For more than 65 years, the storytellers and magic-makers at Walt Disney Imagineering have dreamed up, designed and created countless themed entertainment experiences at Disney destinations across the globe. Our specialized teams ideate and design all Disney theme parks, resorts, attractions, theme park live entertainment shows and spectaculars, cruise ships and real estate developments worldwide. Incorporating the expertise of hundreds of distinct disciplines, Walt Disney Imagineering thrives on collaboration.

Each collaboration is unique because every project is unlike what has come before. This variety makes our work interesting and challenging, keeps our minds learning and engaged, and ensures that we are constantly innovating. The diversity of our projects also means that our design process must be adaptive, so that we can adjust our approach to best suit each new set of goals. And yet, across all of our projects and departments, there are some common questions to answer and some key development phases that we all share. Here are some of the chapters Imagineers pass through along the way to opening day.


What could it be?

When we sit down to a blank piece of paper, it’s often not all that blank. We usually gather around an inspiration: finding a way to bring a specific Disney story to life; or imagining an attraction, themed land or show for a particular park; or advancing a specific genre of technology; or even designing an entirely new line of business. We start by doing our research: whether that’s in a library or a movie theater, a laboratory or a far-off place. We connect with other partners across both Disney Parks, Experiences and Products and greater The Walt Disney Company to understand their priorities and help address common challenges. We pay attention to menu planning by thinking about business needs to identify where a physical project could one day live. And most of all, we think about our guests and how our own inspiration could one day lead to theirs.


What is it?

Once we have our big idea, we move it forward into high-level creative development to begin to understand the specifics of how the experience will look, sound, smell and feel. Discipline by discipline, we collect expert recommendations and thoughts about how we can begin to enumerate and visualize all components of the project, from a special effect to the smart infrastructure in the facility that keeps it protected, cooled and powered. We sketch, we sculpt, we experiment, we learn. At this phase, we bring together a team with the specific kinds of know-how that will be required to make this particular creative idea sing.


What will it take to make it real?

Now that we know what we want to create, we have to make sure that we can. Making the impossible possible takes a lot of foresight, careful consideration, planning, estimating and dedication. The team works together to iterate and determine how we can support and reliably deliver all parts of the project, be it ship or show, restaurant or roller coaster. As ideas evolve, Imagineers work together to find ways to balance all of the parameters that will allow us to deliver something great. And that evolution is an important part of design. Because ultimately, even when our team of world-class designers sets out to offer the world something it’s never seen before, we still have to obey the laws of physics.


What are the details that bring it to life?

For many Imagineers, design is the heart of the project. The team focuses their attention on the details of each component, finding ways to thoughtfully develop and communicate plans for the thousands of individual pieces that will one day come together as a cohesive whole. Design is all about iteration: refining version after version of an item or scope of work until we know that we’ve gotten it right. Whether it’s new ride systems or specialty paint finishes, fireworks or fire alarms, visual effects or lighting fixtures, trees or trash cans, we set down on paper (or more likely, in a digital model) exactly how we want to see it made. And we define materials and methodologies that will make it real. We cross check the work of different disciplines to make sure they will integrate properly. We mock up items and spaces at full scale. And we use sophisticated prototyping and previsualization tools to be certain that we never lose sight of what we want our guests to ultimately experience.


How do we build it?

Now, designs become reality. Production is the phase where Imagineers oversee the fabrication and creation of every part of the project. And this can be a worldwide process; we literally travel to the ends of the Earth to create the best possible version of every piece, be it art glass or ironwork, game engine or precision optic. We collaborate across time zones and continents, and we get our hands dirty. We amass mountains of steel and concrete and entire cities’ worth of infrastructure. And we track it all with phenomenal project management tools and expert logistics to make sure it all goes exactly where we need it, when we need it. Imagineers take as much care with what guests experience as they do with the behind-the-scenes elements that support and preserve the show. Whether it’s onstage or off, built or programmed, Imagineers are behind it all, guaranteeing that our designs and intent are achieved with integrity, fidelity and quality.


How does it all fit together?

Hard hats on heads and boots on the ground, Imagineers hit the field as the hundreds of systems and thousands of details are installed, constructed, tested and adjusted on the project site. In the dead of night, parades are rehearsed, seams are welded, and rivers are filled. Engineers and designers program Audio-Animatronics® figures, tune sound systems and ride attractions over and over until the feeling of the motion and the timing of the show are just right. A sense of thrill at seeing the project come together is inevitable. As the dust is swept away and the finishing touches are put in place, Imagineers can actually experience their vision firsthand — as thousands of guests soon will.


How did we do?

There’s nothing quite like watching the first guests as they exit a brand-new Disney experience. Opening day is the truest test of Imagineers’ design prowess. Did the attraction thrill? Did the theatrical experience awe? Does the land feel immersive? Is the café enticing, the shop charming, and the hotel room comfortable? When the results are spectacular, the celebration is genuine but brief because there’s still work to be done. Documentation must be archived and support must be available to the cast members who will run and maintain the experience. And soon enough, that itch to invent something new can no longer be ignored. It’s time for Blue Sky again.