Art of the Show: Walt Disney Imagineering

Posted by Staff on Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Walt Disney at Imagineering Workshop

When Walt Disney was sketching out his original ideas for Disneyland in Anaheim, California, he realized that a unique team of designers and engineers would be required to bring the park to life in true Disney fashion. This team not only had to design a park that resembled a Disney film, but one that could tell a story like a Disney feature. Narrative is a key element of the Disneyland experience and one that makes it so appealing to visitors of all ages. The group that Walt Disney assembled for this task would be known as the Walt Disney Imagineers, and to this day, the Imagineers develop all of Disney’s interactive experiences.

This select group of creative individuals from the Walt Disney Studios was originally brought together in 1952 as WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises. WED, owned by Disney himself, operated separately from the Walt Disney Studios until they merged in 1965. Though they merged with the Studios, this team, now called Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), always kept to itself and maintained a shroud of mystery around what they call their “Art of the Show.”As for the term Imagineering, it wasn’t invented by Disney himself, but over the years it has become most closely associated with those who design Disney theme parks. The term, a portmanteau word combining “imagination” and “engineering,” has been traced back to the artist, Arthur C Radebaugh, who used the word to describe his futuristic civil engineering designs.

Walt Disney Imagineer Marc Davis

Original Imagineer Marc Davis

A Walt Disney Imagineer is not strictly an engineer, but may come from any number of creative and technical disciplines. In order to devise the totally immersive experience that makes the Disney parks what they are, WDI employs writers, artists, engineers, landscape engineers, technicians, model builders, and so on. It is through such a wide range of creative input that the Imagineering team is able to develop attractions that entertain on a number levels. A ride may be thrilling for its technical achievements, but at the same time it is enhanced by a story animated by artwork, audio-animatronics, sound design, lighting, and even smells. One of the most enduring examples of the Imagineering work is Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, which you can read more about in our article on Pepper’s Ghost. Even as you begin your wait in the line outside of the mansion, you are drawn into the world of charismatic ghouls by the meticulously crafted façade, dramatic lighting, and sound effects.

Walt Disney Imagineer Harriet Burns

Harriet Burns

Some of the most notable Imagineers that helped to define the role include Roger E. Broggie, Harriet Burns, and Marc Davis. Broggie was the very first Imagineer and oversaw many of Disneyland’s early achievements, such as the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad, The Monorail, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Harriet Burns, also an original Imagineer, was the first female Imagineer and contributed to the creation of Disneyland with her models of the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Sleeping Beauty Castle (pictured at top with Walt Disney). Finally, Marc Davis was one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the group of animators responsible for some of Disney’s most famous works, but he also put tremendous energy into Disneyland, creating most of the characters for rides such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. This, of course, is just a brief introduction to a few of the most inventive Imagineers, and we look forward to bringing you more in depth histories of the many individuals that have contributed to the Imagineering legacy.

Today, WDI is the research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company and continues to be responsible for theme parks and attractions, as well as hotels, resorts, real estate developments, cruise ships, and water parks. They are headquartered in Glendale, California with field offices at their parks and attractions around the world.

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