THE IMAGINEERING STORY Interview With Author And Documentary Filmmaker Leslie Iwerks (Exclusive)

Talking to us about the release of her book, The Imagineering Story, Leslie Iwerks shares some fascinating new insights into the world of Imagineering and talks Mickey Mouse's role in her family legacy.

Interviews Opinion

The critically acclaimed Disney+ documentary series, The Imagineering Story, is now a book that greatly expands the award-winning filmmaker Leslie Iwerks' narrative of the fascinating history of Walt Disney Imagineering.

Covering the entire legacy of WDI from day one through future projects with never-before-seen access and insights from people both on the inside and on the outside, The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering is an absolute must-read. You can purchase it now at major retailers, including AmazonTarget and Walmart.

As told to Leslie Iwerks, herself part of a Disney Dynasty, the Disney Park designers reveal their secrets in the book, from Disneyland, U.S.A. to Shanghai Disneyland. Along the way, the technologically advanced artisans and imaginative storytellers known as the Imagineers shed new light on creating entire worlds of Disney magic.

Leslie is the granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, the original designer and co-creator of Mickey Mouse, and an Academy Award and Emmy-nominated director and producer in her own right.

In this interview, we learn more about the creation of this book, delving into the amazing stories and reveals inside, while also getting Leslie's take on how Marvel and Star Wars have been incorporated into the Parks. The author also opens up on her amazing family legacy, so check out our full conversation below. 


When you were making the Disney+ series, was the plan then to move forward with a book or was it just a case of having so much content there wasn’t room for in the show that this felt like the logical place to expand on that? 

Well, you’ve summed it up perfectly: it’s the latter [Laughs]. We had over 200 interviews we had done on camera, and then a lot of interviews we’d done over Zoom or by phone or in writing. There was also a tonne of archival interviews that never got to see the light of day that were audio at one point, but are now just on paper. I was approached by Disney Publishing who wanted to see if I’d be interested in doing a book, and I said, ‘That’d be great.’ We then drew out a pretty thorough structure of the bites we never got to include in the series along with a lot of information that didn’t make the series. Also, there are a lot of new details and characters that we would have loved to include in that, but got to include here. 

This is a massive, very impressive book, so in terms of the time that goes into a project like this one, what does that look like for you from start to finish?

It was mapped out, but it took a long time to do that and put together a really long Google Doc with quotes and structure, and figuring out what goes where. It was a very similar process to what we do on a [documentary]. It was writing it out roughly, with the connective tissue coming over time. It was a monumental undertaking for one person to do, so it was a nice team effort. [They] wanted it to be the adjunct of my series or the continuation of that. 

There is such a lot of secrecy surrounding Imagineering in order to keep the magic, did that make interviews more challenging or was learning at least some of those big secrets part of the fun?

There were a lot of secrets and a lot of things that were being done early that I was tracking into development over time. Certainly, there was all of Shanghai Disneyland, with everything I filmed under complete NDA. You had to just be part of the process and just document it knowing it would all come together at the end of the show. There is a lot of secrecy and content that is just not unveiled to the public until much later, so you just have to be careful in protecting that footage and also not mentioning anything you’ve heard or seen [Laughs]. You feel like you’re part of the C.I.A. sometimes when you’re working in Imagineering. 

It’s fair to say you’re an expert on all things Disney, but when you spoke to these Imagineers, did you find yourself learning anything new that really surprised you? 

For sure. There’s so much behind the scenes that you never think about. That was really the whole point of doing the show. When you go on an attraction or visit Pirates of the Caribbean in Shanghai, for example, and see the level of detail and sophistication in technology, whether it be projectional systems, ride systems, magnetic propulsion systems, IMAX screens that are seamlessly integrated into physical sets…all of that is like a Rubix Cube of technology and creativity that you’d never have an idea who they did it. As Bob Iger said in my documentary, ‘One of the greatest things anyone can say or question about Imagineering is, ‘How did Disney do that?’’ So, that’s exactly what they keep behind the scenes. 

They don’t really want you to know too much, and that was something I had to navigate with the show and the book. Just how much detail could we get into when there are things they don’t want people to know? I think, at the end of the day, when you watch the show and read the book, you’re just more in awe of how they pulled so many different elements together to create something new. It’s that out-of-the-box thinking that is really the DNA of Imagineering. If anything, it’s less about holding on to the secrets than it is just factually telling what it took to get to that level of detail and sophistication that makes people go, ‘Wow, that’s great. That’s inspiring.’

You talk about the international parks as well, like Disneyland Paris, but did you learn of any plans that didn’t become a reality along the way? I’m always shocked and a little disappointed that there’s no Disneyland UK...

We didn’t get into that too much in the series about what didn’t happen, but were able to address Mineral Springs and Disney’s America. We got a little into that, but we were able to go deeper in the book, with Westcot, for example. I feel like, for the most part, the things that were iterative, like the early days of Paris or where they were going to put the land originally compared to where it ended up…a lot of that detail is not that interesting! It’s focusing on what is interesting and who we need to speak to. Then again, there are so many Disney fans who want to know every single detail, I should never assume they wouldn’t want to know where one plot of land might have been versus over here, you know? [Laughs] I do think we included a lot of rich material that hasn’t been shared before, though. 

Non-traditional IP like Marvel, Star Wars, and Avatar have become a huge part of the Parks now; what is your take on how that’s affected Imagineering and do you think it’s ultimately a good thing? 

I think so. I think Bob Iger was brilliant in acquiring Marvel and Lucasfilm and Pixar because Walt Disney had said from the very beginning that Disneyland would never stay the same and would always change. This unique content…you need IPs and stories to fill these Parks. Disney has done, from a business standpoint, done vertical integration better than any studio or company out there, in my opinion. I think their ability to cross-pollinate so many different things across so many different divisions is a huge part of why this big Disney ship can navigate any rough waters because ‘content is king’ as Bob Iger would say. It’s interesting to see where they put this content. 

I know there was a big pushback, for example, that we document in the book with the It’s A Small World attraction when they started bringing in Mickey and Donald and some of the other Disney characters. That had such an uproar and you ask, ‘Why? Why is it causing that?’ There are true Disney purists who don’t want the original ride messed with. They want Mary Blair’s original characters. There is that fine line between keeping things the same and pursuing new ideas that keep things fresh. Also, keeping up with the times. I think Disney is making really great strides in telling diverse stories with inclusion and characters that represent everybody, and not just the old white males we saw in the 50s and 60s. The storylines are being revamped and it’s just a much more inclusive Park, and there’s a lot of effort going into that which I think is great. 

In the book, you get to delve into the impact Marvel has had on the Disney Parks, so did you find yourself learning a lot about that world of superheroes while conducting your interviews and researching them? 

Well, I knew of Marvel, though I wasn’t a comic book collector from an early age. I definitely leaned more towards Disney [Laughs], but I do think what they’ve been able to do with that by acquiring the franchise, it’s catapulted forward through all the films, and now shows and ride attractions. The Spider-Man ride with the casting webs…it basically ignites all this new imagination and creativity for the Imagineers to go, ‘Oh, what can we do with Spider-Man now? What new technology will match what that character can do in a three-dimensional space versus just 2D?’ That’s exciting because with VR and AR, you’re able to do so many unique things you were unable to before, and I think Walt, from the very beginning, was already thinking about that and a virtual reality world with Circle Vision and trying to take you into a place that is the world of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but it’s real and three-dimensional all around you. That was the beginning of what VR is today, taking you places we could never go.

In terms of the access you have in the book to the Imagineers and those within Disney, well, it’s something I can only dream of. How easy was it for you to get that and was there anyone, in particular, you knew from the start had to be part of this? 

It’s a hard one to answer because everyone I interviewed was so fun and interesting. And inspiring. They all come with their own innate curiosity and passion, and their own skillsets that come into play and are matched with whatever the objective is. It was fun to meet men and women around the world who are specifically suited to do a specific job that no one else can do. Whether it be building and designing a castle for Shanghai or Paris, or figuring out the exact right colour for a specific part of a building…all the way to speaking to Michael Eisner and Bob Iger who were honest, frank, and self-reflective in a way that was extremely refreshing. 

Michael, in particular, I was really appreciative of him sharing some of the lessons learned and the goals that he had that may not have worked out to the point he hoped. No one is trying to do something that doesn’t work. No one is trying to create an attraction that fails, a land that doesn’t succeed, or a movie that falls apart and doesn’t land. Everyone is trying to do the best job they can and be successful, and there is a collaborative spirit in Imagineering over the course of the years that was set in place by the original team. That teamwork was cemented by Walt and continues to this day. That ego-less, leave-your-ego-at-the-door mentality goes a long way as well in a creative team. I feel that Michael and Bob were just refreshingly honest and frank about the trials and tribulations of Imagineering and the company as a whole. 

I know you’ve talked a lot about your grandfather, Ub, the amazing original designer and co-creator of Mickey Mouse, but as part of that legacy, how do you feel about Mickey’s role in the Parks as Disney’s most iconic mascot?

I’m always just amazed by it, honestly. You know, you walk around - I was at the Park this past weekend signing books - and the amount of people wearing Mickey Mouse hats and t-shirts and gloves…it blows your mind. You name it, but Mickey is such a massive part of the cultural zeitgeist of America and in many parts of the world. He’s the most recognisable character in the world. I think it’s really surreal in a way to be in a family lineage where my grandfather was the original designer, and to think how big it became. He’d always say, ‘Anyone can draw a character, it’s what you do with that character that really counts. It was really Walt that took that character to another level.’ It’s true. Walt and Roy knew how to navigate and take a character at that time and set him apart from everybody else and market it like crazy. The fact he’s lasted this long is a testament to the design itself, the personality of the character, and Disney and the different generations of executives and people who have come through the company who have continued to propel the character forward and market it like crazy. Anything can die at any point if you let it, but there’s something indelible about Mickey. 


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