When Walt Disney Imagineering was asked to prepare another extravagant pavilion for the 2013 D23 Expo, they faced a challenge twofold. Though big projects are most definitely on the way for Disney’s theme parks and resorts worldwide, they simply weren’t ready to make any big announcements in time for this year’s biennial Anaheim event. Yet, they had to present something. Moreover, fans expected something big to come out of their presence at the show. Opting out simply wasn’t an option.
So putting an emphasis on the past while simply teasing the future was what they decided to go for - and in doing so, Walt Disney Imagineering succeeded tremendously at producing a captivating and inspiring set of exhibits that consumed hours of attention for each attendee of the Expo, even without any real sneak peeks of what’s to come.
Take a quick overview tour of the pavilion in the video below, then read on for a closer look at the fantastic pieces pulled from Imagineering’s archives to show off at the Expo - along with a few surprises.
Video: Disney Parks & Resorts “Journey Into Imagineering” pavilion tour at the 2013 D23 Expo
Walt Disney Imagineering is always shrouded in secrecy. Unless you have an appointment or an Imagineer friend, gaining entry to 1401 Flower Street in Glendale, California (WDI home base) is nearly impossible. But all Disney fans wish they could explore those historic halls, so Imagineering this year decided to open them up to everyone by transporting some of their most prized possessions to the D23 Expo, recreating the experience of visiting the real location.
They called it: “Journey Into Imagineering.”
I’ve been to 1401 Flower Street and when I first walked up to the large pavilion on the Expo show floor, I certainly recognized it, highly stylized as it was.
Just like visiting the real location, all who stepped foot into this pavilion were given an Imagineering guest pass, offering access inside.
In true Disney fashion, everyone was made to feel like a welcome guest.
From the grey exterior complete with street address to the lobby behind its swinging doors, it felt like Walt Disney Imagineering.
(I wish I could offer photos of the real offices for comparison, but photography there is strictly prohibited within, for obvious reasons.)
A colorful video with plenty of Imagineering flair introduced visitors to the pavilion, spanning two sides of the “lobby” with a history lesson of what Imagineering is and what guests should expect to see inside, even including a special appearance by The Haunted Mansion’s famed Hatbox Ghost. More on his important appearance below.
As the wooden doors automatically swung open, the office-like lobby opened up into a rich showcase of exhibits filling a giant open-air space with the history of Walt Disney Imagineering. Though the emphasis of most of these exhibits was on how Imagineers do their jobs, they didn’t want to leave fans without a small taste of what’s ahead.
Upon stepping inside, all eyes were immediately drawn to the front-and-center displays featuring teases for a few big upcoming projects: Disney Springs, Avatar, and Star Wars.
This was Disney’s way of showing that they realize fans want to see the latest developments and announcements, offering just a small taste of that experience, even if it wasn’t ready to show off quite yet. They called them “hints,” “clues,” and “teases,” - just enough to appease attendees looking for answers to questions of what’s on the horizon for Disney’s theme parks. With no big Disney Parks & Resorts presentation held at the 2013 D23 Expo, this pavilion had to be enough. And it was.
Sometimes there are projects so big that they simply cannot be talked about until they are truly ready. When Disney bought Lucasfilm less than a year ago, theme park fans immediately wondered what intergalactic attractions were in the works. And rest assured, they are indeed in the works. But Imagineering has not yet developed any plans far enough to discuss them publicly at the 2013 D23 Expo.
Instead, after much internal debate, WDI did decide to at least publicly acknowledge for the first time that they are indeed developing new Star Wars concepts - but absolutely refused to elaborate beyond that.
Under the code name “Project Orange Harvest,” and with the tagline “Speculation Beyond Imagination,” Imagineers put together a story (that’s what they do best) that large wooden crates had just arrived from somewhere outside of Earth, soon to be opened at the real Imagineering headquarters - leaving Expo attendees only to wonder what was inside.
Though the crates did not explicitly say “Star Wars” on them, it was all too obvious that Imagineering was telling fans they are working on exactly that and not to worry. R2-D2 was even there to meet and greet with fans, also refusing to reveal any plans. Not a single hologram was projected.
Imagineer Jason Surrell was particularly elusive when I prodded him for answers about the crates, as seen in the video interview below.
Video: Imagineer Jason Surrell does anything but talk about Star Wars at the 2013 D23 Expo
After the camera stopped rolling, Surrell did explain to me that the code name “Project Orange Harvest” and its tagline are variations of what was used to keep “Return of the Jedi” a secret, then under the code name “Blue Harvest.” Sadly, he didn’t have anything else to share just yet.
Disney is absolutely, without a doubt working on new Star Wars attractions for its theme parks. But the where, when, and what are secrets as tightly guarded as the Death Star plans and I’m no Rebel spy.
(See more of the Star Wars display here.)
Another project that Disney fans are impatiently awaiting details for is Avatar, announced nearly two years ago to eventually be added to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The announcement came just a couple weeks after the 2011 D23 Expo and now in 2013, Imagineering still had little to add to that conversation.
They did want fans to know that the Avatar project for Walt Disney World is definitely not dead. An office of sorts was set up in the pavilion to show off artifacts, photographs, and notes Imagineers had obtained from a “research trip” to the fictional land of Pandora.
They stuck with that story for the duration of the D23 Expo, including during my interview with Imagineer Brandon Kleyla below.
Video: Imagineer Brandon Kleyla reveals nothing about Avatar at Walt Disney World
What could be coming to Avatar Land? Glowing plants, floating rocks, and quite a variety of other foliage and creatures, as seen in the diagram below.
Famed Imagineer Joe Rohde even stopped by the booth at one point, spotted by our friends at DisneyLifestylers.com marveling at all the curiosities seen within, as if he’d never seen any of them before.
(Photo by DisneyLifestylers.com)
Again, the intent was to offer something new… without being able to actually offer anything new at all. As it turns out, many Expo attendees who talked to the Imagineers at the Avatar exhibit left feeling more excited about the much-maligned project as a result of the Imagineers’ own passions for it. The exhibit served its purpose.
Even without knowing the what and when, it’s obvious that it will be built to Disney’s highest standards - whatever it is.
(Take a closer look at the Avatar exhibit here.)
Sandwiched in the middle of the two big-name exhibits mentioned above was a scale model for Disney Springs, the recently launched improvement project for Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney.
As expected, nothing new was revealed about Disney Springs. But the model offered an overview of how all the new waterways, bridges, and paths will tie it all together, even if “it” isn’t known yet. Disney is still sorting out the details as to what new restaurants and shops will be included.
Imagineering Art Library
Looking beyond the not-so-newsy news, the rest of the “Journey Into Imagineering” pavilion featured a sampling of everything that is great about Walt Disney Imagineering, from artwork and sculptures in recent history to those dating back decades, some all the way back to before Disneyland even existed.
The most impressive and frankly jaw-dropping of all pieces on display at the 2013 D23 Expo were located inside the Imagineering Art Library area, direct from the real library in Glendale. Photography was not permitted inside, but the two main featured pieces really did need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated - and every Disney fan absolutely needs to see them.
Herb Ryman’s original pencil-drawn Disneyland map used by Walt Disney to present the park idea to bankers is one of the most important pieces in Disney history. Normally tucked away in a large drawer in Glendale, this piece being on display at the D23 Expo was a treat, allowing up-close viewing of each tiny pencil mark Ryman expertly made in a matter of days, ultimately vital to Disneyland being built. It’s Disneyland in the making.
As incredible as Ryman’s art is, an even more dramatic display was Peter Ellenshaw’s own iconic version of the Disneyland map, shown off for the first time ever in public with its special hidden feature. Under blacklight, the windows, waters, and light fixtures on the painting glow brightly. It’s not entirely clear why Ellenshaw decided to add this feature. Imagineers think it may be that he grabbed some of the vibrant paint from ongoing work for Disneyland dark rides to create that surprise.
Outside the Imagineering Art Library area and opposite the Star Wars and Avatar exhibits, models of the never-built Western River Expedition and Space pavilion were also on display, more pieces from Imagineering’s impressive history.
All of these original pieces are rarely seen by the public and were instant highlights of the entire 2013 D23 Expo. They may not have been the breaking news many fans hoped for and expected out of the Expo, but a greater appreciation for the history of Disney’s beloved theme parks could certainly be obtained by getting up close with these literal pieces of the past. And those are experiences that far outweigh any fleeting announcement.
Arguably Disney’s most noteworthy advancements in entertainment technology, Audio-Animatronics figures are memorable for anyone who has ever ridden Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, or even “it’s a small world.” At the 2013 D23 Expo, Imagineers showed off the mechanics and programming behind some of the most familiar figures, from Figment to Epcot’s dancing fruit, offering a mini-tutorial to those who wanted to know how they are designed and operated.
And playing up the fan celebration aspect of the D23 Expo, Imagineers also decided to take a top-of-the-line A-100 animatronic figure and dress it up like the infamous Hatbox Ghost, missing from The Haunted Mansion for the majority of its years, destined to remain in its hallowed history forever… or will it?
Imagineer Vinny Logozio explained to me why they decided to bring the Hatbox Ghost to life at the D23 Expo, seen in the video interview below.
In less than four years, Logozio went from being a fan to winning the annual Walt Disney Imagineering ImagiNations design competition to recreating the most infamous of Haunted Mansion residents. His story is one of an unlimited supply that could be heard from the many Imagineers in this pavilion, another highlight of the Expo.
And when asked if the Hatbox Ghost could be returning to Disneyland after Haunted Mansion Holiday leaves the park in early 2014 (as the rumors tend to suggest year after year), Logozio danced around the question, declining to offer a firm “yes” or “no.” It’s doubtful this exact version of the Hatbox Ghost will be placed inside the actual attraction, but it’s also likely that he will return sooner than later in some form.
Just about every arm of Walt Disney Imagineering was represented in the Walt Disney Parks & Resorts pavilion, each with its own space and staff showing off what they do best via examples from years of theme park development.
Disney fans are quite familiar with attraction concept art, often shown off online and in the parks to illustrate upcoming attractions. But models and maquettes are even more important, offering a true-to-scale representation of what Disney’s latest creations will look and feel like. That is Dimensional Design.
One of Walt Disney Imagineering’s most impressive archives of sculptures was carefully transported to the 2013 D23 Expo to be on display, including original models for the Astro Orbiter, Mickey’s Toontown house, maquettes as old as The Haunted Mansion and as new as the Be Our Guest restaurant, and even the original Italian statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, recreated for use at Disneyland’s wishing well. Many of these pieces were previously unseen outside of Imagineering, now appreciated by thousands.
Talking to the staff in this area, who actually work in this office at WDI, I was told about the transition over the years in model-making techniques, from painstakingly hand crafting every tiny detail to utilizing today’s best 3D printing technologies. It was another impressive opportunity to truly feel like having the freedom to explore Imagineering at will.
Architecture & Engineering
Beyond model making, Imagineers create exact plans for building new theme parks, lands, and attractions. The pavilion’s Architecture & Engineering provided an overview of how buildings, landscaping, and decorations come together to create a themed area.
Hong Kong Disneyland’s recently-opened Mystic Point was used to illustrate the concepts, featuring blueprints and other technical drawings.
This is the area of Imagineering that combines art with engineering to produce stunning results through very technical means.
Building upon the technical specifications above, Show Production fills in the details of how each of those areas becomes a highly-themed environment.
Inside this area of the pavilion were colorful building elevations, texture samples, and plenty of paint. After all, Walt Disney Imagineering was home to legendary artist John Hench, who famously noted he has 34 shades of white alone.
An Imagineering in this area insisted I take a closer look at the “warning” label on the WDI branded paint cans, much to my amusement.
But what fun would a Disney theme park be if it was all theme and no attractions? That’s where Ride Engineering steps in, inventing the latest systems that take park guests to infinity and beyond.
Five steps outlined how rides are created, from concept to completion, with plenty of careful testing in between.
Special Effects Illusioneering
No Disney attraction would be complete without a “how’d they do that” moment or two. Enter Illusioneering, another mash-up word that uses engineering to create special effects, marked in the pavilion by the master of imagination: Figment.
Inside this exhibit, a variety of impressive effects were shown off, some currently in use in the parks, others a preview of what WDI is working on for future attractions. From magic lamps to big blinking eyes, these effects are more of the magic of Disney’s parks.
Imagineers continue to refine the process outlined above, introducing new ways of visualizing works-in-progress to craft even fuller experiences. One of the latest developments in that is the Digital Immersive Showroom, or DISH.
Imagineers at the D23 Expo explained to me that the real DISH at Walt Disney Imagineering features a 360-degree, wrap-around 3D screen equipped with high-tech head tracking virtual reality technology that allows them to literally step inside of an attraction long before it is built to check all visual aspects of it as if they are really there. It was famously used to create Cars Land.
A simpler form of the DISH was erected at the Expo, featuring a half-circle screen playing four virtually visualized attractions on loop: Radiator Springs Racers, the new Test Track, Mystic Manor, and an abridged sneak preview of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, seen in the video below.
Video: Virtually ride the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at the 2013 D23 Expo
Imagineers stressed they weren’t showing the entire Mine Train experience as there are plenty of surprises still in store for that attraction, currently under construction in New Fantasyland.
But even stepping into this half version of the DISH, I lost myself while “riding” Test Track, mentally transporting me away from the D23 Expo and to Epcot, only to snap out of it when a stray light caught my eye above the screen. With proper perspective wrapping around the full field of view, the DISH definitely offers Imagineers a way of perfecting experiences before ever even breaking ground.
Research & Development
While most of the above involves the engineering side of Imagineering, there’s definitely plenty of imagination to be found there, much of which is invested into Research & Development.
Disney’s R&D department is one of its most closely guarded secrets, spending decades creating unforgettable technological advancements that blend in behind the scenes to produce Disney magic. A few examples of their developments, past and present, were shown off at the D23 Expo, including plants that play music when touched (they really work!) and a unique opportunity to get up close with Mr. Lincoln himself - or at least his high-tech head, with more articulation than any animatronic head WDI has ever created.
WDI also followed up on a technology test they offered at the 2011 D23 Expo, advancing the Great Destini onward to El Fortuno, an even more advanced animatronic figure that could talk with guests while reading their body language and facial expressions to more accurately carry on a conversation.
Naturally, these are only the small secrets R&D was willing to publicly share, hinting at nothing specific for theme parks in the future, but stunning Expo attendees with their ongoing advancements.
The 2013 D23 Expo also offered Imagineers a chance to test a few new experiences that they think could be successful in the parks, but need a bit of focus group help to fine tune them.
The experience that was tested at the Expo this time was the Adventure Trading Company, though the theme itself did not matter. At its heart was creating a unique way to obtain limited edition merchandise, forcing fans to work to earn the items rather than simply purchasing them.
The items in question here were “juju” souvenirs, each of which required a small hunt, activity, or puzzle to solve before purchasing them for $5 (though a few were free). One of the simplest was photographing five tiki bird decals on 2nd floor windows of the convention center, then showing those photos to a cashier in the Mickey’s of Glendale store attached to the Imagineering pavilion to have the opportunity to purchase a small wooden bird.
It’s not clear how or where Disney will implement this type of merchandise adventure, if at all, but many Expo attendees seemed to have fun with it, eager to collect all the trinkets. And that’s exactly what Disney was testing.
Beyond the step-by-step of creating attractions and themed experiences, this “Journey Into Imagineering” also offered a few other oddities around the pavilion. In a partnership with Marvel, D23 Expo attendees were invited to ask around the area for something “weird.” Upon asking the right person, a small poster was handed out.
Using Marvel’s AR mobile app on the poster revealed a short video starring Marvel Comics editor Bill Rosemann, continuing to tease an upcoming comic book from Marvel and Walt Disney Imagineering, with the full announcement on the way in September. (It’s pretty clear that this is all leading up to a comic book based on Disney’s “Museum of the Weird” attraction concept, developed alongside The Haunted Mansion but never built.)
Marvel Avengers Academy & Captain America
More Marvel was found in the Walt Disney Parks & Resorts pavilion, though not quite yet ready to actually announce anything Marvel-related for Disney’s theme parks. Instead, Captain America himself was making first-ever character appearances for Disney, promoting the upcoming addition of the Marvel Avengers Academy aboard the Disney Magic cruise ship.
Video: Captain America character debuts at 2013 D23 Expo
Disney was further showing its comment to Marvel by having Disneyland president Michael Colglazier welcome press to the pavilion’s preview night while standing on the Captain America backdrop.
Dreamfinder and Figment
After the Dreamfinder and Figment appeared on stage to honor Imagineer Tony Baxter as he became a Disney Legend at the D23 Expo, Imagineers quickly pulled together an unplanned surprise meet-and-greet with the fan favorite Epcot duo. It wasn’t a scheduled event, but rather an impromptu, spur-of-the-moment happening that allowed attendees to meet a truly long lost character from their childhood for an extremely limited time inside the “Journey Into Imagineering” pavilion.
Finally, one of the least interesting and seemingly least attended exhibits of the vastly entertaining and informative “Journey Into Imagineering” pavilion was dedicated to MyMagic+ and the MagicBand, Walt Disney World’s investment into next generation technologies, reportedly valued at somewhere around $1 billion.
Disney didn’t have any new information to share about these technologies, already familiar to Walt Disney World regulars and uninteresting to Disneyland locals. All they could say was that it will all roll out “later this year.”
The Walt Disney Parks and Resorts pavilion was aptly named “Journey Into Imagineering” as it provided every 2013 D23 Expo visitor exactly that, an opportunity to take a trip to Walt Disney Imagineering as believably and faithfully recreated as possible at a Disney fan convention. Though so many fans expressed disappointment at Disney actively lowering expectations by announcing there would be no big theme park announcements in advance of the event, none of the attending fans could possibly leave this pavilion without being amazed.
Announcements are always exciting, especially when made on a large scale at a special event like the D23 Expo. They make fans feel like they are part of the action and offer something to look forward to. But for those who took the time to talk to Imagineers throughout this pavilion, spent a few moments taking a closer look at artwork and models from decades of Disney history, or even played along with testing new technologies and experiences, the Imagineering pavilion could not possibly disappoint anyone who donned that Imagineering guest pass and stepped inside.
It was an experience that, while documented thoroughly here, could not possibly be duplicated online. It was an experience that could only be truly appreciated in person, at the D23 Expo, which is exactly the type of offering D23 wants their big show to be about. The D23 Expo is not meant to be a giant press conference of non-stop announcements, but instead a celebration of all things Disney. And in this case, Imagineering had 60 years of history to bring directly to their biggest fans, successfully putting aside the “what’s next” element for a greater appreciation of “what’s great.”
More photos from the “Journey Into Imagineering” pavilion at the 2013 D23 Expo: