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5 Lessons I Learned from Watching Disney’s “The Imagineering Story”

Recently I watched “The Imagineering Story,” a new docuseries on Disney+ about the history of the Disney theme parks. I grew up going to Disney World every year with my mom and when I wasn’t at the park, I was reading about all things Disney and watching TV specials about the Behind the Scenes of the park. Even to this day, I watch YouTube videos of Disney cast members talking about their experiences. So, “The Imagineering Story” was right up my alley.

As I was watching it, a lot of the senior executives and Imagineers started to say familiar advice that I’ve seen in my career. I was surprised that Disney employees faced similar issues at work. I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the takeaways and lessons from “The Imagineering Story.”  

Encourage Failure and Bad Ideas

The Disney Imagineers, or WED Enterprises as they were formally referred to, were encouraged to take risks. I should stop to clarify that Imagineering is a term unique to Disney and is the combination of creative imagination and technical knowledge.  

In Episode 4, called “Hit Or Miss,” Imagineers recalled how in the 1990s there were dedicated teams focused on exploring new technologies, different attraction layouts, and new ride vehicles. 

“Succuss is about many many failures,” said Jon Snoddy, an Imagineer with Advanced Development. He goes on to talk about how they created a culture that doesn’t judge if things fail. In fact, they intend to fail! If over half of the projects succeed, then they aren’t trying hard enough. This experimentation helped them when it came time to create Tokyo Disney Sea. I love how much Disney prioritizes and values experimentation and risk. And moreover, how their team leaders support that innovation. That’s where the magic happens.   

But, Imagineers aren’t naive. One senior Imagineer, Joe Rohde (the guy with the incredible left ear piercing) acknowledges that Imagineering is very frustrating for business-minded people. There is a permanent tension between Imagineering and the business department. “Core components of creativity do not reconcile with efficiency-based business theory,” he said. How do you balance these two? 

This tension is not new. According to Disney folklore, Walt Disney was always asking his brother Roy for more money so he could do more creative ventures and Roy was skeptical and nervous. Roy was business-minded and Walt was creative and risk-taking. 

Design for the final level of the marketing funnel

In episode 3 “The Midas Touch” the Imagineers go into detail of how Euro Disneyland, later called Disneyland Paris, was built. They wanted to create the most beautiful Disney theme park and spared no expense. 

They returned to their history when building this new park, using tried and true principles. Walt Disney had four levels of detail that he preached to Imagineers. Design Imagineer Coulter Winn describes these principles as:

  • Detail Level One: You’re in the country, you see over the trees some tall buildings, maybe a church steeple 
  • Detail Level Two: You’ve walked into town, now you’re on Main Street
  • Detail Level Three: You’re looking closely at the colors and texture of the buildings  
  • Detail Level Four: You’ve gone up to the front door and you’re grabbing the handle, feeling the texture and temperature of the material 

All of these detail levels need to work together. Coulter says that at Disney they have to get to Detail Level Four to immerse guests in their story. This is where people fully buy-in and believe what you’re selling. 

These different levels of details reminded me of the Buyer’s Journey or Customer Funnel. First, you have the awareness stage when the buyer starts to hear of your brand in the distance, then they become interested and learn more about your brand, thirdly they are intent on buying your product and last they purchase what you’re selling. Just like with Disney’s design levels, your customer journey has to lead them to that purchase or Design Level Four.   

You don’t need to re-invent the wheel

With budgets as large as Disney’s it’s hard to think of them scrimping, saving and repurposing things. But, they are first and foremost a corporation focused on pleasing shareholders. I was surprised to learn in Episode 3 “The Midas Touch” that Disney Imagineers reused animatronics and set designs from an old 1974-1988 Disneyland attraction called “American Sings.” The happy singing birds, frogs, turtles, alligators, and rabbits found a new home at a more exciting ride called Splash Mountain. They fit right in next to the other Song of the South characters. Disney probably saved millions in time and money not having to design and build new characters for Splash Mountain. 

Take a look back at work you’ve previously made, whether it’s a template built that wasn’t used or a draft of a design. Could you repurpose that work? 

Don’t get siloed and stuck in your department 

When Imagineers were building Michael Eisner’s Disney’s California Adventures, they worked on a tighter budget than they had on Euro Disneyland. They were also divided between two projects. One team worked on California Adventures while the other worked on the new Tokyo’s Disney Sea, which had a much larger and looser budget. 

One Imagineer, Bruce, recalled the short-lived, much hated, ride Superstar Limo and how it was built by Imagineers who were in these tight pods, not consulting with anyone else. They had adopted the mindset of, “This is my attraction.” They stopped checking in with their peers to ask if this was good enough. They lost touch. Whereas, in previous Disney theme parks, rides were built more collaboratively. Superstar Limo only lasted one year and was later remodeled into a Monster’s Inc themed ride.

Take time to chat with or eat lunch with people in other departments at work so you can share what you’re working on and collaborate. 

Your work needs to make an impact 

One of the head Imagineers for Animal Kingdom, Joe Rhode, stated that he’s most proud of the projects that have a non-entertainment payback within them. He’s proud of the conservation station, a working research lab and a conservation fund that resulted from Animal Kingdom. 

Profits, entertainment, metrics aren’t enough to make a long-term meaningful impact. Richer rewards are needed. Who are you helping? How can your work give back to the community?  

As a kid at Disney, you don’t think much about how the theme park rides are built. They just kind of appear one day. As you get older, you realize that the project of building a theme park attraction isn’t all that different from working on a project at your work. Everyone has to collaborate, think creatively, first you build a mockup, you try to repurpose things, and you need to have a sense of purpose behind it all. 

I thought “The Imagineering Story” would be similar to the “One Day at Disney” movie that blatantly and blindly praised Disney CEO Bob Iger. But no, in “The Imagineering Story,” mistakes are acknowledged. A key takeaway from the docuseries is that when theme parks like Euro Disneyland, California Adventures and Hong Kong Disneyland were built for half the price, to please shareholders, the quality suffered, attendance shrank and guests were not happy. This modern cost-cutting mindset becomes more frustrating knowing it violates Walt Disney’s wishes. Walt is quoted as having said “Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.” I hope that in the future, Disney can continue to balance creativity with profitability, in order to continue its legacy and because many other businesses look up to Disney. 


This blog post was also published on my LinkedIn.

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