How should Disney restructure Imagineering?

Edited: March 12, 2023, 1:18 PM

In his letter to Imagineers announcing Bruce Vaughn's return to Walt Disney Imagineering as Chief Creative Officer, Disney Parks Chairman Josh D'Amaro said that Vaughn and WDI President Barbara Bouza "will be working together to swiftly identify the most effective way to structure Imagineering."

Whenever a corporate executive starts talking about "structuring" or "restructuring," people immediately tend to envision layoffs. Past practice has taught us to, after all, for that often is exactly what C-Suite types mean.

And that might be the future for WDI, too. But from what I have observed there, Disney's theme park and experience design group faces substantial organizational challenges that go beyond mere headcount.

Starting with, where to place its headquarters. And beyond that, does Imagineering even need one, central, physical headquarters anymore?

WDI's proposed move along with DPEP to Lake Nona, near the Orlando International Airport, has been disaster for the company. The primary motive for the move appeared to be little more than a money grab from Florida's state government, as Florida promised Disney hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for the move.

Any time a company moves jobs, it expects to lose employees, creating an opportunity to replace those former job-holders with less expensive new hires. But a knowledge- and talent-driven business such as WDI cannot afford the brain drain that started after the announcement, as many California-based cast members - especially those with children in school or working spouses - chose to leave the company rather than move to Florida.

Florida is becoming a tough market to recruit creative talent into these days, too, as rising home prices coupled with growing official hostility to the LGBTQ+ community that contributes so much to the creative design profession drive potential candidates away from the state.

That's pushed Disney to delay and even roll back assignments to the proposed Lake Nona facility. But does a creative-driven business such as WDI even need a physical headquarters for its employees to work?

As a provider of location-based entertainment, Disney always will need its Imagineers to be on-site for their jobs at certain times. But, as in many other industries, the pandemic proved that Imagineers can do an enormous amount of work from home... or any other chosen remote location.

If Disney wants to expand the talent pool from which it hires an ever-more diverse collection of Imagineers, embracing remote work would allow the company to recruit globally, without having to pay to entice people to move full-time to Lake Nona, or anywhere else.

And with legions of former Imagineers setting up shop in their own companies in markets around the country and the world, how much work does WDI need to continue to do in house, versus contracting to its former employees and their new colleagues?

A WDI that is organized for a 21st-century workforce serving the 21st-century market cannot be organized like the WDI that has served Disney's theme parks for nearly 70 years now. That's the question that Bouza and Vaughn should be facing - beyond just how many people that WDI will employ.

I would love to hear, especially from our industry insider friends who read the site, what you would like to see WDI do to help ensure that it is creating the types of attractions that people of all ages and backgrounds will continue to enjoy for decades to come?

Replies (3)

Edited: March 12, 2023, 10:10 PM

I've always been on the bandwagon of Imagineering making more sense in Florida since that is where the vast majority of business for Parks and Resorts is located. I think a combination of people not wanting to move, the pandemic, and Desantis slowed that down a lot but the move is still going to happen. They need bigger facilities and more workers and that's going to be way more cost effective in Florida than in California where real estate and labor is way more expensive (although Florida is expensive now, the land in Lake Nona is already bought). TBH I think they swindled the dumb Florida government into giving them a tax deal because that's what states like Florida do, give handouts to big corporations, but Disney probably wanted to move to Florida to begin with.

In regards to "working together to swiftly identify the most effective way to structure Imagineering" I think that has more to do with the org chart than the physical location. It wasn't that long ago Disney was building things like Everest, Cars Land, Pandora etc. I think Josh D'Amaro realizes that the Chapek era things like Avengers and Epcot re-do are not going to cut it especially with Universal building so much recently and is trying to get their mojo back.

On a semi-related I think WDI has a big culture problem in regards to not being able to build anything in a reasonable time frame or cost effectively, the fact that everything is way more expensive than it should is a big reason why Disney hasn't been able to build like Universal.

March 13, 2023, 8:00 AM

Personally, I don't understand why WDI needs to be located near any of their theme parks. They just need a centralized "workshop" where they can collaborate and tinker. Obviously there are significant financial reason for WDI to relocate to Florida because of lower taxes, lower costs of living, and cheaper land costs. I'm not sure if the group's current space in Glendale is running out of room, though I do believe Robert wrote about the recently renovated space prior to the Pandemic, but moving their primary workspace to Florida would certainly reduce the financial burden on a business unit that operates almost exclusive on overhead, meaning reducing other ancillary overhead costs would be beneficial to optimize money spent on R&D.

As far as reorganization, I can't count on my 2 hands how many times the large engineering firm I work for has reorganized with minimal impact on overall corporate performance and earnings. For me, people will naturally gravitate to where they need to be and learn which people they collaborate best with to produce the best work. However, I do feel that as a general rule, artists and engineers should probably work on separate teams with the two primary functions coming together as projects become reality - led by a project manager with either experience or skills that bridge the 2 disciplines.

I've always felt the most pride when I am able to work on projects from beginning to end. I'm not sure if WDI maintains project teams throughout the design, development, and execution processes, but they probably should do that to maintain high morale with a work force that is likely to naturally whittle itself down, particularly if there is a move from California due to political objections. Forcing Imagineers to perform just one step of the process over and over again is just not fulfilling even if they can saw they contributed to the final product.

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