An Insider's look into Walt Disney Imagineering's design process

August 22, 2019, 4:26 PM · This weekend will bring a flood of theme park news as Disney hosts its biennial D23 Expo in Anaheim. The highlight for theme park fans should be Disney Parks Chairman Bob Chapek's "Sneak Peek" presentation on Sunday morning, but attraction-related news can drop at any time during the three-day event, given how tightly Disney has integrated its theme parks with everything else it does across the company.

Disney will use live presentations, video productions, show floor displays, and other media to reveal and update fans on projects coming to Disney's six theme park resorts around the world. But the one medium that fans should not expect Disney to set its D23 Expo news in is stone.

Designing theme park attractions is very much a process, and the earlier in that process that Disney — or any other theme park company — announces a project, the greater the possibility that what it announces might change before fans get to experience it.

"People may be surprised to learn that the work we do at Walt Disney Imagineering is as complex and challenging as creating a feature film, involving hundreds of people who represent many different talents and disciplines," Walt Disney Imagineering President Bob Weis said in an email to me this morning.

"Each of our projects is a journey that can run as long as five years from initial idea to opening day, and a lot can happen during that period — technology moves ahead, a better idea emerges, and so forth."

A couple of years ago, I offered Theme Park Insider readers the 10-step process to help you better judge theme park rumors. Turns out, the principle behind that also works for managing your expectations with projects that parks announce formally.

I suggested then that themed entertainment projects follow a 10-step process from inspiration to installation. At Walt Disney Imagineering, it's officially a seven-phase process:

  1. Blue sky
  2. Concept
  3. Feasibility
  4. Design
  5. Production
  6. Installation
  7. Opening

"D23 Expo gives us an exciting opportunity to reveal new projects directly to Disney’s biggest fans, and it’s also a chance to share updates on things we’ve already announced. So the projects we plan to discuss run the gamut from those in the early concept phase to attractions that will open soon," Weis said.

When Disney announces a new project for its parks, you can feel assured that people at Disney really are working on it. These are not rumors from a click-chasing publisher's imagination... or the result of a long-lasting game of telephone among cast members with increasingly distant connections to the WDI team. But very few Disney attractions arrive at opening unchanged from their birth in the blue sky phase.

"Because we often announce things that are in the concept phase, there’s always a chance that what we share today will look and feel different from what we actually end up building. That’s why we label our artwork with 'Artist concept only' — it’s meant to give our fans a glimpse of what’s to come and allow them to join in the excitement, rather than a literal representation of what will ultimately be built," Weis said.

WDI's design process tests blue sky ideas to find the ones that have the strength to endure as popular attractions in the world's most-visited theme parks. As part of Disney's massive entertainment conglomerate, Imagineers work with partners at Disney Animation, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Pixar to craft attraction concepts and then to measure their feasibility — not just technically, but also economically, thematically, and in terms of the company's branding and strategy, as well. That feasibility testing can involve managers at the highest levels of the company and take up to a year to complete.

From there, concepts become designs as Imagineers work on pre-visualizations, deciding what methods, effects, materials, and finishes will become part of the project. After that, those designs further are put to test in production, as Imagineers and contractors move into building information modeling, work out logistics, and obtain and fabricate material.

"I think about it in terms of how studios develop a film. You might go to the movies this weekend and see a trailer for something that’s not coming out for a year. You’ll get a general sense for the plot and characters, but between now and the premiere there will be marketing research and test-audience screenings that can significantly influence the final product. We have a similar internal process where we invite Imagineers and their families to try out mockups of concepts. This type of feedback is invaluable to our design process and informs our decisions before we start to build," Weis said.

Imagineering at work
Sculpting a maquette for Jessie's Critter Carousel

So what we will see at the D23 Expo — and on any other occasion when Disney reveals or updates a project — is a snapshot from one moment in an ever-changing process... and that there might be quite a bit more of that process to play out before opening day. That's why Disney on Sunday might not have all the answers that fans want from presentations such as these. The process simply isn't complete yet.

"We talk a lot about hundreds of different disciplines at Imagineering and the many talented people it takes to form a project team, but we probably don’t discuss the design process itself as often as we should. As a result, I think a lot of people don’t realize that immersive storytelling, similar to other forms of storytelling and other creative endeavors, is a constantly evolving process. While it’s fun to speculate on what Imagineering is coming up with next, we are happy to share information publicly once we are comfortable with where we are in the creative process. This really isn’t unique to Imagineering or our industry, and most design firms will attest to this being a dynamic process that allows creativity to flourish," Weis said.

"By the way, Imagineers find the process of iteration incredibly stimulating and exciting. Some of our best ideas have come not during an initial pitch or even the development phase, but when we’re deep into a project. Sometimes those ideas don’t end up in the final product, and that’s OK — we retain a comprehensive collection of unused concepts that can be repurposed in the future. In my experience, a great idea rarely dies at Imagineering — it simply fuels another one."

Replies (3)

August 22, 2019 at 6:24 PM

So cool. The creative process behind Imagineers.....

Angela Bassett will be narrating the Disney+ docuseries "The Imagineering Story" (which follows the 65 years of Imagineering) There will be more info at D23.

August 23, 2019 at 10:48 AM

In my field of work we run with the agile methodology - iterative development of features and the release thereof that allows for quick delivery of software features/enhancements. It sounds like, at least in the development process, WDI follows a similar process (though admittedly less iterative once the fabrication process begins). So often I think of WDI's processes as being so far beyond my ability to comprehend, but this shows that celebrities (in my world) are just like us! Thank you so much for sharing, Robert!

August 23, 2019 at 11:54 AM

I still love those fantastic Imagineering books and Surrell's terrific ones on the Disney Mountains and Haunted Mansion going into details. It's great seeing the scores of ideas and how it transforms.

One of my favorite bits is how they still utilize classic model-making as computers are good but you can't beat old-school models for best showing how something is going to look in real life. And they still keep scores of them in a massive warehouse for shows like this.

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