Disney: Imagineering Project Management

By Dr. Harold Kerzner | Small Business


Not all project managers are happy with their jobs and they often believe that changing industries might help. Some have delusions about wanting to manage the world’s greatest construction projects while others want to design the next generation cell phone or mobile device. However, the project managers that are probably the happiest are the Imagineering project managers that work for the Walt Disney Company. Three of their Imagineering project managers (John Hench, Claude Coats, and Martin Sklar) retired with a combined 172 years of Imagineering project management work experience with the Walt Disney Company. But how many project managers in other industries truly understand what skills are needed to be successful as an Imagineering project manager?

The PMBOK® Guide is, as the name implies, just a guide. Each company may have unique or specialized skills needed for the projects they undertake above and beyond what is included in the PMBOK® Guide. Even though the principles of the PMBOK® Guide still apply to Disney’s theme park projects, there are other skills needed that are significantly different from a lot of the material taught in traditional project management courses.

Walt Disney Imagineering[1]

        Walt Disney Imagineering (also known as WDI or simply Imagineering) is the design and development arm of The Walt Disney Company, responsible for the creation and construction of Disney theme parks worldwide. Founded by Walt Disney to oversee the production of Disneyland Park, it was originally known as WED Enterprises, from the initials meaning “Walter Elias Disney”, the company founder’s full name.[2]

The term Imagineering was introduced in the 1940s by Alcoa to describe its blending of imagination and engineering, and used by Union Carbide in an in-house magazine in 1957, with an article by Richard F. Sailer called BRAINSTORMING IS IMAGINation engINEERing. Disney filed for a copyright for the term in 1967, claiming first use of the term in 1962. Imagineering is responsible for designing and building Disney theme parks, resorts, cruise ships, and other entertainment venues at all levels of project development. Imagineers possess a broad range of skills and talents, and thus over 140 different job titles fall under the banner of Imagineering, including illustrators, architects, engineers, lighting designers, show writers, graphic designers, and many more.[3] It could be argued that all Imagineers are project managers and all project managers at WDI are Imagineers. Most Imagineers work from the company’s headquarters in Glendale, California, but are often deployed to satellite branches within the theme parks for long periods of time.

Project Deliverables

Unlike traditional projects where the outcome of a project is a hardware or software deliverable, Imagineering project outcomes for theme park attractions are visual stories. The entire deliverable is designed to operate in a controlled environment where every component of the deliverable has a specific meaning and contributes to part of telling a story. It is visual story-telling. Unlike traditional movies or books that are two dimensional, the theme parks and the accompanying characters come to life in three dimensions. Most project managers do not see themselves as story-tellers.

The intent of the theme park attraction is to remove people from reality once they enter the attraction and make them believe that they are living out a story and possibly interacting with their favorite characters. Theme park visitors are made to feel that they are participants in the story, rather than just observers, and this includes visitors of all ages.

While some theme parks are composed of rides that appeal to just one of your senses, Disney’s attractions appeal to several of the senses thus leaving a greater impact when people exit the attraction. “People must learn how to see, hear, smell, touch and taste in a new ways.”[4] Everything is designed to give people an experience. In the ideal situation, people are made to believe that they are part of the story. When new attractions are launched, Imagineers pay attention to the guests’ faces as they come off of a ride. This is important for continuous improvement efforts.


“All I want you to think about is when people walk through or have access to anything you design, I want them, when they leave, to have smiles on their faces. Just remember that. It’s all I ask of you as a designer.”[5]

                                                                                      Walt Disney

The Importance of Constraints

Most project management courses emphasize that there are three constraints on projects, namely time, cost and scope. While these constraints exist for Imagineering projects as well, there are three other theme park constraints that are often considered as more important than time, cost and scope. The additional constraints are safety, quality and aesthetic value.

Safety, quality and aesthetic value are all interrelated constraints. Disney will never sacrifice safety. It is first and foremost the primary constraint. All attractions operate every few minutes 365 days each year and must therefore satisfy the strictest of building codes. Some rides require special effects such as fire, smoke, steam and water. All of this is accomplished with safety in mind. Special effects include fire that actually does not burn, simulated fog that one can safely breathe and explosions that do not destroy anything. Another special effect is the appearance of bubbling molten lava that is actually cool to the touch.

Reliability and maintainability are important quality attributes for all project managers but of critical importance for the Imagineers. In addition to fire, smoke, stream and water, there are a significant number of moving parts in each attraction. Reliability considers how long something will perform without requiring maintenance. Maintainability discusses how quickly repairs can be made. Attractions are designed with consideration given to component malfunctions and ways to minimize the down time. Some people may have planned their entire vacation upon the desire to see specific attractions, and if these attractions are down for repairs for a lengthy time, park guests will be unhappy.


With traditional projects, brainstorming may be measured in hours or days. Members of the brainstorming group are small in number and may include marketing, for the purpose of identifying the need for a new product or enhancement to an existing product, and technical personnel to state how long it take and the approximate cost. Quite often, traditional project managers may not be assigned and brought on board until after the project has been approved, added into the queue, and the statement of work is well-defined. At Disney’s Imagineering organization, brainstorming may be measured in years and a multitude of Imagineering personnel will participate, including the project managers.

Attractions at most traditional amusement parks are designed by engineers and architects. Imagineering brainstorming at Disney is done by story-tellers that must visualize their ideas in both two and three two dimensions. Brainstorming could very well be the most critical skill for an Imagineer. Brainstorming requires that Imagineers put themselves in the guests’ shoes and think like kids as well as adults in order to see what the visitors will see. You must know your primary audience when designing an attraction.

Brainstorming can be structured or unstructured. Unstructured brainstorming is usually referred to as “blue sky” brainstorming. Several sessions may be required to come up with the best idea because people need time to brainstorm. Effective brainstorming mandates that we be open-minded to all ideas. And even if everyone agrees on the idea, Imagineers always ask, “Can we make it even better?” Unlike traditional brainstorming, it may take years before an idea comes to fruition at the Imagineering Division.

Imagineering brainstorming must focus on a controlled themed environment where every component is part of telling the story. There are critical questions that must be addressed and answered as part of Imagineering brainstorming:

  • How much space will I have for the attraction?
  • How much time will the guests need to feel the experience?
  • Will the attraction be seen on foot or using people movers?
  • What colors should we use?
  • What music should we use?
  • What special effects and/or illusions must be in place?
  • Does technology exist for attraction or must new technology be created?
  • What landscaping and architecture will be required?
  • What other attractions precede this attraction or follow it?

Before brainstorming is completed, the team must consider the cost. Regardless of the technology, can we afford to build it? This question must be addressed whether it is part of a structured or blue sky brainstorming session.

Guiding Principles

Imagineers are governed by a few key principles when developing new concepts and improving existing attractions. Often new concepts and improvements are created to fulfill specific needs and to make the impossible appear possible. Many ingenious solutions to problems are Imagineered in this way, such as the ride vehicle of the attraction Soarin’ Over California. The Imagineers knew they wanted guests to experience the sensation of flight, but weren’t sure how to accomplish the task of loading the people on to a ride vehicle in an efficient manner where everyone had an optimal viewing position. One day, an Imagineer found an Erector set in his attic, and was able to envision and design a ride vehicle that would effectively simulate hang gliding.[6]

Imagineers are also known for returning to ideas for attractions and shows that, for whatever reason, never came to fruition. It could be years later when they revisit the ideas. These ideas are often reworked and appear in a different form – like the Museum of the Weird, a proposed walk-through wax museum that eventually became the Haunted Mansion.[7]

Finally, there is the principle of “blue sky speculation,” a process where Imagineers generate ideas with no limitations. The custom at Imagineering has been to start the creative process with what is referred to as “eyewash” – the boldest, wildest, best idea one can come up with, presented in absolutely convincing detail. Many Imagineers consider this to be the true beginning of the design process and operate under the notion that if it can be dreamt, it can be built.[8] Disney believes that everyone can brainstorm and that everyone wants to contribute to the brainstorming process. No ideas are bad ideas. Effective brainstorming sessions neither evaluate nor criticize the ideas. They are recorded and may be revisited years later.

Imagineers are always seeking to improve upon their work – what Walt called “plussing.” He firmly believed that “Disneyland will never be completed as long as there’s imagination left in the world,” meaning there is always room for innovation and improvement.[9] Imagineering also has created many ideas that have never been realized, although some, such as Country Bear Jamboree, do take form in one way or another later. Ideas and eventually future attractions can also come from the animated films produced by the Walt Disney Company or other film studios.

“The brainstorming subsides when the basic idea is defined, understood, and agreed upon by all group members. It belongs to all of us, keeping strong a rich heritage left to use by Walt Disney. Teamwork is truly the heart of Imagineering… In that spirit, though Imagineering is a diverse collection of architects, engineers, artists, support staff members, writers, researchers, custodians, schedulers, estimators, machinists, financiers, model-makers, landscape designers, special effects and lighting designers, sound technicians, producers, carpenters, accountants, and filmmakers — we all have the honor of sharing the same unique title. Here, you will find only Imagineers.[10]

“If I could pick any job here, I’d move my office to the Imagineering building and immerse myself in all that lunacy and free-thinking.”[11]

                                                                 Michael D. Eisner, CEO, Walt Disney

Imagineering Innovations

Over the years, Walt Disney Imagineering has been granted over 115 patents in areas such as ride systems, special effects, interactive technology, live entertainment, fiber optics, and advanced audio systems.[12] WDI is responsible for technological advances such as the Circle-Vision 360° film technique and the FastPass virtual queuing system.

Imagineering must find a way to blend technology with the story. Imagineering is perhaps best known for its development of Audio-Animatronics, a form of robotics created for use in shows and attractions in the theme parks that allowed Disney to animate things in three dimensions instead of just two dimensions. The idea sprang from Disney’s fascination with a mechanical bird he purchased in New Orleans, which eventually led to the development of the attraction The Enchanted Tiki Room. The Tiki Room, which featured singing Audio-Animatronic birds, was the first to use such technology. The 1964 World’s Fair featured an Audio Animatronic figure of Abraham Lincoln that actually stood up and delivered part of the Gettysburg Address (which was incidentally just past its centennial at the time) for the “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” figure exhibit, the first human Audio Animatronic.[13]

Today, Audio-Animatronics are featured prominently in many popular Disney attractions, including Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, The Hall of Presidents, Country Bear Jamboree, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue and Muppet*Vision 3D. Guests also have the opportunity to interact with some Audio-Animatronic characters, such as Lucky the Dinosaur, WALL-E, and Remy from Ratatouille. The next wave of Audio-Animatronic development focuses on completely independent figures, or “Autonomatronics.” Otto, the first Autonomatronic figure, is capable of seeing, hearing, sensing a person’s presence, having a conversation, and even sensing and reacting to guests’ emotions.


Most traditional project managers may be unfamiliar with the use of the storyboarding approach as applied to projects. At Disney Imagineering, it is an essential part of the project. Ideas at Imagineering begin as two-dimensional visions drafted on a piece of white paper. Storyboards assist the Imagineers in seeing the entire attraction. Storyboards are graphic organizers in the form of illustrations or images displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualizing the relationship between time and space in the attraction. Storyboards have also been used in motion pictures, animation, motion graphics and interactive media. The storyboard provides a visual layout of events as they are to be seen by the guests. The storyboarding process, in the form it is known today, was developed at Walt Disney Productions during the early 1930s, after several years of similar processes being in use at Walt Disney and other animation studios.

A storyboard is essentially a large comic of the attraction produced beforehand to help the Imagineers visualize the scenes and find potential problems before they occur. Storyboards also help estimate the cost of the overall attraction and save time. Storyboards can be used to identify where changes to the music are needed to fit the mood of the scene. Often storyboards include arrows or instructions that indicate movement. When animation and special effects are part of the attraction, the storyboarding stage may be followed by simplified mock-ups called “animatics” to give a better idea of how the scene will look and feel with motion and timing. At its simplest, an animatic is a series of still images edited together and displayed in sequence with a rough dialogue and/or rough sound track added to the sequence of still images (usually taken from a storyboard) to test whether the sound and images are working effectively together.

The storyboarding process can be very time-consuming and intricate. Today, storyboarding software is available to speed up the process.


Once brainstorming has been completed, mock-ups of the idea are created. Mockups are common to some other industries such as construction. Simple mock-ups can be made from paper, cardboard, Styrofoam, plywood or metal. “The model-maker is the first Imagineer to make a concept real. The art of bringing a two-dimensional design into three dimensions is one of the most important and valued steps in the Imagineering process. Models enable the Imagineer to visualize, in miniature, the physical layout and dimensions of a concept, and the relationships of show sets or buildings as they will appear.

As the project evolves, so too, do the models that represent it. Once the project team is satisfied with the arrangements portrayed on massing models, small-scale detailed-oriented study models are begun. This reflects the architectural styles and colors for the project.

Creating a larger overall model, based upon detailed architectural and engineering drawings, is the last step in the model-building process. This show model is the exact replica of the project as it will be built, featuring the tiniest of details, including building exteriors, landscape, color schemes, the complete ride layout, vehicles, show sets, props, figures and suggested lighting and graphics.”[14]

Computer models of the complete attraction, including the actual ride, are next. They are computer generated so that the Imagineers can see what the final product looks like from various positions without actually having to build a full scale model. Computer models, similar to CAD/CAM modelling, can show in three dimensions the layout of all of the necessary electrical, plumbing, HVAC, special effects and other needs.


Imagineers view the aesthetic value of an attraction as a constraint. This aesthetic constraint is more of a passion for perfection than the normal constraints that most project managers are familiar with.

Aesthetics are the design elements that identify the character and the overall theme, and control the environment and atmosphere of each setting. This includes color, landscaping, trees, colorful flowers, architecture, music and special effects. Music must support the mood of the ride. The shape of the rocks used in the landscape is also important. Pointed or sharp rocks may indicate danger whereas rounded or smooth rocks may represent safety. Everything in the attraction is there for the purpose of reinforcing a story. Imagineers go to highly detailed levels of perfection for everything needed to support the story without overwhelming the viewers with too many details. Details that are contradictory can leave the visitors confused about the meaning of the story.

A major contributor to the aesthetics of the attraction are the special effects. Special effects are created by “Illusioneering” which is a subset of Imagineering. Special effects can come in many different forms. Typical projected special effects can included:[15]

  • Steam, smoke clouds, drifting fog, swirling effects
  • Erupting volcano, flowing lava
  • Lightning flashes and strikes, sparks
  • Water ripple, reflection, waterfall, flows
  • Rotating and tumbling images
  • Flying, falling, rising, moving images
  • Moving images with animated sections
  • Kaleidoscopic projections
  • Liquid projections, bubbles, waves
  • Aurora borealis, lumia, abstract light effects
  • Twinkling stars (when fiber optics cannot be used, such as on rear-projection screen)
  • Spinning galaxies in perspective, comets, rotating space stations, pulsars, meteor showers, shooting stars and any astronomical phenomena
  • Fire, torches, forest fire
  • Expanding rings
  • Ghosts, distorted images
  • explosions, flashes

Perhaps the most important contributor to the aesthetic value of an attraction is color. Traditional project managers rely upon sales or marketing personnel to select the colors for a deliverable. At Imagineering, it is done by the Imagineers. Color is a form of communications. Even the colors of the flowers and the landscaping are critical. People feel emotions from certain colors either consciously or subconsciously. Imagineers treat color as a language. Some colors catch the eye quickly and we focus our attention on it. “We must ask not only how colors work together, but how they make the viewer feel in a given situation. … It is the Imagineer’s job to understand how colors work together visually and why they can make guests feel better.”[16]

“White represents cleanliness and purity, and in many European and North American cultures … is the color most associated with weddings, and with religious ceremonies such as christenings. Silver-white suggest joy, pleasure and delight. In architecture and interior design, white can be monotonous if used over large areas.”[17]  “… We have created an entire color vocabulary at Imagineering, which includes colors and patterns we have found that stir basic human instincts – including that of survival.”[18]

Aesthetics also impacts the outfits and full body costumes of the cast members that are part of the attraction.  The outfits that the cast members wear must support the attraction. Unlike animation where there are no physical limitations to a character’s identity or mobility, people may have restricted motion once in the costume. Care must be taken that the colors used in the full body costumes maintain the character’s identity without conflicting with the background colors used in the attraction.  Even the colors in the rest rooms must fit the themed environment.

Imagineers also try to address queue design by trying to make it a pleasant experience. As people wait in line to see an attraction, aesthetics can introduce them to the theme of the attraction. The aesthetics must also consider the time it takes people to go from attraction to attraction, as well as what precedes this attraction and what follows it. “For transition to be smooth, there must be a blending of themed foliage, color, sound, music, and architecture. Even the soles of your feet feel a change in the paving explicitly tells you something new is on the horizon.”[19]

The Art of the Show

Over the years, Imagineering has conceived a whole range of retail stores, galleries, and hotels that are designed to be experienced and to create and sustain a very specific mood – for example, the mood of Disney’s Contemporary Resort could be called “the hello futuristic optimism,” and it’s readily apparent given the resort’s A-frame structure, futuristic building techniques, modern décor, and the monorail gliding quietly through the lobby every few minutes. Together, these details combine to tell the story of the hotel.[20]

Imagineering is, first and foremost, a form of storytelling, and visiting a Disney theme park should feel like entering a show. Extensive theming, atmosphere, and attention to detail are the hallmarks of the Disney experience. The mood is distinct and identifiable, the story made clear by details and props. Pirates of the Caribbean evokes a “rollicking buccaneer adventure,” according to Imagineering legend John Hench, whereas the Disney Cruise Line’s ships create an elegant seafaring atmosphere. Even the shops and restaurants within the theme parks tell stories. Every detail is carefully considered, from the menus to the names of the dishes to the Cast Members’ costumes.[21] Disney parks are meant to be experienced through all senses – for example, as guests walk down Main Street, U.S.A. they are likely to smell freshly baked cookies, a small detail that enhances the story of turn-of-the-century, small town America.

The story of Disney theme parks is often told visually, and the Imagineers design the guest experience in what they call “The Art of the Show.” John Hench (one of Disney’s Imagineering Legends) was fond of comparing theme park design to moviemaking, and often used filmmaking techniques in the Disney parks, such as the technique of forced perspective.[22] Forced perspective is a design technique in which the designer plays with the scale of an object in order to affect the viewer’s perception of the object’s size. One of the most dramatic examples of forced perspective in the Disney Parks is Cinderella Castle. The scale of architectural elements is much smaller in the upper reaches of the castle compared to the foundation, making it seem significantly taller than its actual height of 189 feet.[23]

The Power of Acknowledgement

Project managers like to be told that they have done a good job. It is a motivational force encouraging them to continue performing well. However, acknowledgement does not have to come with words; it can come from results. At Disney’s Imagineering Division, the fact that more than 132,500,000 visitors passed through the gates of the 11 Disney theme parks in 2013 is probably the greatest form of acknowledgement. The Walt Disney Company does acknowledge some Imagineers in other ways. Disney established a society entitled “Imagineering Legends.” Three of their most prominent Imagineering Legends are John Hench (65 years with Disney), Claude Coats (54 years with Disney), and Martin Sklar (53 years with Disney). The contributions that these three Imagineers have made appear throughout the Disney theme park attractions worldwide. The goal of all Imagineers at Disney may very well be the acknowledgement of becoming an Imagineering Legend.

The Need for Additional Skills

All projects have special characteristics that may mandate a unique set of project management skills above and beyond what we teach using the PMBOK® Guide.  Some of the additional skills that Imagineers may need can be summarized as:

  • The ability to envision a story
  • The ability to brainstorm
  • The ability to create a storyboard and build mock-ups in various stages of detail
  • A willingness to work with a multitude of disciplines in a team environment
  • An understanding of theme park design requirements
  • Recognizing that the customers and stakeholders range from toddlers to senior citizens
  • An ability to envision the attraction through the eyes and shoes of the guests
  • An understanding of the importance of safety, quality and aesthetic value as additional competing constraints
  • A passion for aesthetic details
  • An understanding of the importance of colors and the relationship between colors and emotions
  • An understanding of how music, animatronics, architecture and landscaping must support the story

Obviously, this list is not inclusive of all skills. But it does show that not everyone can fulfill their desire to be an Imagineer.



  • Hench, John, with Peggy Van Pelt. Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show. Disney Editions, 2003, ISBN 0-7868-5406-5.
  • Imagineers, The. Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look At Making the Magic Real. Disney Editions, 1996, ISBN 0-7868-6246-7 (hardcover); 1998, ISBN 0-7868-8372-3 (paperback).
  • Imagineers, The. Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real. Disney Editions, 2010, ISBN 1-4231-0766-7 (hardcover).
  • Imagineers, The. The Imagineering Way: Ideas to Ignite Your Creativity. Disney Editions, 2003, ISBN 0-7868-5401-4.
  • Imagineers, The (as “The Disney Imagineers”). The Imagineering Workout: Exercises to Shape Your Creative Muscles. Disney Editions, 2005, ISBN 0-7868-5554-1.
  • Imagineers, The. The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland. Disney Editions, 2008, ISBN 1-4231-0975-9ISBN 978-1-4231-0975-4.
  • Imagineers, The. The Imagineering Field Guide to Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Disney Editions, 2007, ISBN 1-4231-0320-3ISBN 978-1-4231-0320-2.
  • Imagineers, The. The Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot at Walt Disney World. Disney Editions, 2006, ISBN 0-7868-4886-3.
  • Imagineers, The. The Imagineering Field Guide to Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Disney Editions, 2005, ISBN 0-7868-5553-3.
  • Kurtti, Jeff. Walt Disney’s Legends of Imagineering and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park. Disney Editions, 2006, ISBN 0-7868-5559-2.
  • Alcorn, Steve and David Green. Building a Better Mouse: The Story of the Electronic Imagineers Who Designed Epcot. Themeperks Press, 2007, ISBN 0-9729777-3-2.
  • Surrell, Jason. The Disney Mountains: Imagineering at Its Peak. Disney Editions, 2007, ISBN 1-4231-0155-3
  • Ghez, Didier; Littaye, Alain; Translated into English by Cohn, Danielle. Disneyland Paris From Sketch To Reality. Nouveau Millénaire Editions, 2002, ISBN 2-9517883-1-2
  • Surrell, Jason. Pirates of the Caribbean: From The Magic Kingdom To The Movies. Disney Editions, 2007, ISBN 1-4176-9274-XISBN 978-1-4176-9274-3.
  • Surrell, Jason. The Haunted Mansion: From The Magic Kingdom To The Movies. Disney Editions, 2003, ISBN 978-0-7868-5419-6

[1] Part of this case study has been adapted from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia; Walt Disney Imagineering

[2] Wright, Alex; Imagineers. The Imagineering Field Guide to Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. New York: Disney Editions; 2005  Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)

[3] Ibid

[4] John Hench, Designing Disney, Disney Editions, 2008; p.2

[5] Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney Editions, 1996; p.18

[6] George Scribner and Jerry Rees (Directors) (2007). Disneyland: Secrets, Stories, and Magic (DVD). Walt Disney Video. 

[7] Op. cit.; Scribner and Rees

[8] Marling, Karal (1997). Designing Disney’s Theme Parks. Paris – New York: Flammarion.

[9] Op. cit.; Scribner and Rees

[10] Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney Editions, 1996; p.21

[11] Wall Street Journal, Jan 6, 1987

[13] ibid

[14] Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney Editions, 1996; p.72

[15] See “Bill Novey and the Business of Theme Park Special Effects”; BloopLoop.com. The paper provides an excellent summary of various special effects used by Illusioneers. In addition to the projected special effects, the paper also describes laser effects, holographic images, floating images, mirror gags, gas discharge effects, and fiber optics.

[16] Op. Cit.; John Hench; p.104

[17] ibid; p.135

[18] Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney Editions, 1996; p.94

[19] Ibid; p.90

[20] Op. Cit.; Marling

[21] Hench, John; Peggy Van Pelt (2003). Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show. New York: Disney Editions.  Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)


[22] Op. Cit.; Hench

[23] Op. Cit.; Wright

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