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New details I learned during my visit to Walt Disney Imagineering

by Matt Roseboom

We recently had the privilege to take the amazing multi-day Southern California Escape Adventures By Disney tour. The most exciting part of the tour was a visit to Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, Calif., where we learned some new facts about upcoming attractions.

The front entrance of Imagineering in Glendale, California.

Our tour was led by Imagineer Dave Fisher (pictured above on the right) who was not only a great tour guide, but surprisingly forthcoming with information. We are often given boilerplate responses during interviews with Disney Imagineers as Disney media reps listen to make sure what’s said and not said. So it was refreshing to have a real conversation with Fisher with real answers. Maybe it’s because no photos or recording of any kind was allowed. We were only allowed to use our phones to take notes.

An example of this is one of the first things Fisher told our group. He listed some of the projects he’s currently working on, such as the NBA Experience coming to Disney Springs, and the Reflections Disney Lakeside Lodge coming near Fort Wilderness. In speaking about the rooms they’re designing for Reflections, Fisher told us how amazing they are and how they’re unlike anything we have seen before, that is until they’re “value engineered”. The Imagineers sometimes design things as if money is no object, then those in the company who are in charge of the costs for the project, “value engineer” it down to be not quite as spectacular.

What I Learned:

  • Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge will be on the old River Country site and will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen – if the best parts don’t get cut.

After passing through a Disney Monorail hallway (yes, it’s a cool neon blue hallway designed to look like the inside of a Disneyland Monorail) and another hallway decorated with Imagineer art dedicated to Disney Legend John Hench, we came to one of the most exciting areas, where Imagineers were working on various models of new attractions. Fisher showed us a couple of models of scenes from the Frozen ride they’re building at Tokyo DisneySea. He said it will be very similar to the Frozen Ever After ride at Epcot. So much so, that it’ll be a boat ride just like Frozen Ever After, and even though Frozen Ever After is a boat ride because it is the reimagined Maelstrom ride. He told us the Frozen ride coming to Hong Kong Disneyland will be “decidedly different.”

What I Learned:

  • The Frozen ride at Tokyo DisneySea will be almost identical to Frozen Ever After.
  • The Hong Kong Disneyland Frozen ride will be different.
zootopia
The Zootopia-themed land coming to Shanghai Disneyland.

Although Fisher didn’t reference them much, a couple of models from the Zootopia land coming to Shanghai Disneyland could also be seen by our tour group. From what I could see, it looked like it’ll be one street with various small buildings on either side, leading up to a large facade, very similar to the concept art below. At the end of the street, there will be an “E-Ticket” ride in a large building behind the facade.

What I Learned:

  • The Zootiopia land coming to Shanghai Disney seems as though it’ll consist of some stores, shops and one big E-Ticket ride. 

Way in the back of the room, I noticed some Imagineers working on a model with black roller coaster track. I asked Fisher if it was for the new Guardians of the Galaxy ride at Epcot. To my surprise, he said no. He told me Disney’s contract with Aerosmith is coming up soon at the Rock n’ Roller Coaster at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and they are exploring different options for that coaster’s theme. He didn’t mention it, but I should also note that same coaster is at Walt Disney Studios park in Paris and it’s being rethemed as a Marvel coaster

What I Learned:

  • The Aerosmith theme and songs may be going away from the Rock n’ Roller Coaster at Disney’s Hollywood Studios soon, and a new theme may be added.

We then moved into the Blain Gibson sculpting room. This room is surrounded by busts and maquettes behind glass. We saw everything from small Pirate’s of the Caribbean figures made in the ’50s that Walt himself handled, to busts of the Dreamfinder, Clint Eastwood and dozens more. This was the one spot we were allowed to have our photo taken (below), in front of the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs sculptures that used to be at Disneyland park (before they were replaced with replicas to preserve the originals). Which brings me to a funny story Fisher told us about them:

Some official Disney stories incorrectly say the white, marble figurines depicting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs arrived anonymously as a gift for Walt Disney. And some Disney articles also incorrectly state that the reason all eight marble figures are roughly the same height was traced back to a set of eight Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs gift soaps, all molded the same size to fit inside the package.

The reason these incorrect stories grew to become misunderstood as fact is that Disney Legend John Hench himself told it that way. But according to Fisher, after Hench passed away, a folder labeled Snow White was found, which revealed the sculptures were actually made by Italian Sculptor Leonida Parma, and that Hench had corresponded with the sculptor that Snow White was to be 58 inches tall. But Parma misread it as 38 inches. When Hench noticed Snow was the wrong size, he asked the sculptor to redo her, but Parma told Hench it’d be a lot more money, so Hench just accepted them as they were and put Snow White above the Dwarfs, using forced perspective to make it look like she’s much taller.

What I Learned:

  • The story Disney often tells themselves about the Snow White grotto sculptures isn’t the true story.

Also on display in the sculpting room was the original Abraham Lincoln Audio-Animatronic (pictured here from when it was on display at Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Next to it were some photos of different free-roaming Audio-Animatronics such as the Muppet Mobile Lab and the robot in the video below, which we saw in the Star Wars section at Disney’s D23 Expo in 2017. Fisher told us about how they even have developed Audio-Animatronics that walk on four and two legs, and how they had many self-driving droids planned for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, but had to delay them because of the crowds expected. I clarified with him that the droids are ready to go, but they just don’t work as well in large crowds. He also mentioned how the Hondo Ohnaka figure in the upcoming Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run ride will be one of the most advanced one they have ever made, rivaling the Shaman of Songs in the Na’vi River Journey ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. 

What I Learned:

  • The reason the self-controlled droids have been delayed in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is because of the large crowds they’re expecting. So they should make an appearance later, whenever crowds lessen.

Next up we headed into a room where they program and test sounds and Circlevision 360 video attractions. They showed us a ride-through video of Hong Kong Disney’s Mystic Manor, while we heard the source audio all around us. 

We then headed across the street to another building which houses what they call The Dish. The Dish is a room with 3D projections all around it. We put on 3D glasses and stepped onto a computer generated recreation of the Hub at Magic Kingdom. What made it even better was a special hat. Whoever put on the hat, could walk around the virtual land as if they were really there. We all got to try it on and walk around. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being on the Star Trek Holodeck (Or the Environmental Simulator for “The Orville” fans). It was like walking around in a virtual world but without having to wear a VR headset.

We all got to virtually ride Radiator Springs Racers and Fisher told us they virtually rode more than 30 different versions of Slinky Dog Dash before committing to build the one guests can now ride.

Fisher told us a story about how The Dish helps them save money and design better attractions. He said they were developing a restaurant and they brought one of the chefs in to virtually walk around the kitchen. Well, the chef noted they had placed an air conditioning vent directly over the stove. So they were able to move it before construction had even started. Imagine the expense if the chef wasn’t able to tell them it needed moved until it was already built.

What I Learned:

  • Slinky Dog Dash’s roller coaster track in Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios went through more than 30 different designs, virtually.

Of course, as most theme park attractions do, our tour ended at the gift shop. We were able to shop in Imagineering’s private Disney store, Mickey’s of Glendale. We were even given a coupon for 20 percent off any one item.

These are just some of the cool things were learned during our Imagineering tour. The full Adventures By Disney Disneyland Resort and Southern California Escape tour also includes a tour of Walt Disney Studios and a backstage tour at Disneyland. We visited Walt’s apartment above the fire station and went behind the scenes at Indiana Jones, Soarin’ Around the World and Radiator Springs Racers. Thanks to Disney for sending us on the tour. Look for our vlog of the full Adventures by Disney tour, Disney Cruise and our media visit to Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii at YouTube.com/AttractionsMagazine soon.

If you’d like to book your own visit to Imagineering, contact Adventures by Disney or your travel agent for the Disneyland Resort and Southern California Escape Adventures By Disney tour or the Disneyland Resort and Southern California tour which also includes a Hollywood Boulevard guided walk and a tour of Jim Henson Studios. Mouse Fan Travel is our preferred travel agent.

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