Attractions at Walt Disney World and Disneyland are like icebergs. “You’re only seeing maybe two percent of the attraction,” says Brian Volk-Weiss, a Disney producer.
Go a little deeper and there’s much more to discover – the inspirations, the mechanics, the storytelling.
In a new Disney+ series, “Behind the Attraction,” those creators – called “Imagineers” – detail how key elements came to be. They talk about the “Walt” years, press on to the expansion decades and wind up in the future, explaining how Rise of the Resistance, the new “Star Wars” ride, and “TRON,” an upcoming attraction, immerse guests in movies.
Walt Disney’s goal with Disneyland was also to put visitors in the middle of the action and become part of the story. The Jungle Cruise, one of the first attractions at the park, was his way of recreating a “true-life” adventure. “He wanted to deliver guests into Africa with animals,” says Jeanette Lomboy, vice president/site portfolio executive with Walt Disney Imagineering. “Animal Kingdom is a fulfillment of Walt’s vision of Jungle Cruise.”
In turn, a ride like Jungle Cruise has inspired a film: Dwayne Johnson stars in a big-screen edition that borrows from the attraction’s storytelling. It hits screens July 30.
Even better: Pirates of the Caribbean launched an entire franchise. When Shanghai Disneyland was being built, Imagineers went in and revamped the ride to reflect advances in the theme park business. Now, “it’s really one of the finest rides in the world,” says Lomboy.
Because there’s no shortage of Disney parks and original content, Volk-Weiss had to pare his list of “Behind the Attraction” offerings. “We started with a list that would have been over 100, but we submitted a list of 30,” Volk-Weiss says. “To get it down fast, we decided very early on not to do any episodes about attractions that don’t exist anymore.”
The 10 episodes run the gamut – from Jungle Cruise and the Haunted Mansion to the Disney transportation system and the Hall of Presidents. Rides like TRON Lightcycle Power Run get mentioned in a visit to something like Space Mountain.
Key to expanding beyond the original Disneyland was the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Disney was charged with creating several pavilions and, in the process, came up with new ways to present entertainment. “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” introduced audio-animatronics. “It’s a Small World” gave visitors a trek around the world. Mary Blair, a longtime Disney animation artist, created the characters and showed how color could enhance a story. “I remember coming through (the attraction) and seeing a Filipino doll,” says Lomboy. “I was like, ‘You’re speaking to me.’ And Mary Blair is a legend in my book. She was such a dominant, strong presence.”
With others footing the bill (“Behind the Attraction” says “It’s a Small World” wouldn’t have gotten built without Joan Crawford’s desire to have a Pepsi pavilion at the fair), Disney was able to dream big.
“There’s a direct lineage to those Imagineers who first started this work,” says Mark LaVine, an Imagineer with the story development team. “You see this connection of almost 70 years” in the series.
Dave Durham, executive in creative ride engineering, says there are many stories behind the attractions “and we never get to tell them.”
When Imagineers are in the parks and they hear guests talk about the rides, they have to contain themselves from jumping into conversations and telling stories. With “Behind the Attraction,” “we get to share some of those cool inside stories, some of the history, some of the challenges and a lot of the fun,” Durham says.
When Rise of the Resistance premiered, Volk-Weiss watched as guests got off the ride. “Literally, six people were just blinking ... no one said a word for about 15 seconds,” he says. “I don’t know what’s a better compliment than that.”