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Josh Reviews The Imagineering Story

I loved every minute of this six-part Disney+ documentary series, exploring the history of Disney’s theme-parks and their rides.  The series was directed by Leslie Iwerks, who is the daughter of Disney Imagineer Don Iwerks and the granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, who co-created Mickey Mouse.  So she knows a bit about Disney!  Yes, of course this is a pro-Disney piece of propaganda.  But it is magnificent, well-earned propaganda!  The series digs deeply into the ins and outs of the different Disney parks and all of the best attractions, from the Pirates of the Caribbean to Star Tours to the Enchanted Tiki Room to Space Mountain to the Tower of Terror to Soarin’ to so many more.  Through this mini-series, we get to meet many of the talented men and women who helped create these attractions, and we learn many of the secrets of the parks and their history.

Episode one detains the almost-insane, unbelievable effort and expense of building the first Disney theme park, Disneyland in California.  What an extraordinary vision Walt Disney had!  It’s really quite amazing.  We get to see incredible footage of the park’s 1955 opening, and then we see additions and enhancements to the parks made in the following years, which established the concept that the Disney parks would always be changing and updating.  We see the 1959 Tomorrowland redesign, the construction of the Matterhorn (the park’s first thrill ride), the redesign of the jungle cruise that added humor to the ride, and the addition of the monorail.  I loved getting to see insights into the building of iconic Disney rides the Carousel of Progress, It’s a Small World, and Pirates of the Caribbean.  The episode ends with Walt Disney’s death at the age of 65 in 1966.  It’s heartbreaking to see how sad so many of Walt’s co-workers are — even in the interviews done in recent years — regarding his death.

Episode two explores the making of the Haunted Mansion, giving some very cool glimpses into how the ghost illusions are made.  We get to see the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971, the first (but far from the last) expansion of the Disney theme park empire.  I loved the tour we got of the secret underground city beneath Walt Disney World, used by cast-members and employees.  I really dug the exploration of EPCOT (still my favorite of the Disney parks!), and how Walt Disney’s idea for an actual sustainable modern city morphed into an educational theme park.  I was delighted to learn that Ray Bradbury wrote the original script for Spaceship Earth.  And it was cool to see the development of the circle-rama technology used in some of the EPCOT country movies, as well as early touch-screen technology.  The episode concludes by depicting the development of Tokyo Disneyland; I was intrigued to learn that park was actually run by a separate company.

Episode three follows the rejuvenation of the Disney company when Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took over in 1984.  I loved getting to see the development of Star Tours, the first attraction based on a non-Disney property.  The Captain Eo attraction, involving Michael Jackson, is mostly ignored — no big surprise.  We get to see the development of the Disney-MGM Hollywood Studios, and an exploration of the creation of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.  I loved the exploration of the creation of Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure ride.  (Now more than ever I long to do that ride someday!)  We also see the development of Euro Disney, and the many challenges that park faced (such as, how do you make a castle special in the land of castles?).  Despite the progaganda-nature of this series, I was pleased that they didn’t shy away from covering the problems that park faced.

Episode four chronicles the further expansion of the Disney theme park empire, covering the opening of Animal Kingdom in Florida, Tokyo Disney Sea (a second Disney park in Japan), Disney California Adventure, a second Paris park, and a new park in Hong Kong (that opened in 2005).  It was interesting to learn about the tricks used in Animal Kingdom to keep the animals as visible to the public as possible, such as hiding air conditioning in the rocks for the lions. While the tone remains 100% pro-Disney, this episode did cover the challenges faced by both Disney California Adventure and the new parks in Paris and Hong Kong.

Episode five begins with Bob Iger’s assuming the position of Disney CEO, and his efforts to rejuvenate the Disney company, including repairing the breach with Pixar (and eventually purchasing Pixar outright) and major renovations to Disney California Adventure (that took place without closing down the park).  It was neat to explore the Tim Burton Nightmare Before Christmas version of the Haunted Mansion, as well as other updates to classic rides such as adding some Disney characters to It’s a Small World, adding Jack Sparrow into Pirates of the Caribbean, and updating Peter Pan.  I was also intrigued (and jealous!) to learn about some cool park-exclusive rides I’d never heard of: Mystic Point, exclusive to the Hong Kong park, and the Ratatouille ride in Paris!

The finale episode, episode six, covers the opening of Shanghai Disney and the other updates made to Disney parks in the past decade.  I loved seeing the Tron Lightcycle Power Run from Shanghai Disney; the new Avatar land added to Animal Kingdom; the transformation of the Tower of Terror in Disney California into a Guardians of the Galaxy ride called Mission Breakout; and, of course, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.  I was hoping the series would spend some time on Galaxy’s Edge, and while they keep a lot of details close to their vest, we get to see a lot of exciting stuff from that new land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida and Disneyland in California.  (I can’t wait to visit that, someday!)

This mini-series was pure joy for me.  I love the Disney parks, and I thought it was fascinating to learn about the history and development of all of the parks and so many of their most famous, beloved rides.  The Imagineering Story was one of my favorite TV shows of 2019.  I could have happily watched six hours more.

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