Tour of Walt Disney Imagineering Headquarters
In the Spring of 2014, I conducted a few interviews about the creation of Disneyland Paris’ new attraction “Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy” at the Walt Disney Imagineering Headquarters in Glendale, California, USA.
It was my first visit to the campus and left a very profound impression on me. While I can imagine that you might be interested in learning how the Walt Disney Imagineering Headquarters look like from the inside, I decided to write down and share my experiences.
Standing in front of the Walt Disney Imagineering Headquarters gave me an extraordinary feeling. For people walking by, this was just an ordinary set of buildings. But for me, it wasn’t! After all, this is the place were legendary Disney theme park attractions such as Big Thunder Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean were born. It left me wondering if Glendale’s local residents realize that the magic that creates happiness for millions of people is made just at their doorstep.
The Imagineering campus in Glendale consists of various buildings. The main structure houses (among other things) a reception desk, offices, conference rooms, a restaurant, a sound studio, the special effects department, the model shop and the sculpture department. The “Digital Immersive Showroom”, the Walt Disney Imagineering Library and the employee-only store called “Mickey’s of Glendale” are located in smaller structures scattered around it.
After registering at the reception desk, I was ushered to a conference room in the heart of the main building. The logo of Walt Disney Imagineering and photos of artists at work line the walls of the lobby. The corridors of the main building are decorated with colorful murals (that often pay tribute to legendary Imagineers like mister John Hench) and beautiful pieces of concept art.
At noon, I had lunch at the campus. The canteen is open, light and airy and has a contemporary décor with stylish wood and chrome iron accents. The outdoor patio in front of the restaurant features colorful chairs and tables, fountains, the famous Disney Parks signpost and a statue of Sorcerer Mickey. After lunch, I went shopping for WDI merchandise at “Mickey’s of Glendale”.
At the end of the interviews, the Walt Disney Imagineers invited me for a tour of the campus. First we went over to the “Digital Immersive Showroom”. This facility features a 360-degree, wrap-around 3D screen equipped with high-tech head tracking virtual reality technology that allows Imagineers to check all visual aspects of new projects long before these actually get built.
“The Dish” is a powerful tool! After spending about ten minutes in the virtual worlds it creates, my mind was tricked into believing that the footage I saw was real. I really felt the sensation of speed when I took a simulated ride aboard Magic Kingdom’s new “Seven Dwarfs Mine Train” attraction or through the refrigerator scene of Disneyland Paris’ new “Ratatouille” attraction.
The next stop on my tour was the Walt Disney Imagineering Library, a building filled with thousands of books for Imagineers to consult when working on projects. Its vault stores iconic pieces of concept art such as the maps of Disneyland by Herb Ryman and Peter Ellenshaw or the paintings by Dan Goozee that served as the basis for the Disneyland Paris Plaza Gardens Restaurant murals. The art of “Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy” was recently added to the collection as well. I never felt so close to Disney theme park history as I did when I was admiring these masterpieces.
In the Special Effects Department, I met the Imagineers who developed the “blinking eyes” or the “flickering candle” effects that can be seen inside Disneyland Paris’ new “Ratatouille” attraction. They demonstrated some special effects under development of which one was so convincing that I didn’t realize that it was an illusion until someone told me at the end of the day.
With hundreds of loudspeakers encircling the entire room, The Walt Disney Imagineering Sound Studio is a technological and historical marvel in itself. It was here that the programming was done for circle-vision theaters constructed in Disney Theme Parks across the globe. During my visit, the Imagineers let me hear an early WDI sound experiment featuring the fictitious sounds a new employee of The Walt Disney Company might hear during its first day at work.
The next stop on my tour was the Model Shop. Visiting this part of the campus was special to me since many photos of Walt were made in there. In the Model Shop, elaborate models of “Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy” were on display.
To conclude we visited the Sculpture Department. These rooms are stowed with sculptures of which a (larger) replica can be found in the Parks, like the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs figures standing next to the wishing well in Disneyland. In the Sculpture Department, the beautiful fountain of “La Place de Rémy” was designed.
At the end of the tour, I had a cup of coffee (brewed by the on campus Starbucks Coffee location) and thought back to all the people I had met earlier that day. It occurred to me that just like some of Glendale’s local residents might not realize that the magic that creates happiness for millions of people around the world is made just at their doorstep, I wasn’t fully aware of the fact that this magic is made by so many different people active in so many disciplines. There are Lighting Designers, Graphic Designers, Landscape Architects, Character Painters...
While most of their names might be unknown to me, each and everyone in Glendale and at Walt Disney Imagineering’s field offices (in Anaheim, Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai) is playing a crucial role in bringing the magic to live. It’s their daily effort, dedication and determination that leads to the creation of the immersive Disney theme park environments that have been enchanting me for almost twenty years now. And that’s why I’m grateful to every single one of them.
Thank you for making me smile… and Walt proud!