Why does Imagineering matter? Every theme park group has its own talented group of individuals who dream up and create every detail of their attractions, restaurants, resorts, and parks. Many times these folks will move from group to group, never settling for just one organization. Which begs the question, what makes the results produced by Disney’s Imagineers different, if not head-and-shoulders above the rest?
There is the argument to be made that it all started with Walt Disney, but that’s a story for another day. However, there is a quote from Walt that is a suitable place from which to start, the oft quoted and mantra-nized, “Keep moving forward.” There is more to this quote, and I think it is important to get it all out in the open at the start.
“There’s really no secret about our approach. We keep moving forward – opening up new doors and doing new things – because we’re curious. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. We’re always exploring and experiencing. We call it Imagineering – the blending of creative imagination with technical know-how.”
How much can we really take away from a few lines spoken decades ago? Quite a bit, actually, but let’s start with the general idea of Imagineering. The word is obviously an amalgamation of imagination and engineering, but we’re given more than that as a definition. Creative imagination can apply to anyone in any field, as can technical know-how. This isn’t simply having an idea and regurgitating it to a construction crew who builds it in real life. Imagineering is, as Alex Wright put it in the Imagineering Field Guides, “a broad range of skills and talents represented. Disciplines range from writers to architects, artists to engineers, and cover all the bases in between. The Imagineers are playful, dedicated, and abundantly curious.”
Everyone can use their creativity in the Imagineering process. An engineer may have a new idea for how to utilize a propulsion system, while a writer may generate a new term or turn of phrase. A lighting specialist may see a creepy silhouette that can be cast in shadow, while a concept artist sculpts an unseen world of ice. The Imagineering process isn’t a checklist for those who work on a project, it is a collaboration into the unknown.
In case you missed it, both Walt Disney and Alex Wright mention a critical component of Imagineering, curiosity. The world around us can be simply accepted for what it is, which most of us do as we attempt to simply get through a day, or every aspect of it can be questioned.
Why does the light give off that orange-yellow glow and what else does that look like? Why do we all file into our cars and onto freeways every morning and evening, and is there a better way to move about town? Wouldn’t a bicycle look better with six wheels and a passenger seat instead of a handlebar basket? It doesn’t have to make sense to be questioned, it only has to be challenged and examined. I think teachers may grasp this concept a bit easier than most (though I could be entirely wrong about this assumption) as we are constantly looking for teachable moments throughout our days, moments that most often come about because of an observation and/or question from one of our students.
While it ties almost directly into this idea of being continually curious, Walt mentioned new paths, and there is a distinction to be made here. Imagineering isn’t just knowing where you come from and where you are going, but it is the ability to take both the past and future and make it tangible to the here and now.
To make this clearer for everyone, let’s look at World Showcase for a moment. EPCOT Center had planned for many more pavilions in World Showcase, including a secondary promenade beyond the first layer of pavilions. It goes without saying that at some point in the future World Showcase is going to need to expand. However, with a population that is just getting back to regular travel habits, the growth of Walt Disney World over the past three decades, and the need to continually revamp, repurpose, and revitalize all of its parks, the likelihood of seeing upwards of seven addition pavilions being added to World Showcase in one fell swoop is dim. Finding a country or two that can be fleshed out into full pavilions with restaurants, shopping, sponsors, and attractions is more probable and reasonable. Oh, and maybe some of those old ideas for pavilions could be dusted off for inspiration.
Remembering where they’ve come from as an organization and acknowledging where they want to go tomorrow allows Imagineering to come up with a beautiful plan for today. Don’t think this is true? Ask Joe Rohde about how Disney’s Animal Kingdom came to be some time.
Now, let’s get a little silly. Phrases such as ‘blue sky,’ the period when everything is fair game and no idea is dismissed for being too costly, technologically prohibitive, or any other constraint, or ‘no good idea ever dies’ get thrown around a lot when discussing the process of Imagineering. The real truth here comes straight from our quotes above, Walt discussing imagination and Alex calls it playful, but it is all the same thing, creating. Remember that six wheeled bicycle with a seat built into the handlebars I wanted to ride around in earlier? Well, that doesn’t really work for family transportation, but what if we outfitted some of the resorts with bench seat surrey bikes? If you aren’t willing to consider the absurd as a solid gold idea, you are never going to see when the functionally fun concepts come along.
The last piece of Imagineering I want to look at wraps up everything we’ve just considered and tells you everything you need to know about Imagineering, and it comes right at the beginning of Walt’s words. Did you go back and catch it? There is no secret to what makes Imagineering work. There have been books written about how to think like an Imagineer and studying the process of Imagineering (heck, I’m writing an article about it right now), but it isn’t a secret. Furthermore, it isn’t a checklist. There isn’t a right or wrong way of becoming an Imagineer (but oh, how I wish I could become one), and there certainly isn’t a formula for how to create once you’re inside.
Imagineering is the ability to be open to the very real and the very ridiculous simultaneously. It is taking it down to the minutest detail, and then going one level deeper, just to make sure the final result is as immersive as possible. Imagineering means everyone can think up new things, and is the perfect blend of heart and mind. Why does Imagineering matter? Because without it, Walt Disney World would be just another collection of theme parks and not inhabited and inhabitable worlds.