Monday, May 11, 2009

WWED? Armchair Imagineering with Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto is a former Senior Vice President of Concept Design at Walt Disney Imagineering; whose work on such projects as Main Street at Disneyland Paris, Indiana Jones: Temple of the Forbidden Eye, The Encounter Restaurant at LAX, and so many more, will ignite the smiles of guest’s for years to come. Mr. Sotto currently owns and operates his own design studio in LA, developing immersive experiences such as retail stores, restaurants, and other assorted themed experiences to a wide array of clients.

Concept Art by Eddie Sotto for Main Street

Concept Art by Eddie Sotto for Tom Sawyers Island, the catacombs of Jean Lafitte's conquests

When aspiring Imagineers and Disney park fans talk about Imagineering, there are many hot topics that oftentimes find their way to the forefront of the discussion. With 13 years experience with WDI under his belt, Former Imagineer Eddie Sotto kindly lent his time to us here at Imagineering Disney to give his own unique take on how he would tackle some of WDI’s most commonly discussed questions.

E.S: First off, this year marks a decade since I quit my job as SVP Concept Design at WDI. Much has changed since those "Eisnerian" years and it may seem presumptuous for me to spout off what I would have done or would do creatively as it it were some revelation or better idea, when in fact, better ideas no doubt have been discussed within the WDI "cone of silence", just never made public. Management would become deaf to the continual onslaught of creative ideas, often real breakthroughs became "cannon fodder" and got lost in the brainstorming shuffle. I read online suggestions many times that have a "why didn't they think of that" tone to them, when in fact, I laugh to myself knowing they did think of it, but as with most great ideas, they seldom see the light of day. So I'm doing this interview with the attitude that I don't know any more or any better than anyone else, but lend a perspective that might be interesting reading. Today's Imagineers have a tougher time of it given the economy, so it's to them and their endurance that my support lies.

A complete Tomorrowland overhaul was originally slated by Eisner to be done in the late 90's, but as we all know, it never came to fruition. We have seen updates to a few rides in Tomorrowland (Finding Nemo Sub's, Space Mountain) but many agree that Tomorrowland is in desperate need of a total refurbishment, as it has outdated itself many times over and does not adequately represent the hope and grandeur of the future that it is supposed to. What sort of things would you do to if you were to create "Tommorowland 2055"?

E.S: I have always been a big fan of the 1967 version as I thought it was very sincere and actually demonstrated a tangible future. You rode a Peoplemover, the Monorail brought you in and out of the land. The band rose up from the ground in a futuristic way. and of course a model of "Progress City" was there to show you how it all would fit together as at the time Disney was planning to actually build it! A hard act to follow. The land was designed in an Eero Saarinen inspired style (i.e.TWA Terminal JFK Airport) that represented its day, but was optimistic and very clean without being wholly minimal. Space Mountain is a beautiful and original design. It was not kitchy at all.

There are two ways to go with this. One is to create a retro, somewhat timeless concept that does not require frequent updates and is based on cute optimism. (Makes the most fiscal sense.) We have that now. The other is to set a goal to actually lead the future and risk being outdated by the time you open then keep it fresh. We are in the Digital Age with more innovation that there ever was in the 1960's. Here's where it could get interesting. Today's public is exposed to more beautiful industrial design than ever. Toilet brushes are now designed by Phillippe Starck and sold at Target. Guys like Steve Jobs have used design as a universal language for the future by making computers in themselves optimistically iconic and beautiful. And it sells. The Apple Stores have extended the device design into a seamless physical environment. The future CAN be fun, beautiful, cool and need not be beige plastic. By using natural wood, stone and glass in their stores, Apple conveys that the future is real and tangible, more than gold spray paint. This leads me to believe that companies and designers like Apple, Zaha Hadid, Calatrava, Pininfarina, and other firms that predict the future as design could be part of a new rebirth of Tomorrowland as a nexus of great optimistic experiences. Perhaps Digital LED walls and "buildings that think" or sense your presence. Stuff like that. Showcasing all that's green by it being the norm, not just green gadgets. Why not a "Volt" or "Tesla" Autopia?(This would take big moves as Oil Companies are the sponsoring of the future right now. It gets very complex and difficult very fast. ) The challenge with this is that it would have to reach out beyond what these firms would do in Vegas, a home show or a Mall, it would have to still have the impact of something truly unique and set the bar high. WDI adds that factor. All of this never takes the place of great Attractions, it's just the wrapper. Segways, Smart Cars, Free Ranging ride Vehicles, etc. Tomorrowland should reflect the optimism and bold creativity of Pasadena's Art Center Student Shows.

I know that it may not make fiscal sense to try this and is hard to keep fresh, but to me if you are going to offer an "escape" to guests from their daily lives, a tangible hope for the future is a big part of fulfilling that. I know it was for me. This would have to be born of a corporate initiative to lead the future as Walt did with his Space and transportation passions.

Progress City

Architect Santiago Calatrava

Architect Zaha Hadid

Apple Store in NYC

There are always rumors swirling around the inevitable "5th park" at Disney World. Beastly Kingdom was originally supposed to be another section of Animal Kingdom, but has also been rumored as being its own separate park. Are there any particular themes or ideas that you would explore if you were to create that elusive next new park?

E.S: To build on the Tomorrowland notion, I say build Walt's "Progress City" for real as part of the Disney Vacation Club. He deserves that much. DVC members get to play "resident" in the Tower Rooms and Bungalows sampling the future, and regular guests can hop off the monorail and spend their ever loving guts out in the Amazon mall of the future and at the Google Restaurants. It would be the most talked about thing WDI has ever done (especially if you had to dress like they did in "Logan's Run"!). The Future Spa would be insane as well. (I working on that one right now) Peoplemovers are the main mode of transport, the Monorail bisects the resort, just like in the GE show. Do the Hub and spoke plan with a new tower in the middle (all green powered), ringed by a "minority report" wow factor indoor mall. The whole nine yards on crack. Tech Companies could fill it with their stuff. (i.e.The Microsoft touch table restaurant, etc) the Apple iSuite. Teslas and Segways, and of course there will always be an amazing wave pool for the kids and organic 20 calorie GE shapedChurros. You name it it's all there. Believe me, it would make so much money it's not even funny.

Microsoft Surface, new touch screen technology

California Adventure has been under scrutiny ever since it opened in 2001. Though it seemed to have started off on the wrong foot, the new 1.1 billion dollar expansion looks promising. What are your thoughts on this expansion? It is clear that the expansion (and a lot of Disney's new ventures) is very character centric, and Imagineers have been accused of creating a lack of original content lately. If you were to tackle the expansion of California Adventure, how would you go about it and what sort of things might you do?

E.S: The investment of 1.1 billion of (or whatever it is), is an unprecedented vote of confidence from the board to WDI and especially Bob Weis. It's huge. They are committed to doing whatever it takes to make the park work and additionally, so much of the money going into placemaking reveals a corporate long term approach to making the park a "place you want to be" as a top priority. This is a big sea change from the past.

I'm not sure what I would do that isn't being done. To me, DCA can in places be really difficult as you don't have a berm, so the "immersion" into another world is hard to begin with. You have to get the guest out of the old parking lot and into another time and place. The new entrance will do that for sure. If it were me, I'd try to squeeze in one more "wow" D or E Attraction, or level up an existing one to that status. I hope the Carthay Circle Theater will become something amazing as they had proposed. The "World of Color" show seems to be Fantasmic! on Crack. So the lake in the middle will become a great "engine" for the park. It needed that Disney "heartbeat" and a must see. All good. A minor touch would be to overlay a late 1920's overlay into Paradise Pier (layers of change) to differentiate it from Main Street (anyone who knew me on DLP could see that comment coming a mile away). The character imagery is from that time so they are halfway there now just add a bit more story texture. I loved the "Roaring 20's" area of Knott's back in the 80's and it had a great period feel that never felt overly cute. The architecture was done in layers, The 20's slapped right over the old 1890s. It kind of came off realistic in a way. Paradise Pier has a great kinetic energy with that coaster, something Main Street will never have. So there seems to be an opportunity to exploit that as I'm sure they will. I love seeing attractions they added that are borne out of California's past like the Pacific Electric RedCar. It's the history buff thing. That's just my two cents, the upgrades they are making are all top quality.

"Roaring 20's" area of Knott's back in the 80's

Concept Art of DCA's new entrance

You had a lead role while you were with Imagineering designing the Encounter Restaurant at LAX. As far as I know, this is one of the few larger ventures Imagineering has worked on that wasn't directly attached to the Disney brand. I've heard this was one of your favorite design experiences; do you think that Imagineering should get more involved in these sorts of outside endeavors? And if so, what kind of projects would you have Imagineering seek out?

E.S: Only if you can learn something, break even and take the brand somewhere it makes sense to explore. LAX did all three. We justified LAX internally as a means to learn how to do a small project in a highly political environment like an airport and do it for a budget. Believe it not that project got a THEA award for best project on a limited budget.

As to what to seek out. Hmmm. If the recent fiasco with the DL Monorails is any indication, they learned some valuable lessons in transportation design. I'd love to see WDI close the "experiential" gap in the show between the airport and their new hotel initiatives with great light rail and trans solutions (Buses too!) that cities can latch onto (or begin by fixing the Florida property). Overhead is always an issue as to being competitive, so who knows where that will end up. I think they can get there if the company supports a futuristic vision.

Concept Art by Eddie Sotto of the Interior of the Encounter Restaraunt at LAX

Encounter Restaurant at LAX

Plain and simple, which Disney attraction (from any of the parks) is in the most need for a refurbishment? What would you do in designing this refurbishment?

E.S: Good question. So many of the obvious choices are in development from what I read, like "Star Tours", "Lincoln" or "Hall of Presidents". I'd bite off the whole of EPCOT, as it is a grand opportunity and a unique theme to develop as parks go. Money is usually the reason you don't see this stuff happen, so it's no one's fault that things are as they are. But if cash were no object, I'd want to really make Future World deliver on it's promise and send guests away with a "call to action" to make the future brighter. The voice of Future world could be "we are, not you should" as the future is shown to you by example not preached. Maybe look ahead to a better balance between where you use characters to deliver the content and make it something that sophisticated grownups can appreciate as well as the kids. Make it more legit. Private Spaceflight companies like Virgin Galactic should set up spaceport training centers right on site.

World Showcase could be much more relevant beyond the traditional cultures, as Italy to me is not just Lasagna, it's Ferraris and Ducati. Japan's Kyoto traditions may benefit from the contrast of the Ginza, Germany is always Oktoberfest, but also Porsche Design, UK is Fashion, and Rock and Roll. I love the pavilions but how can they be more expansive and satisfying. The Wine and Food Fest proves how rich they can be. The one attraction (to answer your question) might be to update the Energy Pavilion as alternative energy is the one thing on our planet that seems most relevant and in need of delivering on. Maybe there is an area to demo things like that as a post show? This pavilion has a great ride system and Dinosaurs, so there are some good "bones" to work with. Not to mention the capability to use 3D on those huge screens. Again, the sponsor has a big say, so it's never easy. I'm sure you'll find at least ten drawers full of ideas like this back at WDI.

Thank you very much for your time, this unique interview has given future Imagineers and Disney park fans alike a one of a kind and insightful perspective directly from a veteran Imagineer’s mind. It’s been a pleasure.

E.S: You are more than welcome, I hope these "armchair Imagineering" observations spur some interesting blogging and some good old fashioned hate mail.

Check out the Sotto Studios website to see some of Eddie’s exceptional work, as well as his other interviews featured on the Disney and More blog as well as which has just recently released an entire 4-part series of Interviews with the Eddie that are absolutely inspiring!

Also, feel free to leave your own take on these questions and comment on Mr. Sotto’s answers!