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By D’land Diva

The panels are one of THE BEST parts of many conferences and expos, and the panels at the D23 Expo 2013 were no exception. One of the more interesting panels I sat in on was a panel of Imagineers who discussed the innovation aspect of creating Disney parks attractions and rides.

Walt Disney Imagineers are the folks behind the research and development of Disney attractions in the theme parks and beyond. It is their job to research, create, and test all the amazing rides and attractions that we guests enjoy at Disney theme parks. They also work on other Disney related projects. These folks are innovators. They love their job. They live for their job and they are as big of fans of their creations as Disney park guests are. As one Imagineer insists “it feels like it’s in their DNA to be an Imagineer- it’s just who they are.”

Bob Gurr and the Monorail

The legendary Imagineer Bob Gurr was a part of this panel. This man is legendary because he worked with Walt Disney to help build Disneyland. What an amazing thing to hear him speak and listen to his stories! One of his major achievements was working to create the Monorail. The work Imagineers did on the original Monorail was very different from the work Imagineers did to create the updated Mark Vii Monorail that is used in the parks today. Imagineers in the 1950’s created the Monorail in 8 1/2 months. Imagineers in the 1990’s and 2000’s spent 4 1/2 years. Imagineers in the 1950’s tested the entire Monorail ride THE NIGHT BEFORE PARK OPENING. Imagineers in our generation test and retest rides MONTHS in advance.

Bob Gurr told this amazing story about the opening of the Monorail ride in 1955. The train itself was out on the track two weeks before Inauguration Day. The very first trip it took, it went 1/8 of an inch and something blew up. The train would then get as far as half a lap and then something would break or catch on fire.

As Mr. Gurr explained, the first complete test of the Monorail happened the night before. Walt Disney was particularly excited to invite Vice President Richard Nixon to Disneyland’s inauguration day. His invitation, in particular, was to ride the Monorail. Mr. Nixon accepted, and rode the Monorail on opening day WITHOUT the Secret Service. When the first trip proved successful, Walt Disney told them to send Mr. Nixon around again! Disneyland employees were a bit worried, when, upon return, the Secret Service men rushed toward the ride. It was then to everyone’s amazement that they themselves climbed on the ride- they wanted a turn!

The Pressures of Being an Imagineer

Imagineering has come a long way since those days in the 1950’s. What started out as an informal process has turned into a huge, complicated process. If an Imagineer makes a mistake nowadays, it could very well be a million dollar mistake. Does this put pressure on Imagineers? You bet! But, Imagineers work knowing that mistakes are part of the job. They truly try and try again.

As some examples of Imagineer (not theme park related) “failures,” the panel discussed Lucky the Dinosaur. Lucky was taken to New York City to participate in a Science festival. He moved, he looked cool and was a technological feat. He was, however, not expecting to encounter heavy rain on his trip. Imagineers had to work quick to get him in a rain slicker for his performance!

There was also the example of WallE on his press tour. WallE was travelling around the country to “talk” to the media about his new movie. Unfortunately, WallE was detained at the Miami airport and missed his connecting flight putting a damper on his press tour. This caused many issues.

The fact is that things don’t go as planned in research and development for theme park attractions. The Rocket Rods is the example that Bob Gurr gave. The Peoplemover at Disneyland was removed and the Rocket Rods replaced it. The ride just did not work. It broke down a lot. Finally, it was removed just a few years after opening. Bob Gurr says that he would have loved to install the Peoplemover back in there. There are some engineering issues that would have to be worked through first.

How Technology Helps Imagineers

The world of computers opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for Imagineers. In 1989, Imagineers used Photoshop to create a visualization of a new park in Anaheim called Wescot. Obviously, this park was never built, but it was through this process that Imagineers were able to develop California Adventure. Later, computer animation and pre-visualization also helped this process along.

On the screen in the presentation room, D23 Expo 2013 guests were treated to a look behind the scenes of Imagineers testing rides.  The first example was the Winnie the Pooh ride in 1989. It looked something like a computer game with the cars moving through different rooms of the ride. We were also shown a testing of the Radiator Springs Racers ride in which Imagineers literally put themselves into a virtual car to experience the ride. The latest technologies show Imagineers walking into a room in which every wall is an aspect of the ride: Imagineers are digitally “on” the ride.

The Future of Imagineering

So what comes next? Obviously new technologies have allowed Imagineers to develop more attractions and rides for theme park guest to experience, but with these new technologies comes new demand. Imagineers are constantly trying to come up with new experiences for guests. Imagineers listen to guests, to what they like and what they want to experience. One of the ways they do this is through surveys in the parks. Another, is that they read Disney blogs. YES THEY READ DISNEY BLOGS! In fact, Bob Gurr referred to Disney blog writers as “frustrated Imagineers.” They truly want to know what we as guests like and don’t like about rides. They want satisfied customers.

There are many, many projects that Imagineers are currently working on for Disney theme parks. In the panel they mentioned working on projects that would probably not be built for years (2016)! One Imagineering project that was recently tested at Walt Disney World was examined and is thought to be the possible future of some theme park experiences.

This project was called the Legend of Fortuna. Guests became part of the attraction. It featured live actors and in park clues. It involved cast member interactions, scavenger hunts and even guest to guest interaction. This experience was a premium experience and featured special effects (i.e. fireworks!) and happened in beyond the berm locations. The testing of this experience has proven to be positive and it something that guests may see in the parks very soon.

This panel demonstrated the importance of Imagineers to Disney theme parks. It will be exciting to see what they come up with next!

As a Disneyland Annual Passholder for over fifteen years, it is clear that I love to be in the parks! I am a huge fan of all things Disney, but mostly the Muppets and Flynn Rider. On many weekends you can find me sipping a Mint Julep in New Orleans Square at Disneyland with my Disney loving husband and my two Disney loving children plotting which ride to go on next. I am Editor and Co-Director of the Tips from the Disney Diva site.