Introducing Walt Disney Imagineering President Barbara Bouza and her leadership style of calm clarity, taking ownership, ensuring accountability and empowering leaders.
by Joe Kleiman
Barbara Bouza joined Walt Disney Imagineering in June 2020 as President, Business Operations Design and Delivery, rising in March 2021 to work alongside Bob Weis as Imagineering’s co-President. In fall 2019, when she had her first conversation with Weis, she could have no idea that these major shifts would take place in the middle of a pandemic. She was all the more impressed by the versatility and capability of Disney and Imagineering given these unprecedented challenges.
“We were all working remotely,” she says. “Only our Hong Kong and Shanghai parks had just reopened. I was already impressed with Imagineering because of what I had seen them accomplish before I joined the company. The scale of Disney allows it to re-imagine, pivot, challenge dogma and embrace new ideas. Imagineers always talk about taking anything that’s impossible and making it possible. I really had the opportunity to see that firsthand during the pandemic.”
When Bouza officially became sole President of Walt Disney Imagineering on November 30, 2021, she became the first woman and person of color to hold that position in the division’s almost 70-year history. As she transitions into her new job, Bob Weis moves into his: Global Imagineering Ambassador, a position originated by his mentor, the late Marty Sklar.
Finding a niche
Bouza and Weis are both architecture program graduates of the Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design. Weis graduated five years before Bouza. She naturally gravitated toward the field, taking her first architecture class in high school. “I’ve always loved the idea of creating these physical environments for people,” she says.
As a professional, Bouza has held positions at some of the top architecture firms, including Morphosis, RBB, and Gensler, where she worked for nearly two decades. “Gensler is where I was before I joined Disney,” she says, “and where, working with a couple of the partners, we established their health and wellness practice. I saw an opportunity there where we could leverage our expertise in other fields – whether in hospitality, retail, education, sports, and even workplace design – to really bring a different perspective to the world of healthcare.”
Under Bouza’s leadership at Gensler, the narrative for health and welfare architecture shifted from a purely clinical approach to a more welcoming one centered around the concept of guest experience. During this period, Bouza co-facilitated a study exploring whether holistic design strategies could improve health and healing. Among its findings, the study concluded that by providing connections to nature, intuitive navigation, and spaces that support activity and engagement, creating an emotional connection, and allowing for personal reflection, an individual’s wellbeing can be greatly improved.
Bouza finds that the concept of wellness design is an ideal fit within Disney. “At Disney and Imagineering, it’s about experience design – the guest experience and the consumer experience. Wellness design is about physical sustainability and the responsibilities associated with it, but it’s also about mental health and mental wellbeing, which has really been challenged over these last couple of years during the pandemic.”
Wellness in the parks and the workplace
When Disney first reached out to Bouza in 2019, it came with a surprise. “The first person I spoke to said, ‘We’re really intrigued with your background around wellbeing.’ That wasn’t what you’d typically expect. That’s something I highly value, and I was pleased that Disney recognized the importance of wellbeing design. With Imagineering creating different types of experiences, one thing I’m really excited about is where we’re looking now at experiences that are inclusive for families with a variety of needs.”
Within the parks, explained Bouza, Imagineers are exploring ways to allow guests to decompress or experience a less stimulating environment, while maintaining Disney quality and storytelling in the space. The mental wellbeing initiatives stretch beyond the parks to include the Imagineers themselves, many of whom worked remotely from home while also educating their children at home throughout 2020. “An area that I want to focus on is how we can support each other better,” Bouza says of her Imagineering colleagues. “We’re in this for the long haul, and we’re creating this environment where wellbeing and health are at the center of everything everybody does.”
When Bouza joined Imagineering in June 2020, the company’s parks in California, Florida, France, and Japan remained closed. Imagineering found opportunities in this unique situation to explore new processes and ways of improving the guest experience. At Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, which remained closed for more than a year, Imagineers performed high fidelity scans of the parks, creating digital files that can be used in a number of ways. According to Bouza, these digital files allow the Imagineers to model potential changes and digitally design with precision, as well as test ways to improve the flow of guests through the park. With the scans in hand, this work can be continued without having to shut down attractions for physical analysis or interrupting the guest experience. Disney can also conceive and create new ways for guests to experience the parks and their features more accurately, be it Main Street’s ambiance or the attractions themselves, from their own homes.
New types of experiences
“I grew up enjoying Disney,” says Bouza. “I had positive experiences around it. Then, with my family, I have two daughters who have also been growing up with all things Disney. They get a real kick out of me working for Disney. They often say, ‘I can’t believe you’re watching so many Marvel movies or Star Wars or all these Disney features!’ They’ve seen a new side to me. I’m really interested and engaged in these franchises, but of course the Imagineers know every story and every character detail. I’m now being exposed to a much broader idea around Disney than I’d had before, and I really love it.”
Throughout 2022, new attractions and lands will be introduced at Disney parks worldwide. One of the first to come online will be Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, a vacation experience at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
With this project, Imagineering is pairing the concept of interactive storytelling with the latest technology. “We’re looking at all these ideas around what we call connected experiences,” says Bouza. “We believe in this idea, where we’re taking the shared experience where you’re physically together, but it’s powered from a digital standpoint. I don’t want to give away too many of the goodies on the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, but one of the things that appealed to me about joining Imagineering was this idea about technology, around the idea of looking at characters in innovative ways, through robotics and other layers. These are layers where we can engage with a guest in new ways. It’s a very smart approach, but also very different than what we’ve done before.”
As with a cruise ship or a resort hotel, both of which are fields in which Disney is an industry leader, the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser experience will vary depending on the age and interests of each participant, as Bouza elaborated, saying, “You can be like me – I may just want to sit and relax – or you could be like my kids, completely immersed in the Star Wars story. And how we interact with a young child may be different than with an adult. I think you’re going to see many more projects based on how we create these stories that are uniquely Disney, where the guest is drawn to be part of that full experience – everything down to the food, the rooms, the entertainment and the relationship with the characters and with the stories. That’s something that’s getting us all very, very excited.”
The piano and The Beatles
Recently, a new(ish) hobby has gotten Bouza excited at home. As a child, she took piano lessons, but didn’t get far. Bouza recalls the instructor telling her mother that she was “wasting her money.”
Not too long ago, Bouza’s husband, fellow architect Manuel Bouza, bought her a piano and encouraged her to seek out lessons, pointing out that she often spoke about those lessons she ignored as a child. Bouza told her new instructor to start from the very beginning, as if she had never taken any lessons.
“Right now,” says Bouza, “I’m in the middle of watching ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ documentary on Disney+. You know, when you think of how young they were, when they first got together and then how prolific they were as musicians, it’s pretty inspiring. There’s a scene where Paul McCartney’s talking about how songs are composed and he’s talking about the piano and the composer and I’m totally into that. I found a piano music book that somebody gave me a couple of years ago with Beatles music, which used to be too hard for me, but now I just sit down at the piano and I can play it.”
As Bouza looks to past experiences for inspiration, so will Bob Weis, who will be taking an intensive look through the Imagineering archives, especially the files of Marty Sklar. “I like this concept of marrying what we do with really understanding the rich legacy of Imagineering,” she says. “I think Bob and I are going to be able to complement each other. I’m very focused on how we’re starting to look at the future, but also, how do we leverage our history?”
During their first meeting in 2019, Weis discussed the large number of projects on Imagineering’s plate, and the need for mat-building, a form of grid-based modular design and construction for buildings. He also emphasized the importance of Imagineering embracing a very different kind of future, one that looked at solutions from a diverse range of perspectives. He told Bouza, “We need to understand what’s going on outside of our castle walls.”
A new HQ
Part of the future is a move, along with most of the Disney Parks, Experiences and Products segment, to new headquarters in Florida – in Lake Nona, part of the Orlando metro area. The relocation applies lessons learned at Disney from the unexpected challenges brought on by the pandemic and the resulting changes in workflow and project development. “These past couple of years have been tough for all of us and in pretty unimaginable ways, both personally and professionally,” says Bouza. “Change can be hard to grasp and understand, but we also need to stretch beyond our comfort zone. I think we’ve all learned that this past year.”
Bouza likes to quote a saying from Walt Disney, one that she keeps on her wall: “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading down new paths. We’re always exploring and experimenting.”
“While relocating a large creative, highly specialized organization like Imagineering to Lake Nona is a challenge,” she says, “it is an unprecedented opportunity that will open new doors and create a global platform. We are focusing on innovation through collaboration.”
Diversity and outreach
Bouza’s chosen profession, architecture, is a multi-disciplinary collaborative effort. “You can never do anything individually,” she says. “Even though, sometimes, that’s the reputation of architects.” One of the reasons Bouza chose Cal Poly Pomona for her academic studies was its cross-disciplinary approach to education. Disney’s Imagineers employ a similar approach, with architecture being one of the many disciplines. At Imagineering, Bouza points out that the multi-disciplinary factor extends beyond the division as the Imagineers have access to the full breadth of The Walt Disney Company – from ESPN and ABC producers to animators and film directors.
With multi-disciplinary teams comes the opportunity for diversity, something that Bouza has embraced through her community outreach, be it through Girls, Inc., a mentorship program, or Architecture for Communities Los Angeles (ACLA), which she played an instrumental role in developing during her tenure as LA chapter President of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). ACLA teaches students that they have an opportunity to impact the environment of their community.
Another project that Bouza is involved in is Imagine LA, a nonprofit focused on ending the cycle of poverty and homelessness. “At times, it can get distressing because you kind of wonder, are we making a difference,” she shares. “We focus specifically on families because that is a demographic around homelessness that I don’t think a lot of people see, but it does exist. And our program focuses on peer-to-peer mentorship. So, anyone in one of these families who is over the age of five has a mentor.”
As a woman of color, Bouza has also embraced her status as a role model, but tempers it with the understanding that all diverse voices should be heard. Once she became a practicing architect, Bouza realized there weren’t many who looked like her in the field. She computed that just 550 African American women are licensed architects in the US, roughly 0.4% of the entire field.
“To me,” Bouza elaborates, “it’s important where I represent a specific demographic, but I really represent everybody. I’m not only targeting people who look like me, but I do recognize that that’s important. There’s such a vibrant culture here at Imagineering and it’s important for us to continue to foster and grow that.” She continued by acknowledging that she may have come to Imagineering with a very different perspective than others, but she will never lose sight of the importance of the organization’s rich legacy, and opportunities that lie ahead.