May 24, 2024

Bruce Vaughn Returns to Co-Lead Imagineering

Walt Disney Imagineering has announced it’s bringing back Bruce Vaughn to co-lead the creative unit, announced Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro. In this post, we’ll cover the news and offer commentary about his surprise return to WDI, Vaughn’s past track record, and what he’s been up to since departing Disney.

Let’s start with that last point. Bruce Vaughn left Imagineering back in 2016 to become CEO and CCO of Dreamscape Immersive, a company that creates location-based virtual reality experiences. Following that, he joined Airbnb in 2021 as vice president of experiential creative product. At Airbnb, Vaughn led a team responsible for designing immersive offerings for Airbnb stays and experiences, which included fellow Disney alum Catherine Powell, who was beloved by fans during her time as the leader of Disneyland Paris.

Vaughn had worked at Imagineering in leadership roles for 22 years, with project credits that included DisneyQuest and the Spaceship Earth refurbishment. Prior to his departure, he was one of the co-heads of Imagineering as Chief Creative Executive for 9 years. During that time, notable projects included Shanghai Disney Resort, New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom, Pandora – World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom, and early development on the overhaul of Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Upon returning, Vaughn will take the role of Chief Creative Officer. He will start in this role effective March 20, 2023 and will co-lead Walt Disney Imagineering alongside current President Barbara Bouza, with both leaders reporting directly to Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro.

“I’ve remained an Imagineer at heart, so I’m thrilled to join Barbara and reunite with this phenomenal global team of creators and innovators during this pivotal time,” Vaughn said in a statement. “With so many exciting projects under way and tremendous opportunities ahead of us, I look forward to partnering with Bruce to fuel creativity and deliver next-level experiences,” Bouza added.

Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro sent an internal note to Imagineers announcing Bruce Vaughn’s return:

As Bob Iger often says, creativity is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do at Disney. In fact, as we look at our company’s 100-year history of bringing captivating and memorable storytelling to life, the consistent thread that binds us together as a company across all segments is our ability to drive innovation through creative projects.

In Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, we continue to invest in new endeavors that deliver the most compelling experiences, immersing our guests around the world in the stories they love most. In the past few years, we have found ourselves at the crossroads of a wave of new technology and a seemingly unlimited amount of new stories and franchises, allowing us to develop groundbreaking new experiences. Of course, none of this comes to life without a strong commitment to creativity and innovation by the amazing team at Walt Disney Imagineering.

With this in mind, I’m pleased to share that effective March 20, Bruce Vaughn is returning to Walt Disney Imagineering as the Chief Creative Officer. Bruce will co-lead the organization with WDI President Barbara Bouza, with both leaders reporting directly to me.

Together, Bruce and Barbara will partner closely to connect visionary creative thinking with project opportunities and flawless execution and delivery. 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.

Many of you have had the opportunity to work with Bruce previously. He has a deep history with Imagineering, serving for more than two decades in leadership roles including with WDI R&D, as well as co-leading the entire WDI organization as Chief Creative Executive for nine years. Bruce left Disney in 2016 to become CEO and CCO of Dreamscape Immersive where he worked with teams to advance virtual reality technologies for mainstream location-based entertainment, and most recently was with Airbnb where he developed and led the Experiential Creative Product team.

Please join me in welcoming Bruce back to Disney.

In terms of commentary, I’ll start by saying that I’m shocked by the positive response to this news on social media. This has me scratching my head, because Bruce Vaughn was not exactly beloved during his time at Walt Disney Imagineering, at least among fans.

As with the return of Bob Iger, I suspect this reaction is more about the status quo being so bad and morale being so low that any change is celebrated. Sort of a “things can only get better from here” mixed with “things were better when he was here before.” From those perspectives, fans are not exactly wrong. The company as a whole and Imagineering in particular had better runs during the prior tenures of Iger and Vaughn.

When it comes to Bruce Vaughn, specifically, my knowledge is relatively limited. I’ve heard stories and gossip over the years, both positive and negative, but nothing to clearly peg him as part of the problem or solution. My understanding at the time was that his departure was tied to cost overruns and delays at Shanghai Disneyland–that he was essentially the fall guy–but that’s entirely rumor and supposition.

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 is returning 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.

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, and it’s impossible to say how many of the recent high-profile retirements have actually been “retirements” (with heavy air quotes).

Turning back to Bruce Vaughn, I did attend a D23 Expo panel at which he spoke in 2013, and I cannot say I was particularly impressed. Vaughn displayed a certain arrogance throughout, uttering the infamous “no one can touch us” line about Imagineering when dismissing development at Universal. The decade or so since certainly has not vindicated him.

With the benefit of hindsight, Vaughn now strikes me as the start of the trend away from Imagineers with impressive portfolios of creative contributions and projects. That was prior to the current “influencer era,” so he was not that, but he does seem to fit the mold.

Nevertheless, I’m willing to take a wait and see approach on the return of Bruce Vaughn to Walt Disney Imagineering. I’ve been saying for months now that I think Imagineering is on the precipice of its next big development cycle for the domestic parks, and Disney could be bringing him back not for his creative chops, but because he’s a good leader and project manager.

In fairness, that is 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.

Ultimately, that’s where I’m at with this and why I’m withholding judgment. While I can understand the inclination towards excitement or this being positive news as it suggests that Imagineering is gearing up for something, they’ve also been so gutted in the last 3 years that I’d need to see a lot more like this before getting too excited. I’d also prefer to see true creatives with institutional knowledge and clearly-defined portfolios. (It’s also possible that Vaughn’s return has nothing to do with substantive projects, but rather, to facilitate Imagineering’s relocation from Glendale to Lake Nona, Florida.)

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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YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think about Imagineering bringing back Bruce Vaughn? 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.

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