How Disney stokes an ‘imagineering’ corporate culture

A shared sense of history and purpose enables employees whose work might otherwise be at odds to come together and make magic.


“The sun never sets on a Disney resort.”

Theron Skees, director of creative development at Walt Disney Co., used that paraphrasing of the famous quote about the British Empire not to brag, but to explain his responsibilities to attendees at Ragan Communications’ Social Media for PR and Corporate Communications Conference at Walt Disney World.

It’s not just the theme parks around the world, either. Disney creates experiences for people through hotels, dining, live entertainment, and cruises, too.

Each resort has what Disney calls an “imagineering” team that orchestrates the attractions. That term, a combination of imagination and engineering, means a lot to Disney. It encapsulates its corporate culture.

“It really talks about who we are,” Skees said. “We’re all the great parts of the left brain, which is organization, functionality, finance, delivery, keeping things on time and on budget, and then, every part of the right brain, which is all the creative function, which doesn’t really care about gravity or budgets.”

About 140 different disciplines fall under the umbrella of Imagineering, he said. They run from ideas and design to construction and maintenance. Disney brings those disparate jobs together with a shared sense of history and purpose.

Storytelling

Every job at Disney is in support of telling a story, Skees said: “At the end of the day, it’s about story. We have a very sophisticated audience. That drives us to invent, create, and explore.”

Those stories can be told in a lot of different ways. For instance, they could be told through mobile applications used for scavenger hunts or interactive games so that park visitors or cruise ship guests can have an experience with characters they see on TV.

“It’s really important that those games meet the needs of our guests,” Skees said.

Or maybe it’s an animatronic show that tells the story. For example, the Muppet Mobile Lab is a show that can approach people and interact with them. In Hong Kong, where park visitors aren’t as familiar with the Muppets as American fans are, it still works, Skees said, because of the level of the technology.

It’s all about understanding the power of story and evoking emotions, she said. Disney is “constantly engaging with industry”—brands such as Raytheon, NASA, Siemens, Autodesk, and Cirque du Soleil—to marry technology with storytelling.

Even rides tell stories, and Disney’s imagineers create tools such as animatics to show how those stories will be told. Skees showed an animatic—a computer-generated, animated simulation—of a new ride that showed its speed and path and how it would work.

“It enables us to see a lot of different things,” he said.

‘Positive tension’

One might expect a creative director who comes up with an idea for an impossible-to-build ride wouldn’t necessarily get along with an engineer who is told to come up with a way to build it. But Skees says that push and pull creates a “positive tension” that drives Disney employees.

“Even though I may have a fantastic idea, it’s never going to be built the way it exists in my mind,” he says. “It shouldn’t. It should be improved by all the people that I work with. Sometimes, it’s improved by the people you struggle with the most.”

Of course, not all ideas are possible. Some sit on a shelf for a long time and never get used. Others are repurposed into something completely different. That’s OK, too, Skees said.

“Imagineering culture is one that is literally a petri dish of ideas,” he said. “We’re always encouraged to germinate new ideas.”

From the bottom up, Disney employees go through an immense amount of training, Skees said. Most—not all, but the ones who stick around—fall in love with their work, he said.

“You’re surrounded by people who are very, very passionate about what they do,” Skees said. “Happy people at their work really create good things.”

History

Imagineers take a lot of cues from Walt Disney himself. Skees said Disney was a disruptive thinker, took new approaches to old ideas, and embraced change. That’s Skees’ and every other imagineer’s task, as well.

He pointed to a key quote from Disney himself: “I can never stand still. I must explore and experiment.”

That’s a challenge all Disney employees face, Skees said.

“What’s important to know is that you’re connected to something that has a heritage,” Skees said. “It’s about being connected. It’s about the team.”

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