Exclusive: Interview With Walt Disney Imagineering's Bob Weis

November 19, 2020, 12:19 PM · Walt Disney Imagineering President Bob Weis has won this year's The Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Outstanding Achievements from the Themed Entertainment Association. Named for Walt Disney's longtime consultant — who chose the sites for Disneyland and Walt Disney World and established the industry standard for feasibility studies for Universal, Six Flags, and just about every other major park out there — the award honors an individual who has "set an outstanding public example for excellence in compelling places and experiences," according to the TEA.

Bob certainly meets that criterion, having started with WDI on Tokyo Disneyland and today overseeing projects from Shanghai Disneyland to the new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway, both of which the TEA also honored today with Thea Awards. But Bob has served the industry outside of Disney, as well, developing projects for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center and even the United States Navy.

WDI invited me to interview Bob after he received word of the honor. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Robert: Congratulations on a huge honor from your colleagues throughout the industry. What went through your mind when you first heard the news?

Bob: There's no question, Robert, it's a tremendous honor. And, you know, I'm very measured about it. Because when I think of anything I've done, it's all collaboration. Everything's a collaboration. Everything is about people working together and wanting to work together. If I've done anything — I'm pretty modest about it — it's encouraging teams to move forward and to collaborate.

And obviously it's a kind of a measured point where we are in our business right now, but I think that the TEA has done such an amazing job of unifying the industry. We always thought of Disney Imagineering as a family. I think we think of the whole industry as a family now. So that makes it that much more special for me.

Bob Weis
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Imagineering

I come away with a renewed sense of what we do that is so meaningful to people — that it's so emotionally connected to them and their families. That's something that people want to come back to. They miss it, so that gives us a great responsibility to do these things well, to do them safely, and also to be able to simulate our whole business so that our incredibly talented designers, engineers, and innovators can all be working — to get everybody back to work and provide new opportunities for new voices, for young voices.

I don't want to do "lifetime achievement," because I'm not finished yet. I do consider it a tremendous honor from them, but it's a measured response because I feel very seriously about all the important work we're doing right now.

Robert: Maybe if we don't want to use the words lifetime achievement, we could talk about lifetime influence. I think of all the varied projects you've worked on — not just in the United States but around the world, and not just in theme parks, but also in other aspects of themed entertainment. Tell me a little bit about how they have collectively influenced the way that you approach storytelling and leadership at WDI.

Bob: In my first job with Imagineering, so my first job out of college, I was assigned to the Tokyo Disneyland project. And the reason I benefited is because Tokyo Disneyland was the first time that Disney went outside the United States. It was a very close collaboration between us and Oriental Land Co. and their participants, from architects and engineers to show people. So at a very early stage in my career I thought about Disney as an international collaborator, even though that was really the first time.

So I've always thought of Disney as being the best of what Disney brings and what the rest of the project brings. In Japan, it was tremendous collaborators there. And then you fast-forward to Shanghai, thinking that we had to find collaborators in China, to bring those voices in. What an exciting thing to be able to combine Disney's voices with local voices to do something. This is the only place you could do that, so that's certainly influenced me a lot.

And then I just have loved working in the museum and the nonprofit world. I worked for several years with the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I did some exhibits there, some master planning. I guess I love the opportunity to take the techniques we use in our business of immersive entertainment and use them for an even more educational purpose, to get kids and families involved in concepts of science or history. I've always believed that what we do in this business really communicates and grips people, but when you do it with the added purpose of educating kids and things like that, it's really meaningful. I wouldn't trade my Disney experience or my nonprofit experience. I feel like I got a dimension from each of them.

I don't know if you know about this. I did a project for the United States Navy. I'm not a veteran. I didn't serve in the military, but we did this project where we developed a training facility in Great Lakes [Naval Station] above Chicago, and it's literally a giant soundstage. And when these naval trainees come in, they're completely immersed in a mission. There's an attack — a disaster that happens. And they have to use every part of their training. The whole night, they have to prove that they've learned it all by really facing disaster.

What the Navy wanted was people from the themed entertainment industry, because they wanted these recruits to be as if it was really happening. So it's real fire effects, real flood effects, a shaking ship — all those things, which they couldn't really have done without entertainment folks. We've used our techniques in this industry to do that successfully. But to know that you've done something that every naval officer has gone through, that's a very meaningful thing. So I couldn't be happier with the Disney projects and some of the interesting things I've gotten involved with elsewhere.

Robert: Themed entertainment is so much more than theme parks, and it applies to so many places and industries around the world. Thinking about that world and some of the influences, you started to talk a little bit about the relationships that you've built in China with Shanghai Disneyland. Could you share with us a particularly rewarding example of working with a local voice there that you were able to bring to a broader audience by including them in a project with Disney?

Bob: We have a lot of fantastic artists and designers, and we kind of thought — it's sort of an American stereotype — we'll have the creative people, and they'll have the technical people. The gratifying, surprising thing was seeing the amazing artistic cultures [in China]. We should have known that, but it took a while, because at first many of the people in China — out of the theater business, in the film business or out of academics — they said, "This Disney thing, is it really for us?" We finally got a few to come over and do work, whether it was rock work or sculpting or things like that. They started to bring their friends, and they started bringing their other friends. A little by little, we built an incredible artistic culture over there.

And it was very gratifying because we thought we'd go over there and maybe train them. We ended up coming away saying, "We trained them, and they trained us. We learned." When you do these projects, you spend, in my case in Shanghai, seven years working on something. There's a lot of things that you remember afterwards, and I think that cultural change was huge. In Tokyo, I still am in contact with people I built Tokyo Disneyland with. That's how long those relationships last.

Robert: Getting this honor at this particular moment in time has to be a little bit bittersweet, given the state of the industry right now due to the pandemic. What are you drawing upon in your experience in this industry that's going to help you as we collectively face this challenge going forward, of essentially rebuilding the theme park industry?

Bob: I think the first thing, of course, is that you realize how important it is to the people — the families, the grandparents, parents, kids. I think the other thing that I saw was people jumping in to do whatever they could do. That included working with the parks on everything from safety, to masks, to new kinds of touchless transactions, to figuring out meeting characters. How do you rethink how that works? How do you restage live performances? We still have them; we are still telling the story. The performers have more safe distance between them, but the guest doesn't really see that's changed. There's so many things we bought into.

When we all went from our offices to suddenly dispersed at home all over the place, there were Imagineering innovators who packed stuff in their cars and took it home and set up test beds and things in their kitchens, because they didn't want to lose a day of work or advancement. That to me is just amazing, that we can all unify against something like that. That's been very gratifying to see. You expect it. You expect people to all come together, but to see it is pretty amazing.

Also, these days it is especially important for us all to be great mentors. Everyone deserves a mentor in their career development. I benefited at every turn of my career from a mentor who stretched me, and helped me succeed.

Robert: On the topic of mentorship, a lot of times when I'm talking to people who are in a position of winning an award like this, I ask them what their advice is for aspiring designers who want to get into the industry. But at this moment, I also have to ask, what's your advice for people who were in this industry eight months ago, and now find themselves on the outside looking in? What's the advice for people who are on furlough, or laid off, or have lost clients — who are wondering, I am going to have career?

Bob: I guess I'm still a fundamental optimist, and I believe that the work that we do is important. It's important all around the world. And as the business comes back, the need for new projects, new ideas — that continues. So in the medium term, I still feel optimistic. I also think that the work that we do, as you said a minute ago, has application across broader industries than the theme park industry. We've shown that in Imagineering by doing hospital design and things like that, where our storytelling made meaningful strides in terms of families and their kids.

The other thing is — and I credit the TEA with this, too — is that wherever you go, you take all that experience with you. You don't leave it. It's yours. You take it with you. So each of us has inside of us the work that we did, experiences that we have, the knowledge we have. The industry has evolved. We share a lot of things now. We're not as siloed as we once were, so I think the idea that people can move and take their passions with them was really important as well.

We're an important part of people's lives, and I'm not sure that anything's going to change that. What do we have, 30 million years of people telling stories around the campfire? I think that's not likely to change anytime soon.

Robert: As so many of us are at home working at this point and not being able to be in quite the same environments as we were before, what are some of the things that are motivating you right now? What are some of the things or the places where you are finding inspiration?

Bob: I'd say that probably a lot of us have benefited by a lot more family time than we're used to. That's been incredible to have that family time. My daughter is going to school on Zoom and to see how quickly she adapted to that, it's pretty amazing — so we're inspired by that. I think we're inspired by the people who build a ride in their backyard or living room — the innovation of our guests. I don't know if you've seen some of these things that our Imagineers are doing, like [creating] Disney park buildings that people can print out on their home printers so that kids can build models. We didn't stop being creative. We didn't stop having the need to entertain.

I think the online world has been interesting because we all expected it to be not good at all for creative collaboration. I think even there we've had great strides in terms being able to talk about a creative idea or a story and to continue the creative work, even though we're physically disconnected.

Now, it would be nice to be out on the patio, having coffee and just run into somebody. You don't have serendipity right now – everything's scheduled. Imagineering is definitely a hallway culture. We love to run into people and say, "Oh, I have a creative idea to talk to you about. I was thinking about calling you." That's the part that I think we all miss – just standing around, everybody together around a model or something like that. But surprisingly, the dialogue, collaboration, facing challenges together – it's worked pretty well even though we're all separated.

Robert: Do you think that this experience is going to change the audience and, therefore, change the way that you need to approach storytelling> Or are there some cardinal rules that are still going to hold?

Bob: I have to think it's a combination. I think there are certain things that people still want to do. Coming back to my Shanghai days, the first time I ever rode the Tron ride and I scared myself half to death, even though I was involved in designing it. The first time you ride it, it's quite an experience. There's a certain amount of physicalization, that first-person experience that just does not go away.

I think those experiences are relentless and needed by people and emotionally connected to people. That said, I think we have to rethink how we manage the size of the audience – the queues. We're endeavoring to eliminate wait times for food ordering, to add touchless transactions. It might have taken us 10 years to transition, and because of this, it's transitioned already. What would have taken 10 years for the audience to adapt has taken a year.

But I do believe in the fundamentals. I still read Walt quotes and I get emotional comfort. I think a lot of those things go back to Walt's original concept for what we're still about.

Robert: Is there anything else that you'd like to add, particularly to the fan community, about where Imagineering is at this moment and where you see things going from here?

Bob: To the fan community, which is so incredibly inspiring to us, we're still doing this. We're still incredibly actively involved – we've got projects around the world that we know they're going to be excited about. In fact, Josh D'Amaro came over from a big review about a week ago, and he said, "If I didn't know what else was going on in the world, I wouldn't be able to tell from your presentation because you have so much work around the world. So many people doing great projects."

We're still inventing. We're still developing. We're still building. We're doing it safer than ever and better than ever. So I think there's plenty things coming for the fans in every market and every place we're working, so that's a very exciting thing. Imagineers are as dedicated as they have been, and we are as committed to the whole industry as we have been, so I think that's a great thing for the fans and for all of us who work here.

For somebody like me who has been doing this for a long time, it's still all about that collaboration. No matter what happens around us, we keep going – we keep trying to work around it, trying to make things happen.

To learn more about Disney's other Thea Award-winning projects this year, watch our conversations with their creators:

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Replies (3)

November 19, 2020 at 2:22 PM

"I don't know if you know about this. I did a project for the United States Navy. I'm not a veteran. I didn't serve in the military, but we did this project where we developed a training facility in Great Lakes [Naval Station] above Chicago, and it's literally a giant soundstage. And when these naval trainees come in, they're completely immersed in a mission. There's an attack — a disaster that happens. And they have to use every part of their training. The whole night, they have to prove that they've learned it all by really facing disaster."

So he actually designed a real Kobayashi Maru???

November 19, 2020 at 2:43 PM

That’s EXACTLY what I was thinking when he described that!

November 19, 2020 at 2:47 PM

@Russell -- I had to look up the reference, but well played.

@Robert -- I got kind of emotional reading this. Thank you (and thanks to Bob) for not shying away from the current circumstances in your conversation. It's a combination of my happy memories of visiting many theme parks (and working in a few of them), my general anxiety over where we are with the virus, and just learning about Bob's career (between this interview and the statement on the Disney Parks Blog about the award and about Bob's career), and realizing that he is probably the BEST person to be the President of Walt Disney Imagineering right now. He's got the experience, the attitude, and the skills to get the corroboration that is needed now more than ever. It created a perfect storm of happiness with my memories, and knowing that WDI is in amazing hands, and sadness about what we continue to go through as people with this virus.

If Disneyland (my closest Disney park) was open right now, I don't know if I'd go yet (granted, Walt Disney World has done a great job with implementing safety measures, but I work with the public and know that some people will try EVERYTHING to get around the rules when it comes to masks and social distancing). But I REALLY miss the experience.

I was also touched by Bob talking about riding the TRON coaster for the first time -- how even though he helped design the darned thing, there is something thrilling about that first experience. Last September, my most recent visit to Disneyland (I had planned to go back this past March, but then things happened), and I had my first experience on HyperSpace Mountain. Even having ridden Space Mountain my entire life, there was something about this particular experience. I'd been on the Ghost Galaxy version, so I expected projections. But I didn't expect the experience I got, and it made me SO happy that I had gone with MaxPass so I could get the on-ride photo -- the most genuine smile I've had on that ride in decades. Something familiar can blow one away if experienced in a different way -- in his case, actually riding the coaster he helped design, and in my case, experiencing a familiar attraction in an unfamiliar way.

Thank you for this interview. Sorry for the ranting reply. I get like that when I'm emotional.

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