The Imagineering Story traces the history of Disney Parks from their earliest days.
Documentaries probably aren’t the first thing that spring to mind when you think of the new Disney Plus streaming service. Most of us are thinking about the original Star Wars and Marvel shows, the vast library of classic movies, or revisiting obscure shows of our childhoods. Still, Disney Parks are a pillar of the company’s business, and The Imagineering Story promises a tantalizing peek behind the curtain. The six-episode documentary — narrated by Angela Bassett and directed by Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible’s Leslie Iwerks — premieres on Disney’s streaming service on Nov. 12. I got access to the first two engaging episodes. The Techy Trends NowAll the latest tech news delivered to your inbox. It’s FREE!Walt Disney is center stage in the first episode.
The first focuses on founder Walt Disney, providing a nice emotional through line as it traces the origins of his theme park idea in the late ’40s. The documentary shows how revered he was by employees and how demanding he was as a boss, but doesn’t reveal much about who he was beneath the kindly exterior. After choosing Anaheim, California, as the location for Disneyland, Walt gathers the Imagineers (a term referring to imagination engineering, popularized by Disney) to design it. Even though Disney Parks have been rooted in pop culture for decades now, it’s cool to be reminded of the ambition behind them.
We’re smoothly guided through the project to its 1955 opening day — a disaster due to overcrowding, high temperatures and plumbing problems. There’s a wealth of archival footage, interspersed with present-day interviews, so you get a sense of how uncomfortable and chaotic it must’ve been.
The real meat of the documentary comes when it focuses on iconic rides like the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Original designer Bob Gurr (who’s now 88) is fascinating to listen to as he outlines what Walt tasked him with. Seeing the original schematics for this 50-year-old roller coaster — and the secret basketball hoop workers set up in its bowels — is surprisingly exciting, like you’re being guided into a world few people have seen.The documentary looks at the model who inspired Haunted Mansion fortune-teller Madame Leota.
We also get in-depth looks at It’s A Small World (with its love-it-or-hate-it theme song) and Pirates of the Caribbean (which has an epic tune). The documentary’s close look at the animatronic figures that populate these rides will make you appreciate them in a whole new way.Picking up after Walt’s death in 1966, the second episode focuses on the construction of Disney World in Florida and Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). Walt envisioned this as a futuristic city containing businesses, residential areas and mass transportation systems, but his successors ultimately scaled it down into a theme park celebrating human achievement.
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The documentary highlights some of Walt’s wild concepts, and reminds us how impressive the finished Epcot actually is — it contained voice recognition tech and touchscreens long before they entered the mainstream. It also touches on the mass layoffs that happened after it was done in 1982, keeping the human element in focus.The artists behind Disney Parks shine in this documentary series.
We also get an engaging deep dive into the creation of the Haunted Mansion, but Space Mountain is glossed over a bit too quickly. Much of the rest of the episode is devoted to Disneyland Tokyo and the Japanese love of all things Disney — adding a lively cultural dimension to the series. Overall, the first two episodes of The Imagineering Story balance the creative and design sides of Disney Park history with the human stories. It’s a little sanitized — we don’t hear from guests or any cast members who have to wear bulky costumes all day — and sometimes you’ll wish it dug deeper into your favorite ride. But it’s hard not to come away with a massive appreciation for the people who made these incredible theme parks possible.
Originally published Nov. 4.