Dining with an Imagineer, Dinner at Flying Fish Cafe, Boardwalk Inn & Villas, Walt Disney World – Part 1: The Imagineer

We’ve talked about doing a Dining with an Imagineer event for a couple of years, the dinner event at Flying Fish Cafe is relatively new (the lunch event at The Brown Derby has been around longer).

There’s so much information and so much detail about food to share with our readers that we split it into two blog posts…

Our Imagineer was Robert Sias, he’s a manager of sponsor integration with Walt Disney Imagineering (there are two imagineers in sponsor integration in Florida and two in California, that’s it worldwide!)

The DIS biography of our Imagineer, Robert Sias

The DIS biography of our Imagineer, Robert Sias

We were seated in a somewhat secluded dining area that was off to the side and allowed us some ability to hear better. There were nine guests around the table (including a very well behaved teenager), our imagineer for the evening, and our server, Russ. Bob said that we’d have an hour and a half to ask questions, nothing off limits, but no guarantees that he’d answer them.

Robert Sias, Manager, Product Integration

Robert Sias, Manager, Product Integration

To get things started, Bob told us about what he does and how he came to be a Disney Imagineer.

  • What is an Imagineer? It’s anyone who works in the creative and the practical aspects of creating Disney experiences (well, that’s a broad definition, it’s really someone who’s employed by WDI).
    • You don’t have to draw to be an Imagineer
    • You don’t have to  be an engineer to be an Imagineer
    • You don’t even really have to be traditionally creative to be an Imagineer
  • What is Sponsor Integration? It’s bringing together the corporations (sponsors of attractions and merchandise) and the creative side of Imagineering
    • Disney has had corporate sponsors since Day 1 – removing the real world and creating magic takes money after all
    • These relationships are mutually beneficial – it’s important that they be built so that the Disney brand and culture are upheld while upholding the sponsor brand and culture
    • Examples: Coca-cola, Hanes, and General Motors
    • Note: there are 2 Imagineers in Sponsor Integration at Walt Disney World, there are 4 worldwide (small group!)
  • What is Bob’s pathway to becoming an Imagineer?
    • He grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana and visited Disneyland as a child
      • He was a military brat and his family was on its way from Guam to Texas… more later on this story
    • He went to Baylor University in Texas (as did two other people at our table) where he majored in Marketing Management
    • In 1990, he moved to Florida and went to work for Walt Disney World (the first time he’d been here!)
      • He started out in tee-shirts and plush
      • 3 years later, he moved over to marketing, after that he worked all over the place at WDW
      • 7 years ago, he moved to Imagineering where he works with “purist” Imagineers and explains marketing to them <smile>

Next, as a way of getting acquainted with each other, we each recounted either our first Disney experience or our favorite Disney experience… Bob then told us of his first visit to Disneyland. He remembers riding Peter Pan’s Flight and being enchanted by it, his mom said that as they left Disneyland Bob told her that he was going to work for Disney someday.

Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) is the creative design arm for Disney parks and resorts (and cruise ships etc…). The focus is on experiences and story-telling. The goal is to keep with Walt’s visions.

Some details about WDI…

  • WDI was originally WED (for Walter Elias Disney), Walt started the group in order to bring together creative minds to build Disneyland
  • The corporate headquarters are in Glendale, California – at first there were few imagineers and they didn’t need much space, now there are over 1000 Imagineers in California and they have many more building than when WDI began
  • There are about 300 Imagineers at Walt Disney World
  • There are two research arms of WDI, located in Pittsburgh and in Switzerland
  • There are Imagineers from all sorts of disciplines
  • They are always working on new technologies and ideas – not because there are specific plans to use or implement the new technologies – but because they want to learn and explore — the problem is usually “scalability” or consistency

Other topics of conversation…

  • The Seven Dwarves Mine Train ride in the New Fantasyland
    • The Imagineers started asking themselves when planning the New Fantasyland… What about little boys?
    • The idea of doing something based on the seven dwarves came about, and they definitely wanted to create an “active” attraction
    • So, with this new attraction, you’ll be going to work with the dwarves; it’s considered to be a moderate intensity ride and will have gravity controlled sway
  • The Dragon at Magic Kingdom
    • Storyline – when they were changing around the Fantasyland area, they found dragon eggs and managed to make one of them hatch
    • The dragon flew over the New Fantasyland in early December
    • There are no plans to bring the dragon back, again, the problem is scalability
  • Test Track
    • Bob worked on the sponsorship with General Motors for the update
    • GM asked Disney for the update, they wanted to renew the sponsorship but felt that it was time to do something a little different
    • Rather than focusing on the testing of General Motors in general, they wanted to focus on Chevrolet
      • Cutting edge
      • Personalized experience
    • Interesting aspects
      • Couldn’t really change the ride itself but could change the queue
      • The computer stuff at the new Test Track is still experimental and undergoing continued development
    • Has become the benchmark for updating Future World at Epcot
  • Example of Brainstorming with a Brand
    • Hanes came to WDI and wanted to do something, wanted to sponsor an attraction
    • Through brainstorming, they came up with the idea to change the queue for Rock’n’Roller Coaster by using concert tee-shirts
  • What is a Theme Park?
    • A Theme Park is moving people in and out of buildings… it comes down to throughput for big rides – so the only thing to do is to try to enhance the line experience
    • Guests’ top complaint… “I don’t want to wait in line”… thus we now have Fast Pass = a way to get people in and out of the buildings as smoothly and quickly as possible (remember, if they’re waiting in line, they aren’t spending money)
    • The balancing act is managing the guest experience
  • What is your favorite project?
    • No hesitation, Test Track
    • It was on, then went away, then came back
    • It was very challenging creatively, timing wise, and financially
    • Excellent example of collaboration
    • During the process, Bob said to himself “it’s never going to happen!”
  • How do you become an Imagineer?
    • No great secret
    • Find your passion
    • Create experience
    • Apply to WDI
    • Really, it takes experience and patience
  • How does Disney stick to the story?
    • Its part of the corporate culture
    • Meetings are used correctly
    • Constantly asking, who are we as a company?
    • (Iger realizes that experiences are content marketing)
  • Cars Land, coming to WDW?
    • Well, it’s a sure thing at Disney’s California Adventure; no comment regarding Walt Disney World
    • NOTE this is the first time that a whole land has been devoted to a single film
  • New Theme Parks?
    • Don’t think there’s going to be any new theme parks anytime soon
    • Expect to see more refurbishments and changes such as seen at Disney’s California Adventure
  • Animal Kingdom pitch
    • There was the idea to create a new theme park
    • One of the pitches was for an animal park
    • Joe Rhode said we make imagined places, but Animal Kingdom is the opportunity to tell stories of imagined, real life, and extinct animals
    • note: Avatarland is still being planned
  • Marketing and Advertising Campaigns
    • Sometimes they start from things seen in the social media
    • Sometimes they start from target groups (ex: NFL, Test Track, Art of Animation resort)
    • Usually they are age stratified
  • In 22 years, what gives you goosebumps?
    • Animal Kingdom opening, he did the marketing for the opening
    • It was all new to him and was just an amazing experience
  • Further notes:
    • Disney has been very good with fairytales and princesses – now it’s time to find things appealing to boys
    • The New Fantasyland brings back the Magic in Magic kingdom
    • The Castle at Shanghai Disneyland is not going to be dedicated to a princess and their Pirates of the Caribbean ride is based on the movie (which came from the original attraction at Disneyland)
    • Balance balance balance – older stories with newer stories
    • No firm plans to add countries to World Showcase – but there’s space, it just isn’t a priority; any additional countries would need a compelling story and attraction
    • Refreshes to existing World Showcase pavilions are likely
    • New ideas are created through meetings, from movies, and through brainstorming
    • 5 to 10 year plans come down from corporate headquarters and WDI uses these general plans to prioritize projects
    • Projects can last anywhere from 2 to 10 years, but the average is 2 to 5 years
    • Imagineers have to go into the theme parks and see things with new eyes and fresh aspect
    • Some of the Imagineers are huge Disney fans, and some are just normal people
    • The cranberry bog at Epcot International Food and Wine Festival – they weren’t sure it could be done, would the cranberries rot? would they stink? how can you figure all that out? – you put cranberries in a baby pool and leave it in the Florida sun!
    • Yes, backstory is documented

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