In the House of the Mouse

Part company history, part seminar on the process of creation, “Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real” is a vivid, sometimes eye-opening guide to the imaginative spirit that drives the Walt Disney empire.

Disney started this subsidiary in 1952 and gave it the job to design and develop Disneyland. Despite his success as an animator, he was untested in running a theme park, and he was unable to get his company’s board of directors to invest in what back then seemed an outlandish idea (“dreams offer too little collateral” Walt ruefully confessed at the time). “WDI” reprints the initial maps of the park, and with each repetition, we see Disney’s dreams growing, from the 11-acre Riverside Drive property originally envisioned to the 50-acre park it eventually became.

To those who only see the finished product on film or in the stores, the amount of detail and effort that goes into creating the Disney universe is astonishing. Every element must be drawn or modeled, and the Disney creative process demands that each design go through several iterations, sometimes through substantial changes. The result is a gallery of ideas and images, worked in painting styles both impressionistic and realistic. Elaborate models are created, such as the gym-floor sized Epcot layout or the six-foot tall “Tree of Life” that towers 13 stories over Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. Not surprisingly, the Imagineers have grasped computer modeling with the same enthusiasm they have put in everything else they do.

Some of the best pictures describe projects that never were. A ski resort in Northern California. An entertainment center in Burbank. A “House of Cheese” design for a proposed food pavilion at Epcot. But these are not complete wastes of time and money. Projects that were interrupted for one reason may be revived and continued for another. For Disneyland Paris, artist Tim Delaney reworked Sleeping Beauty’s castle into a three-towered art nouveau structure modeled on Mont Saint-Michel that looks as stunning and startling as the Eiffel Tower must have looked to Parisians a century ago. Even a Ferris wheel designed in 1954 was revived 40 years later for Disneyland Paris.

“Walt Disney Imagineering” gives the impression of a corporate culture that demands creativity, and pays for it by encouraging exploration and curiosity. The book is exuberant and unabashed eye candy for Disney fans, a treasure trove of artistic styles and an inspiring guide that describes what it takes to take an idea and see it through to the finished product.