Imagineers tell stories through craft and engineering

This might be hard to picture, but there was once a world without Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain. No Jungle Cruise. No Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. No Indiana Jones Adventure. That’s because once there was a world without the diverse group of designers, engineers and ride-technology pioneers that Walt Disney would dub “Imagineers.”

Disney wasn’t satisfied when he created film after film that plunged children and their parents into imaginary worlds. He wanted them to be able to walk into those worlds and experience them firsthand, so he put together a group of people to make his vision a reality.

The first team of Imagineers came together in 1952 — two years before Disneyland opened — to design rides and an immersive fantasy experience for park visitors.

Disney culled the Imagineers from his staff at the studio: designers, writers and anyone else he thought he might need. It was an eclectic group.

“Disneyland and the rides there were meant to be a way for you to basically step into a fantasy world,” says Walt Disney Imagineering director for concept integration David Durham.

Today, more than 150 artistic and engineering disciplines are represented by the more than 1,400 Imagineers worldwide.

Walt Disney Imagineering is still the master planning, creative development, engineering and R&D hub of the Walt Disney Co. that includes theme parks and attractions, hotels, water parks, real estate developments, cruise ships and new-media projects.

There is no set process for the creation of an attraction. Ideas for new rides come from everywhere — movies, books, emerging technologies — and then are considered for construction. It’s not unusual for it to take years before the time comes for a certain idea or attraction.

“Now everyone thinks Pirates of the Caribbean is a great idea for a ride,” Durham says. “But when you’re doing something brand-new that’s never been done before there’s no way to test it. It’s really a leap of faith.”

Not all rides represent a total departure. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was about taking a simple existing technology — an elevator — and “turning it all around,” Durham says. “We started thinking that putting this technology in the middle of a great scary story and making it feel like you’re moving side to side and that you’re falling faster than gravity would be amazing.”

Imagineers also tinker with existing rides as new technologies arise. The Haunted Mansion recently received an important update that was the result of emerging opportunities. The head of Madame Leota, which once sat neatly on a table in a crystal ball, now floats around the room, making a classic feature of a staple ride more vivid.

“It’s really fun to go on the Internet and see that people are talking about that in chatrooms and they’re trying to figure out how we did it and they can’t,” says Eric Jacobson, Imagineering senior vice president of creative development. “And we’re not going to tell them.”

The exact technologies or methods used to create illusions, attractions or park features are almost never discussed. Imagineers don’t want to ruin the experience for park visitors — and because the technologies used are often proprietary.

Jacobson says the unique obsessions of each Imagineer on the team make for an unusual and highly creative mix of ideas each time there’s a meeting. “For me it was an obsession with detail or trompe l’oeil that made me want to make things that seemed very real to people. Everyone brings something specific to the team.”

Durham’s special abilities include being what Imagineers call a “golden butt” — someone especially in tune with how a ride will feel to a park visitor and whether or not it will be fun. This meant that he rode the Indiana Jones ride more than 3,000 times as it was being fine-tuned.

“I also get motion sick,” Durham says. “And that’s a good thing because I know that if something is making me sick it’s definitely too much for guests coming to the park and we need to tone it down a little.”

Designing the rides also means thinking far ahead of what’s happening today in parks since creating a ride takes years — and in those years park visitors become more sophisticated.

“We’re constantly looking all around for ideas and trying to figure out what could be really cool in a ride, and that means thinking about what people will want in a ride five years from now because that’s about how long it takes to develop a ride from start to finish,” Durham says.

“(We also) have to stay focused on the fact that everything we do is in the service of story.”

More than anything, Durham and Jacobson try to remain open to new concepts, ideas and technologies as they look to the future of ride design and discover new ways to use them in the parks. “You never know where the inspiration is going to come from,” Jacobson says. “You really have to just keep your eyes open and keep looking at the world in different ways.”

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