Kevin Rafferty on his career and his book “Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career”

"...I really had a blast finally putting these stories into words on paper and I want readers to have as much fun reading it as I did writing it..."

Kevin Rafferty began working at Disney in a dish room. After getting his foot in the door, Rafferty worked his way up to become an Imagineer. Now with over forty-years of experience developing some of Disney’s greatest theme park attractions, Rafferty has documented his amazing career in the book Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career. Wanting to learn more about his background and career, I was able to interview Rafferty for ScifiPulse.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?

Kevin Rafferty: Growing up I loved the fantasy stories that were told in movies like The Wizard of Oz, Jason and the Argonauts, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Incredible Mr. Limpet and Disney movies such as Mary Poppins, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Absent Minded Professor.  Flubber was the best!  I loved Disney feature animation as well, especially Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp and Dumbo.  And of course, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, The Wild Wild West, Star Trek and all of the “fish out of water” TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, The Munsters and Gillian’s Island. And who can forget Lancelot Link Secret Chimp?

These fantastic movies and shows had a common theme in that they were imaginative, fun and fanciful and they swept you into a make-believe place with make-believe characters and situations but made it very believable. Most of my favorite TV shows and movies had solid but simple storylines and wonderful and memorable music or a great theme song that told the story of the premise of the show: “Come and listen to me story ‘bout a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed…”.  I’m convinced that imaginative stories like those really influenced my future career as an Imagineer and greatly influenced and inspired me when it came to dreaming up new attraction stories and songs.

Yanes: Given that you have written stories for some of Disney’s attractions, are there any narratives from your youth you feel have influenced you the most?

Rafferty: When I was a kid I lived close to Disneyland and the narratives that influenced me the most were the narratives from my favorite rides.  Even for a brief time they took me to another place and made me believe.  My two favorite attractions were Peter Pan’s Flight and Flight to the Moon, not only because they were great immersive theatrical experiences but because they made me believe I was really there.  I totally believed I was flying over nighttime London in a sailing ship and I totally believed I was flying to the moon in a rocket ship.  I remember during the launch sequence trying to find my house in Anaheim through the ground-view window below!

Yanes: There is an entire cottage industry of people writing about theme park attractions that are new, old, or that no longer exist. Why do you think theme park attractions can inspire such a devoted fanbase?

Rafferty: People love theme park attractions because they take them out of the real world into a world of fantasy and adventure. They love thrill and/or slowly traversing through a place and related story that comes to life all around them. They love the older attractions because they grew up with them and are now so much a part of them because they are among their all-time favorite memories.

It’s amazing to me that when we replace an existing attraction with another the fans of the attraction being replaced are really upset. They have a sense of ownership and it’s almost as if they want to hang on to this important aspect of their life forever.  When I was working on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh for the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, fans of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the attraction Pooh was replacing, were really upset.  That’s why it’s so important as an Imagineer to ensure that if something is replacing something it’s far better than that something it is replacing! The good news is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh now has a strong fan base!

Yanes: After forty years working for Disney, you have written Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career. What inspired you to want to tell this story?

Rafferty: My 40 years of Imagineering careering is filled with so many fun and unbelievable things, events and unusual challenges and adventures – things that can only really happen to an Imagineer – that I really wanted to share them because you just can’t make this stuff up!  In addition, over the years hundreds of people have asked to meet with me so I could tell them my personal story about how I became an Imagineer and what happed as a result of that. Their motivation was to gain some insight and advice as to how they themselves could become an Imagineer. The other thing that prompted me to get busy writing was my friends and colleagues constantly asking when I was going to write my book. I don’t consider myself a writer as much as I do a storyteller and storytellers just love to tell their stories!

Yanes: While reviewing your career’s history, what were some moment you enjoyed revisiting?

Rafferty: It was a ton of fun making all of those withdrawals from my memory bank while writing the book.  The moments I really enjoyed recalling the most are the challenging early years when I started my career at Walt Disney Imagineering when the founding fathers and mothers were still around. These were the people who invented the theme park industry and created the attractions that were so much a part of my childhood and that influenced me the most. In those days I wondered if I had what it took to join them and continue Walt Disney’s legacy of keeping the Disney Parks going and growing.  I had a very humble beginning and I marvel at the fact I was able to ultimately become a contributing Imagineer.  Those humble hungry years were the best because they made appreciate everything that happened after I became a better, stronger more seasoned Imagineer. I also loved recalling coming up with ideas for shows and attractions that actually made it into the parks. The whole thing is really like a fairy tale with all of the impossible challenges, all of the comedy and drama, and finally a happily ever after ending. This book is proof dreams really do come true!

Yanes: Many rides still utilize old illusion techniques. For example, The Haunted Mansion still uses Pepper’s ghost to create some the image of some spirits. With that said, what do you think have been some of the biggest technological shifts to impact your industry?

Rafferty: Technology is only a tool we use to help tell our attraction story. In the case of the Haunted Mansion, those tried-and-true special theatrical effects are timeless in that they are still doing what they were designed to do and they are still holding up because they are still delivering the theatrical magic. Mansion is an example of great immersive, experiential theater that when under show control and show lighting conditions still looks stunning.  But when the bright maintenance lights are on and reveal everything you marvel at the effectiveness and brilliance of its sometimes simple but clever theatrical design and execution. You don’t necessarily have to spend zillions of dollars and invent highly sophistical technology every time to create a believable effect or even a whole ride. You just have to design and deliver great and clever theater and sometimes you don’t need much more than lights and a mirror!

These days huge technological shifts that work to our great benefit include everything being digital and more compact, high-resolution projection systems, free-range trackless ride systems, pre-visualization tools that help designers see and understand every aspect of the ride they are creating before ground is even broken. In the old days much of attraction design came with a lot of keeping fingers crossed that stuff would work and work together as planned. These days we have the technology to virtually take a ride during its concept phase and prove it all out. All that said, you still need a great story and vision to guide you – and the use of technology.

Yanes: You started your career at Disney in a dish room and worked your way up to become an Imagineer. Though it feels harder than ever for people to work their way up as you did, what advice could you offer to those who want to be Imagineers?

Rafferty: The advice I liked to give to those aspiring to be an Imagineer is the discover and/or pay close attention to your interests and hobbies. What do you love?  What do you love to do? When I was a kid my loves were animation, movie making, oil painting, model building, listening to and writing music, going to movies, watching TV and Disneyland. All of these hobbies and interests served me well as they provided a solid foundation upon which I was able to build a successful creative career as an Imagineer. If you are interested in architecture, for example, Imagineering has its own architectural department. If you are interested in mechanical engineering we have a lot of engineers on staff.

The point is, whatever your interest or core competency, Imagineering has a studio-department for that. Saying you want to be an Imagineer as a general statement is not good enough. What kind of Imagineer do you want to be? We have over 140 disciplines at Imagineering, from finance to audio and media design, project management to vehicle design – you name it. The key is to become great at that thing you are good at and love to do, including outside experience in that particular field, and then bring it to the Imagineering table.

Yanes: When people finish reading Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career, what do you hope they take away from this experience?

Rafferty: First and foremost, I hope readers are entertained. As a storyteller and a showman I want people to have a good time on the “journey.” I really had a blast finally putting these stories into words on paper and I want readers to have as much fun reading it as I did writing it. It’s certainly not your typical Disney book, especially the first one out of the chute from a second-generation Imagineer. I also hope they are inspired by the work Imagineers have done and still do and all of the impossible challenges we must address and overcome to create Disney park experiences. I hope to provide some insight as to what it takes to bring an attraction concept from the spark to the park. It’s certainly not easy being an Imagineer but it’s always fun. Lastly, I want readers to consider and listen to the power of their own dreams. My book is filled with examples that prove dreams really do come true!

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Rafferty: Currently I’m leading a new major attraction called Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway that will open in Spring 2020 at Disney’s Hollywood Studio in Walt Disney World and coming after that to Disneyland. It’s my favorite attraction that I helped to create and guide from beginning to end and I love it so much I can’t think of a better cherry to put on top of my career as an Imagineer.  It really is special, unlike anything we’ve ever created with dazzling “cartoon logic” visual and theatrical effects.  I know it’s  going to delight and surprise our guests from beginning to end.  I’m also excited about it because it’s Mickey and Minnie’s first ride-through attraction ever – I know, that’s hard to believe – and it has an original exclusive-to-the-attraction story and an original exclusive-to-the-attraction theme song. The song really sticks in your head!  I can’t wait for you to hop on board Goofy’s cartoon train and join Mickey and Minnie on this funny adventure filled with surprises around every corner. I mean, with Goofy as your engineer what could possibly go wrong?

Remember to pick up your own copy of Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career.

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