Book Review: ‘The Imagineering Story’ radiates with discoveries, even for superfans

The practically perfect Disney+ docuseries “The Imagineering Story” becomes a treasure trove of literary wonder in its book counterpart.

The Imagineering Story
Images courtesy of Disney

The 729-page tome by Leslie Iwerks is gargantuan in length and rich in narrative, providing ambitious fans a complete history of Disney’s theme parks.

From Screen To Page

“The Imagineering Story” was a hit when it debuted as part of the launch of Disney+ in 2019. In the six-part docuseries, director Iwerks and narrator Angela Bassett take the audience on a journey from 1952 through present-day to discover the magic and misses, the success and failures of Disney’s decades-long work in themed entertainment. The series is refreshingly candid and exquisitely presented. Sleek, professional, honest, and inspiring, it can be enjoyed by hardcore theme park enthusiasts and casual viewers alike.

Walt Disney

As thorough Iwerks was in the show’s six-hour runtime, she had to leave out a lot of incredible material. Along with Bruce C. Steele and Mark Catalena (the latter of whom scripted the show), Iwerks adapted and expanded the crux of the series into a book, “The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering,” published in November 2022 from Disney Editions.

Shanghai Disneyland castle under construction
As one of the most important projects of Bog Iger’s first CEO tenure, Shanghai Disneyland’s construction is greatly detailed in ‘The Imagineering Story.’

The show and the book exist separately from each other. You don’t have to be familiar with one to understand the other, but they complement one another well. In fact, many of the interviews from the series are upended and pasted verbatim in the book. The book keeps the series’ basic structure, with the same topics covered, just in greater detail and longer length.

Imagineer observes a model and concept artwork
An eclectic variety of disciplines and art forms comprise Walt Disney Imagineering. ‘The Imagineering Story’ takes a deep dive into the many fields and talents of the people who create Disney theme parks.

What’s New In “The Imagineering Story” Book?

This book is a deep dive. Iwerks details the creation of nearly every major attraction in the history of Imagineering, interviewing many Imagineers and creatives firsthand. If you’ve been a fan of the parks for a while, you’ve likely heard many of these tales before. (Disneyland’s disastrous opening day, the Animal Kingdom pitch when Joe Rohde brought a tiger into the conference room, etc.). There’s also plenty you might not be familiar with, even if you’re a Disney junkie and/or already watched the docuseries.

Imagineer Kim Irvine in white make-up filming footage for Madame Leota to be used in Haunted Mansion Holiday
Imagineer Kim Irvine records footage used for Madame Leota in Haunted Mansion Holiday. Irvine’s mother, Leota Toombs, did the same for the original Haunted Mansion in the ’60s.

For example, did you know “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn had to film the scenes for “Mission – BREAKOUT!” before the Imagineers locked in their story? Gunn filmed a bunch of options hoping they’d be able to piece something together. Did you know before approving Toy Story Land for Hong Kong Disneyland, Imagineers considered a land called Glacier Point, themed to the North Pole? These little-known anecdotes are plentiful throughout “The Imagineering Story” and are a delight to discover. There’s also a lot more info in the book than the docuseries about projects like Disney’s America, DisneyQuest, and Pandora. 

Imagineer examines an in-progress version of the Na'vi shaman Audio-Animatronics figure from Na'vi River Journey
An Imagineer works on the shaman Audio-Animatronics figure from Na’vi River Journey.

Harry Potter? Disco Yeti? This Book Has It All

Perhaps the most shocking bit is one of the first times — if not the first time — an official Disney publication has ever mentioned The Wizarding World of Harry Potter by name. Iwerks writes, “Warner Bros. had been shopping the rights for years — including a failed attempt to interest Disney in the Potter property.” This myth is somewhat common knowledge among fan communities, but to see it confirmed in print, along with Iwerks’ description of the “impressive” land, is wild.

Imagineers standing under a neon blue canopy at the site of Tron Lightcycle Power Run
The first iteration of TRON Lightcycle / Run debuted at Shanghai Disneyland. Here, Imagineers walk the construction site prior to its 2016 opening.

Elsewhere, Iwerks specifically mentions the “disco yeti,” the nickname of the broken yeti Audio-Animatronics figure from Expedition Everest, another surprising acknowledgement in an official Disney book.

“Belle, how can you read this? There’s no pictures!”

What the book version of “The Imagineering Story” gains in narrative exposition, it loses in visual eye candy. This is a thick, hardcover, novel-size book, not a coffee-table-style photo-filled volume like many other Disney publications. Save for a few black-and-white photos in the introduction, there are no pictures whatsoever in the book. (All the photos in this review come from the docuseries.) This might come as a surprise considering how much of the theme park experience is visual, and how much artwork exists for each of the attractions discussed.

Two Imagineers stand in a wrap-around virtual reality screen
Imagineers test out attractions virtually before building them. Seen here, a test drive of Radiator Springs Racers.

Thankfully, though, those who find this news disappointing can simply watch the docuseries instead. If you still prefer a visual Imagineering book, check out the 1996 or 2010 Imagineering coffee table volumes. They’re less of a complete history and more of a collection of artwork, accompanied by copy about art theory.

Animatronic monkey in a red suit smiling at a treasure chest
Mystic Manor, along with its breakout star Albert the monkey, is a guest favorite at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Should You Read “The Imagineering Story”?

If you love theme parks and you don’t mind a long read, “The Imagineering Story” is exquisite. If you’re not specifically passionate about theme parks or Disney, “The Imagineering Story” is a tough ask. There’s no shortage of slimmer books available if you’re casually interested in the Disney parks. And again, the docuseries is probably more paletable. That being said, Iwerks writes in a thorough yet simple style that makes the book accessible even if you’re not a superfan and want to take on the challenge.

Imagineer puts finishing touches on a model of the Millennium Falcon spaceship
An Imagineer touches up the model for the Millennium Falcon during the development of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Even for park enthusiasts, though, the sheer length of “The Imagineering Story” can be intimidating. I have a friend who bought the book when it released. He hasn’t started it because it’s just so huge and seems like a daunting task to even begin. The good news is that the book is easy to skip around. If you can’t tackle the whole thing, it’s simple enough to find the parks or attractions you’re most interested in. While Iwerks naturally builds the narrative as the book progresses, you’ll still get the gist if you hop around. Already heard about Walt procuring the land for Disney World, but want to dive into nine full pages about the creation of the “Ratatouille” ride? By all means, choose your own adventure.

Test vehicle for Remy's Ratatouille Adventure in a warehouse
A test ride vehicle for Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure prior to its debut at Walt Disney Studios Paris and Epcot.

The Verdict

With as superb as “The Imagineering Story” is as a series, it’s hard to imagine it can be improved upon, or that there’s much left to say after its six hours of narrative. Its book counterpart disproves both of those claims. Sure, it’s not for everyone. However, those with a love for storytelling, theme parks, or Disney in general — and a track record of reading long books — will find the literary version of “The Imagineering Story” to be an E-Ticket.


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