How Disney's Imagineering Story Gives Incredible Insight to the World Behind the House of Mouse

Mickey Mouse at the construction of Walt Disney World.
Image: All images Disney+

Disney is a famously secretive company. It’s so secretive, in fact, that some of its biggest mysteries have elevated into legend. Have you heard there’s a basketball court inside the Matterhorn ride? Are there really full cities underneath the theme parks? In the Disney+ show The Imagineering Story, many of those legends will finally be revealed and we have filmmaker Leslie Iwerks to thank.

Iwerks is the main force behind the new six-episode series, which debuts when Disney+ launches Tuesday. The show tracks the history of Disney theme parks and technological innovations through their creators, called Imagineers, starting from their humble beginnings all the way up through today. Along the way, Disney fans will get to see things they never dreamed of. For instance, yes, there are cities under the parks and yes there is a basketball court in the Matterhorn.

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“When [Disney+] saw [an early cut of the show] they said, ‘If you can do anything more, what would you want to do to finish this film up? It’s really good as it is. but what else can we do?’” Iwerks told io9 on the phone last week. “I said ‘Well, ideally, I’d love to...take the viewer into areas that no one’s ever been...The idea [of] all this mythology around a basketball court in the Matterhorn, is it true? Is it not? Those kinds of things.’ I thought, ‘Well, if we’re ever going to show the public what is behind the scenes, now is our opportunity.’”

While awesome moments like that happen all across (at least the first two episodes of) The Imagineering Story, they aren’t the main focus. The focus was to document and pay tribute to the Imagineers, people Walt Disney hired to make his dreams come true. Iwerks was to travel “around the world, go to all the parks or resorts and go behind the scenes and interview people and document what [Disney] considered a new golden age in Imagineering over the last say, six years, with Shanghai opening and all these new lands that they were building, et cetera. So that’s what we did in that. And it’s pretty cool.”

Disney hired Iwerks to do that almost seven years ago, and at the time, she had no idea where the film would live. Still, she set out to work, filming 250 interviews as well as between 300-400 hours of B-roll along the way, some of which was so secretive (like early looks at Pandora and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge), she wasn’t sure if she’d even be able to use it, depending on when her film was released.

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Walt Disney demonstrating some of his Imagineering innovations.

Now, if you’re thinking, this is all a little too good to be true—you’re right. Iwerks is probably one of a few people on Earth the Walt Disney Company would trust with this kind of access, and it’s because it’s in her blood. Her grandfather was Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney’s first business partner and co-creator and animator of Mickey Mouse, so she experienced much of what’s in the film first hand. Iwerks’ first film was about her grandfather, called The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story, and she’s since made documentaries on Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic, among others.

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“I think given my background with the company....and the trust they had with me, it felt like they could trust me and I could keep their secrets intact, which I did for, you know, seven years,” Iwerks said. “And I knew a number of these people as well through their family...So I never felt like they were holding anything back or saying, ‘No, you can’t see that’ or, ‘We don’t want to talk about that.’”

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Armed with that access, things slowly began to take shape. Once the film became a Disney+ project, Iwerks was forced to stop working on it for all of 2018 while the logistics for the new streaming service were worked out. Then, in January of 2019, she hit the ground running again, filming new scenes (like the basketball court) and more leading up to this week’s debut.

Imagineers at the construction of Epcot Center.
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Episode one of the show follows Walt Disney’s idea to build a theme park named Disneyland and introduces the people he tasked with creating it. Episode two focuses on that vision expanding to Florida in what would become Walt Disney World. Future episodes will show Galaxy’s Edge, Pandora, and more. However, Iwerks knew she had to keep it focused on the people.

“There are so many other storylines that we could have included,” Iwerks said. “Like a deep dive into hotels and innovation in hotels and whatnot...It was just a bountiful of material [and] we just had to keep straight to the parks and the innovations in the disciplines within that sphere. So you’ve got animatronics, you’ve got story, you got queues, you got technology, you’ve got ride systems. All those things had to be built into the storyline as to how they evolved from the first park in the 1950s. Really the thread has become Walt built the happiest place on earth. But creating happiness is hard work. That almost became our mantra.”

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And, in a cool twist, not only does The Imagineering Story document the nearly 70-year-old story of Disneyland and the company’s other parks, but Iwerks was able to literally film the construction of Shanghai Disneyland from the ground up too.

“I took like six trips just to witness the building of a park from the dirt up,” she said. “To think about what Walt did when he was in the dirt and now Shanghai and dirt and the symbolism of a blank page and coming out with just ‘What is a theme park? What is it going to be?’ Those are all really cool, inspiring stories that I think will hopefully enlighten and inspire people to say, ‘Wow, if they can do that, I can do this.’”

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Leslie Iwerks

However, though Disney was open to revealing secrets along the way, there were some things Iwerks couldn’t do.

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“I mean, there are certain forbidden hidden things,” she said. “We couldn’t go backstage [at the theme parks]. [Places] where the magic [is made]. You just can’t do it, you know?” In other words, Disney doesn’t want photos of the actor playing Mickey Mouse with his head off to get out. The film explains the care Disney puts into keeping up all those illusions, for children especially.

And yet, there’s so much good stuff in the documentary, you probably won’t mind. In addition to those 250 interviews and hundreds of hours of B-roll, The Imagineering Story is filled with high definition archival footage moments all across Disney’s history, much of which has never been seen before. For example, there’s a scene of a car driving through the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland that simply blew my mind.

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“There are reels of film, hundreds of reels of film that haven’t been really seen before at the studio archives,” Iwerks said. “The film archives of the studio had volumes of binders of material with just words on them, like ‘Epcot Making-Of’ or something like that.”

Iwerks and her team went through all that footage and took special care to go find archive footage of the people she was interviewing in order to give a paint a more complete picture of them.

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Building the animatronic birds for the Enchanted Tiki Room.

“I wanted everybody to feel like their own character,” Iwerks said. “Everyone that we were able to interview, of course, we’re gonna go [get] all the footage of them going back as far as we can. The idea of that was just to really three dimensionalize everybody and make you really see them as a personality rather than just a talking head.”

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“It’s tough when you’ve got so many characters,” she continued. “This is the story of a department or an organization, but within it are all these people. So we had to kind of figure out who’s going to get a little bit more screen time and who’s going to get a little less. But a lot of it was based on how much footage we found of them, as far as the older generation. And then you had the newer generation who could speak to me about the older generation so eloquently. So they would come in and support that as well. So, yeah, it was pretty fun. It’s like a big puzzle.”

And just like every puzzle, eventually, it all comes together. So after being commissioned—then shooting, editing, and screening a rough six-hour cut; finding a home on Disney+; gaining additional funding for more interviews; and then the finishing touches, The Imagineering Story will debut this week. Two episodes will come in week one with the others on subsequent weeks. And, of course, what you see on screen isn’t everything.

“I don’t want to give away the rest of the episodes but yeah, we did go behind the scenes of certain attractions and, you know, see people working on stuff,” Iwerks said. “We got into the [refurbishment of the] Matterhorn. Some stuff got cut, actually. So if we ever do any further scenes or episodes, we’ll be able to incorporate some of the stuff that didn’t make six hours...There are just so many things that you go ‘God, this show could go on forever.’”

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And, trust us, if you’re a Disney fan, you’ll want it to go on forever too.

The Imagineering Story will stream on Disney+.


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About the author

Germain Lussier

Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo