History of Disney Imagineering for Kids

Imagine you are sitting in a train car and racing full speed down the track. You weave in and then out of a cave, and then up a steep hill and down, whipping to the right and through a deep valley that takes you back into a dark cave. The wind whips at your hair and rushes in your face as you feel the butterflies in your stomach of up and down and left and right. You hold on tight to the sides of the train car as it picks up speed and the momentum carries you down another track and through a stream of rushing water. The water splashes on you and the other passengers and you cry out in joy and surprise! What kind of train is this anyway? As the train pulls into the station, you remember that this wasn’t a real train, but the ride Thunder Mountain Railroad at the theme park Disneyland.

Theme park rides like Thunder Mountain Railroad and others are a blast to ride and experience, but how do these rides come to be? Who designs them? Who builds them and creates all of the environments and machines that are required to make them work? Today we’re going to talk about none other than the world famous Disney Imagineers!

The magical world of Disney theme parks has captivated the hearts of millions around the globe for decades. Behind the scenes of this enchanting experience lies a rich history marked by creativity, ingenuity, and a team of visionary individuals known as Imagineers. The roots of Disney’s theme park legacy can be traced back to WED Enterprises and the birth of Imagineering. 

When Walt Disney first decided to build a theme park, after his wild success as an animation studio, Disney created a group called WED Enterprises. This was in 1952 and Disney formed the group because he knew he would need a crew of very talented people to help design and engineer his theme park, which was still just a thing of his dreams and imagination. 

WED Enterprises included artists, engineers, architects, and designers who would bring Walt Disney’s dreams to life. They were known for having more than just one skill, such as being an architect or an engineer. They had to have BIG imaginations and be ready to think outside the box. At heart, they were storytellers, responsible for creating immersive narratives that would become park rides and other experiences. Their mission was to blend creativity with cutting-edge technology to create an enchanting world for park visitors.

In 1986, WED Enterprises changed its name to Walt Disney Imagineering. Imagineer is the combination of the words engineer and imagine! Imagineers are expected to not only have the skills to do their job but to think creatively and come up with new, bold ideas as they tell their stories in the form of attractions. In fact, one of the Imagineers first principles is “It all begins with a story.” 

Next, let’s dive into the life of some of the most famous Imagineers! Marc Davis was born in Bakersfield, California and from a very young age loved drawing and art! He practiced during his free time and eventually went to college in Kansas, where he further developed his skills. In 1934, Marc joined Disney as an animator and helped illustrate for animated classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi. He worked closely with Walt Disney to create these films and when it came time to start designing Disneyland, Walt Disney knew Marc would be the perfect fit to help bring his dreams to life. 

One of his first projects was designing characters for The Haunted Mansion. Marc had a great sense of humor and was able to bring it to life through art as he designed characters such as The Hitching Ghost and the ghostly bride Constance Hatchaway. He also worked on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and many of the humor pirates you can see and experience throughout the ride. Marc also helped design the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Jungle Cruise, and EPCOT’s Journey into Imagination.

Another early imagineer was Harriet Burns. Harriet was born in San Antonio, Texas and early on had a passion for art and design. She started at Disney in 1955 as a set painter for many of the rides. She became one of the first female Imagineers and helped design and paint characters on the Disneyland Railroad, Its a Small World, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Harriet was also known for her strong will and personality. When she had a vision for how someone should be done, she worked hard at it and made her opinion known until she got results!

The history of Disneyland Imagineers wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Tony Baxter, whose first job at Disneyland was actually an ice cream scooper at age 17. He loved being at the park and was determined to help make it an even more fun and enchanting place. He went to school and studied landscape architecture and later theater design. At this time, he also started helping with construction projects at Disneyland.

In 1970, Tony officially became an Imagineer. His dream job! He helped redesign Fantasyland, then later came up with the idea that became Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain showcased Baxter’s ability to combine storytelling with groundbreaking ride technology. The attraction became an instant classic, enchanting generations with its whimsical charm.

Baxter’s gift for adventure and storytelling reached new heights with the creation of the Indiana Jones ride. Opened in 1995, this dark ride blended film and theme park elements, plunging riders into the heart of an ancient temple filled with scary sights! The attraction’s success showed Baxter’s ability to translate movie magic into an immersive and exhilarating theme park experience.

Other famous Imagineers worth mentioning are the artist Mary Blair, X Atencio, Wing T. Chao, Alice Estes Davis, Yale Gracey, Bob Gurr, Joe Rohde, and Marty Sklar. Because Disney parks are worldwide, Imagineers of many different nationalities, races, and backgrounds are now part of the Imagineering team!

Something else exciting about Imagineers is that as they are working on new rides, they often invent entirely new technologies that are used not only at Disney but in other theme parks and attractions around the world.

One of their most famous innovations are audio-animatronics. These are the life-like robots that become characters on the different Disney rides. They often look very realistic and move in real ways that make the parkgoers feel like they are experiencing the characters and the environments for real! The animatronics on some of the rides were ahead of their time. To date, one of the most advanced and realistic animatronics is the Shaman on the Na’vi River Journey at Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. Animatronics like this require many designers and engineers to figure out how to make them move in life-like ways. You’ll have to check out a video for this one, because you won’t believe your eyes!

Many of the vehicles for Disney’s rides also feature very advanced designs in order to move guests around through the attraction. This includes trackless rides that use magnets to orient them along the path. Another example is the jeep in Indiana Jones that makes passengers feel like they are bumping up and down on a wild ride, which has the flexibility to move many different directions.

Using RFID wristbands, guests are able to open their hotel rooms, enter parks and even make purchases using radio frequencies. Many of these technologies feel like magic when they are being used, but under all of the electronics a smart engineer had to design every piece of the advanced equipment to make it work. 

Other technologies include projection mapping, augmented reality, and virtual reality simulators… all with the goal of making guests feel like they have been transported to a different place and time and are living the actual experience. Pretty amazing, right?

Does becoming an Imagineer sound interesting to you? If so, be sure to look up their principles of design and think of ways you can apply them to your own interests. Do you like to be creative? If so, think of the kind of ride you would create if you were a Disney Imagineer. Draw up a plan and maybe even make a miniature version of it using cardboard and other materials. You might even simulate how it works using a space in your backyard or living room. Be sure to run it by your parents first, of course, but remember that all of these Imagineers were once kids like you who were passionate about art and design and had BIG imaginations!