The new behind-the-scenes series Behind the Attraction on Disney+ may seem familiar, and not just if you’ve been rocketed up and down on Tower of Terror, or dashed around in darkness on Space Mountain, or floated through It’s A Small World until the song is carved into your brain.
It may seem familiar because the documentary series, which takes us inside the attractions at Walt Disney World, has the same DNA—and director—as Netflix’s The Movies That Made Us and The Toys That Made Us. They’re documentary series with vibrant personalities, with comedic and quick editing that relentlessly offers information and jokes, and is a very distinctive, energetic, insistent style.
Behind the Attraction’s first five episodes are now on Disney+, which has recently decided to hold the other five—”The Castles,” “Disneyland Hotel,” “it’s a small world,” “Trains, Trams, and Monorails,” and “Hall of Presidents”—for sometime “later this year.”
In all the episodes I’ve seen, there are fun tidbits along with fascinating footage from Disney’s archives, though if you’re a Disney super-fan—or even if you’ve read the fan wiki page for the attraction—you may wonder why the episodes leave some information out. For example, I was waiting for the Tower of Terror episode to mention its paint scheme. (The massive building is visible from Epcot, and the paint color helps it blend in with the Morocco pavilion’s buildings.) But that’s not in the episode.
Prioritizing entertainment over information is a deliberate choice for Disney+’s Behind the Attraction—and its Netflix cousins.
“First and foremost, it’s supposed to be entertaining and fun,” director Brian Volk-Weiss said during a virtual press conference recently. “We went away a little bit from the history and the protocols of building these attractions, and just really went for these fun nuggets. … We’re making a show now about amusement park attractions. So why wouldn’t it be fun?”
“I find people or shows or things that take themselves too seriously, don’t get the respect that they should if they’re just being honest,” he added.
They definitely are fun, and there are some jokes or facts that might be surprising if you’re expecting Disney propaganda. Still, these are not investigative documentaries. The Jungle Cruise episode, for example, only has a single sentence about the racist characters and colonialist approach, which has just now been removed, and spends far more time showing those racist depictions than addressing their existence.
But Behind the Attraction’s Jungle Cruise episode takes less than two minutes to drop in an advertisement for the new film starring The Rock, who’s interviews get more time than some Imagineers.
How Behind the Attraction finds and creates its comedy
As a lifelong Disney parks fan, who spent lunches during middle school in the library, digging through microfiche to find magazine articles about Walt Disney World from the 1970s, I wondered just who Behind the Attraction is made for: super-fans? Casuals? One-time Disney park visitors? And with an Internet full of forums, fan sites, and Wikipedia articles, how can these episodes even compete?
I asked Volk-Weiss that when I interviewed him after the press conference. “We try to put enough bedrock into every episode, but just enough barely enough so that everybody else understands it, and then we try to put everything else in the episode that’s new,” he said. “It’s a fine line to walk, because you have to make sure the bedrock of the story is there, so that everybody understands.”
Volk-Weiss said that ultimately, they intentionally exclude more common knowledge, hoping that if a viewer “liked the episode, it’ll inspire them to go to Wikipedia and learn more. But we don’t want the full episode to be stuff that everybody knows.”
Incidentally, he also said early cuts of episodes were feature-film length, like two hours and 40 minutes long, and then get cut down during the post-production process. (I’d like to see those cuts!)
Speaking of post, I asked about how the episodes are actually constructed. Do they do research, write a narrative, and then try to match footage with it, for example?
“I do it way less organized than you may think,” he told me. “I call it looking for the spinal column. We will dig into the topic, and I will be constantly searching for—it’s usually a tiny thing. It could be an object, it could be a sentence that somebody said.”
In the Jungle Cruise episode, for example, he said they found their spinal column “learning that when the Jungle Cruise was first built, there were people running around Anaheim going to people’s houses, like, Hey, can I buy your tree? And people were like, My tree? I’ve lived here 80 years. That tree’s been there for 200 years. So you cannot buy my tree.”
“This show is about what Anaheim was like, as it was being turned into a theme park, but it’s also a great microcosm of how the Jungle Cruise came to be,” he added.
So at what point does the comedy come in? It’s actually not during the editing process or post-production; instead, it starts while they’re filming interviews, as he identifies those moments in real-time.
“That’s all done is we’re shooting,” he told me. “If you ever see me on set, I am frantically writing down notes—they’re just words, maybe five words, because I have to listen and do the interview.” He said that, at the end of a day of filming, “I take a picture of my notes; that picture goes to one of our researchers, they transcribe my notes, my notes go to the story producers, and then they find the things that I wrote down.”
In the It’s a Small World episode, which will be released in the second batch of five episodes, Volk-Weiss told me that “there was a cast member who did something”—he didn’t want to spoil it—and, having noticed that, he “got her to do it a couple times,” and then “sent that clip to the entire editorial team that thing she did.” That became “the spinal column of that episode. … That’s been there from the first minute.”
So what Behind the Attraction—and The Movies That Made Us and The Toys That Made Us—are built around. is “one nugget, but it has to operate on multiple levels,” Volk-Weiss said. “It has to be entertaining, it has to be informative, and it has to be either fun or have heart.”