I was recently a guest on The Mouse Knows Best podcast, and one of the Imagineering Pyramid principles we talked about was It All Begins With a Story. Our discussion centered around the role of story and storytelling in the Disney theme parks and one portion of the It All Begins With a Story chapter of The Imagineering Pyramid in particular, so I thought I would share the essay we discussed here.
Story vs Storytelling
Imagineering has been using story as its “essential organizing principle” since its earliest days during the design of Disneyland, but the idea that “Imagineers are storytellers” is a more recent one, born during Michael Eisner’s tenure as CEO and chairman of The Walt Disney Company. Eisner frequently commented on the importance of stories and storytelling in the Disney theme parks, to the point where the meaning of the word story and its role in Imagineering has become somewhat clouded.
Overuse of the term story and the strong emphasis on story and storytelling employed by WDI is considered somewhat controversial on some internet blogs and discussion boards. Many online commentators believe that to say that Disney attractions all tell a story is to overly simplify what WDI does. Some critics even go as far as to suggest that the Imagineers at times rely too heavily on telling stories with their attractions. And while the idea that “Imagineers are storytellers” is often promoted by the Disney company in their own blogs and videos about WDI, there is an argument to be made that some of the original Imagineers didn’t consider themselves storytellers at all.
One example is Disney animator and Imagineer Marc Davis, who didn’t believe that theme park attractions were a storytelling medium. Davis went on record several times regarding his views.
In The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, Jeff Baham quotes from “Marc Davis and the Art of the Haunted Mansion”, an article published in issues 30–31 of Haunted Attraction Magazine:
You know, the first guys that worked on [the Haunted Mansion] could never sell it to Walt because they were trying to sell this story about this bride who was left standing at the altar, and this groom had died a horrible death. The thing was, I found out—and Walt agreed—that this was not a story-telling medium. These attractions at Disneyland and Disney World are experiences, but they are not stories. You don’t have a story that starts at a beginning and goes until the end…. These things I worked on had no story at all, and I think they worked, too.
My point of view on all of these attractions is that they are a series of experiences. You aren’t telling a story in the Haunted Mansion any more than you are trying to tell a story in Pirates of the Caribbean. You’re showing some pirates in a lot of interesting situations, but you don’t really have a beginning or an ending. They’re a series of situations, not a story. I think that is why Walt never bought the Haunted Mansion in his time.
Davis believed that theme park attractions provide their audiences not with a story, but with a series of experiences. In his resignation letter, Imagineer Tony Baxter writes: “Legendary Imagineer Marc Davis once said, ‘We don’t really have a story with a beginning, an end or a plot…. It’s more a series of experiences … building up to a climax.’”
In a letter to Jack and Leon Janzen from The “E-Ticket” magazine, Imagineer Christopher Merritt quotes Marc Davis when he writes:
I think it [the Hatbox Ghost] was a good idea at the time. Remember, the mansion had been worked on for a number of years, and Walt had never bought what they had come up with. I don’t recall why we took this [the Hatbox Ghost] out, but we were no longer trying to tell a story about the bride. Walt’s attitude was that he didn’t want a story, but a series of experiences and situations. Perhaps this figure didn’t lend itself to this.
In an essay that opens the Imagineering chapter of the book Marc Davis: Walt Disney’s Renaissance Man, Imagineering executive Marty Sklar acknowledges Davis’ views, saying: “In joining the Imagineers to create what he called “experience rides”, Marc Davis became the most prolific Imagineer of his time in developing ideas and drawings for Disney park attractions.”
But even if we agree with Davis, that doesn’t mean that story hasn’t been, and isn’t still, a foundational tool in the Imagineers’ toolbox. I believe some detractors have gotten themselves too hung up on the word “story” and some of its narrative connotations, and this has led them to forget the role that story has always played in the design of Disney theme parks.
Walt Disney was, foremost, a storyteller. As a result, everything starts with a story at Walt Disney Imagineering. Every detail of every land in the park has to be backed up by a story, a “mythology”. Often, the story would never be a part of what the guests would experience, but was used as a strategic outline in guiding the design process. It is the thread that holds it all together, the script from which all the elements flow coherently: design, models, color, backdrops, props and costumes.
And it’s the essence that distinguishes a Disney park and its lands from all other parks.
“Story”, then, serves as an elegant shorthand for “the core idea that underlies each attraction”. I recently discovered that this view is shared by at least one current Imagineer. In an essay entitled “A Story by Any Other Name” in The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney California Adventure at Disneyland Resort, Imagineer Alex Wright explores the idea of story 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” means 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 introductory paragraph, Wright examines how story can have different meanings depending on the type of attraction or venue, and how guests serve as collaborators in the storytelling that takes place in the parks.
Thoughts? Tell me what you think in the comments!