Imagineering 101

Simon and Susan with EricSusan and I are just drawing breath again after the big International Pow-Wow travel convention in Orlando, which is America’s biggest annual travel trade forum, with all manner of conferences, media events, travel shows, exhibits, tours and receptions (plus the occasional party!). The focus is obviously only on the US – hotels, attractions, car hire, cities, travel organisations and more – but that is still a huge area of interest. And, as it was in Orlando, there was a big focus on Florida, and the theme parks. And that’s where our Encounter with an Imagineer came in.

The first day was given over to a wide range of media tours of Orlando (there were some 300 members of the media in town for Pow-Wow, with many from Europe, Latin America and Asia), and we chose the Discovering Disney tour, which we didn’t know much about in advance other than it might include some behind-the-scenes glimpses and other ‘insider’ looks at the parks. And we were rewarded for our hopes in major fashion.

Susan at Expedition EverestThe first part of the tour was to Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which we had already seen but which gave us another chance for a look at this amazing creation. The park visit was preceded by a video of the ‘Making of Everest’ which provided a truly fascinating glimpse into the design and build of the ride – there is SO much involved in this attraction (from how many times it changed in the design process, to the amount and style of concrete used, to the clever way they adapted normal scaffolding for the job, and more) that you immediately gain a terrific insight into the Imagineering process.

Then, after riding the ride came our unexpected (and totally captivating) bonus – a talk from Eric Jacobson, Senior Vice-President, Creative Development Walt Disney Imagineering (i.e. one of Disney’s most senior Imagineering executives). I’ve had the privilege of meeting quite a few of the creative minds behind Disney’s many attractions in the past, including the magnificent Joe Rohde, but Eric was new to me. He boasts an amazing resume, from Buzz Lightyear to Tower of Terror, and is currently involved with the additions and enhancements of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Eric JacobsonHis official job description says “he is responsible for directing project teams developing ideas, design, content, art direction and area development for Disneyland Resort in California, as well as Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, sports and recreation, and other entertainment venues at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.” He has been with Disney more than 30 years but still seems a cool 30-something (I guess it must be the California air!). The bottom line is that Disney had lined up a major speaker for this small media group (around 30 of us), and he had our total attention for 30 minutes.

With the aid of video and slides, he presented the ‘Art of Imagineering’ in all its glories, and I thought I would try to give you a taste of what he said (and how he said it) in this blog. If it comes out sounding like an Imagineering 101, the basic guide to the creativity which Disney provides for its guests better than anyone, that’s exactly what it was. So here’s what Eric told us.

There are essentially 11 steps in the Imagineering process, from their initial Blue Sky creative imagining process to Closeout, when they hand over a ride or attraction to theme park operations. In between, the Imagineering department (which consists of around 1,000 people, fluctuating depending on the number of projects at any one time) goes through the most intense and wide-ranging sequence of tests, re-designs, models (real and computer-generated) and challenges. Eric also confirmed that ideas are never thrown away, even if they are not considered ideal for the project at hand. Expedition Everest was, in fact, originally conceived (or rather, revived) from a 1994 rendering of the Animal Kingdom which showed a ‘mountain range’ attraction at the far side of the park. The Blue Sky process can also be in response to specific demands (say, for the new version of the Pirates ride), or completely novel ideas.

After Blue Sky, the Imagineers go to Design, a more lengthy stage of sketches, storyboards and re-draws which slowly help the idea take shape. Many models are made, but the key these days is to get the 3-D clay models into the computer, where more complicated details can be worked out (Expedition Everest, for example, consists of two structures – one for the coaster track, and one for the ‘mountain’ exterior. The two do not touch at any stage, and the final configuration could only be completed with a computer model). This stage also has three sub-stages, during which the concept is refined and studied from every angle, so that it is not only imaginative but realistic. Everest was originally envisioned as a MUCH bigger attraction before Joe Rohde decided it was improbably unrealistic and scaled it back to the 6-acre affair it finally opened as.

Eric JacobsonAs most people will know, everything Disney design is driven by the need for a ‘story,’ to tell a tale beyond mere rides. This Story-Telling is another key element of the Imagineering process, and includes developing elaborate storyboards (as you would with a film) so everyone on the project has the right visual image of what they doing. With Everest, this obviously included the Imagineers (Rohde and Co) visiting China and Tibet to take photos and study the geography, geology, architecture, culture and people (the Research and Development phase).

Once the Design process is complete, it is over to Engineering to pick up the Imagineering baton and make the project come to physical life. This is where everytone holds their breath (figuratively speaking) as all the grand designs of the early part of the process take shape. As Eric said, ‘It’s a bit late to move a 200ft mountain if you decide it’s in the wrong place!’ The Imagineers also need to be adaptable at this stage, to adjust to small variations in the design and to add anything that seems to have been missed out.

The different stages of the Engineering phase also include adding Colour, Lighting and Special Effects, which all go towards the finished article. They need to look at every aspect of the attraction taking shape, from every angle (Disney hardly ever leave anything the guest will see as a blank space or wall, so everything needs to be viewed from a range of different perspectives). With Everest, they made sure all the cement used was the right colour (it is not painted at all), so that if the surface gets scratched or damaged, it will still be the same colour underneath. And their massive audio-animatronic Yeti was the result of collaboration with various animal specialists and even palaeontologists, to come up with a viable and realistic creature.

Finally, after an intensive Testing phase (which involves everything from sending a ride around with empty, weighted cars, to building an outline shape which can go around the track without touching any of the scenery), the Imagineers get ready for the bit they hate most, Closeout. As Eric explains, it is like handing over the keys of your car to your teenage son or daughter! (even if it is within the same company!). In the case of Everest, a four-year process ended on April 7 with the official opening of the ride. There is now no more that the Imagineers can do (apart from periodic checks to make sure it still looks as they want it), and it is up the guests to judge whether all their efforts have been worthwhile.

In the case of Everest and the mind-boggling array of ideas, designs, tests and creative engineering that went into it, it is impossible to be anything other than hugely impressed – and that is before you have even tried the ride!

Certainly, listening to Eric talk and hearing the rationale behind Disney Imagineering, you have nothing but respect for the people who put their heart and soul into these projects. You certainly get the impression it is far more than merely a job to them – they are keen to see the final results of their projects in the smiles and laughter (and, perhaps, a little trepidation!) of their guests.

Now, if you want some extra insight into all this Imagineering imagination, and to learn the full story of how Expedition Everest took shape from Blue Sky to Closeout, search out the following TV programme: Building a Thrill Ride: Expedition Everest. It has been shown here in the US on both the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel, and I’m sure it will be repeated at regular intervals this summer as Disney continue to drum up interest in their $100million creation. If it’s on a station anywhere near you, I urge you most strongly to catch it – it is a real look at Imagineering 101 and everything that goes with it!

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6 Responses to “Imagineering 101”

  1. Andy De Maertelaere Says:

    This was a great read Simon. I have been reading the story 5 times already and still enjoy this. I love stories from “behind” the magic.

    Some say magic can be spoiled when giving away information about the things happening behind the Disney Stage, But I cannot get enough of this kind of info. It is the little extra to the whole Disney experience I love so much.

    I wish I could be part of these myself. Who know! But untill then, keep those great post coming

  2. jmaruyama Says:

    Great article. I was hoping he mentioned some of the new elements added to Pirates. Still, an informative read. I did catch a viewing of the tv show mentioned in the article. That was great too and made me want to visit Florida sometime soon. Thanks!

  3. Simon Veness Says:

    Eric did touch on Pirates briefly (in fact, it was one of the questions I asked him), but he was a bit vague about what we should expect, other than to say it has always been one of the original attractions which he has most held in respect. To be honest, he didn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the addition of the new characters to the ride. He did insist it will not be fundamentally changed in any way, but he did also say the success of the movie has given them a problem with the ride which they needed to address (namely, that people were coming on to the ride for the first time only AFTER seeing the movie and wondering where Jack Sparrow and Co were!).

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