We Toured Disney's Secretive Imagineering Offices In Glendale. Here's What We Saw
Disney's Imagineering team is like the black ops of childlike wonder, designing everything you see at their theme parks. They've been pulling back the curtain on their usually secretive practices through The Imagineering Story docuseries on Disney+, and this week they gave journalists a tour showing off both their history and what's next.
The Imagineering offices sit on a nondescript street in Glendale, part of Disney's Grand Central Creative Campus. That's where they house all the offices there's no room for on their Burbank studio lot.
Being the creative space it is, art lines the halls all over the building. Walt Disney himself walked some of those halls.
Here's what they let us bring back for you, from state-of-the-art modeling of new lands to robot characters that freely roam the parks interacting with visitors, and more.
(And if you want to become an Imagineer yourself, read our previous piece, How To Become An Imagineer, According To The Director Of Disney+'s 'The Imagineering Story'.)
THE JOHN HENCH GRAFFITI HALLWAY
Before you can appreciate where Imagineering is going, you first have to understand its past, and the group's offices are full of history.
John Hench holds a hallowed position as one of the first Imagineers, and one of Imagineering's central hallways pays tribute to him. It was originally a space used to hold meetings, with the Imagineers often doodling on the white walls.
After Hench died in 2004, they decided to clean it up and use it to honor him. The walls feature original Imagineering art paying tribute to both Hench and fellow Imagineering legend Marty Sklar, who passed away in 2017.
Because Hench was considered Imagineering's color guru, they use his favorite color purple in some of the key art on the walls. He was also the official portrait artist for another legend: Mickey Mouse, depicting Mickey at major milestones, so there's plenty of our favorite mouse in this hallway too.
THE BLAINE GIBSON SCULPTURE STUDIO
Blaine Gibson was an Imagineer who sculpted many of the busts used in creating the animatronics that fill Disney parks. The sculpture studio is named in his honor, and it's where they store those small models and busts — 80 percent of the items here are believed to have been sculpted by Gibson himself.
That includes iconic figures from the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, the Hall of Presidents, and the Great Movie Ride (rest in peace). Those busts were all crafted by hand, getting each little detail just right.
The studio also features the original statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from the Snow White Grotto at Disneyland. The story told by Imagineer John Hench throughout his life was that they were a gift by an anonymous Italian sculptor — but after Hench's death, his personal correspondence revealed that Hench had actually commissioned those statues for Disneyland. The Snow White isn't proportional to the dwarfs, because Hench's five in "58 inches" was misread, leading to a 38-inch statue — and Hench likely knew that this coming out would cost him his job. But he used force perspective to make it work.
In the early 2000s, Imagineering shifted from handcrafted modeling to digital scans and 3D printing to create the busts used for animatronics. The specific printer they use is known as a stereolithography machine — Disney Managing Story Editor Dave Fisher joked that the difference between this machine and a 3D printer is about $250,000.
Fisher showed off one of the first heads created using that machine: Captain Jack Sparrow, using a scan of Johnny Depp's head made during the second Pirates movie to add characters from the modern films into the ride.
The animatronics Disney uses are their signature technology, according to Fisher, along with some of the unique ride systems used on some of their most popular attractions. He showed off models for some of their latest animatronic characters, including Hondo Ohnaka from the Millennium Falcon attraction at Galaxy's Edge.
THE MODEL SHOP
How did Disney figure out how to make people feel like they stepped into Star Wars? One of those ways was by using incredibly detailed models. The models made by Disney's dimensional designers can run from one one-thousandth scale all the way up to full size.
The models aren't just showpieces for visitors — they bring models like the ones they made of Galaxy's Edge out into the field to help show everyone on site exactly what they're trying to build.
"Yes, the models often look like 'Oh, they're cute, those are neat, those are pretty — they're like little fun toys.' No," dimensional designer Todd Neubrand said. "They have a purpose. When we use them correctly, they're all going to go to the field."
The models are created using everything from 3D printers to robotic arms, along with hand sculpting. They create different types of models, used to show everything from the interior of an attraction to the rockwork outside.
Neubrand said that models can be particularly helpful when working internationally — they help communicate things that even great translators can't get across. While pictures may be worth a thousand words, Neubrand says that models are worth a thousand pictures.
Sometimes there aren't enough models to go around for everyone, so they also create those models digitally. But sometimes that's not exactly where it starts. Neubrand used a large scanner rig connected with a computer to show how, by taking photographic scans of the physical model, the computer can digitize them into a 3D model. Go around the real-world model taking more pictures, and the computer can fill in more of the details, creating something that all the teams can work with at once.
THE R&D DEPARTMENT
Our tour included a stop in a small showroom, displaying three of Imagineering's most recent technological achievements. One of those items, which has been tested inside the parks, is a new robot character — instead of being bolted to one spot, it can go out and interact with visitors.
"This isn't going to be Westworld — our figures are not going to attack the guests," Fisher joked.
They've been working on ways to help these automated characters handle any situation they might face with a guest — like people who want to hug or climb on them. They can also switch these robots into different characters.
The robot has even more sensors than a self-driving car, R&D Imagineer manager Ashley Girdich said, because he needs to avoid running over people, or running over a small child's toes.
Along with characters that roll around, they're also developing characters that move around on two and four legs — so get ready for the day when Pluto isn't just someone in a suit.
Another of their recent achievements: the Na'vi Shaman of Songs, as seen at Disney World's Animal Kingdom in the Na'vi River Journey. It's one of the more complex animatronics — we saw her with her skin off, revealing just the robotic systems interacting underneath. The face has 42 different functions to help give guests an immersive experience.
"People don't need to come out of a ride saying 'Wow, that was a really impressive robot' — they need to say, 'How did they do that?'" Imagineering mechanical engineer Robert Lyle said.
The shaman is one of the most expressive animatronics they've created, according to Imagineer Amanda Ross. Imagineers noted that she's been running well — and that she also gets her own maintenance bay to keep her running.
The last piece of technology the Imagineers wanted to show off was a Tron lightcycle, used first at Shanghai Disneyland and now coming to Disney World (sorry, SoCal Disney fans). It's their fastest coaster, going up to 60 miles per hour — California Adventure's Incredicoaster tops out at 55.
THE MARTY SKLAR SCREENING ROOM
We entered a screening room named for one of the all-time Imagineering greats to watch the final episode of The Imagineering Story, along with hearing from the Imagineers themselves. No major spoilers, but that final part covers the creation of Shanghai Disney, along with new properties joining the Disney parks like Avatar, Star Wars, and Marvel.
Imagineering President Bob Weis shared his excitement that the group is finally going more public after spending years doing work that they sometimes felt they couldn't even share with their families. And this tour was a little bit of that, too.
MICKEY'S OF GLENDALE
What would a tour be without a stop at the gift shop? Largely servicing Disney employees, along with their friends and family, the store rarely opens up to the public.
Inside, you'll find some of the kind of Disney merchandise you'd expect — they're currently in holiday mode, so there's plenty of Christmas and Hanukkah decorations — but you also get exclusive merchandise that's hard to find elsewhere. That includes Imagineering mugs and notebooks, as well as sneak peek merch from upcoming attractions like the forthcoming Marvel lands.
There were plenty more areas of Imagineering that we didn't see, from curtained-off portions to the offices where they're working on the real secret stuff. But the veil's starting to be lifted... just a bit. The final episode of The Imagineering Story premieres on Disney+ this Friday.