crew of Pirates of the Caribbean animatronic figures standing in the back of a stake-bed truck as they speed down the freeway bound for Disneyland.
The closing scenes of the first episode offer a glimpse of what’s to come in the next installment: Project X, as Disney World was known around the Imagineering offices.
The show ends on a low note. Walt Disney’s death visibly chokes up Rolly Crump and Bob Gurr — still to this day.
“We all went down to a restaurant and celebrated his life and had a few drinks,” Crump says in the documentary. “We all kind of looked at each other like, ‘What’s our next assignment?’ We really didn’t know. And John Hench made the strongest statement of all. He said, ‘Now we’ll know how much of our work Walt did for us.’”
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