REVIEW: ‘The Imagineering Story’ Book Celebrates Creativity, Thinking, and Doing

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In November 1942, the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) published an ad in a number of newspapers to encourage the purchase of war bonds. The ad featured a drawing of the Alcoa plant and on one building was a sign that read “The Place They Do Imagineering.”

Although the term had been around for twenty years, many people credit Walt Disney with inventing the word “Imagineering” – a combination of imagination and engineering. However, Disney credits Harrison Price with coming up with the word. Price says he doesn’t remember inventing that word but didn’t argue with Walt. Years after the word appeared in that Alcoa ad, Disney started using the term to describe what they were doing to create their unique brand of magic.

In 1989, The Walt Disney Company filed for a trademark claiming its first use of the term was on April 1, 1962. In 1990, The Walt Disney Company officially was granted “Imagineering” as a registered trademark. Ever since then, the word has been synonymous with Disney.

imagineering story book jacket

Over the years, there have been a number of books written about Walt Disney Imagineering. Some of them have been biographies or autobiographies about specific Imagineers, while others covered projects created by this talented team of artists and dreamers. Now comes Leslie Iwerks’s “The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering.”

“The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering,” which hits bookshelves on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, is also available for sale through various online retailers. The book comes out in advance of the 70th Anniversary of Walt Disney Imagineering, which was founded on December 16, 1952.

What makes Iwerks’s book different from all the other books about Imagineering? Well, for one, it is a comprehensive look at virtually every park and project Walt Disney Imagineering has taken on from the very beginning. Secondly, if you’re thinking the name of the book and the author sounds familiar — you’d be right.

Iwerks is the daughter of Disney Legend Don Iwerks and granddaughter of Disney Legend Ub Iwerks, the animator and co-creator of Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. She is also a producer, director, and the writer responsible for “The Imagineering Story,” a six-part documentary television miniseries that debuted on November 12, 2019, on Disney+.

In the popular documentary series, Iwerks covered many of the projects Walt Disney Imagineering from Disneyland to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, but many of those stories and details were left on the cutting room floor. “The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering” enables Iwerks to pick up all those pieces and tell a fuller history.

And what a story Iwerks tells. “The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering” is a massive book coming in at 721 pages and broken down into 32 chapters. She, along with Bruce C. Steele and special contributions by Mark Catalena, start with the birth of Disneyland and move through Disney history until they reach the construction of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser.

Along the way, Iwerks gives Disney fans behind-the-scenes stories on the highs and lows of every project that passed through the minds and hands of the Imagineers.

The book starts with that fateful weekend when Herb Ryman, who worked for Disney from 1938-1946 as an artist and art director on various Disney animated features, including “Dumbo” and “Fantasia,” was called in by Walt to draw a detailed map of what Disneyland would look like.

“If you look at the original drawing, there’s so much in it because it was all in Walt’s head,” said Marty Sklar. “Things that were not done in Disneyland for five or six years later.”

Like a wave from the Fairy Godmother’s wand, Disney set designers were turned into Imagineers overnight. Nearly everything for Disneyland was coming out of an area at The Walt Disney Studios. One day Ryman saw Walt pacing the distance between the curbs and the studio building, and he asked him what he was doing. Walt said, “I am trying to work out the relationship of the curbings to the sidewalks to the width of the street.” Ryman realized that if the park was slow and you had wide streets, people would think the park was empty and not popular. On the other hand, if the park was busy and you had narrow sidewalks, then it would look crowded, and no one would come.

“The final street was about thirty feet wide, with the sidewalks on each side about fifteen feet wide, the curbs providing the pleasing proportions of 1:2:1 as they directed guests’ eyes to the castle in the distance,” writes Iwerks.

Early on, Iwerks discusses changes Walt started making within Disneyland. Some things that he changed because they were not working, while others were changed because he wanted to do something different.

Nowadays, when Disney raises its park prices or charges a premium for certain experiences, such as Disney’s Genie+, some guests get very vocal about it. In some cases, they would say, “What would Walt think of this?” or “Walt would never approve of this!” However, Walt was doing the same thing back in the 50s. It is hard to judge if guests back then had the same reaction as some guests today without social media.

Before moving to Value Books which included general admission and coupons for various attractions, in October 1955, guests could experience the sponsored exhibits for free, but “all the more engaging attractions… required separately purchased tickets.

In addition, Walt added another value-added attraction — a circus. Guests would be able to experience the full circus experience — trapeze acts, clowns, acrobats, and animal acts – for an additional fee of 50 cents. If guests wanted premium reserved seats, those tickets would be $1.00. In 2022 money, that would be $5.54 or $11.07, respectively.

After discussing additional attractions added to the Anaheim park, the author then moves on to the eighth Winter Olympic Games in 1960 at Squaw Valley and the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

The World’s Fair would be an important event for Walt and The Disney Company as it brought them more exposure through their four attractions for Pepsi-Cola’s salute and benefit of U.N.I.C.E.F, General Electric, the State of Illinois, and Ford Motor Company. Additionally, it allowed Walt to build four new attractions – three and components of a fourth were then brought back to Disneyland at virtually no cost to the company.

Iwerks then moves on to the death of Walt Disney, the creation of Walt Disney World, EPCOT Center, Disney’s California Adventure, and the expansion of Disney Parks worldwide. She also discusses Imagineering’s foray into hotels, entertainment and shopping districts, the cruising industry, and more.

Along the way, she talks about the difficulties Imagineering experienced with some members of upper management, a failed takeover, and two big eras of change – one with Michael Eisner and Frank Wells and the other with Bob Iger.

As a result of work from Walt Disney Imagineers, the company holds over 6,000 patents in its global patent portfolio. As mentioned earlier, when Walt first started assembling talent to start working on Disneyland, he pulled artists from the company who had never worked on anything like he was asking. Many of them had to quickly learn new skills to provide what Walt was asking for.

One of the many is a popular effect used in the Haunted Mansion. When the attraction opened at Disneyland in 1969, the illusion of Madame Leota’s floating head in a crystal ball is considered to be the first time projection mapping was ever used.

As mentioned earlier, this book is quite comprehensive. Iwerks even discusses the effect the coronavirus pandemic had on the parks and Imagineering. She even talks with various Imagineers about Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the development of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. Noticeably absent were details about Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. However, that could be a good thing as that would only give them more reason for a second book.

I could write so much more about what is in this book, but one — this article would become a novella, and two — it would spoil all the fun.

I only have two complaints about the book. One: there is no index. It would have been nice to be able to look up information on a specific park, attraction, Imagineer, etcetera. The other is there are very few photos in the book. There are only 10 photographs on five pages, and they are at the start of the book. However, these are very minor complaints.

I know it sounds like a cliché, but whether you’re a casual “fan” or “fanatic,” this book really should be on your list. For Disney fans who voraciously read everything about Disney, some of these stories will be very familiar, while others are brand new. For those who have visited a Disney Park or stayed in a Disney hotel, this book will give you a new appreciation of what was involved in making your vacation a magical experience. And if you binged watched “The Imagineering Story” on Disney+, you won’t be able to put this book down once you start.

“The goal of every Imagineer, just like Walt Disney himself, is to reassure you – to make you smile, to make you laugh, and to make you wonder, how did they do that?” This book also will do that.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering.

The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering | By Leslie Iwerks | Illustrated | 721 pp. | Disney Editions | $35

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