‘Behind the Attraction’ traces Disney's theme-park tech advancements one ride at a time

From a maniacal Abraham Lincoln to a high-flying Spider-Man robot.

Disney Parks

There are, for the most part, two types of Disney Parks fans. There are those who see it as a nice thing to do with your family once in a while, and there are those who take it… a little more seriously. The upcoming Behind the Attraction, hitting Disney+ on July 21st, is a show that’s aimed at turning more of those casual tourists into dedicated fans, by explaining the backstory behind famous attractions like Star Tours, the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain.

Each episode features lots of old footage, talking heads, conceptual art and snark. If you’re thinking that sounds like The Toys That Made Us, but for Disney Parks, you’d be absolutely correct. Behind the Attraction is produced and directed by Brian Volk-Weiss, the creative mind behind Netflix docuseries like TTTMU and The Movies That Made Us. He was specifically sought out by Disney+ for his style which, by his own description, is “focused more on fun” and doesn’t treat its subject like “the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.” He loves documentaries, but hates when they take silly topics too seriously.

Hippos in the river at Jungle Cruise
Disney Parks

To wit, the series is narrated by comedy veteran Paget Brewster, an actress who has been in The Venture Bros., Community and Another Period. Disney fans will probably recognize her best as the voice of Della Duck on the 2017 DuckTales reboot. She adopts a light playful tone, as far from Morgan Freeman you can get. Also on board is executive producer Dwayne Johnson, who stars in Disney’s upcoming live action Jungle Cruise film. Is there an episode about the Jungle Cruise attraction? Of course there is.

Besides that, the other four episodes available this week focus on the Haunted Mansion, Star Tours, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Space Mountain. (Episodes about things like the castles and transportation systems, as well as famous rides like “It’s a Small World” and Pirates of the Caribbean are being held for later in the year.) They trace the history and development of each individual attraction with clips from shows like 1955’s Disneyland and The Wonderful World of Disney, news segments, and a mix of new and old interviews. Anyone who watched the docuseries The Imagineering Story (also on Disney+) will recognize a lot of reused footage from there. Which of course begs the question, why did we need another behind-the-scenes show?

Star Tours / Galaxy's Edge
Disney Parks

The biggest difference between the two is that The Imagineering Story takes a strict chronological approach, starting with the origin story behind Walt Disney’s desire to build a theme park, progressing through the opening of Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Epcot and so on. The later episodes focus less on a historical outlook and more on “look at what cool technology we built for this new thing.” Which leads to a sort of unbalanced feel to the program, as well as a greater sense that it’s one big travel brochure for the Disney Parks.

Which isn’t to say that Behind the Attraction isn’t one big advertisement. I certainly want to visit Disney Shanghai after getting a look at the development of its Storybook Castle and TRON Lightcycle Power Run. But because the new show takes a more topical approach, it’s a lot more “snackable,” with episodes that can be watched in any order according to what interests you the most.

Each episode still follows its individual subject chronologically, like how the Hall of Presidents episode goes into the development of the original “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show at the 1964 World’s Fair to the installation of the attraction at Disneyland, the creation of the full Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World to today’s animatronics like the ones used on Avengers Campus at California Adventure. The Imagineering Story talks about the development of the “Stuntronics” as well, but it’s Behind the Attraction that draws a straight line for the viewer from Abraham Lincoln giving a speech to Spider-Man doing somersaults in the air. You actually understand how tech created in 1964 can still shape something built in 2020.

Ghost hitchhikers in the Haunted Mansion
Disney Parks

While it's unlikely that Behind the Attraction will ever delve into the various faceplants the company has taken over the years the way YouTube shows like Yesterworld and Defunctland do, the new show is at least capable of admitting when certain things didn’t work. The Haunted Mansion had to be completely rethought for Shanghai, while Japan got a different backstory for its Tower of Terror. And the original Jungle Cruise had no dad jokes!

Of course, there are no Splash Mountain or Captain EO episodes, so we don’t know yet how the show will deal with some of the more unsavory or embarrassing bits of Disney Park history. Which is fine, since Behind the Attraction isn’t intended to be a complete history of Disney, just a quick half-hour show that will have you going “did you know?” to all your friends and family the next time you visit the Magic Kingdom.

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