Book Review:
Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends
and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park
Scan of Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends book cover
 
Author:
Jeff Kurtti
 
Design by
Bruce Gordon
 
Disney Editions
2008
 
 
 
Yesterland
 
 
Reviewed by
Werner Weiss
Aug. 19, 2008

Legends can be stories, and legends can be people. This book contains the stories of 29 people who made significant contributions to the creation and growth of Disneyland during Walt Disney’s lifetime.

The 30th and most often-mentioned individual in this book is Walt Disney himself. There’s hardly a page in the book that doesn’t include recollections about Walt Disney or anecdotes about his interactions with the people who made Disneyland a reality.

Anyone who has read books or magazines about the history of Disneyland has encountered many of the names in this book—James Algar, Ken Anderson, X Atencio, Buddy Baker, Roger Broggie, George Bruns, Harriet Burns, Claude Coats, Bill Cottrell, Roland “Rolly” Crump, Marc Davis, Marvin Davis, Bill Evans, Blaine Gibson, Harper Goff, Yale Gracey, Bob Gurr, John Hench Richard F. Irvine, Ub Iwerks, Fred Joerger, Ward Kimball, Bill Martin, Sam McKim, Wathel Rogers, Herbert Ryman, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, Bill Walsh—and the first Imagineer, Walt Disney himself.

The 29 featured individuals are all official Disney Legends—inducted into the recognition program started by The Walt Disney Company in 1987—who “made a significant impact on the Disney legacy.” But not all Imagineers who are Disney Legends are in this book, and not everyone in this book was an Imagineer. The determining factor is explained by the second part of the book’s title. These individuals were all part of “the genesis of the Disney theme park.” Some worked with Walt Disney in secret before Disneyland was announced. Others joined later—like longtime animator Marc Davis who didn’t become an Imagineer until 1961—but significantly defined what we expect from Disney theme parks today.

Author Jeff Kurtti organized 28 articles (the Sherman brothers share one article) by categorizing the Legends into ten chapters: “The Prototype Imagineers,” “The Executive Suite,” “The Place Makers,” “The Story Department,” “Masters of Mixed Media,” “The Model Shop,” “The Machine Shop,” “The Music Makers,” “The Unofficial Imagineers,” and “The Renaissance Imagineer.”

In his foreword, longtime Imagineering executive Martin A. Sklar—a Disney Legend himself, and still active as the Imagineering Ambassador—mentions that Imagineering today consists of 140 different disciplines. Even in the early days, when what’s now Walt Disney Imagineering was called WED Enterprises, the various individuals highlighted in this book brought their unique abilities to the table.

Scan of Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends back cover Hardcover
 
9" x 11"
 
160 pages
 
Release date:
Aug. 26, 2008
 
Color photos
and artwork
throughout

The Legends were born between 1901 (Ub Iwerks, who was born the same year as Walt Disney) and 1932 (Bob Gurr, who was just 23 when he began designing for Disneyland in 1954).

Each Legend gets an average of five pages. We learn not only what each Legend contributed to the early days of Disneyland, but also what he or she did before and after that. (As I wrote the phrase “he or she,” I’m reminded that Harriet Burns is the only woman featured in the book. That reflects how things were in the 1950s, not a bias on part of Kurtti.) The biographies are well-written and often entertaining.

Bruce Gordon designed the book with an eye to the esthetics of the 1950s. Around a third of the book’s space is devoted to illustrations. The emphasis is on photographs of the featured individuals, often working on their specialty. Sadly, Bruce Gordon died November 6, 2007, at age 56. Gordon had been an Imagineer, a Disney historian/author—including several other collaborations with Jeff Kurtti, and the co-author (along with the late David Mumford) of the now-legendary book Disneyland: The Nickel Tour—and a creative consultant for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park is a great book for readers who want to understand how Walt Disney and his talented staff invented Disneyland and set the stage for the 11 major Disney theme parks that followed. It’s an opportunity to learn more about the people who made it happen, who they were, and what skills and personalities they possessed. And it’s good to have it all in one attractive book.

three book covers
Left to right: early cover design, later design, current design

There’s been a long wait for Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends (or Walt Disney’s Legends of Imagineering, as it was originally titled). I ordered the book from Amazon in December 2005 as a Christmas present to myself, based on its original release date. I finally gave up when its status of “temporarily out of stock” kept me from receiving the other items on the same order. Since then, the cover design has changed twice, and the title changed slightly.

Yes, the book finally exists. I’ve had a copy for several days now. The book is available at Disneyland, which began selling it before the official release date.

Jeff Kurtti has two other new books coming out this year: Walt Disney World Then, Now, and Forever and The Art of Walt Disney World. Some online booksellers show publication dates of July 20, 2008, and September 30, 2008, respectively, for these two books—but don’t plan on buying them online. They’ll be Disney Parks & Resorts exclusives, so keep your eyes open for them when you visit Walt Disney World.

There’s no shortage of other titles by the prolific Jeff Kurtti. (See the link near the bottom of this page.)

The Art of Disneyland and Walt Disney Imagineering
Two other Disney Imagineering books worth owning

One of my favorite Imagineering books is The Art of Disneyland, by Jeff Kurtti and Bruce Gordon, published in 2006. It’s a spectacular art book consisting almost entirely of carefully selected, beautifully printed Imagineering art. Because most of the art is “landscape,” not “portrait,” in format, the art is printed so that you hold the book sideways, with the binding at the top; this allows larger images. The text is limited to introductions, photo captions, and eight short (half-page) biographies of the principal artists.

Another Imagineering book worth buying is Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making The Magic Real, by “The Imagineers” (actually written by Kevin Rafferty and Bruce Gordon, with image selection and research by Randy Webster and David Mumford). It’s still in print, despite being a decade old. And it’s still a wonderful way to learn what makes Imagineers tick, to gain insight into the Disney parks, to see all sorts of Imagineering art, and to enjoy anecdotes about the design process. The current version is a quality paperback (first published 1998), but copies of the original 1996 hardcover are often available used.


About the Author and Designer of Walt Disney’s Legends of Imagineering and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park  (from the book’s dust jacket)

JEFF KURTTI is the author of twenty books, a writer-director of award-winning documentaries, and a respected public speaker, host, and panel moderator. He is a creative consultant to The Walt Disney Family Museum (which is a project of The Walt Disney Family Foundation) and Disney Theatrical Group, and is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history.

A Seattle native, Kurtti worked as a production coordinator on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, followed by two years as the assistant to the president of California Institute of the Arts. For several years, he worked for Walt Disney lmagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney.

Since 1995 he has enjoyed a career as an author, writer, and consultant in the motion picture, theater, and themed entertainment industries.

His books include The Art of Mulan (Hyperion, 1998); A Bug’s Life: The Making of an Epic of Miniature Proportions (Hyperion, 1998); The Art of Disneyland (Disney Editions, 2005); and The Art of Walt Disney World (Disney Editions, 2008). He is a producer of The Boys, a feature-length documentary about the songwriting Sherman Brothers.

BRUCE GORDON was a twenty-five-year veteran of Walt Disney Imagineering, where he helped oversee the creation of numerous popular Disney theme park attractions around the world. As a recognized Disney historian, he was the author and designer of many fine books chronicling the careers of such noted Disney Legends as Academy Award-winning songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, comedian Wally Boag, and famed artists Herbert Ryman, John Hench, and Peter Ellenshaw.


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Updated February 19, 2010.

Scan of Walt Disney’s Legends of Imagineering and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park book cover (front and rear): © 2008 Disney Enterprises, Inc.