My Imagineering Library – The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney California Adventure at Disneyland Resort

Here is a look at another item in My Imagineering Library: The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney California Adventure at Disneyland Resort by Imagineer Alex Wright.

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The Imagineering Field Guides are some of my favorite books in my Imagineering Library. These small pocket guides provide concrete examples of Imagineering principles in practice. Don’t be fooled by their small and simple appearance; they contain a wealth of
information about Imagineering, as well as lots of excellent photos and art work.

A Great Addition to my Imagineering Library!

Another great entry in the Imagineering Field Guide series that book should be in the library of any fan of Disney theme parks or any student of Imagineering.

Imagineering Field Guides provide a look at the Disney theme parks through the eyes of the Imagineers who design and build them. They focus on the details and stories that many Guests often miss as they explore the Disney parks. This entry in the Imagineering Field Guide series looks at Disney California Adventure (at Disneyland Resort), the “newest” Disney park in North America.

Like all of the other Imagineering Field Guides, this book is written and designed by Alex Wright, a Creative Director at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), and follows the same basic format of all the previous entries in the series: an Overview of Imagineering (Imagineering 101) followed by an overview of the park, followed by chapters for each “land” within the park, including:

  • Buena Vista Street
  • Condor Flats
  • Grizzly Peak
  • Paradise Pier
  • Pacific Wharf
  • Cars Land
  • “A Bug’s Land”
  • Hollywoodland

For many years Disney’s California Adventure (its original name) was one of the more controversial or “infamous” of all of the Disney parks. The park was originally designed to celebrate the state of California and capture “the energy and excitement of the Golden State…”, but for several years after its opening in 2001 the park had its share of critics (among them some Imagineers) who felt the park didn’t embody the same charm, theming, attention to detail, and storytelling found in other Disney parks. To address this, starting in 2007 the park was subject to one of the largest scale updates/re-imaginings of any Disney park in the company’s history. To quote the author: “They (the Imagineers) worked with our partners in the Parks and Resorts division to fundamentally remake the Park to a degree that had never before been attempted in the history of Disney Parks.”

When I first learned about this book, I wondered if and how it would address this issue, and I liked that this book noted that there were issues with the original version of the park, and that the Imagineers, working with other divisions in the Walt Disney Company, took on the massive effort needed to update the park and bring it more in line with the other Disney parks around the world. I think if Walt Disney were to see the changes made to the park as part of this update, he would be smile, as this change truly embodies the concept of “Plussing” (Walt’s term for constantly trying to improve things). The changes brought about in the recent makeover of Disney California Adventure represent Plussing in its purest form.

One of the things I like most about the Imagineering Field Guides is that they provide great examples of many of the design principles that are at the heart of Imagineering and theme park design, and the author’s choice of examples in each field guide is based largely in part on the specific character of the park in question. In this case, a couple of the design principles explored tie directly to some of the “lands” within the park. In particular, “Cars Land” provides an opportunity to explore the use of “atmospheric perspective” (the idea that “as objects get farther and farther away from us, they tend to become less saturated in color and have less contrast between the highlights and shadows”), while the design of “A Bug’s Land” employs an architectural idea known as “kit-of-parts” (where “a defined set of elements – which can be configured in multiple ways to achieve the intent – is available to the designer”). Other examples of Imagineering design principles and techniques highlighted in this book include the use of “night visions” and storyboards.

In addition, this book also addresses a subject near and dear to many fans of Disney parks and Imagineering, that of “storytelling” and what it means to the Imagineers. While WDI has been using story as its “essential organizing principle” since its earliest days, the emphasis on story was made popular during Michael Eisner’s tenure as CEO and Chairman of The Walt Disney Company. Eisner frequently commented on the importance of stories in the Disney theme parks, to the point where it has become almost a cliché. As a result, the terms “story” and “storytelling” and the strong emphasis on story employed by WDI is somewhat controversial on some blogs and discussion boards on the Internet. Many online commentators believe that to say that all Disney attractions tell a story is to overly simplify what WDI does. Further, some critics even go as far as to suggest that WDI relies too heavily on telling stories with their attractions.

In an essay entitled “A Story By Any Other Name”, author Alex Wright explores this idea and explains how WDI employs a broad definition of “story” that is intended to encompass all manner of experiences that Guests encounter in Disney parks. In his words, “It’s often said that everything we do at Imagineering is about story – and it is. But that phrase in and of itself is really just shorthand for a much more nuanced idea of what “story” mean in our medium of Disney Parks. It doesn’t mean the same thing that it would mean if we were writing a book, making a movie, drawing a comic strip, or even standing on a stage telling a story to an audience. None of those media are approached in exactly the same way by the creators in those fields, so why would we expect that this one wouldn’t follow its own path?” Following this introduction, the author examines how “story” can have different meanings depending on the type of attraction or venue, and how Guests in fact serve as collaborators in the “storytelling” that takes place in the parks.

It’s because of essays like this that the Imagineering Field Guides are among my favorite books in my Disney/Imagineering library. They not only spotlight interesting details about the parks, but also are great guides to the design principles and practices employed by WDI in the design and construction of the Disney parks, and provide excellent insight into the art and craft of Imagineering. I’ve read, and re-read, all of the Imagineering Field Guides many times, and each time I come away with a new insight or distinction.

As you can probably tell from this review, I strongly recommend this book to any fan of Disney theme parks in general and Disney California Adventure in particular.

[The above review was first published in April 2014 posted on Amazon and Goodreads.]

Thoughts? Tell me what you think in the comments!

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