‘The Imagineering Story’ Review: Disney+ Series Chronicles the History of Disney Theme Parks

     November 4, 2019

While the launch of Disney’s first-ever streaming service Disney+ will come complete with a robust library of iconic Disney movies, a brand new Star Wars TV show, and even programming aimed at Disney Channel fans like High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, launch day of Disney+ will also include a documentary about an incredibly important arm in the Disney company: theme parks. It’s easy to brush The Imagineering Story aside sight-unseen as a blatant advertisement meant to spur people to start planning their own Disney vacations ASAP, but while The Imagineering Story does play up the “it’s so magical” aspect of the Disney parks, it’s actually a surprisingly honest history of how Disney’s theme parks were made, the origin stories of select iconic rides, and the rocky road that Walt Disney himself traveled to get Disneyland and eventually Walt Disney World open.

Originally announced as a feature-length documentary film, the advent of Disney+ gave The Imagineering Story a place to stretch its legs. So it’s now a six-part, six-hour docuseries that digs deep into the making of the major Disney theme parks and the attractions therein (and, yes, the underground “city” at Disney World), beginning with the creation of Disneyland. One imagines this expansion was a boon to the filmmakers, because even at six hours you’re still left wanting to learn more about certain aspects of the two major parks in these initial installments.

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Image via Disney+

The first episode of The Imagineering Story is basically an origin story for Disneyland itself, as it tracks Walt Disney’s grand idea from pitch to reality—warts and all. The series doesn’t shy away from the fact that this was a difficult journey, and one in which Walt was doubted by many fellow Disney executives, including his own brother. It also doesn’t gloss over the fact that the park’s opening was far from smooth, as stories of still-wet cement and malfunctioning attractions are recounted from those who were there. Indeed, after a plumbing strike Walt had to decide whether to fix the water fountains or the restrooms—there was only time to fix one before opening day—and he chose the restrooms. As a result, Walt was accused to trying to force guests to buy Coke products due to the lack of water fountains.

The series delights in the nitty gritty details, chronicling how Walt used the World’s Fair as a testing ground to not only witness the viability of attractions like It’s a Small World and The Carousel of Progress, but to also get them made without spending Disney’s money. Director Leslie Iwerks uses archival footage of Imagineers hard at work to highlight specific artists and engineers who were crucial to the creation of these iconic attractions, like the marriage between art design and engineering that created It’s a Small World’s unique aesthetic or the boundary-pushing of puppetry that allows for the experiential nature of Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. If you’re a fan of the rides within Disneyland or Walt Disney World, this series does its best to devote sections to individual origin stories for attractions like The Haunted Mansion, Matterhorn, and Space Mountain and they are incredibly fascinating, bolstered by these first-hand accounts and archival footage.

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Image via Disney+

But Walt is front and center in the show’s first episode, and his presence looms large over the second as his death didn’t derail plans for his “Florida Project” aka Walt Disney World to come to fruition. While The Imagineering Story stops short of actually digging into the labor disputes that plagued the creation of Disneyworld and indeed much of Walt’s career, it does at the very least mention it. Walt was anti-union and following a strike by his animators, his relationship with the team responsible for creating classics like Bambi and Snow White was never the same. Walt had a reputation for being demanding, some would say unreasonably so, and while you don’t really expect a Disney+ original series to paint Good Ol’ Walt as anything but a benevolent figure, I’ll admit I was shocked to even hear narrator Angela Bassett’s say the words “labor dispute.”

Of course all of The Imagineering Story comes with the caveat that this kind of series isn’t going to be too harsh on Walt or the Disney brand, lest it damage the public image and carefully crafted origin story of Disney’s Knight in Shining Armor. Director Leslie Iwerks herself is the daughter of legendary Imagineer and Disney executive Don Iwerks and the granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, the co-creator of Mickey Mouse and an animator from the Walt days, so she has an intimate relationship with the company. These are all aspects to consider while taking in The Imagineering Story, as charming as it might be.

First-hand accounts from some of the Imagineers who worked alongside Walt help paint a three-dimensional picture of the iconic figure, and while they all note how hard Walt pushed his workers, there’s also a genuine affection there. After Disneyland’s successful opening, Walt is quoted as saying, “If any of you are starting to rest on your laurels, just forget it,” and one Imagineer notes that Walt was never interested in what you did yesterday. Only what you were going to do tomorrow. And yet, when The Imagineering Story gets to Walt’s death, these men who worked for Walt are literally unable to speak about his passing without devolving into tears.

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Image via Disney+

The second episode (Disney+ only provided the first two for review) chronicles how the company attempted to continue following Walt’s death, and while his more business-focused brother Roy O. Disney saw to it that Walt’s plans for Walt Disney World in Florida were completed, mere months after the park opened he too passed away, leaving the company’s theme park division somewhat directionless. The Imagineers moved on to completing another Walt project, Epcot—albeit in a form rather different from Walt’s “city of tomorrow” vision—and the creation of that park is also covered, although in somewhat less detail than the rest as Episode 2 also moves into building the first international park, Tokyo Disneyland.

Disney theme parks have become a cult unto themselves, with superfans delighting in every Easter Egg and hidden detail. Those already unabashedly devoted to Disney Parks will surely find The Imagineering Story scratches that itch for even more trivia and behind-the-scenes stories. But this docuseries is far more than one long ad for Disney Parks—it’s a genuine documentary. While Iwerks’ vision comes with its own biases and we know that current Disney leadership would never allow something too disparaging to anchor launch day of something as important as Disney+, The Imagineering Story is more candid than expected. It’s the first-hand accounts and archival footage that make all the difference, as the story of how these theme parks were created is often told here by those who lived it.

Whether you love or hate Disney, the cultural footprint of Disneyland and Disney World, not to mention the many other theme park expansions over the years, is undeniable, and The Imagineering Story aims to offer a peek behind the scenes at how it happened. That’s a ride worth taking, even if you can sometimes see the seams of the carefully constructed story you’re currently witnessing.

Rating: ★★★

The Imagineering Story will be available on Disney+ on November 12th, with Episode 2 debuting on November 15th. Click here for a list of everything else that will be on Disney+ on Launch Day.

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