The Imagineering Story: A Carousel of Progress Review
As we near the end of The Imagineering Story, the theme comes into focus. It’s that Imagineering somehow overcomes poor management decisions from outside divisions. Closure and healing are the driving storylines during the fifth episode. Here’s a review of The Imagineering Story: A Carousel of Progress.
“This Place Has a Survival Instinct”
At the start of A Carousel of Progress, Kevin Rafferty provides his philosophy for how the Imagineering division has survived and evolved over the years. He stresses the importance of the learning curve, as Imagineers must understand what went right and wrong in prior creations.
These comments drive virtually all of the action in the fifth episode. It’s as if Imagineers settle all family business, fixing everything that didn’t reach Disney’s lofty standards in Hit Or Miss, the fourth episode.
Early in the episode, director Leslie Iwerks plays rare audio from Walt Disney. His words encapsulate the spirit and legacy of his company after his death.
“A picture is a thing that once you wrap it up and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through. Snow White is a dead issue with me. I wanted something live, something that it could grow, something I could keep plussing with ideas. The park is that. Not only can I add things, but even the trees will keep growing. The thing will get more beautiful every year. I can’t change that picture, so that’s why I wanted that park.”
“Moving Forward Meant Correcting the Past”
To reinforce this notion, the episode gives new Disney CEO Robert Iger something of a hero’s welcome. When he earned the gig in 2005, the company was in dire straits. Soon afterward, Iger negotiated the acquisition of Pixar that would restore his company to glory. The remainder of The Imagineering Story unquestionably treats him as a conquering hero.
While Iger’s critics will lament this bit of idolatry, A Carousel of Progress offers a fascinating insight into why Iger targeted Pixar. He recognized while watching an international parade that Disney suffered a gap in quality intellectual property (IP) from its animated division. Pixar could fill that void.
Then again, the parks suffered a lot more problems than merely an IP vacuum. Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Disney California Adventure (DCA) all got off to rocky starts. Disney needed to address each other to restore its reputation as a brand of excellence.
Iger discusses the proposal he received for Cars Land and other refurbishments at DCA. He understood that the mere existence of the park brought shame to Disneyland, the flagship in the Disney entertainment lineup. Even though the financials didn’t justify the decision, Iger signed off on the updates.
Footage airs of several Pixar-inspired attractions, reinforcing the significance of Imagineering creativity AND the importance of Disney buying Pixar. Developmental footage of Toy Story Mania! and the talking Mr. Potato Head reveals the intricacies of attraction design.
“You Have to Relaunch This Park”
The theme of renewal drives the episode, but a new presentation highlights the hour for me. Iwerks shows footage from the creation of World of Color. Early drawings have notes like, “Wall-E appears on front right mist screen.” You realize just how precise instructions must be for these projects.
The footage that blows my mind occurs in front of Mickey’s Fun Wheel, the weenie at the park at the time. You know it as Pixar Pal-A-Round now, but it’s a distraction more than anything in this sequence. The story unfolds in front of it.
Imagineers construct an entire stage full of lighting effects and water tricks. Then, the time-lapse video shows the entire structure sinking into the water. And that lake didn’t exist at the time. Disney officials had to pipe in the water to submerge the vessel. The technical artistry on display here is mesmerizing.
Disney California Adventure fans will relish the next segment even more. A Carousel of Progress tracks the progression that led to Radiator Springs Racers. Artisans had to construct a man-made mountain that resembled both the real world and the fictional realm of the Cars franchise.
“It’s Called the DISH”
Perhaps the greatest tease in the five episodes so far occurs when Iwerks shows footage from the Imagineering holodeck. This Star Trek-esque room is real, and Disney cast members utilize it to demonstrate what an attraction will look like.
The Disney Holodeck, something Imagineers actually call this room, employs virtual reality to project the images. It’s weird to watch Disney employees wearing VR headsets in ~2011, the time before Cars Land opened. This technology still isn’t readily available today, yet Disney’s had it for a decade.
Imagineers spend a lot of the testing phase in this room. It allows them to verify that the ride simulation features the correct storytelling order and beats.
In other words, this VR world doubles as a pre-construction testing facility. The reason why all E-ticket attractions during the 2010s have excelled is that Imagineers could perfect them far ahead of time.
“Walt Wanted All of These Attractions to Be Updated”
As demonstrated in the Disney quote above, the concept of plussing comes from Uncle Walt. He demanded that Imagineers improve attractions via technology when possible. This subject ties into some 21st-century park controversies.
Believe it or not, two of the most debated subjects involve modifications at Haunted Mansion and It’s a Small World. The latter attraction received a batch of 29 new models as a plussing. Imagineer Kim Irvine chronicles the outcry over changes to Mary Blair’s original works. Even Marty Sklar felt the need to pen an open letter defending the process.
One of the oddities of Disney is that fans decry change even though Walt Disney demanded it. As proof, guests revolted at the news that Imagineers would introduce a seasonal overlay to Haunted Mansion.
Yes, Haunted Mansion Overlay, one of the most popular seasonal updates at Disneyland, faced an icy reception during its earliest days. Those critics must feel ridiculous now.
This entire section of the episode feels like a defense of the modernization of Pirates of the Caribbean. Oddly, it receives the least amount of discussion. But the intent seems clear.
Perhaps the explanation involves the political correctness debate that permeates through society. It infected Disney debates when Imagineers just wanted to get rid of slave auctions, a noble goal.
“Progress Waits for No One”
My Kindle tells me that I’m 82 percent of the way through Robert Iger’s autobiography right now. I’m amused that elements from that book ripple into The Imagineering Story as the CEO’s three driving principles merit some discussion here.
I’ll save them for a different conversation once I’ve finished the book (I’ve taken a comical amount of notes). Still, the impetus on technology led to a surprising benefit.
A Carousel of Progress chronicles the progression of digital mapping in Disney attractions and presentations. In quick shots, you can tell how Audio-Animatronics look crisper and more detailed. And you’ll notice how it added further storytelling opportunities such as the decaying statue at Indiana Jones Adventure.
My favorite moment from the episode involves Peter Pan’s Flight. Imagineers renovate the attraction, which enables cameras to display the sets in full light. I never really thought about them residing 20 feet in the air until I saw it in this clip.
Oh, and I don’t want to spoil it, but this segment features a stunning compliment. A literary titan admired Peter Pan’s Flight as a ride experience so much that he penned a letter of gratitude to Walt Disney.
“A Very Different Way of Thinking”
Imagineers clearly relish the attractions discussed during the final part of the episode. Hong Kong Disneyland faced the perception of being the worst Disney theme park in the world. Creators embraced the opportunity to construct a ride that would change that opinion.
Anyone familiar with Mystic Manor knows that Disney achieved this goal. Imagineers got to start from scratch with a new take on Haunted Mansion, an idea that wouldn’t translate well with the spirituality of Chinese audiences.
Also, the design team faced a second concern. Many of the guests at Hong Kong Disneyland spoke different languages. The ride couldn’t satisfy everyone with dialogue. So, Mystic Manor functions like an old silent film, similar to the original Mickey Mouse animated shorts. The only talking occurs at the beginning and end of the ride.
This stylistic decision places more weight on the musical accompaniment. Disney hired Danny Elfman to compose the soundtrack. A Carousel of Progress shows footage of him discussing his artistic challenges in crafting music for a trackless ride.
Four different ride carts would explore each room from a different angle, and so the music couldn’t generalize for all of them. Elfman’s conversations about this provide a unique take on a neglected part of attractions, the importance of a soundtrack to ride theming.
“A Modern-Day Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”
Epcot fans should pay attention to the 49-minute mark of the episode. The designers of Ratatouille: The Adventure discuss the importance of scale in constructing this attraction. Remy, the rat, watches the world from eight inches off the ground.
A ride based off of the kitchen scene from Ratatouille must mirror his perspective. Also, the ride carts are in constant motion, while the monitors throughout the journey require fixed locations. Imagineers had to construct digital displays that would show the same visuals independent of the ride cart location.
The technical aspects of the Ratatouille discussion surprised me. I’d never fully appreciated the challenges involved in the design of this attraction. To wit, the timing of the 4-D elements like heat and water spray seem substantially more challenging than those of Soarin’ Around the World.
“The Structural Integrity Held Strong”
The dirty secret about Tokyo Disneyland is that the Oriental Land Company (OLC) built it on a landfill. Workers developed this unwanted land into the most trafficked tourist attraction in Asia.
In 2011, an earthquake struck Japan quite savagely. Seismologists registered its epicenter at 9.1 on the Richter scale. The park was open that day, with 70,000 guests in attendance. Rare footage shows how everyone reacted to the terrifying events.
To the satisfaction of OLC officials, the parks held steady in the face of a cataclysmic event. Some parking lots cracked a bit, and some flooding occurred. Beyond that, Tokyo Disneyland suffered no significant damage. The rest of Tokyo was less fortunate.
The final part of the episode shows how the re-opening of the park heightened the spirits of all who visited. It’s a touching moment that includes a few cast member tears.
After a few kind words from cast members, A Carousel of Progress sets the table for the climactic episode. It shows Iger highlighting the importance of the upcoming park, Shanghai Disneyland.
Overall, the fifth episode can’t match the heights of Hit Or Miss, but that’s understandable. Conflict and drama always make for better storytelling. However, the footage of the DISH, Elfman’s creative process, and earthquake reactions are incredibly memorable. This is another A+ episode of The Imagineering Story.