'Imagineering' at Disney World

The result is the ride of your life, says Caitlin Davies
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The queues are long outside the new Buzz Lightyear's Laser Blast ride in Disneyland Paris. Only those with annual passes are allowed to try out the new attraction, a few weeks before it opens to the public. And yet the waiting time is already 60 minutes.

This is good news for Peter McGrath, whose job, in Disneyspeak, is that of "imagineer". He says: "Imagineering is not just a case of engineering; it's where art and engineering come together. It's both creative and technical."

McGrath is the director of creative development at Disneyland Resort Paris. Imagineers are the creative force behind the Disney parks; their job is to transform a space into a story-place - from the moment the visitor begins the ride, the walkway they enter on, the images and sounds around them. And if there's one word that crops up again and again, it's "story". The technology, I am told, must serve the story.

The term "imagineering" was coined in the 1960s as a way to bring a two-dimensional idea into a three-dimensional world. Disney has 1,400 imagineers, most based in the California head office, with backgrounds in 140 disciplines, including fine art, architecture and computers. "We like to think of ourselves as dreamers and doers," says McGrath, sitting in the Fantasia Café at The Disneyland Hotel.

When a park needs a new attraction (perhaps because queues are too long) and they have space available, the imagineers start with a brainstorming session. They then produce storyboards, followed by concept development and feasibility. Then comes the actual design, and finally production and installation. And it all takes time; the 43-metre-high Sleeping Beauty's Castle, for example, took all of four years from concept to installation.

McGrath's background is in engineering, which he studied in Dublin, with the intention of joining his father in the plumbing business. He graduated in 1986, and worked in Bristol as a mechanical engineer before moving to France. There he got a job in the design phase of Disneyland Paris (then called Euro Disney), working as a project engineer for the It's a Small World ride. And what did he like about the job? The story-telling element, naturally.

He's now on assignment in France, where there are 100 imagineers on site in a property one-fifth the size of Paris. They are here because of Buzz and two other new rides being developed, Toon Studios and Tower of Terror.

So what if someone has a really good idea for a new ride? "Don't send it to us!" McGrath says. "We generate ideas internally."

If you want to become an imagineer, his advice is first to get into the company, even if that means taking a seasonal job to get a taste of what goes on.

You could also contact the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, or visit one of their Expos. If you're in the US, it's a little easier; there, Disney recruits for imagineers at universities and schools, especially those producing architects and graphic designers.

Imagineers need to work in a team, be excellent communicators and be persistent to the extent that they don't give up on good ideas. Project work can get very tense. The job often has to be done at night when the park is closed, and cold weather can be a real test.

Buzz Lightyear's Laser Blast first opened in 1998 at Disney in Florida. It's the resort's most visited attraction - and this Saturday the Disneyland Paris version officially opens. Visitors climb aboard a small vehicle that can be rotated as it passes through 10 different scenes, firing at targets with a laser gun. A scoreboard at the front of the vehicle shows your points (apparently, a great incentive to come back and try again).

Although the Buzz ride already existed in the US, it's still taken three years to complete the Paris one. When I join the queue for an early try-out, I'm told there have been technical problems and it's closed. Next day I try again, and three times my vehicle comes to a sudden stop.

But that's what imagineers are all about - bringing a story to life and then making sure it runs smoothly before the public is let in. Oh, and my six-year-old daughter scored far better with the laser than I did...

Comments