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Behind the Magic Kingdom

Diane Lam (right) and Winnie Lam
(Photo by ISO staff)
Sketches of 'Dragon Adventureland'
Sketches of 'Dragon Adventureland'

In Glendale, California, there is a complex of beige, warehouse-like buildings, so unassuming that even local residents may fail to realize that behind the plain vanilla façade lives the mastermind of Disney's theme park magic. From Tower of Terror to Space Mountain to Grizzly Gulch, every Disney theme park and attraction around the world was born here.

It is the headquarters of Walt Disney Imagineering. Throughout the building, there are top-secret master plans and models for not-yet-announced projects. Cameras are not allowed inside this well-guarded area. In January, two Year 4 architecture students, Diane Lam and Winnie Lam, went straight into the forbidden territory and took a behind-the-scenes look at how magic is created by a group of master magicians.

What got them into this backyard laboratory was winning the championship of the Disney 'ImagiNations Design Competition'. Last year, the girls drew inspiration from the character Mushu, the comical guardian dragon from the animated Disney movie Mulan, to outline a new theme park area 'Dragon Adventureland' where each of the five elements—metal, wood, water, fire and earth—received a place with different attractions such as a volcano treasure hunt, a water-raft ride, and a Mushu-themed roller coaster. As part of the grand prize, the winning team was invited to an all-expense-paid trip to the Walt Disney Imagineering Headquarters in California.

Meeting the Wizards

'Imagineering' combines the words 'imagination' and 'engineering'. To build a roller coaster inside a darkened building, or create believably spooky apparitions for the Haunted Mansion requires both imagination and engineering. 'Imagineers' are dreamers and doers. They come in all forms spanning 140 disciplines, from illustrators to sculptors, architects to computer scientists, interior designers to engineers.

When interacting with imagineers in the headquarters, Diane and Winnie happened to meet the originator of Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor in the architectural department. 'When he learnt that we are from Hong Kong, he asked whether we had been in Mystic Manor, and said it was the project that he took the greatest pride in. Every Disney theme park has its spooky house. When he and his team were designing one for Hong Kong, they shifted the focus from ghost to adventure, considering the former is a taboo among Chinese.'

Creating Magic from Scratch

How many steps does it take to transform a fantasy into a colourful, exciting world that visitors can move through, touch, and enjoy? It always starts with a story. Mystic Manor, for example, is set in Lord Henry's stately Victorian mansion and private museum, which is home to his extensive array of fine art and antiquities. Guests can tour his home by boarding his latest invention—the 'Mystic Magneto-Electric Carriage'—in order to view the artefacts he collected from around the globe. However, when Albert, Lord Henry's pet monkey, opens a peculiar music box in the museum, all of Mystic Manor's contents magically come to life. It is the storyline that separates an average ride with a thematic adventure.

The next is putting it down on paper and mapping down each scene to a storyboard. Once the illustrations are complete, a scale model is created. The data will be input into a computer, which allows imagineers to virtually ride their creations before they build them. It took many years of designs, mock-ups and riding through testing facilities before it was time to install and build the real thing.

'The creator of Mystic Manor showed us his initial drawings. It is amazing that on top of the sketch, thousands of imagineers came together to bring his vision to life!' said Winnie.

Looking behind the Curtain

Led by the imagineers, both girls went on a backstage tour at the Disneyland resort in California. Diane recalled, 'I saw that behind the make-believe valleys and waterfalls are massive wires and supports, an interesting contrast to the fancy façade.' They had fun in the legendary attraction Indiana Jones Adventure, bouncing and bumping their ways through the ancient temple to escape from murderous mummies, flaming fireballs, and slithering snakes. Afterwards, the imagineers unveiled to them the secret behind the complex creations. 'We felt the vehicle was running fast, but in fact it is just an illusion created by lights, sounds and artificial winds. This is what imagineers are good at,' said Diane.

Winnie was impressed with Star Tours. 'Every game is a story. The Star Tours story begins while you are waiting in line, reminding you that you are boarding the spaceship. From the beginning to the end of the game, you are facing a screen in the theatre and never move an inch from your seat, but it delivers the same thrilling sensation of a roller-coaster ride!'

Learning from Imagineers

After returning to Hong Kong, the girls and their families were offered a free visit to Hong Kong Disneyland. Since the girls' eyes were opened at the headquarters, they can never look at the park the same way again. 'I began to look for and appreciate the placement of subtle and hidden details in every area. Take stones for instance. The ones in Tarzan's Treehouse of Adventureland are made to look raw and earthy; those in Space Mountain of Tomorrowland are meteorites from outer space; and the Sleeping Beauty Castle of Fantasyland uses medieval-style solid rock. Going from one area to another, visitors may feel the spatial and temporal differences as well, but they cannot consciously tell what exactly are causing their change of perceptions,' observed Diane.

She continued, 'Interacting with Disney's imagineers was an elevating experience. They are so proud of what they do that you can see the spark of enthusiasm in their eyes. I have learnt the importance of enjoying work and keeping an open mind. Everything can become an inspiration for good creative work. You just have to look closely enough.'


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