President of Imagineering Leaving Disney

Barbara Bouza, the President of Walt Disney Imagineering, has announced that she’s leaving the company. This post shares the news of her departure and offers commentary about what this could mean for the future of Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and beyond.

Bouza joined The Walt Disney Company in Summer 2020, a few months into the Bob Chapek regime. Prior to joining Disney, she served as co-managing director for Gensler Los Angeles. According to her Disney Parks bio, she brought strategic design management to Gensler and worked with clients such as Amgen, City of Hope, Debbie Allen, JPL/NASA and Netflix.

While Bouza was at Disney, Imagineers brought a number of experiences to life that include Avengers Campus at Disneyland Paris and Disney California Adventure, the Disney Wish ship for Disney Cruise Line, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and TRON: Lightcycle Run at Walt Disney World, World of Frozen at Hong Kong Disneyland, and Zootopia at Shanghai Disney Resort. Again, all per her Disney Parks bio.

Bouza has been the President of Walt Disney Imagineering since November 2021, when she took over for Bob Weis. He didn’t officially retire, but rather, stepped into the role of Global Imagineering Ambassador. That occurred ahead of WDI’s planned move from Glendale, California to Lake Nona, Florida. As you likely know, that move did not happen.

It’s worth remembering that Walt Disney Imagineering was hit really hard in 2020-2021. It’s impossible to say how many of the high-profile retirements have actually been “retirements” (with heavy air quotes). Joe Rohde and Bob Weis quickly getting new jobs after leaving Disney strongly suggests that those were “retirements.”

Anyway, Bouza shared the news via Instagram to say her goodbyes before she leaves next month. You can read her full post below:

Proudly building upon our extraordinary legacy, Imagineers are shaping a future that inspires humanity.  As one global team of innovative creators and storytellers, we immerse our guests in experiences that make memories of a lifetime.

As a licensed architect I was recruited by The Walt Disney Company to challenge the norm and bring broader global industry perspective and expertise. Joining Walt Disney Imagineering in June of 2020, I truly believed humanity needed Disney more than ever.  The world was trying to understand the impact of a global pandemic, business disruption, stay at home orders, a reckoning on race, and the growing political divide. From there Imagineers endured the pressures of talent reductions, unprecedented hyper-escalation on projects, political crosshairs, and the need to make life changing decisions with their families around the relocation from California to Florida.

Through all of this, Imagineers relentlessly created and delivered some of the most impactful projects in the history of The Walt Disney Company.  This success has fueled the turbocharged growth of Disney Experiences through $60 billion in investment over the next 10 years that Bob Iger and Josh D’Amaro speak of. So I want to take this moment to personally thank all Imagineers, past, present and future for making the impossible possible.

It is bittersweet as I wrap up my work as President of Walt Disney Imagineering this month before I create an even bigger impact for world. Stay tuned! WDI will be in excellent hands with my partner, Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Officer, who is an exceptional creative leader.

“There’s really no secret about our approach. We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious.”
Walt Disney

In terms of commentary, there’s only so much I’m going to say. Bouza did not put herself out there as a public figure and I think it’s unseemingly to dissect the employment status of others. Fans may valorize Imagineers because it’s a really cool job, but that doesn’t make them actually celebrities or whatnot.

What I will say is that every project highlighted in Bouza’s Disney Parks bio started before Summer 2020. There is not a single entry on that list where principal creative or material design decisions were made subsequent to her hiring. This is only to say that, if you like or dislike those things, that’s not really on Bouza.

As for which projects at Imagineering came during the Bouza era? That’s also difficult to say, since normally it’s a long road from incubation until fruition. CommuniCore Hall would be the obvious one, since that was a totally different design up until Summer 2020.

Although it goes against the narrative that it had been planned for a while, I suspect work on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure started in earnest around mid-2020. (The exterior looks totally different from the original concept art, which should be a signal of that.) Possibly the DVC Cabins at Fort Wilderness and Polynesian Tower, as well as Downtown Disney at Disneyland. She seemed proud of Disneyland Hotel in Paris, so perhaps that, too.

All of this seems to check out if you review the projects page on the Gensler Los Angeles website. A lot of what’s there should look familiar, and it seemed like Disney, for whatever reason, wanted less themed design and more real world architectural expertise. Even so, this design-style was en vogue at Disney before her tenure–just look at the concept art for Reflections Lakeside Lodge, which looks fairly similar to the new Poly tower.

With all of that said, it’s difficult/impossible to blame/give credit to Bouza for Imagineering’s output during her tenure. This is something that often seems to trip fans up. When a project moves too slowly, there’s cost-cutting, or the end result is uninspired, there’s often a chorus of “Imagineering has lost their touch” or “the new guard isn’t as good/creative/etc. as the old guard!”

That’s not how this works. Think of Imagineering like a chef at a restaurant, Walt Disney World management as the guest, and you as a viewer watching on television. Like The Menu, but family-friendly. For the restaurant in this example, let’s use Cítricos at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort. It’s one of the best Disney restaurants anywhere, and the chef (Imagineering) has some truly ambitious and envelope-pushing dishes on the menu. Unfortunately, the guest (Walt Disney World management) keeps ordering the macaroni & cheese from the kids menu.

Now, the conclusion you could draw is that Citricos sucks because all they’re serving is macaroni and cheese. And you might think that, if you didn’t have insight into the full menu. Or you could conclude that maybe the guest is the problem, and the meal can only be as good as what’s ordered.

In a nutshell, that’s the dilemma with Imagineering and fans’ assessment of it. From the outside looking in, we only see what Disney Parks management is actually ordering from the menu that Imagineering has prepared. If that’s a bunch of mac & cheese dishes, who is actually to blame for that, chef or client? We don’t see all of the creative projects on the menu that aren’t ordered.

We know Imagineering is capable of more, because we have examples of that. I may be unimpressed by World Celebration and think there were both budgetary (and creative execution issues, to be fair!), but Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance “proves” to me that Imagineering is capable of greatness. I’m hoping to be wowed by Zootopia at Shanghai Disneyland, World of Frozen in Hong Kong and Paris, and Fantasy Springs at Tokyo DisneySea, too. All of that should likewise “prove” that Imagineering has tremendous talent when creatively unleashed and given the budget.

Point being, I may not love WDI’s recent output (and the lack of it), and several of the recent designs may have a “Gensler look” to them, but that’s not necessarily an indictment of Bouza or Imagineering as a whole. It could simply be that was what management–whether that be Chapek, D’Amaro, or Vahle–ordered from a menu of choices presented to them. I could see Chapek as a man with mac & cheese tastes. He definitely would’ve preferred the $13.50 price tag of that entree over the $52 Guava-barbecued Short Ribs!

Regardless, Bouza will soon be gone. Based on both the wording of her announcement and logic, this means that Bruce Vaughn will once again be the President of Imagineering. He returned to WDI last spring after leaving in 2016. Before that, Vaughn had worked at Imagineering in leadership roles for 22 years, and had an impressive number of project credits, including DisneyQuest! (Okay, he had a lot of other much bigger ones–I just think it’s funny that one is often listed first for some reason.)

When it comes to Bruce Vaughn, specifically, my knowledge is also limited and has an outside-looking-in perspective. (Much of what follows is my commentary from when he returned, recycled and updated slightly based on sentiment I’ve heard since.) My understanding is that his 2016 departure was tied to cost overruns and delays at Shanghai Disneyland–that rightly or wrongly, he was essentially the fall guy.

Timing-wise, Vaughn ascended to the top of Imagineering in 2007, months before the announcement of the Disney’s California Adventure overhaul and only a couple years before New Fantasyland was greenlit for Magic Kingdom. Those major projects precipitated a decade-plus of major development in the domestic and international parks. In terms of spending on the parks, Vaughn’s track record speaks for itself.

One potentially interesting angle of this news is that Vaughn was ousted shortly after Bob Chapek ascended to the role of Parks Chairman, and returned shortly after Chapek’s downfall. That could be entirely coincidental, or not. If it isn’t, my sincere hope is that this is the start of the return of previous leaders who (allegedly) butted heads with Bob Chapek or otherwise were viewed as threats.

Following Vaughn’s return, a number of current and ex-Imagineers praised Iger for bringing him back and viewed it as a hugely positive move. This is particularly meaningful when coming from the former Imagineers, as they can speak more freely–many of them are slightly jaded, so anything they few favorably generally carries more weight.

Between the words of Imagineers and Vaughn’s tenure and track record at Disney, he’s the one I’d rather have as President of Walt Disney Imagineering. Again, that’s from the outside looking in and without knowing anything more. On paper, Vaughn is the better fit for head of WDI.

Speaking of homecomings, I’d love to see Joe Rohde, Bob Weis, Tony Baxter, Kevin Rafferty, and other Imagineers brought back. Walt Disney Imagineering has been hit hard in the last several years. Again, it’s impossible to say how many of the recent high-profile retirements have actually been “retirements” (with heavy air quotes). I would imagine that at least a couple of those individuals (and others) could be lured back to Disney.

Personally, I’m optimistic on Bruce Vaughn as the (presumptive) President of Walt Disney Imagineering. It is noteworthy that he was on stage during last fall’s Destination D23 and struck a much different (better) tone about the blue sky proposals–it struck me as doing a bit of ‘recovery’ as he indicated that he wasn’t completely comfortable with Imagineering sharing plans before they’re officially announced.

In any case, I’ve been saying for about a year now that I think Imagineering is on the precipice of its next big development cycle for the domestic parks. Disney could have brought him back, and is now promoting him to the top spot because he’s a good leader and has more experience with both Imagineering and actual theme park work.

Vaughn was known as more of a project manager, but that’s every bit as needed as brilliant creatives who can dream up inventive and envelope-pushing attractions. Imagineering has become notorious for bloated budgets and project delays, and there are plenty of instances of recent projects lacking a coherent vision and focus. Creatives need guardrails, and perhaps Bruce Vaughn is the type of leader that can provide that. I truly do not know.

Speculating a bit, I could certainly see a scenario where Bob Iger is gearing up for another development cycle and wants an ally at Imagineering. Iger and Vaughn worked together during the last big boom for the theme parks, so this would not be even a remotely far-fetched scenario.

In that case, it’s also plausible that Imagineering needs to staff back up–and Vaughn will have an easier time working with or luring creatives to return than Bouza, who was an outside hire made right as all the layoffs started and relocation plans were revealed. None of that was her fault, obviously, but she could “symbolize” a bad era for Imagineering and be a casualty as a result.

Ultimately, that’s where I’m at with this. I still believe that Vaughn was brought back because positive change is on the horizon and that Imagineering is gearing up for the next big development cycle. Moreover, that they’ve been so gutted in the last 4 years that they’re trying to undo the damage and turning to a leader in Vaughn who worked in Imagineering for 22 years and likely has the relationships and expertise for actual theme park attraction and land design. I’d also love to see true creatives with institutional knowledge and clearly-defined portfolios brought back to Imagineering.

Then again, Bruce Vaughn was at the top of Walt Disney Imagineering during the development of the original Pandora – World of Avatar (another infamous ‘moment’ of his was being Photoshopped out of groundbreaking photos for that!). Perhaps Imagineering is getting the gang back together for round two at Disneyland, and Joe Rohde will be the next re-hire. All things considered, I’m excited for the decade to come at Walt Disney World and Disneyland…and I certainly hope this plays into that!

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What do you think about this Imagineering news? Think this will be a positive or negative–or a mixture of both–for Imagineering and Disney fans? Thoughts on this being WDI laying the groundwork for big development plans that are on the horizon? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Feel free to share your perspective, but keep the comments civil. This is not the place for politically-charged arguing, culture wars, antagonism, personal attacks, or cheap shots. We will be heavy-handed in deleting any comments that cross the line, irrespective of viewpoint.

19 Responses to “President of Imagineering Leaving Disney”
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