TV Review: The Imagineering Story (2019)


Title: The Imagineering Story
Release Date: 2019
Writer: Mark Catalena
Director: Leslie Iwerks
Production Company:  ABC Studios | Iwerks & Co.
Summary/Review:

This documentary focuses on the history of the people behind the Walt Disney theme parks.  Walt Disney Imagineering – originally WED Enterprises – was founded in 1952 as Walt Disney’s engineering division tasked with designing Disneyland.  This is an in-house production, so naturally there’s a promotional element to the series that toots Disney’s own horn.  But I am impressed that the show does acknowledge mistakes and setbacks in Imagineering history.

The director, Leslie Iwerks, is a third generation Disney employee.  Her grandfather Ub Iwerks worked with Walt in the early days and co-created Mickey Mouse while her father Don Iwerks was a technician and executive from the 1950s to 1980s.  Highlights of the series include interviews with prominent figures – both archival and for the show – such as Bob Gurr, Herb Ryman, X Atencio, Harriet Burns, Harper Goff, Marty Sklar, David Snyder, Blaine Gibson, Tom K. Morris, Kevin Rafferty, Peggie Fariss, Glenn Barker, and Katie Olson, Tony Baxter, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Eddie Sotto, Tim Delaney, Joe Rohde, Ali Rubenstein, and Kevin Rafferty.  Most of those names are men, but the series makes an admirable effort to acknowledge the role of women in Imagineering.  A powerful moment comes in an interview with Imagineer Kim Irvine when she talks about her mother Leota Toombs, an Imagineering designer who became famous as the model for Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion.  Irvine talks about still being able to hear her mother’s voice every time she visits the attraction.

I felt that there was a lot of innovation and creativity in the early days of WED Enterprises that the years covered in the first two episodes could easily have been stretched out into three (or more) episodes.  That being said, the early Imagineers have appeared in many other “behind the scenes” programs about Disney Parks, so it is good that the newer generations are getting a lot of attention in this series.

Dan Heaton at the Tomorrow Society website has written comprehensive summaries and reviews of each episode that I’ve linked below and I recommended reading them should you be more interested in the topic.  Here are my short summaries of each episode:

  1. The Happiest Place on Earth” – (1952-1966) The creation and expansion of Disneyland during Walt Disney’s lifetime and Imagineering’s work at the 1964 World’s Fair.
  2. What Would Walt Do?” – (1967-1983) After Walt’s death, Roy Disney oversees the opening of the Walt Disney World resort in Florida, and Imagineers create EPCOT as a theme park rather than a city. Simultaneous with EPCOT, the first international park is open in Tokyo. The success of these big projects is overshadowed by the lack of future plans and mass layoffs.
  3. The Midas Touch” – (1984-1994) Michael Eisner and Frank Wells takeover as leaders of Disney and shake up the parks with attractions tied to hipper franchises unrelated to Disney, and open the Disney-MGM Studios.  The episode ends with the initial financial failure of Euro Disneyland and Well’s death in a helicopter crash.
  4. Hit or Miss” – (1995-2004) The Disney company attempts unprecedented expansion but the failure of Euro Disneyland also leads to cost-cutting and a decline in quality.  Successes include the Disney Cruise Line, Animal Kingdom, and Tokyo DisneySea, while Disney’s California, Walt Disney Studios Park and Hong Kong Disneyland are serious disappointments.
  5. A Carousel of Progress” – (2004-2016) Bob Iger takes over leadership of Disney.  Projects include rebuilding California Adventure with a Cars Land expansion, and improving the undersized parks in Paris and Hong Kong.  Imagineers also provide controversial overlays to fan favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and it’s a small world.
  6. “To Infinity and Beyond” -Building a new, culturally-appropriate Magic Kingdom in Shanghai takes up the first half of this episode.  The rest focuses on new, fully-immersive experiences in the American parks: Mission Breakout, Pandora, and Galaxy’s Edge.

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