Disney’s Imagineering Problem

September 14, 2023
1,068 words

4 min read

Donald duck on grey skies

I’m finding it difficult to know how to start this piece. I guess the best place to start would be to give my opinions on that Destination D23 event we just had (if you didn’t see it, check out Claire’s round up over on her blog, Coaster Claire). There’s a popular saying that says if something looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Well, dear reader, it’s time to admit that Disney are currently looking, walking, and sounding like a duck with absolutely no passion or sense of creativity when it comes to their theme parks.

Don’t get me wrong, there were a few things I’m excited for. Despite Disney’s reckless abandon for any kind of whimsey when it comes to their recent restaurant and hotel fit-outs, I do believe that the Pirates Bar and Lounge will probably be a pretty kewl place to go. I like that Test Track continues to be evolved and updated and think the new concept art for that looks great. But when it comes to Ahsoka in Star Tours, a Figment Meet and Greet, and the plonking of the Hatbox Ghost at a seemingly random point in the Haunted Mansion, I’m sorry but I can’t help but think they’re just out to do the bare minimum.

This show was littered with a bunch of nothing announcements, all of which might’ve been fine if they were the seasoning for our meal, but not when their the whole damn meal itself. But no, instead we were left eating spoonfuls upon spoonfuls of salt. And please, it’s best that I don’t get started on that daft ‘Things We’re Considering’ section. A sea of soulless IP based musings of stuff that’ll probably never get built.

The thing that really makes this an issue though is the wider theme park context, particularly in Orlando. As everyone knows, Universal is building Epic Universe, a brand new third gate, seemingly full of interesting new attractions and highly themed lands. And what perplexes is me is I’m sure we were here before – back when Universal opened the Wizarding World it caused Disney to panic and start developing two new massively expensive lands based on blockbuster IPs. Why is Disney sleepwalking into the same situation again?

Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom
Expedition Everest was the last non-IP attraction Disney built in America

I actually think this isn’t a new issue with Disney, and I have a theory on why it feels like there’s no soul in much of what WDI are putting out. The last non-IP attraction made by Disney for one of their own parks (we’re not including Tokyo here) was Mystic Manor in 2013. In America, it was Expedition Everest, back in 2006. Funnily enough, two attractions that show WDI at their absolute best. And yes, I can hear your eyes rolling through the screen – “here goes the Disney fan, moaning about IP again” – but please, hear me out.

For over a decade now, every attraction we’ve had has been one heavily tied to an IP. On the surface, I don’t have an issue with that. But let’s look at a selection of the attractions that are considered true Disney classics: Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, Jungle Cruise. They’re all completely original stories, and yes, while some have gone on to be the basis for films and other media, fundamentally these attractions have stood the test of time on their own storytelling strengths.

And that’s the key to my point here – story. Any kind of entertainment hinges on its story. Disney should, in my opinion at least, be the place where the greatest stories in the world are told. And what WDI used to do, was give storytellers the vessels they needed to create great stories in their own right.

I think we can all think of certain stories that might have been better served by being told through some other medium. For example, Obi-Wan Kenobi probably would’ve been better off had it been a movie rather than a tv show. How many times have you heard someone say “the book is much better than the film”? Shockingly enough, it’s because sometimes a book is a better vessel for said story than a movie.

So, why should theme park attractions be any different?

When you insist on everything being based off of an IP, the problem you create is that suddenly, the attraction is now a supplement to the original story, rather than the story itself.

None of this is to say that IP doesn’t have a place in Disney theme parks. It’s actually one of Disney’s biggest draws for me. Second Star to the Right will always make me cry. Heck, Epic Universe is almost entirely IP based, and that shows that exciting movements can still be made in that space.

But what has historically made Disney Parks great is the balance between the two. Those great attractions I mentioned before, mixed in with nostalgic sprinklings of our favourite characters. And that’s been completely lost through the entirety of Bob Iger’s tenure. Now, everything is entirely IP based, and as much as it pains me, Universal are better at that these days.

I think if Disney want to maintain their lead, they need to restore some of the balance. A healthy mix of new, exciting attractions with original story brimming with creativity, along with great IP based experiences that makes us feel all warm and cozy inside. We need to go back to the glory days of Imagineers being allowed to tell their own stories through their chosen medium – theme parks.

Thanks for reading. I know this one was a bit all over the place but I wanted to get my feelings out on this one. I’m not sure I even really got everything I wanted to out there, but I’m gonna leave it here so I don’t just descend into a total rant. I purposefully didn’t post my writings on Bob Iger’s recent scheananigans for that reason. It goes without saying though, I support the writers’ and actors’ strikes, and Bob Iger should maybe forgo some of his multi million pound a year salary so the people that earn the money that pays for that salary are able to get basic necessities like health care.

Til next time.

Isaac Pevy

Isaac Pevy

I'm a Disney fan with opinions, based in South-East England. You can follow me on Twitter if you want.