Understanding What Your Spark Is: Lessons from Nancy Seruto

August 6, 2020, 2:53 PM · From the Top of the Rock in New York to Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure in Shanghai, Nancy Seruto has helped create some of the world's most iconic attractions. That's why the Themed Entertainment Association honored her with this year's Buzz Price Thea Award for Lifetime Achievement. She told her story of how she made her way into and up through the industry this morning in the first session of the TEA's Thea Awards Digital Case Studies.

Seruto's presentation was supposed to be part of the annual TEA Summit at the Disneyland Hotel back in April. But as with so much this year, the pandemic scuttled those plans. So the TEA adapted and is now presenting its annual Thea Award Case Studies online. Today's presentation was the first of seven sessions, running through November 5. The full schedule and tickets are available on the TEA's website.

Although she works now with Walt Disney Imagineering, Seruto came to Disney relatively late in her career, which began as a stagehand at the Long Beach Convention Center. But that career never would have happened had she not rejected the path her father had chosen for her.

Nancy Seruto
Photo courtesy the TEA

"I grew up in... my father's Sicilian culture that reinforced that the ideal woman would be a wife and a mother and that was really my only option. That is where I should be shooting, and so that message came through strong and clear my whole life," said Seruto, only the second woman (after WDI's Kim Irvine) to win the Buzz Price award.

"Of course it's reinforced by popular media at the time, in the 60s," she said. "So you have this struggle on two levels: the struggle against the downward pressure from the culture around you, and the struggle internally, with your own self-confidence and your self-esteem that is inevitably going to be affected by this message being so repeated, so consistently, throughout your life."

Seruto credited her mother for helping her.

"She had four daughters who she had the highest ambition for, but a [husband] who was reinforcing this message. And so she was always in a delicate balance... trying to inspire us without creating tremendous conflict with him," Seruto said. "I remember that in high school this conflict between my father and I was really heating up and was getting very explosive. She pulled me aside and she said, 'Nancy, your father's vision of you is not you. He doesn't define you. You are who you make yourself.' And I think about the impact of her saying that to me at that phase of my life every day."

Seruto spoke from a studio in her home, surrounded by many of her paintings. She credited painting with inspiring her, not just from the natural settings in which she paints but also from the personal connections she has made with others in the art community.

"When you are outputting all the time, that well can run a little dry. Going and seeing other work and theater and all of that is great, but where do you get to that core piece of you, that is able to create from nothing, to face the blank page, to face the blank canvas? You have to be able to understand what your spark is."

Seruto eventually started her own design company, working on many small projects and traveling exhibitions. But when Bob Weis asked her to join Disney for the Shanghai Disneyland project, she discovered that she needed to learn how to work on a much larger canvas.

"I think I'm a pretty effective person and I can get a lot done myself. But at some point, the project just exceeds you. Then you have to completely shift your thinking. And if you don't do it soon enough - if you don't see that escalation coming - then you become a bottleneck, an obstacle to the project moving. So I had to learn that," she said. "And once I realized that, I didn't have to evaluate myself on what I could do myself. My success was on what my team was able to do - and my ability to pave the way for them to do that. That is, I think, my biggest learning on this most recent journey."

In another online session following Seruto's presentation, colleagues from around the industry praised Seruto for abilities to build and inspire creative teams.

The Thea Awards Digital Case Studies continue August 20 with presentations from three Thea Award-winning museums. The seventh and final block, on November 5, will feature presentations from the creators of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. For the complete schedule and to buy tickets, visit the TEA website.

All sessions are archived, so you can catch up with any you miss, including today's session. However, watching live allows you to network online with the hundreds of other TEA members who are participating in the event.

Replies (2)

August 6, 2020 at 7:43 PM

From reading to my personal encounters, team WDI has some of the most extraordinarily creative people. Great article!

August 7, 2020 at 12:36 AM

Loved this! Totally inspiring! So many words of wisdom in one short article. And did not know about the TEA information so now looking into it. As always, thanks so much!

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