If you have ever wondered about the magic and mastery behind Disney’s Magic Kingdom, then boy, do I have a book – and author! – for you!
Tell Your Story The Walt Disney World Way teaches readers – and the characters therein – how Disney’s Imagineers communicate with their audience to tell their stories. The book goes beyond the search for Hidden Mickeys and explores the tools, techniques and disciplines of how Imagineers effectively communicate an idea and tell a story. The best part is that the book is written in such a way that it not only encourages, but maps out a plan for, readers to consider how they might communicate their very own stories and ideas.
Author Lou Prosperi worked in the game industry for 10 years as a freelance game designer and writer. He now writes user and technical documentation and training materials for enterprise software applications while managing a team of writers and curriculum developers. Lou artfully fuses his profession with his passion – for writing and Disney – in a crafty, unique and useful way.
Lou fell in love with Disney parks on his first visit to Walt Disney World for his honeymoon in 1993. A self-described "Imagineering Evangelist", Lou has been collecting books about the Disney company, Disney parks, and Imagineering for more than 10 years. Lou rarely passes up an opportunity to add new books to his Disney and Imagineering libraries, and is nearly always thinking about his next trip to Walt Disney World.
Not only is Lou an avid Disney book collector, he is also a well-known Disney “expert” when it comes to the genius of Imagineering. Revered author of the Imagineering Toolbox Series, with the third book in the series Tell Your Story The Walt Disney World Way released just a few short months ago, we had the unique opportunity to chat to Lou about all things writing, Imagineering and how to effectively communicate your next potentially award-winning idea.
Jess Salafia Ward: Lou, thanks for chatting with us here at Laughing Place.
Lou Prosperi: You’re very welcome! Thanks so much for inviting me to chat!
Jess: Your career has seen you as a game designer, technical writer, document manager and author. It is inspiring to see you create a real niche of passion and profession in your areas of experience. Was this always your projected career path? How did you arrive at where you now find yourself?
Lou: No, this wasn’t my projected career path (laughing). I got into technical writing after being laid off from my job as a game designer/developer. A friend I was working with thought my background in writing game rules would lend itself to technical writing and helped arrange an interview for me at the company he worked at. That was my first job as a technical writer in 1998, and I’ve been working in that field ever since. Over time my responsibilities expanded to include training design and delivery and, eventually, managing a small team of technical writers and curriculum developers.
Jess: We read in your bio that you became enamored with Disney parks on your first visit to Walt Disney World on your honeymoon in 1993. Prior to that, have you always been a Disney fan?
Lou: I watched The Wonderful World of Disney when I was child, and was a fan of Disney films and, particularly Disney animated films. In fact, on our second date, my wife and I watched The Little Mermaid together.
Jess: You are the author of several books, including the Imagineering Toolbox Series which is home to three books so far: The Imagineering Process, The Imagineering Pyramid and most recently, Tell Your Story The Walt Disney World Way. For our readers who may not yet be familiar with the series, how would you describe it?
Lou: The books in The Imagineering Toolbox series explore principles and practices employed by Walt Disney Imagineering – the group responsible for the design and construction of Disney parks, resorts, and attractions – and how they can be applied to other fields. This includes the process by which the Imagineers conceive, design, and build attractions as well as specific principles and techniques they use when designing Disney attractions, resorts, and parks.
Jess: You mentioned in one of your presentations that every Imagineering project begins with a need of some sort. What need did you identify that you wanted to address with the series and Tell Your Story specifically?
Lou: The “need” (which is really more of a “want” in this case) was to share insights in creativity and communication based on Imagineering.
I believe in the power of what former Imagineer Brian Collins calls “creative cross-pollination” – that is, applying ideas and principles in one creative field to other creative fields (I also believe that there is, or can be, an element of creativity in nearly every field). In particular, I think that Imagineering provides an excellent model for creativity, the creative process, and effective communication.
The intent behind The Imagineering Toolbox books is to look at what the Imagineers do and how people can apply Imagineering to their own work. For the new book, Tell Your Story the Walt Disney World Way, specifically, the intent was to explore how the Imagineers tell their stories (in other words, how they communicate with their audience) and how we can all apply the same principles of communication when telling our stories (things we need to communicate to an audience of some sort).
Jess: You do a great job of translating often technical ideas into language we can all understand. This encapsulates, at least in part, what you call ‘read-ability’. Tell us a little bit about this concept and its importance in developing an idea.
Lou: “Read”-ability is about simplifying complex subjects, and has its roots with the sight gags used in Disney animated shorts and films. Disney Legend, animator, and Imagineer Marc Davis was a master of sight gags and “Read”-ability, and created many of the scenes I use to describe this idea, including my favorite, the Jail scene in Pirates of the Caribbean. The idea behind “Read”-ability is to help the audience understand each scene quickly and easily by designing scenes that convey their message through visuals, without the need for words or explanations.
Interestingly (well, at least to me), “Read”-ability is one of the key concepts that inspired me to write The Imagineering Toolbox books. To quote from The Imagineering Pyramid:
“One day I was reading Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies by Jason Surrell (not for the first time) and I came across the following:
In a ride system, you only have a few seconds to say something about a figure through your art, Blaine [Gibson] told Randy Bright. So we exaggerate their features, especially the facial features, so they can be quickly and easily understood from a distance.
I was working as a technical writer and trainer at the time, and as I read those words, I thought to myself “that’s like what we do when we develop training materials—we simplify concepts and ideas so that students can understand them quickly and easily” (something I now call “read”-ability).
As I began to look at Imagineering through the lens of instructional design, I realized that many of the techniques and principles used by Walt Disney Imagineering could also have applications not just for instructional design, but across a wide variety of activities that lie outside the parks, or “beyond the berm”.
Jess: While the Imagineering process contains many different stages, what stages or concepts do you consider to be the most critical and why?
Lou: I think the most important stages are what I call the “Prologue”, identifying your Need, Requirements, and Constraints, and the Blue Sky stage, where you develop a vision for your project. The later stages are also important of course, but without a solid understanding of why you’re building what you’re building and a compelling vision for what you intend to build, you can’t really go much further.
Jess: The processes you describe also encourage readers to unpack and understand their own ideas. It struck me that sometimes we have not thought to ask ourselves simple questions and explore what the answers might be. What sort of feedback have you received from readers in terms of how they apply their own ideas to the Imagineering roadmap you provide in your books?
Lou: I’ve heard from a handful of people about how they’ve applied the ideas in my books to their own projects. A couple of specific examples that comes to mind are friends who are software developers, who have used the Imagineering Process to work through their projects, and some of the ideas in the Imagineering Pyramid to promote and share their ideas with their customers and audience.
Jess: Anyone familiar with Disney parks knows that there is so much detail involved at every level. How do you choose what to include and what not to include in your Imagineering books? How challenging is it, if at all, to condense the material?
Lou: I’ve tried to apply the same Imagineering principles I describe in my books to my own writing, and this is one area where the focus on story (or subject matter) and creative intent (my objective) has really helped. When selecting specific attractions (or details within those attractions) as examples, I look for what I think will most effectively demonstrate the principle I’m talking about. For instance, I think the Jail scene in Pirate of the Caribbean is among the best examples of “Read”-ability in all of the Disney parks. Likewise, I think Cinderella Castle is ideal for describing Long, Medium, and Close shots and Forced Perspective.
Interestingly (again, at least to me), for the new book, where I had limited myself to the Magic Kingdom, I had to find examples of the principles from that park only.
As for the challenge of condensing the material, again, I try to focus on using examples that most effectively communicate the principle I’m talking about, and try not to wander too far afield. That is challenging at times, since there’s almost always more I could say.
Jess: You mention that, for the purposes of Tell Your Story, telling your story is about communicating an idea. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed this notion framed in traditional storytelling – a group of friends reuniting and touring Walt Disney World while exploring how Imagineering might apply to their own professions. Tell us a bit about your brainstorming process for this book and why you decided to frame it in this way.
Lou: One of things I don’t think I was as successful at as I could have been when I wrote The Imagineering Pyramid was in describing and explaining how the principles of the Imagineering Pyramid apply specifically to communication. After I finished writing the second Imagineering Toolbox book, The Imagineering Process, I decided I wanted to revisit the principles in the Imagineering Pyramid with a specific focus on communication.
As I played around with ideas for how to best frame the new book, I kept coming back to the idea of communication as storytelling, and that the principles of the Imagineering Pyramid are specific ways in which the Imagineers tell their stories.
I also knew I wanted to try a different approach with the new book. Rather than just tell readers about Imagineering principles, I wanted to show them the principles at work. By putting the reader in the Magic Kingdom, I hoped to bring these ideas to life and show my readers how the Imagineers use them to communicate with their audience, and at the same time show readers how they could use those same principles to tell their own stories.
In the end, I decided to write a “business fable” of sorts which tells the story of a group of friends taking an “Imagineering Storytelling” tour of the Magic Kingdom in which a former Imagineer shows them the specific ways in which the Imagineers tell their stories.
Jess: What is your favorite Disney park and why?
Lou: Tough question! I’ve mostly visited Walt Disney World, and among the parks there, I’d have to say it’s a tie between Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom (I know that’s kind of cheating). Magic Kingdom because it feels the most magical of the Florida parks. It surrounds its guests with joy and reassurance. Plus, it has Cinderella Castle. I think I could sit stare at that castle for hours and not get bored in the slightest.
On the other hand, Animal Kingdom is home to some of my favorite attractions, including Expedition Everest (probably my single favorite attraction). Also, the attention to detail, theming, and storytelling in Animal Kingdom are simply astounding.
Jess: How does it feel sending Tell Your Story out into the world? How do these feelings differ from previous books you have published, if at all?
Lou: It feels great. I started working on Tell Your Story in January 2019, so it’s very rewarding to finally see it in print, a feeling that’s very much the same as for my first two books. In fact, during my time working as a game designer I contributed to dozens of published books, and the rush of holding something you worked on in your own hands never gets old for me.
Jess: What are some of the greatest lessons you have learned throughout your career?
Lou: First, and very related to my work on The Imagineering Toolbox series, is that there are lessons for us in seemingly unexpected places, and that sometimes we need to look outside of our own fields for new ideas and insights. For example, as a technical writer, if I only read books about technical writing, I can only get so much better, but by looking outside of that field I’m likely to come across ideas and principles that can help me improve what I do.
Second, it’s common for everyone to experience “imposter syndrome” at some point. When that happens, I’ve found one key to moving past it is to take stock in your experience and expertise (you’re probably more qualified than you think), and remind yourself that you wouldn’t be in the position you’re in if others working with you (your manager, your publisher, etc.) didn’t believe in your ability.
Related to this: whenever you find yourself thinking that everyone around you seems to know more than you do, remember three things:
- The people who appear to know more than you once felt the same way you do (and once knew as little as you)
- It’s okay to not know as much as everyone around you as long as you’re willing to keep learning
- Many of those people only appear to know more than you, and are in fact just making it all up as they go.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: The best reason to learn something is to share it with others!
Jess: What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Lou: In terms of my work on The Imagineering Toolbox, the most rewarding part is hearing from readers who have applied the concepts and principles from my books to their own creative projects.
Jess: What do you ultimately hope readers get out of Tell Your Story?
Lou: Firstly, I hope readers come away from Tell Your Story with some new tools for telling their own stories – whatever those might be.
Second, I also hope readers get a better sense about how the Imagineers create the engaging environments we enjoy in the Disney parks.
Jess: Assuming you can disclose them, what other Lou Prosperi projects can we look forward to in the near future?
Lou: I have a couple of projects in mind, but I haven’t formally started either. The first is a “fictional history” of Walt Disney’s EPCOT. This would be sort of a “what if” the Disney company was able to build the EPCOT the way Walt planned it.
Another idea I’ve been toying with is a look at some other aspects of Imagineering and theme park design that I haven’t addressed in my previous books – including master planning, area development, place making, and heightened reality – and how the Imagineers use those to create the sense of joy and reassurance guests experience in the Disney parks.
Jess Salafia Ward is an Aussie, an attorney and a die-hard Disney fan. She grew up in a city not too far from P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney; and she still enjoys dancing around in Snow White pajamas and serenading her family members with Sleeping Beauty’s “Once Upon A Dream” (though, unlike Princess Aurora, she is not blessed with the gift of song). Jess is an Elvis-lover like Lilo, and when she doesn’t have her nose stuck in a book, she delights in sharing with fellow fans all things Disney, books, movies and history.