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Peeking into the Mouse Hole

About.com's Theme Parks Guide Geeks Out at Disney Imagineering


Peeking into the Mouse Hole

He makes the magic. Director of Blue Sky Development for Walt Disney Imagineering, Jon Georges, with About.com's Theme Parks Guide, Arthur Levine.

©Arthur Levine, 2007. Licensed to About.com
Updated June 26, 2012
It was a surreal moment in a day filled with surreal moments. Rounding a corner in the room containing Walt Disney Imagineering's art history archives, there it was: the famous 1950s concept drawing of Disneyland that designer Herb Ryman completed in one weekend with Walt Disney standing over his shoulder. This wasn't a reproduction; it was the actual legendary piece. Casually propped up on a pallet (it was either arriving from or en route to an exhibit), Ryman's drawing sat among some of the other 80,000 pieces of artwork that Disney Imagineers, as the band of creative gurus charged with designing the company's theme parks came to be known, subsequently created through the years. "It was all started by a mouse," Walt Disney once famously said. With deference to Mickey, Disneyland and the very idea of a "theme park" really all began with that drawing.

So how was it that I came to be ogling Ryman's historical drawing and roaming the hallowed halls of Imagineering in Glendale, California? Among the industry professionals who visit my site and subscribe to my weekly email newsletter is Jon Georges, director of Blue Sky Development at Walt Disney Imagineering. He invited me to speak to a group of Imagineers as part of the organization's Insight Out speaker series. (When my wife learned that I was going to be making a presentation to the Imagineers, she said, incredulously, "So let me get this straight. You are going to talk to them about the theme park industry?" Admittedly, the notion seemed a bit nuts, but the Imagineers were a wonderful audience, and we had a lively exchange about parks and themed entertainment.) After my presentation, I was treated to an extensive tour of the sprawling campus.

While I did get to peer behind the scenes, I wasn't granted unfettered access. There were plenty of hush-hush projects and Imagineers secreted away in their workshop lairs. This article isn't meant to be a comprehensive overview of Imagineering; rather, it's a casual review of some of my observations that day--a geek's ramblings, if you will.

Imagineers Get Goofy

It was surprising to discover that the folks who design iconic castles and grandiose geodesic domes conduct their work in distinctly bland and nondescript buildings. There wasn't even a sign, modest or otherwise, to indicate Imagineering's headquarters. Driving down Flower Street in Glendale, it would have been impossible to locate the campus without knowing its street address. Inside, however, there were characteristic traces of Imagineering whimsy everywhere.

In the courtyard outside the commissary, for example, gondolas from Disneyland's defunct Skyway served as makeshift picnic tables. The Environmental Design and Engineering building, which houses architects, engineers, and interior designers, was once a bowling center that was open to the public. Remnants of its kitsch past remained, including a conference room with a maple table fashioned out of the lanes' floorboards and a podium that looked like a score table.

One hallway in the main building is known as the John Hench Graffiti Gallery. An influential and beloved artist and designer, Hench worked at the Disney company for over 60 years and was senior vice president for Imagineering. The hallway was lined with lively portraits, sketches, montages, and other displays contributed by Imagineers in homage to Hench, who died in 2004. (For more on John Hench and Imagineering, consider reading his wonderful book, "Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show." )

Perhaps the oddest (and geekiest?) experience I had at Imagineering came about midway through my tour. My guide escorted me into the sculpture studio and left me by myself for a few moments to wander the musty room and gaze at plaster busts of highly expressive pirates from Pirates of the Caribbean, Hollywood celebrities from The Great Movie Ride at Disney-MGM Studios, and lots of other Disney statuary. In one corner of the room, the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs figures that once delighted guests at Disneyland laid in state. It was both eerie to be alone with all of the silent figures and a tad overwhelming to see so much theme park history.

Next page: Cataloguing Yesterland: Peeking into the Mouse Hole continues

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