For my entire living memory I’ve been obsessed with Imagineering. A childhood was spent poring over my hoarded issues of Disney News and the few park-related books that existed, and was aided and abetted by daily viewings of Walt Disney Presents and the fact that the Disney Channel actually showed park-related content. Yet despite the near-constant presence of WDI in my life, I’ve come to discover in recent years that I actually know very little about the Imagineering process.
It’s easy to conjure images of talented artists cranking out conceptual renderings, or of wacky engineers tinkering with animatronic chickens and pirates. Imagineering doesn’t end after that, though, and something happens after those inspiring renderings are handed off that’s more complicated than just “guys show up and build a building and the ride opens.” Imagineering is often defined as the combination of the skill of the artist and the talent of the engineer and that’s where this book comes in. Theme Park Design, by Steve Alcorn, provides a look at the Imagineering process that goes beyond the Blue Sky phase into actual ride and show design, engineering and installation.
Alcorn is no stranger to the industry; after becoming an Imagineer to work on EPCOT Center, he founded Alcorn McBride Inc. in 1986 and subsequently became one of the best-known providers of show control equipment. This lends an air of experience to his writing; while this book is by no means is a narrative of his time at Disney, he does incorporate several anecdotes throughout to illustrate certain points. More amusingly, he conveys the viewpoints of different groups from the creative and technical disciplines, and the internecine rivalries that result. Even among the various engineering disciplines are key differences in perspective and – naturally – in the trenches, everyone thinks that they have it right. Alcorn conveys these differences and the “gallows humor” that comes from looming project deadlines with his trademark good humor and light tone.
One of the confusing features of Imagineering is that is uses terms that might be familiar from the film industry, but in different ways. Hence my frequent confusion over terms like “art director” or “show producer” when they’re used in discussing attractions. Alcorn explains these roles, as well as the differences among the many types of engineers, and explains the difference between show control systems and ride control systems. These might seem like elementary concepts to those who create attractions, but to laypersons like myself the differences are easily lost.
Also described are a number of design and operational considerations that we might not think of when we’re “backseat Imagineering” our own attractions; it all goes to show how complicated even the simplest attraction is to design, and why exactly it takes so long for these things to come together. Things have changed since Disneyland was built in a single year.
The book almost takes the form of a primer; it doesn’t dwell too long on any one topic, choosing instead to serve as an introduction to the industry by touching briefly on a number of subjects. It’s not overtly technical, and discusses complicated systems in a fairly simple way. There are a few extremely minor nitpicks for the park history obsessive – Walter Cronkite was not the first narrator for Spaceship Earth, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride closed at Walt Disney World instead of Disneyland – but as you can see these are indeed minor semantic issues in a book that is not a historical work. On the topic of engineering ride and show system, few are more qualified to speak than Alcorn.
It’s possible that I’m biased, as I agree with many of the statements that Alcorn makes about the philosophy of themed design. At first I winced when the supremacy of “story” was brought up, as the term “story” has been flogged to death in recent years to excuse a number of sins. The lines between “story,” “plot,” “narrative” and “theme” all seem to have dissolved, and I was afraid that Alcorn was going to push in that direction. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case.
At the end of the book, Alcorn gives a wish list of trends he’d like to see emerge in the industry. I agree with all his points, but most especially his third. I’ll excerpt briefly:
I long for themed experiences that really immerse me in history, or technology, or whatever their specialty may be.
There are so many wonderful discoveries being made about space and molecules, our bodies and our environment. Captivate me with such knowledge. I’m certain that with the right story it can be done.
We aren’t ignorant fools. It’s time theme parks stopped treating us as if we were.
Whether this book is for you depends on a number of factors. As I said it’s not a historical work nor is it an autobiography. There are a few examples taken from Alcorn’s work throughout the years, both on EPCOT and on attractions like Universal’s superb The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, but this is neither a book specifically about Walt Disney Imagineering nor a behind the scenes tell-all. But for those of us who really do want to understand the processes underlying the themed attraction industry, and want to discover what happens in that mysterious “black box” between Blue Sky and opening day, this is a great place to start.
Theme Park Design: Behind The Scenes With An Engineer – 224 pages, softcover. Published by Theme Perks Press. $19.99. Available in print and for Kindle.