The Imagineering Story Review: To Infinity and Beyond
We still don’t know whether The Imagineering Story will receive a second season. For that matter, we aren’t sure whether it’s even under consideration. This Disney+ series has summarized nearly the entire history of Disney theme parks, and there’s still one episode to discuss the rest. Here’s my review of To Infinity and Beyond, the sixth and possibly final episode of The Imagineering Story.
“The Largest Ever Foreign Investment Made by Disney”
Construction at Shanghai, China, begins To Infinity and Beyond. In the previous episode, CEO Robert Iger had secured The Walt Disney Company’s future with several successful ventures. Looking to sustain the positive momentum, Iger turned his eyes back to China for a sixth theme park.
Shanghai Disneyland represented a unique opportunity for Disney. At Hong Kong Disneyland, the company possessed more freedom due to the city’s unusual governance structure. For a mainland China park, Disney execs ceded power to the country’s demanding government.
At one point, director Leslie Iwerks displays a long line of binders, each of which shows a title for one section of Shanghai Disneyland. Imagineers demonstrated incredible attention to detail to satisfy both Chinese traditions and Disney heritage.
“Authentically Disney, Distinctly Chinese”
Shanghai Disneyland opened to the public on June 16, 2016. The episode recounts the hurdles Disney faced in appeasing Chinese officials. It also documents the longstanding Disney rules that Imagineers intentionally broke to build a park that’s appealing to the Chinese public.
All American aspects were superfluous and had to go. Similarly, the hub-and-spoke design required modernization and adaption. Shanghai Disneyland’s primary themed lands are Adventure Isle, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Treasure Cove. However, park planners turned the hub into Gardens of Imagination, a breathtaking hangout spot in a centralized location.
The park’s Creative Director, Doris Woodward, explains the 4-2-1 mentality that drives the design. The Chinese market’s family dynamic generally consists of four grandparents, two parents, and one child. Disney had to construct a park that appealed to each of them. Gardens of Imagination became the place where the grandparents could stay behind when they were tired and wanted to relax.
The imagery from this segment is mind-blowing. Iwerks details everything from dirt-moving to early park mock-ups to artistic illustrations. I frequently paused to learn more about each element.
Cast members explain why some iconic attractions had to change. The episode gives special attention to Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure, the reigning champion as best Dark Ride on the planet. I won’t spoil it, but the technology employed on this ride is stunning. You may fast forward to the 9:40 mark of the episode to watch it.
“This Is Where the Future Is Happening”
Disney could have built another version of Space Mountain at Shanghai Disneyland. It would have become the most impressive version to date. However, Imagineers believed that this plan felt derivative. They wanted to construct something new.
The construction of TRON Lightcycle Power Run exemplifies Imagineering. It’s visually gripping to watch a cast member walk through the building, casually describing the design. The shape of the building mirrors the tail of a dragon, a tactic that wordlessly reinforces the story.
As the person proudly comments about Disney’s work, I mentally count the days until the attraction opens at Magic Kingdom. The Tron roller coaster holds a strong claim to Disney’s most exceptional ride ever.
Nearly half the episode fixates on Shanghai Disneyland. An artisan demonstrates the chipping technique used to create majestic works of art on display throughout the park. Woodward and others, including Iger, discuss the final three months before the park’s opening.
Nobody felt confident that Disney would meet the deadline, but Chinese officials disagreed. They relayed the philosophy that their citizens don’t know how to run a marathon, but they’re exceptional at sprinting. Their confidence proved accurate, as the park opened to the public on time and without incident. On its sixth try, Disney finally introduced a theme park smoothly.
“Creating Content That Has a Theme”
Pandora: The World of Avatar comprises the next component in To Infinity and Beyond. Imagineers divulge their concerns about the project. For starters, they had to liaise with Lightstorm Entertainment officials during preparations.
Ordinarily, Disney strategists claim total creative control. With the Avatar project, James Cameron and his staff required active involvement, which is understandable given that Cameron dreamt of those characters when he was a teenager.
Jon Landau, the Academy Award-winning producer of Titanic, plays heavily in this segment. He’s shown speaking on camera about his aspirations. And Iwerks finds footage of the film executive discussing the proximity of structures comprising the Floating Mountains from the Valley of Mo’ara.
Joe Rohde returns in this episode to explain the underpinnings of the themed land. He’s particularly proud of the way Pandora looks at night…and understandably so.
Other Imagineers demonstrate the remarkable accuracy of the Shaman of Songs Audio-Animatronic (AA). You can watch the development of this unprecedented AA from the ground up. It starts as a flexible face but gradually grows into something shockingly realistic.
Avatar Flight of Passage footage chronicles the other development phase of note. It shows the early stages of the ride apparatus along with Imagineers testing it back when they only had rudimentary computer graphics available.
Then, James Cameron describes the negotiation that took place to find the right combination of thrill ride and exploration of an alien world. He favored beauty over power, and I actually side with Cameron on this one.
“Use Valuable Characters, Make It Current, Keep the Same Box”
This mantra expresses Disney’s wishes for the re-theming of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure. The discussion begins with outraged headlines from early 2016, and I briefly feared that I was about to get hit. I wrote a piece along those lines that received millions of views. Oops! Thankfully, some other writer absorbed the damage instead.
The repurposing of the ride building makes for fascinating viewing. Even diehard Tower of Terror fans acknowledge the greatness of Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! Still, for Disney officials, the changes came with tricky challenges.
As one points out, the ride can only go up and down. Nobody could change that. So, Imagineers had to alter the ride to improve the experience without altering its core. The thinking behind the new version displays the innovative thinking of Disney’s creatives.
The episode shows how Disney tells an entirely new story in the same structure. I already admired the ride, but I think much more highly of it after watching The Imagineering Story.
“Oh My Gosh, We Better Get This Right”
The final third of the episode evaluates the development of Star Wars Land. The planning portion of this process provides several insights about the alien world of Batuu. Imagineers faced a challenging choice: should visitors watch or participate on this planet?
Disney had already done the unexpected. Park officials resisted the temptation to construct rides based on famous movie sequences. They already had a ride that could do that, Star Tours, and its core enabled modifications to keep it current with new Star Wars movies. Building another attraction like that would seem like a step backward.
Instead, Imagineers settled on guest participation at Batuu, a place where Disney could fill in the backstory. Once again, cast members had to work with film producers, though. Disney now owned Lucasfilm, and so Doug Chiang, Executive Creator Director for Lucasfilm, became involved with the project.
Chiang encapsulates how Star Wars planets get developed. From the perspective of Lucasfilm, each one includes a signature feature. Examples include Endor, the forest planet, Hoth the ice planet, and Tatooine, the desert planet.
Imagineers constructed Batuu as a petrified spire planet. That philosophy drives all of the theming at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. When you visit this place, you’re on a “visual journey,” and Disney hopes that you will explore it to the fullest. It’s the most immersive themed land imaginable, and Iwerks ably tracks how it came into being.
“How to Build Star Wars”
Footage shows how Disney searched unlikely places like airport hangars for parts. Star Wars movies share a distinct look, one that’s decidedly low-tech by choice.
Everything looks like working people have built all that they can afford to get by in life. So, droids and machines look threadbare. Imagineers worked extremely hard in aging suitable materials to appear worn and dated.
History repeated itself with the construction of Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. Space Mountain famously couldn’t work for many years after Disney planned it. The computer technology available at the time wasn’t advanced enough to work with the ride. On Smugglers Run, the challenging complexity of computer graphics kept the ride from working until only months before it opened to the public.
A turntable provides the surprising reveal from this segment. When you board this ride, you’re sitting on a rotating device that holds seven different cockpits. And four of these turntables operate simultaneously. This tactic vastly improves the hourly/daily throughput for the attraction.
To Infinity and Beyond also discusses the development of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which had only been open for eight days when the episode first aired. Iwerks understandably takes a cautious approach in showing the ride’s development to avoid spoiling its surprises. Still, the clips of computer projections for the ride are mesmerizing.
My most significant takeaway from the Star Wars segment is that the Imagineers know that they crushed it with Galaxy’s Edge. Everything about both versions of the themed land combines spectacle with realism in unprecedented fashion.
The Imagineering Story has become my favorite original content on Disney+. I certainly hope that Disney keeps telling these behind-the-scenes stories, preferably under the watchful eye of Leslie Iwerks. She’s an accomplished documentarian, whose history and heritage made her the perfect choice for the job.
Any self-respecting theme park/Disney fan must watch all six episodes of this program. I consider the third and fourth episodes as the high point; however, each of the six Imagineering Stories includes a masterful amount of high-level content.