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May 23, 2022 By IIDA HQ
Perspective: State of Being | Thinking Big with Barbara Bouza
The President of Walt Disney Imagineering on keeping her calm, creating authentic, impactful experiences, and using challenges as the fuel that powers greatness.
By IIDA HQ May 23, 2022
Published in Perspective

Above: ILLUMINATE! A Nighttime Celebration | Shanghai Disneyland, image courtesy of Disney/Imagineering

When Barbara Bouza, IIDA, FAIA, took an elective of architectural drawing in high school she had no idea she was making a life-changing decision. “It was somewhat random, to be honest with you,” she says. “I've always been very visual, even as a child, and I always understood space three-dimensionally. I recognized early on that design can really influence experiences but because I loved math I thought of architecture as a nice combination of creativity that also had structure to it,” she recalls. “Basically, once I got down this path of design there was no turning back.” Bouza, now president of Walt Disney Imagineering, leads the global creative, design, and development teams behind Disney’s theme parks, attractions, a resort hotel, cruise ships, and retail, dining, and entertainment centers. “I always say that leadership is not a reward, it's a responsibility—one that I take very seriously," she says, evoking calmness, empathy, and confidence—all at the same time.

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Above: Avengers Campus | Disney California Adventure, Disneyland Resort – Anaheim, CA, image courtesy of Disney/Imagineering

With more than two decades of design and strategic planning experience—including an extensive tenure at Gensler, where she served as co-managing director, and principal of the Los Angeles office—Bouza believes in fearlessly embracing every opportunity. “What I loved about my role with Gensler were the opportunities—from project management, to design, to leading a studio, to ultimately leading the office. It was there that I really understood the alignment between design and business and the ways they influence one another,” she says. “With Disney it's very similar. Whether we design attractions or resort hotels, the guests are always front-of-mind. We want to create authentic, fantastical experiences and also allow enough space for imagination, she says, adding: “Guests want to see themselves in the experience—they want to come in, feel welcome, and leave any troubles or differences at the gate. They open themselves up to this shared experience where the stories are so powerful that they actually become a north star that brings everybody together despite their diverse views.”

Bouza feels extremely connected to the guests and so does her team of Imagineers. “We're a culture of curiosity, creativity, and collaboration, but we're driven by the mindset of being lifelong learners, innovators, and storytellers,” she says. “So what we're focusing on—the vision for us as one global team—is to shape a future that inspires humanity.”

Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, Imagineering was founded by Walt Disney himself to oversee the production of Disneyland. "We have a heavy responsibility. Walt Disney was such a visionary," says Bouza, explaining that it's beyond turning stories into a film. “How do you keep that experience going even further? How do you keep telling that story? How does a story evolve even as cultural norms evolve?” she asks. “That’s exactly what makes Imagineering so exciting: being able to take those stories, let them evolve, introduce new characters and have the guests reflect in different ways. Walt Disney set up a really great legacy. We're here to embrace that legacy and at the same time look into the future,” she says. “What do the next hundred years look like for Disney as a whole? It's a really, really exciting time."

Regardless of what Disney creates—parks, cruise ships, and experiences—one thing is for certain: there's always a great story to be told. But how do they manage to remain relevant? “It’s important to take a step back,” says Bouza, who believes in creating a diverse, hyper-inclusive culture where everyone is welcome. “We’re looking at stories across diverse communities, and across the world. It's important to have those voices at the table,” she says. “An example of that is Shanghai Disney Resort, which opened in 2016. Imagineers were there years before, because it’s important to be really embedded in local culture and understand the community,” she says, adding that Imagineers worked with local artisans and vendors, looked at traditional cultural elements, and even considered design principles such as the park's physical orientation. The result was everything they hoped for and more: “Authentically Disney but distinctly Chinese,” says Bouza.

In light of inclusivity and accessibility, Imagineering mindfully designs for a broader appeal. "We're always pushing the envelope with the guest at the center,” says Bouza. “Our goal is that everyone feels welcome and they can enjoy the experience in a way that's unique for them,” she adds. The innovations include technology solutions throughout, wheelchair-accessible ride systems, and “break areas” where people who are neurodivergent—including those on the autism spectrum—can seek some downtime. "We've also retrofitted some areas in order to enhance that experience," adds Bouza, explaining that they had the opportunity to rethink a few things while the parks were closed during COVID. An example of that is the reimagined Mickey’s Toontown, an area focused on families with young children that will feature new play experiences, as well as open, outdoor lawn spaces that could be used for spontaneous family play and parental relaxation. "Sometimes children are challenged with overstimulation so there'll be areas where you can just decompress, get a picnic basket, and enjoy the sun".

But they didn’t stop there: "We looked with a very critical eye and that goes beyond space—we also looked at the content of the attractions to ensure they're in line with modern sensibilities," she says, explaining that they had to reimagine their classic Jungle Cruise. "There were some moments that could be more culturally sensitive. So our team went back and looked at ways to enhance the story. Now that's actually one of our most popular attractions. It's not just about removing items; it's about creating a better experience”.

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Work session with Imagineers | WDI campus – Glendale, CA, image courtesy of Disney/Imagineering
Photo by Disney/Imagineering
Work session with Imagineers | WDI campus – Glendale, CA, image courtesy of Disney/Imagineering
Photo by Disney/Imagineering

Above: Work session with Imagineers | WDI campus – Glendale, CA, image courtesy of Disney/Imagineering

Another good example of that is the 30-year-old Splash Mountain attraction. “It’s getting rethemed around a strong female character: Tiana from ‘The Princess and the Frog’," says Bouza, and her face lights up. "The work is stunning—from the music to the special effects—but most importantly, it's building off of the existing attraction. That’s a really sustainable approach,” she adds. “You don't have to take everything down every time you change the story. But you have to make sure that it can infuse values of relevancy and inclusion."

As they introduce more and more immersive experiences, like Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, one of the most talked-about immersive experiences that simulates a two-night cruise to a galaxy far, far away, technology is fully integrated. “We pride ourselves on incorporating some of the most revolutionary experiences and realities—from ride systems to robots, to entertainment systems. We're always curious; we're always looking to reinvent the guest experience," says Bouza. "The beauty of it is that guests can be as engaged as they want and still have an amazing experience. The technology allows them to go deeper and deeper—actually be a part of the story, inform the story, and create the story."

Looking at technology as a way to elevate the experience, Bouza is ever-excited to be finding new ways of working with Imagineers around the world. "It's just remarkable when I look back at some of the innovations we're doing with our research and development group, especially at a time when people were experimenting in their home— at their kitchen tables. Seeing innovation, creativity, and resilience, even in the most difficult times—that's what gets me up every morning. It’s just so inspiring," says Bouza, who describes her current state as “very energized and probably exhausted—both at the same time.”

That’s probably because she started working at Imagineering right in the middle of the pandemic. “You can imagine what that was like,” she says. “Everybody was already working from home, most of the parks, resort hotels, cruise ships were not operating, and same for the production of films,” she explains. “But I came in, with my eyes wide open and with such a love for Disney! I said ‘wow, if any place can really pivot and evolve and be a leader for the world and for creative ideas and experiences, I know it had to be Disney.’ And it was.”

Amazed that a company that large, with such a strong legacy, was still very open-minded to new ideas, Bouza felt immediately welcomed. “I was able to contribute from day one,” she says, excited to be bringing a different point of view, despite the challenges. "I'm part of a demographic that doesn't even makeup 1% of my profession," says Bouza, now the first woman and person of color in her position. "You could easily look at the stats and say: 'why bother,' right?" Instead, Bouza sees opportunity. "I love working with schools and with the communities, because I think if people don't see somebody that looks like them or that came from a similar background, they don't recognize it's even an option,” she says, committed to passing on her wisdom. “That's our moment! We have to acknowledge that these authentic stories come from multiple voices and multiple locations, and we, as an industry, need to empower that.”

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Review session with Imagineers | WDI campus – Glendale, CA, image courtesy of Disney/Imagineering

One thing she’s really excited about is bringing those stories to life. “I think it's important to recognize that we also work at a very small local scale,'' she says, about bringing "The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure," which first debuted at EPCOT at Walt Disney World, to Harlem, a New York City neighborhood well known for its vibrant jazz scene. “Jazz is truly an American story," she says. "It was just phenomenal to partner with the National Jazz Museum and the local community, and to hear people saying 'Disney's in Harlem!' It was so influential," she adds. “As I always say, what's important is to bring our stories to our guests, where they are and where they're going to be. That’s why I genuinely love what I do—because I feel like I really have the ability to create a meaningful impact," she says. “You know, I'm an optimist, as you may be able to tell”. Her smile is contagious.

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The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure | EPCOT, Walt Disney World Resort – Orlando, Fla.
Photo by Disney/Imagineering
The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure | EPCOT, Walt Disney World Resort – Orlando, Fla.
Photo by Disney/Imagineering
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