Disney: Innovating at the Intersection of Physical & Digital

By Kaitlin Milliken |  July 13, 2021

During the pandemic, Disney had to shut down its amusement parts for the longest stretch in company history. However, teams continued to make magic happen while the gates were closed. That included building 3-D maps of the parks. 

Jon Snoddy, Senior Vice President of Research and Development, Walt Disney Imagineering

At our Charting the Future conference, Jon Snoddy of Walt Disney Imagineering gave an inside look at the culture that makes his team tick. Snoddy is the Senior Vice President of Research and Development. In his role, he works on rides, technology, and show systems in the park. During the conversation, he shared his vision for how the physical and digital worlds are converging. 

The Culture at Imagineering

If you stop 10 random people in the hall and said, “What are y’all trying to do here,” you would get very similar answers because there is this very strong ethic about connecting with people and creating experiences that the people that come to our parks love and enjoy. So it’s a purposely wildly diverse crowd of people of all different ages. There are structural engineers. There are computer vision scientists. There are painters that are just spectacular artists of every kind. But the whole notion of Imagineering is [that] it’s not just an individual’s achievement. While there’s a lot of room for that, it’s about that individual surrounded by a team, and working together to create something amazing.

When the bosses come over, they dress different. They talk different. It’s a much less formal thing and they’re almost always in blue jeans. … It’s a place where we’re all very, very connected to the work. It’s not a theoretical place where people [just] talk… There’s certainly a lot of that, but if they’re talking about it, they’re designing. And you build things right there. You walk through the model shop, it’s a place filled with dust, filled with things that are half built or fully built. But it’s very exciting because you are seeing as you walk through all the buildings everywhere you go to work… You can touch it, feel it.

Working on the Edge

A small percentage of the ideas we pursue and we talk about actually get built, because we’re often right at the edge…of what was possible… And maybe they work, maybe they don’t… We were looking at VR, probably before it was practical and had to pull back from that. But ideas don’t die. Ideas go into hibernation, and then they come back again in another form, and we’re always building on each other’s work. … Sometimes it’s hard for designers to just step back and give up a feature and a truce. Sometimes it’s just not appropriate to step back and give up a feature — it’s better to just pause the project until you can get the thing that you need.

Part of the new Avengers Campus at Disney’s California Adventure theme park.

Ninety percent of the things you start are gonna fail. So you have to put together a structure that allows that to be sustainable. You can’t have 100 million dollar projects failing every week. So you have to find a way to start things small and develop them and allow them to return and develop, but to keep your costs low enough that it doesn’t freak people out that something stops working… And then as things start to work, you invest more, and you have a program that allows you to kind of bring your bosses along… And we invest together in the ideas that are working and the ideas that are not, we pause those and the teams…

I always think of it as an investment portfolio there. There are very risky things in there and there are things that are less risky and pretty sure we can deliver. And then things that are completely obvious that are just something everybody needs and so those give you the wins, you need to be able to show value.

‘I Need You to Trust Me…’

Why do innovation groups fail and go away and all that stuff… Relationships, you have to connect with people. And they have to know not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing [it]. What’s the vision? What are your values? What are you trying to accomplish? They have to understand your tolerance for risk, and they have to trust you because you’re not going to be able to tell them, “this is the day this is going to be done.” You really are walking in and saying, “I need some money. And I need you to trust me that it’s going to be good.”

You have to get good at communicating with your bosses. You have to know the finance people… You just have to do that you have to build relationships throughout the company and listen to people. Listen to what they’re asking…and find a way to show them and to excite them about not just the thing, but the vision. Here’s what this could be if we can build this. This is how the world is different. … That’s two-thirds of your job [as an innovator] all the time.