Monday, August 25, 2008

Getting To Know Legendary Imagineers

Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park, by Jeff Kurtti. New York: Disney Editions, 2008, 141 pp.

Once upon a time (actually, 53 years ago, give or take a little), a place that was unlike anything people had ever seen before was created on some former farmland in Anaheim, California. People came there expecting a typical amusement park or a carnival, if they had any idea what to expect at all, and instead encountered a place that allowed them to step into the past, the future, and into realms of adventure and fantasy; they found a place where people of all ages could leave the real world for a little while and have fun together. One man got the credit from the public for bringing the world this new and exciting place, but he didn't create it all by himself. The fact was, that man did something even more amazing. He brought together a group of people with a wide variety of talents - some of which the people didn't even realize they had! - and inspired them with his vision as their guide to create someplace special, a place that would set the standard for places like it all over the world. We know a lot about the man - Walt Disney - and the place he inspired - Disneyland - but many people don't know all that much about the group of people that he brought together, and how each of those people contributed to the creation of Walt's dream. Jeff Kurtti decided to write a book to fix that, and he did an amazing job.

Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends tells the stories of twenty-nine Imagineers, their contributions to the Disney theme parks, and to the art and science of Imagineering. The book also tells us a lot about the man Jeff dubs "the first Imagineer" - Walt himself - by sharing how each of them related to Walt and how Walt's ideas , desires, and expectations affected what they did and what they created. If you've learned something about the history of Disney and of the Disney theme parks, the names of the folks you'll meet in this book may already be familiar to you, and you might be aware of some of the things they've accomplished, but most likely you've never learned as much about them and what they did as you'll learn from this book. Jeff does a great job telling the reader a lot about these folks in very few pages; even though I like to think that I know quite a bit about the folks profiled by Jeff in this book, I still managed to learn several things about each of the Imagineers profiled that I didn't know.

Jeff breaks up the Imagineering legends' profiles into several sections, tying groups of Imagineers together by the work they specialized in, such as concept art, model making, and music. A few of the folks profiled by Jeff don't fit neatly into categories of specialization, so Jeff created separate sections to profile their contributions to the Imagineering of the Disney theme parks; one person in particular was so knowledgeable about so many different interests that he's honored with his own section as WDI's "Renaissance Imagineer". Each section of the book starts out with a quote by Walt that ties into that particular specialty of Imagineering. It's a fun way to highlight the contributions of the folks being profiled.

Jeff's goal in writing the profiles in this book was to provide enough information on each person that the reader can learn something new about the background and the personality of each person being profiled, but he doesn't throw so much information at the the reader that he or she feels like they're going to drown in a sea of facts. Jeff even thoughtfully provides a good selection of footnotes to the profiles to make sure the reader understands the significance of something tangentially mentioned in an interview or in an excerpt from another work. There's a nice selection of photographs and art with each profile, so you'll get a feel for what each person has done, but the images also serve to remind the reader that there was an actual person behind the things that they've seen and experienced at the Disney theme parks.

Are there any problems with Walt Disney's Legends of Imagineering? Well, I wish that Disney and Jeff hadn't kept us all waiting so long for this book's release (this book was originally scheduled for publication about three years ago), but I can't find too much to complain about as far as the content. I suppose someone could complain that there should have been more Imagineering concept artwork, illustrations, and photographs of the actual attractions in the book as opposed to publicity photographs of the Imagineers from WED/WDI and the Disney Photo Library , but such a complaint misses an important point - namely, that this book is intended to acquaint the reader with the people who created the attractions and experiences, not the attractions.

Books that acquaint the reader with Imagineering and Imagineers can generally be divided into two categories: "Image books", which feature so many wonderful images of Disney concept art and attraction illustrations that you just might be tempted to skip the text, and "reader's books", which provide interesting reading but not as much in the way of illustrations that you haven't seen before. Jeff's book is definitely a "reader's book" and doesn't feature a lot of illustrations devoted fans of Disney history and Disney theme parks haven't seen somewhere else, but again, I think that's the point -- there are several good books out there featuring some of the art produced by the Imagineers (a couple of which Jeff has had a hand in creating), but this is the first book I've seen about Imagineering that really wants the reader to spend time appreciating the creators of the magic instead of appreciating their creations.

Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends is a fascinating look at the people who made Walt Disney's theme park dreams a reality and who set standards for creativity, artistry, and practical applications of technology that were the benchmark for not only the Imagineers that followed them but an entire industry. A famous quote of Walt's states that it takes people to make the dream a reality. This book is a great way to get to know some of those people a little better. If you're a fan of the Disney parks, take a little time to read this book -- I think that afterwards you'll appreciate what you experience at the parks even more.

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