– By Sam Hendrian –
“What we are selling is not escapism, but reassurance.”
This quote from legendary Disney imagineer John Hench captures Disney’s core mission perfectly, even if the multibillion-dollar company does not always live up to it. Escapism is predominantly commerical and maybe a little psychological; reassurance is profoundly spiritual. In The Imagineering Story, a six-part documentary series for the Disney+ streaming service, Disney’s hard-working “missionaries” of reassurance past and present open up about their successes ad failures throughout the years. The final result is a fascinating, unexpectedly poignant exploration of the idea that family entertainment has a far greater purpose than merely raking in big bucks.
What precisely is “imagineering?” Obviously, it is not a word that can be found in the Webster dictionary. Well, as imagineer Marty Sklar once said, it can be defined as “the blending of creative imagination and technical know-how.” The women and men who bear this title are responsible for creating/nurturing the Disney theme parks around the world and all the attractions that inhabit them. As anyone who has ever been to a Disney park knows, these attractions are unlike those found at a carnival or even a high-tech roller coaster haven like Six Flags. They are primarily fueled by stories, stories that foster an emotional connection with guests of the parks.
As detailed in the first episode of The Imagineering Story, this novel concept of combining the amusing with the affecting originated with Walt Disney, the rags-to-riches Midwestern man who started it all with his big brother Roy. Walt’s philosophy of filmmaking was, “For every laugh, there should be a tear,” and he carried over this philosophy to his vision of a place where children and their parents could enjoy the same attractions side-by-side.
But whoever heard of an amusement park’s rides and shows making people become emotional? Well, the Disney company has always insisted that they do not design amusement parks. They design theme parks. And when the theme of these parks is centered on the beloved characters and stories that have touched audiences since the company’s beginning in 1923, it is natural for there to be both laughs and tears abounding from the people who experience them.
Of course, character theming lends itself to heavy merchandising, which lends itself to the sound of cynical critics muttering, “Damned commercialism!” While Disney is undoubtedly commercial, sometimes excessively so (after all, they are a business), its underlying goal of uniting the world through entertainment remains strong. This goal is beautifully highlighted in the penultimate episode of The Imagineering Story, which talks about Tokyo Disneyland and how it had to close for a couple of days after a major earthquake hit the city in 2011. Daniel Jue, a creative executive at Tokyo Disneyland, testifies on-camera with tears in his eyes:
“After 9/11, the president can come back after a period of time and say, ‘Hey, we’re back on our feet.’ And the country feels like, ‘Okay, we can get back to our business.’ In Japan, no one announces that. Tokyo Disneyland had to open for the country to begin to heal.”
This touching interview segment is overlayed with moving footage of Japanese children running up to Mickey Mouse in the wake of the earthquake and reportedly thanking him. It put a little tear in my eye and made me reappreciate the transcendent power of the Disney theme parks, a power to unite people from all backgrounds and remind them that they are made for happiness.
Beyond avidly watching The Imagineering Story, I have actually worked at Walt Disney World and can personally testify to the beauty of what the imagineers and cast members are trying to accomplish. In the “Traditions” training class that every cast member is required to take, we learned that at Disney, we strive to treat every guest as a “VIP”: very individual person. For each person is uniquely precious and has an individual set of needs, and any form of generalizing is disrespectful to her or his dignity as a human being. Gosh, I thought this was amazing when I heard it, and I still do. Would not our world be so much brighter if everybody lovingly treated each other as very individual persons?
If you have Disney+, do yourself a favor and watch The Imagineering Story. It will inform you about the incredible processes behind Disney magic, but more importantly, it will likely inspire you to see our world in a more hopeful light. Walt Disney World and all of its sister parks are not pure commercialism nor escapism. At their crux, they are reassurance that life is beautiful. Humanity is beautiful. And love is beautiful. When life, humanity, and love are properly revered and utilized as the God-given gifts that they are, then happiness becomes achievable.
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
For more articles by Sam, click here.