On just about every Disney related forum, website or blog, you will stumble upon an odd term that is used to describe the people at the Parks that ‘make stuff happen’.

The ‘Imagineers’ are the talented men and women, young and old, that dream up, invent, create, improve, paint and develop the rides, attractions and stores that come together to make the theme parks such a magical place!
The subject of Imagineering deserves endless coverage, but our humble blog post will try to cram the story of the Imagineers into one simple web page guide!

Who Invented the term ‘Imagineer’?

The combination of the words ‘Imagination’ and ‘Engineer’ was used mainly by the Alcoa group in the 1940s.  Walt Disney used the term a decade later as he developed the Walt Disney Imagineering division of the Walt Disney Company in 1952.
The term ‘Imagineers’ was used to refer to the employees of the WDI division based in Glendale California.

What did those very first Disney Imagineers create?

The first project for the Imagineers was a huge task: Disneyland in Anaheim California!
It opened officially on July 17th 1955
Imagineers were responsible for every aspect of the park’s creative and technical design, from architecture, choreography, lighting, costumes attraction design and of course the meticulous theme of the park that made it so magical.

The Imagineering Process in Action

Imagineers operate at various levels throughout the WDI. Like any business, there is a hierarchy.
At the very top are conceptual Imagineers, promoted over the years, they are able to envisage broad concepts and lead them into life in the theme parks and cruise ships.
These most senior Imagineers have the skill and experience to decide what will work in the theme parks and how to make the loose specifications that will be passed gradually down the chain to make the concepts work.  Overall budgets are set and timings agreed at this kind of level.
It’s then down to the various project teams to offer detailed concepts for the various aspects of a new attraction or show. This process can really involve some ‘blue sky ‘ thinking.  The project is able to truly change direction at this stage, perhaps altering timing, scale and cost of a project.
The Imagineers at this stage can really ‘plus’ the whole project up and exceed the expectations of the senior Imagineers!  (and ultimately us as guests!)
At this stage, a family ride could take the form of a roller coaster, a dark ride or even a water splash ride.  The brief is truly wide open!
Once the basics are agreed, budgets and timing are revised and the process of discussing concepts with the park services and construction team can begin.  Land will need to be prepared and services must be provided.  Contractors for rides and building work will begin the lengthy process of working on the first real details of the new attractions.
In the background, work will already begin on the visual theming, while plans to relocate existing attractions will be drawn up.  At this early stage, only the location, budget, timing and concept are rigidly fixed.  The details surrounding that are still open for change.
If the concept called for a roller coaster, that is now set in stone, so too the ‘footprint’ that the area will occupy, however, all of the imagineering groups are still able to influence each other as the project develops.  Key features of the attraction are still up for debate at this stage.
At some point in the process, a ‘design freeze’ is applied to the structural aspects of the attraction, this allows prep work to begin behind the scenes.  Contractors and Imagineers draw up their first detailed plans.  Once developed, the ‘detail’ imagineers can visualize the attraction for the very first time.
The fun part begins now as costumes, facades, signage, faux construction such as rocks, walls and entrance ways are all visualized for the first time.  This process often creates the biggest sense of pleasure for the Imagineers and Guests, and requires the whole project team to share input as the ideas really accelerate.  With the construction and engineering aspects of the attraction already firmed up, the visual concepts also begin to settle.
The attraction is becoming very real now, at least on the computer screens!
In the background, the construction and engineering Imagineers have already been working hard and any changes to their designs are continually relayed back to the other teams.  Any great ideas that worked out to be too difficult or costly to achieve will have been worked around and alternative ideas sought from the Imagineers.
All through the process, the timing plan for the project has been evolving, first loosely, then tightening progressively as the project details become clearer.
As construction looms however, changes to timing become less tolerable as the park prepares to wall off the construction site and the PR team prepares to reveal the plans that they’ve been working on for many months.
Specialist teams of Imagineers will have already been creating concept artwork and publicity materials for the new project.
At this stage, even though construction is yet to begin, almost all of the project is firmed up now.  Details of the tiny brush strokes on rocks, faux brickwork and such will be drawn into specifications for the many artists and contractors to begin developing further.
As construction begins, the project will most likely have been announced.  Including of course an approximate opening ‘window’.  (eg Spring 2014).
The Imagineers however, will be working to a very specific date for their own areas of responsibility and the overall leader for the project will indeed have a very firm date for completion, despite the vague PR dates.
While the construction phase begins, Imagineers will closely monitor each and every aspect of the attraction’s progress.  Although all of the details have been agreed, they are able to make improvements that offer a better guest experience or improved completion, provided that these variations don’t impact on other aspects of the project.  As the character of the attraction is revealed, Imagineers have a final opportunity to (plus) the project as Walt Disney called it.
Once complete and the attraction is up and running with the guests, the process continues as the imagineers for that specific attraction gather technical data, stoppage information and guest feedback.Some changes are made quickly, others are stored until the attraction is scheduled for a rehab shutdown.
Continuous Improvement is an essential aspect of life as an Imagineer!

“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

Walt Disney

For an Insight into Imagineering, check this video from the 2013 D23 Disney Fan Expo