DISCLOSURE: This review is based on my own opinion and perspective. I watched this episode using my own Disney+ subscription, and Disney did not provide any special access in order for me to conduct this review.
Disney fans had no shortage of viewing options when the Disney+ streaming service launched Tuesday, but for the true theme park fan, their first choice should have been “The Imagineering Story.”
The first episode of the six-part docuseries, created by Oscar nominee Leslie Iwerks, is a sentimental but enthralling look at the elite Disney department behind decades of theme park innovations.
Naturally, it begins with Imagineering’s first project: creating Disneyland.
Whether you’re unfamiliar with Disneyland’s official origin story or find yourself mouthing the anecdotes along with the Imagineers, the episode weaves an interesting tale with plenty of captivating footage to go along with it. Seeing a car running through the unfilled trench that will house the Jungle Cruise trench, or a glimpse of the original Peter Pan’s Flight mural and then Autopia cars slamming into each other (no rails on this version) are bound to excite anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge in Disney parks lore.
The documentary is at its best when it combines this rare access (either to the past or to backstage areas) along with giving Imagineers the spotlight they deserve. Sure, people riding It’s a Small World know who Walt Disney was, but they’ve probably never heard of Mary Blair and how her style helped define such an immortal attraction — with a design that is still inspiring new merchandise 50 years after it first debuted. Iwerks pays special attention to Blair and the other women involved in Imagineering’s early days.
Disney parks fans will be happy to know this episode doesn’t merely cover the well-worn territory of Disneyland’s opening day. You’ll hear about the opening of the Matterhorn Bobsleds roller coaster (and get a peek inside), the development of the Abraham Lincoln animatronic for the 1964 World’s Fair, as well as other animatronic-driven attractions like Pirates of the Carribbean and the Enchanted Tiki Room.
Of course, it also covers the 1966 death of Walt Disney, just as planning was in full swing for Disney World. Truthfully, the few flaws I could find with this episode was when the focus was too much on Walt and not on the Imagineers he led.
I cringed when the narration blamed “trouble with labor unions” as one reason Walt felt listless at his own studio in the post-war years. Walt never forgave those Disney animators who successfully went on strike against him in 1941 — even branding them as communists in front of Congress years later — and predictably, the documentary doesn’t stop to properly explain that portion of company history.
And make no mistake, this is a company-approved version of its history. No surprise, considering Iweks is the granddaughter of Mickey Mouse co-creator Ub Iwerks and daughter of Disney Legend Don Iwerks.
The opening minutes repeat the story that Walt came up with the idea of Disneyland while watching his daughters on a carousel at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. In reality, Disneyland seems to have grown from Walt’s long-held desire to have a tourist attraction at or near the Disney studio — but rather than explore this evolution, “The Imagineering Story” opts for the more poetic (and likely apocryphal) tale.
Still, these are minor gripes. The highest compliment I can pay Iwerks’ creation is that it’s nothing like the thinly-veiled advertising of Disney’s Travel Channel documentaries. This is the deep dive into Disney parks history that both casual and diehard fans have been waiting for, and one that properly honors the men and women who have created these classic attractions.
If viewers come away remembering these Imagineers’ names, then this documentary series was worth it.