REVIEW: The Imagineering Story Episode 2: What Would Walt Do?
As I detail in my book, Disney Demystified Volume Two, Imagineers faced an impossible challenge in 1967. Walt Disney had died after a short illness, only a short time after he’d purchased land for an East Coast version of Disneyland. And that’s where the second episode of The Imagineering Story begins. Here are my thoughts on What Would Walt Do?, the aftermath of Walt Disney’s death.
A Creepy Start
Disney historians know that Haunted Mansion should have opened with Disneyland in 1955. Uncle Walt envisioned his theme park as an inclusive home for all of the other major tourist attractions of the era. Haunted houses were definitely popular at the time, as is true today.
Unfortunately, plans stalled on this attraction, as Imagineers squabbled over its structure and tone. Some preferred a spooky walkthrough attraction while others wanted a ride with plenty of gothic sight gags. Disney himself tabled plans for a while, and Haunted Mansion then took a backseat to the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
The company finally attacked the project in 1966…just before Disney’s death. Due to the timing, Imagineers spent the body of 1967 working on a project about the afterlife, which must have felt morbid for all involved.
Still, employees needed a win after the death of their leader/friend. The documentary explores how Haunted Mansion became a kind of confidence builder for the grieving cast members.
The Tricks of Haunted Mansion
Ignoring the discomfort, the development of Haunted Mansion proved exciting. Imagineers flexed their creative muscles by integrating several exciting components. And this episode provides rare behind-the-scenes footage from the era.
Perhaps the highlight involves a Disney teen star from the era. Kurt Russell hosts a discussion about some of the tricks involved. It’s jarring to watch the 68-year-old actor of today as a thrilled youngster learning all about Haunted Mansion.
Meanwhile, Imagineer Kim Irvine explains the Pepper’s Ghost technique in the ballroom scene. It’s enlightening to anyone who has ever wondered how the ghosts appear and vanish.
This conversation segues into a demonstration of how Leota Toombs became the face of Madame Leota. Disney fans will mark out over this segment. It’s the first known instance of digital mapping, a widely accepted technique today.
Other WED Enterprises workers show how they built Audio-Animatronics and some of the visuals, many of which are still on display today. This type of footage is exactly what I want from The Imagineering Story, and it’s not the only remarkable video on display.
Switching to Florida
Haunted Mansion opened at Disneyland in 1969. After its arrival, Imagineers turned their focus to the east. They could no longer avoid the dilemma of the Florida Project. Walt Disney had purchased tens of thousands of acres of land in the Sunshine State. Then, he had died, living behind a team of loyal employees to fulfill his vision.
The episode recounts the awkward nature of the situation. Walt’s older brother, Roy, had previously retired from Disney.
With no one else ready to take on the project, he returned to the company to lead construction at Walt Disney World. As you may know, the task proved so challenging that he died less than three months after the park opened. Many associates believed that the project drained him of his health.
The one question that drove Roy Disney is the one in the episode’s title. All involved wondered aloud, “What would Walt do?” This thinking inspired the design of Magic Kingdom, which company officials prioritized due to the financial concerns. Disney needed a revenue stream in place in Florida before it could attack the most critical project, Epcot.
The footage during this segment justifies the existence of the entire documentary series. You’ll watch Magic Kingdom landmarks appear haphazardly. If you’re like me, you’ll feel surprised as you realize which ones Disney built first.
The Details of Disney World
The especially enlightening part involves the land that Walt bought. He famously got a great deal on the property, and this video reveals why. It was terrible land full of giant pits, flooded areas, and nothing resembling roads.
In fact, the area lacked power or phone lines. Since Disney controlled its own government, the company bore the responsibility of constructing the utilities at Walt Disney World! The Florida Project required more than a new theme park. Disney had to grade and pave roads, fill in holes, and address the concerns stemming from the local water table.
The odd elevation of Magic Kingdom’s walkways leads to the greatest triumph of the episode. Knowing that the first floor wasn’t safe for theme park guests, Imagineers used it to build a complex series of tunnels.
Called the Utilidors, these walking routes provide cast members with direct routes to various themed lands. However, Disney is notoriously secretive about this area. Even a YouTube search will reveal little about the Utilidors, as the company discourages filming here.
Somehow, director Leslie Iwerks persuaded her bosses to air Utilidors footage. It’s tough to tell how much is new versus archival, but it’s a rare insight into what’s happening below Main Street, U.S.A. I must admit that I found the presence of HDTVs a bit jarring. I think of the Utilidors like Gollum’s cave, but some modern technology is in use here.
The Odd Challenges of Building Theme Parks
With Magic Kingdom ready, park officials braced for massive crowds. Some predicted that 500,000 guests would visit that first week. On opening day, only 10,000 visitors braved the expected crowds.
If this situation sounds familiar, it should. It mirrors what took place with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge this year. Fear of large crowds scared away guests during the opening days of the themed land. Yes, history repeats itself.
Other archival footage that intrigues me involves legendary anchorperson David Brinkley, who espoused a belief about New York City that seems quite valid in hindsight. Then, there’s the video of Imagineers prepping the ride that would change the park’s fortunes.
The children of the 1950s had become adults by the 1970s. They viewed Disney as a children’s park. To combat that opinion, Imagineers built the most adult ride ever, Space Mountain.
The Imagineering Story shows the most amateurish looking ride carts testing the coaster tracks. Oh, and this happened outdoors because Disney hadn’t built the man-made mountain yet.
Also, an Imagineer provides an enlightening evaluation of the psychology of roller coasters, one that every theme park should play for new employees.
Epcot and Its Unlikely Japanese Sibling
Eventually, Imagineers embraced the challenge of Epcot. While the park that they built bears little resemblance to the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow that Walt Disney had planned, it was still a spectacular accomplishment.
As Iwerks details the experience, she tosses out almost incidental details about groundbreaking innovations and historical park facts. CommuniCore had touchscreen displays from the start! Ub Iwerks, her grandfather, invented Circarama, which we now know as Circle-Vision 360!
The park required 25 million work-hours just to reach opening day! Famous author Ray Bradbury heavily influenced the structure of Spaceship Earth’s ride story! I could go on, but you get the point.
Fans of Epcot history will discover a treasure trove of facts, footage, and imagery. Personally, I paused on the blueprints for Spaceship Earth for a few minutes.
But the oddest discussion in the second episode occurs overseas. The Oriental Land Company (OLC) tried to license Disney attractions for its own theme park.
Overworked Imagineers could barely complete their own assignments at Epcot. So, company executives decided to discourage their Japanese counterparts.
Disney provided some ridiculous demands to OLC, expecting the conversation to end quickly. To everyone’s surprise, the Japanese negotiators quickly agreed to Disney’s terms. Suddenly, Imagineers found themselves working on Tokyo Disneyland at the same time as Epcot.
The anecdotes about this unlikely turn of events are incredibly entertaining. Some fledgling Imagineers suddenly found themselves working…and then living in Japan.
OLC would hire any Disney employees who demonstrated efficiency on the job. It’s an undiscussed part of Epcot construction that added yet another level of complexity to the process.
Setting Up Episode Three
The biggest surprise for me in the second episode is the way that it ended. Iwerks recounts the fact that Disney parks accounted for 80 percent of the company’s overall revenue.
Non-parks earnings in 1983 were only $270 million, while the parks managed $1.031 billion. Yes, Frozen, on its own, will gross about as much as the entirety of Disney in 1983.
Facing a struggling movie studio and other financial challenges, Disney laid off many of its employees at WED Enterprises. It was a dark time that nicely sets up an infamous period in the company’s history, the Michael Eisner regime.
I’m very much looking forward to how Iwerks tells the story of the man who elevated Disney’s stock value by a factor of 30+. However, a part of me is sad that The Imagineering Story has ended its evaluation of the 15 years immediately after Walt Disney’s death.
The creatives at WED Enterprises somehow overcame impossible odds to build three different theme parks that have stood the test of time…plus Haunted Mansion!