Walt Disney Imagineering, the secretive unit responsible for Disney theme parks, cruise ships and shopping experiences, has reclaimed one of its own: Bruce Vaughn, who left the company in 2016, will return to Disney.
Vaughn will be installed as chief creative officer, working alongside Barbara Bouza, president of Walt Disney Imagineering. They will both report in to Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products (known internally as DPEP).
“Together, Bruce and Barbara will partner closely to connect visionary creative thinking with project opportunities and flawless execution and delivery,” D’Amaro said in a memo to staff. “With significant developments under way and more on the horizon, this dedicated focus toward creativity and innovation will help us deliver next-level experiences well into the future. To best accomplish this, they will be working together to swiftly identify the most effective way to structure Imagineering.”
Vaughn joined Walt Disney Imagineering in the early 1990s. At the time Vaughn was working for Associates & Ferren, led by his mentor Bran Ferran, a special effects house who worked on “Star Trek V,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables.” At the time, Associates & Ferren were helping WDI on a new attraction for the Florida parks – The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror. The work must have been pretty phenomenal, because Disney (at the time led by Michael Eisner and Frank Wells) bought them outright.
From there, Vaughn rose in the ranks. As D’Amaro described in his memo, Vaughn spent “two decades in leadership roles including with WDI R&D,” the highly technical, even-more-secretive group that was established by Wells around the same time that Disney purchased Vaughn’s old company. For nine years Vaughn served as chief creative executive, eventually leaving in 2016 after overseeing ambitious projects like the Shanghai Disneyland resort and the overhaul of Disney California Adventure, including the construction of Carsland.
In 2016 Vaughn WDI left to become CEO of virtual reality start-up Dreamscape and in 2021 joined another WDI vet Catherine Powell at Airbnb as part of an initiative to develop more “immersive” experiences.
Vaughn’s re-hiring comes at a time when WDI is in desperate need of seasoned creative talent and those with what has been described to us as “institutional knowledge” of how the unit, originally formed by Walt Disney himself, can operate in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
During the pandemic, WDI suffered major layoffs and a wave of “retirements” from key staff. Most of the most talented, most readily identifiable Imagineers are no longer at the company and those that have stayed are being forced to relocate to Lake Nona, Florida, away from the Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, California, down the street from the corporate headquarters in Burbank.
Universal is planning to open a huge, cutting-edge and wildly ambitious new park called Epic Universe in Orlando in 2025, just down the street from Disney’s vacation kingdom, with two more standalone experiences planned for the future – one family-friendly park in Frisco, Texas, and another horror-themed experience in Las Vegas, Nevada. Disney needs some firepower and rehiring Vaughn seems like a good idea. Not only does he have the institutional knowledge of how the building works but he could also sway other ex-Imagineers to return.
Vaughn starts on March 20.