June 20, 2024

I Went Inside Imagineering

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"I wish I could be here every day," said Disney CEO Bob Iger to kick off an Imagineering presentation I attended. He was joined at the front of the small conference room by Parks Chairman




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“I wish I could be here every day,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger to kick off an Imagineering presentation I attended. He was joined at the front of the small conference room by Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro, who shared that he actually had been spending a lot more time in WDI’s Glendale offices lately and that it’s one of his favorite places in the world.

Both spoke of the ‘turbocharged’ plans for growth at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and $60 billion investment earmarked for Parks & Resorts. They discussed the genesis of this next Disney Decade, with what to expect in the near-term and longer-term as new additions enter various phases of development and construction at every destination around the globe.

Following up both was the head of Walt Disney Imagineering, Bruce Vaughn. He discussed his time away from Imagineering, how Iger and D’Amaro convinced him to return to the helm, and his optimism for the future. Vaughn had led Imagineering during a massive development phase previously–through the opening of Shanghai Disneyland–but was convinced the parks were on the precipice of something even bigger.

Then came presentations by portfolio executives from Florida who provided new details about the plans for Tropical Americas in Animal Kingdom and Beyond Big Thunder at Magic Kingdom. This was the meatiest portion of the presentation, with new substantive details about the Dino-Rama replacement featuring Indiana Jones, Encanto, and Coco plus brand-new concept art for the area.

No specifics were shared about what’s made the cut for Beyond Big Thunder (hopefully villains!), but the big news there was the sharing of an upcoming water management permit that will be filed in the next week or two. This is the first step in developing that area, and is somewhat similar to what was filed for Tropical Americas last month. Although there are no official timelines for the construction (much less opening years or dates), these are the next two major projects in the pipeline for Walt Disney World.

Much of what Vaughn and D’Amaro said was an unscripted version of their presentation at Destination D23 last fall (photo below is from then, not now). They were candid about the nuts and bolts of how expansion investments have been crystalizing, but it was a familiar story. As before, there was a sense of guarded excitement as they discussed plans for the future, while being hesitant to share specifics beyond what’s (mostly) already public knowledge.

It was Bob Iger who had the most interesting things to say. That’s in large part because we haven’t heard from Iger in a specifically Parks & Resorts context since his return. Iger wasn’t at Destination D23 (no Disney CEO has ever appeared at that event) and the last D23 Expo was at the end of the Chapek reign.

Sure, Iger has done CNBC interviews and earnings calls where the topic comes up, but those are usually 95% putting out fires and assuaging fears about streaming/studios/linear/etc., with 5% at the end being (more or less) that Parks & Resorts continues to do great. Not to mix metaphors, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease and the golden goose gets ignored.

In any case, Iger spoke at Imagineering exclusively about Parks and Resorts. I don’t recall hearing the words “streaming” “linear” or “ESPN” once. Mercifully. The first half of his remarks focused on the creative side, with one foot in the past and one in the future. For me, it wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it. Imbued with a sense of optimism and excitement, along with understanding of what Imagineering does and why it’s so important to the legacy of the company that bears Walt Disney’s name.

Some of the sentiment Iger expressed you’ve probably heard before. Way back in Chapek Did Not “Get” Disney, we distinguished between the two CEOs on the basis of their involvement in the creative process and respect for the people who make Disney, Disney. That should be abundantly clear from what’s come out since about the relationship breakdown between the two.

It’s also obvious with Imagineers like Vaughn and Rohde returning to Disney, while other ex-WDI employees (hopefully not “ex” for much longer as WDI starts to staff back up!) have expressed more optimism for the direction of the company. In interviews before streaming/linear/ESPN sucked up all the oxygen, Iger often highlighted Disney’s creative legacy and talked up Imagineering. So not exactly breaking news, but still nice to hear Iger reiterate his respect for WDI.

What I found more interesting was that, after D’Amaro spoke, Iger wanted to say a bit more. Here’s where he put a finer point on things, explaining things in terms that would normally be reserved for earnings calls. That they have reviewed performance of various divisions of the company, and it just made sense for the sake of shareholders, to invest more in Parks & Resorts. That they had the space, stories to tell, and there was guest appetite for expansion. The only thing they didn’t have, until this year, was the free cash flow.

Implicit in this seemed to be an acknowledgement that fans have taken an “I’ll believe it when I see it” viewpoint. Iger was indirectly ‘responding’ to that by pointing out the company has every reason to move full steam ahead on Parks & Resorts because that’s its best business. That the stars have aligned, so to speak, and the fans are about to get what they’ve been wanting.

This was especially significant, as was Iger’s presence at Imagineering in the first place, given that it was on the eve of the annual shareholders meeting. It’s safe to assume that Disney’s CEO is normally pretty busy, but especially so ahead of that–and in a year with a bitterly contested proxy battle. Against that backdrop, Iger’s being at Walt Disney Imagineering felt even more symbolically significant; it reflected where the CEO’s priorities are at that important moment in time.

A couple of days later, and Iger has won his battle for the boardroom. He has made clear that Disney’s strategic transformation is over, and it’s time to build and grow. Streaming isn’t hemorrhaging money; there’s a plan for ESPN and Hulu; cash flow has improved. The proxy fight is over. The feud with Florida is finished. DisneylandForward is going to be rubber stamped later this month. There are no more obstacles or excuses. It’s time to put up or shut up, fish or cut bait, etc.

We’ve been fairly forgiving of Disney’s non-announcement announcements for its theme parks over the course of the past two years. This started at the last D23 Expo, while Chapek was still at the helm. It continued with more Blue Sky sessions at last year’s Destination D23. We’ve been cautiously optimistic in spite of this because we knew there was a real desire–internally and externally–to bet big on theme parks. It was just a matter of timing with the fires that needed to be put out elsewhere in the company. In the coming weeks and months, it’s time for Disney to share really-for-real announcements and specifics. Finally. 

There are no longer any reasons, at least good ones, for Disney declining to go all-in on Parks & Resorts with substantive news rather than vague teases of things that could, maybe, happen in the future (perhaps). It’ll be fun to watch this unfold, and we hope our optimism in the future of Parks & Resorts is well-founded. It should be patently obvious one way or the other by Saturday, August 10, 2024 at around 10 p.m. Pacific…give or take.

The rest of this particular day was a showcase or open house, of sorts, with tours of various buildings and departments at Imagineering and what they’re working on. If I had to ascribe a “theme” to the day, it would be part “here’s a look at technology coming to the Walt Disney World and Disneyland that had previously only been in the international parks” and part “here’s a look at innovations that are actually going to make their way to the parks for more than just playtests.”

There was a final part that was just simply, “here’s a look at really cool stuff we’re working on that has possible future uses, but no designated destination.” The last part was undeniably awesome to see up close and in person–the kind of stuff fans only normally see in videos–but it’s the first two categories that have me most excited, since it’s stuff we’ll all be able to see in-person starting this month. I’ll have separate posts later today about a few of these things–so stay tuned.

Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside except in very limited areas of Imagineering for reasons that should be obvious. There was even a really cool “no photos” sign featuring Pete that I, sadly, could not photograph. Describing bleeding edge technologies doesn’t have quite the same impact as sharing photos and videos, so I’m not going to devote a wall of text to relaying my experience. Disney did provide some photos, so I want to briefly share a few highlights.

The first innovation I saw is the HoloTile floor, which you might recall from the profile of prolific Inventor Imagineer, Lanny Smoot. HoloTile is the world’s first and only multi-person, omni-directional, modular, expandable, treadmill floor, where any number of people can have a shared virtual reality experience, walk an unlimited distance in any direction, but never collide or walk off its surface.

According to Smoot, the HoloTile floor has potential applications in VR and gaming, theme parks, and music or theater stages. It allows performers to move and dance in new ways, or stage props and structures could move around or appear to set themselves up.

This was cool in the video Disney previously released, but seeing it up close and in-action was awesome. Watching the modular floor adjust in real-time while also seeing the displays was mindblowing. I’m not sure what I expected given that I could not (and still cannot) even conceive of how this works, but the monitors in tandem with the floor in tandem with Lanny Smoot’s actions were like a technological symphony, for lack of a better term. The end result seems simple, but achieving that simple result is unbelievably complex.

Another highlight was also in the research and development lab, where Imagineers demonstrated the latest iteration of their robotic technology. There have been various evolutions of this over the last couple of years, with WDI R&D entering its Zootopia era (my words, not theirs) last year at the South By Southwest conference. Disney Imagineers unveiled an untethered, dynamic Judy Hopps bunny robot on skates that could climb out of a box, tumble, steady itself, and perform a somersault.

For this presentation, Imagineers showcased the follow-up to that, a Duke Weaselton character created for the opening of Shanghai Disneyland (video). They indicated that the parks team there had no use for a rabbit that could climb out of a box, but an interrupting weasel was just the ticket.

Unsurprisingly, this was also very technically impressive. The robots’ (plural as both Duke and the kiosk are robots) have the ability to perform dynamic maneuvers and make adjustments, and to see them work in tandem to create a seamless ‘show’ was incredible. It doesn’t seem like this technology is that far off from being used in a stage show in the parks or even a dark ride–in addition to trackless ride vehicles, we could have dynamic show scenes.

As cool as Duke Weaselton was, I actually liked the Star Wars BDX Droids more. They didn’t wow in the same way, objectively, but the movements and mannerisms were more relatable. Those adorable ‘duckling’ droids just do a bit better of a job at generating emotional connections than the sarcastic weasel. But obviously, the goals with each robotic character are different–and both are varying degrees of mind-blowingly awesome.

Ultimately, it was really cool to tour Walt Disney Imagineering and see a showcase of old and new technologies in those hallowed halls. You can see the reverence for the creative legacy on full display as Imagineers preserve and proudly display pieces from the past. Walking around felt like a veritable Easter Egg hunt, as every corner is packed with nods to past, present, and work-in-progress projects.

As I’ve said before, these presentations–whether they’ve been via video or now in-person–are the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a Disney fan. The creativity of Imagineering is endlessly inspiring, and this type of innovation is proof positive that they’re good stewards of Walt Disney’s legacy. Seeing the Imagineers flex their creative muscles is awesome.

That WDI is on the bleeding edge of these developments is, in and of itself, pretty cool. While I loved the stuff mentioned here that’s simply innovation for innovation’s sake (an important part of the R&D process), what I really appreciated was that this visit was a mix of that and technology that will soon be at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. As I keep saying, I’m optimistic about the next generation of additions–stuff like this is a big reason why!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of this look inside Imagineering? Pleased that Bob Iger and Josh D’Amaro are seemingly focused on what Imagineers are working on? Any of the innovations mentioned here really wow you? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!




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