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COVID 19: What would Walt Disney do?

what would walt disney do

What would Walt do? Those 4 words have dogged Imagineers and Studio Executives ever since Walt Disney passed away in December 1966.

eddie sottoBy Eddie Sotto

Of course, trying to literally copy or predict the behavior of a creative mind is a bit futile and at times even weaponized. On my twitter account, I will occasionally hear how Walt is “rolling in his grave” over something I said or was part of, so it’s a bit of a label we still endure at times.

Yet, this quote from Walt Disney seems like it could have been spoken last week:

I don’t believe there is a challenge…that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities…. Times and conditions change so rapidly, we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.

While no one knows what he would literally do, we can still learn much from Walt’s instincts as to problem-solving.

At the time of Walt’s untimely passing, he had just finished making a short film outlining his greatest dream, which went beyond films, television and even theme parks, all of which he had innovated to great success.


Walt wanted to leverage the creativity of his “Imagineers” (artists, planners and engineers) to work with private industry in an effort to prototype a full size, actual working city of the future, to inspire the public as he had done on television with space travel. This final vision was called EPCOT. Or, as it was modelled in miniature in the “Progressland” pavilion at the NY World’s Fair, “Progress City.”

 “Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow?” 

To this former Disney Imagineer, Walt’s solving process makes even more sense now. Walt Disney saw large urban problems festering in the 1960s. He believed that creativity and imagination were needed to paint a grand vision as to what a city could be if he dreamt it.

new tomorrowland disney what would walt disney do

Walt felt Industry was merely refining its own products and not driven by a vision that made life appreciably better. Disneyland had proven to be a happy, seamless experience that was cleaner, efficient and could be applied. Walt Disney grabbed the “goalposts” of the possible, hauled them outside of “the stadium” and erected them in the “parking lot”, challenging Industry to join.

Please remain seated

Walt Disney prototyped elements of his dream as proof. People Movers and Monorails were not just rides, they were fun experiences guests could campaign for in their hometown. Creative vision leading technology. That still seems to be a winning approach. Certainly worked for Steve Jobs!

people mover disney

“Imagineering” means imagination leading engineering as a team. It’s a holistic approach to solving where big ideas lead to seamless experiences. Bigger breakthroughs that have human appeal. When people are happy they spend more.

The future, “half empty or half full”?

Today we are obsessed with reopening. Everyone is focused on the solutions of temperature, distancing, and masks, elements that will allow businesses to survive. Great. However, much of this shatters the “shared experience” that the business models of parks, venues, sports, dining, etc. are based on.

shanghai disney reopening what would walt disney do
Shanghai Disney

Half-empty stadiums and restaurants don’t pencil long term, queues are not designed to have six-foot gaps either. The experience is severely broken. Now is the time to be at least thinking of the next 2.0 experience. One that is safe, compelling and people will repeat, while the “band-aids” buy us some time.

Today’s reactive solutions need not become a  “new normal”. As in reality, “Band-Aids” are only a bridge toward a properly dressed wound. Dreaming bigger and “moving your goalposts”, like Walt, toward a vision that works as a compelling business seems to make sense to me.

Plugging the experience

To that end, Progress City is not Walt’s dream or part of Disney at all, but an experience solutions studio where we have gathered a diverse set of dreamers, engineers and operators, helping clients think holistically, innovate smarter, more seamlessly and of course, safer toward their own 2.0 solution.

It may not be what Walt Disney would do. But we do feel that creativity leading and applying safe tech (whether it’s ours or your own) has never been in more urgent need to bring the economy back and rescue the “shared experience” off of the endangered species list.

It’s kind of fun to do the impossible – Walt Disney

Progress City and SottoStudios are companies operated by the author and ex Disney Imagineer, Eddie Sotto.

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Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto, former SVP of Concept Design at Disney Imagineering now runs SottoStudios, a turn-key entertainment design and experiential R&D firm. He also recently formed the group to address the need for COVID-19 variant screening.

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