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Walt Disney Imagineering snags chief creative officer Bruce Vaughn back from Airbnb

Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), the workshop that makes all of the cool things you experience at the Disney Parks, is bringing back a veteran to co-lead the division. Bruce Vaughn was previously at WDI for 22 years, leaving for VR experience company Dreamscape before landing at Airbnb.

Vaughn will take the role of chief creative officer and co-lead of WDI. This news is likely to be shock wave level (in a good way) among Imagineers present and past and those of us who follow the Parks and the people who create them.

Vaughn has been at Airbnb for a year and a half leading its Experiential Creative Product team. He was hired to develop more "immersive" experiences at Airbnb, which had also hired former Disney Parks exec Catherine Powell to help them build out packages of excursions for Airbnb guests in an effort to go beyond lodging bookings.

Vaughn previously co-lead WDI as chief creative executive for nine years, where he worked on projects across the company -- including the renovation of Epcot's Spaceship Earth early on in his career.

“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 provided statement.

Bruce Vaughn, chief creative officer, Walt Disney Imagineering

Imagineering is a unique organization with a very different way of working. Leads inside the division pool resources across a group of people that blend a mélange of art, engineering, organization, supply chain and storytelling into environmental works that are inhabited by millions of people a year. The internal process for creating and maintaining a flow of unique ideas balances fiscal restrictions, personalities and revenue goals against the much more nebulous questions of art and emotion.

It’s a startup that was born in 1952 and still manages to maintain a sense that the projects being built are somehow being formed organically from chaos. It’s a rare environment that draws really talented people but has also been shedding them rapidly.

WDI has seen a huge shakeup in recent years under the company’s previous CEO, Bob Chapek. Long-time Imagineers who led huge projects and carried an enormous amount of institutional knowledge like Joe Rohde, Jon Snoddy, former Imagineering co-president Bob Weis and others have all moved on recently — along with a spate of departures surrounding Disney’s stop-start move of WDI to Florida.

Effective leaders of that organization have to understand them and how to perform that balancing act. Weis was co-president with Barbara Bouza — who joined WDI as co-president of Business Operations, Design and Delivery in 2020. Bouza will now be the solo president but will co-lead Imagineering with Vaughn in the CCO role. Both will report directly to Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks. He officially joins on March 20.

“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,” said Bouza in a statement.

Disney is betting here that a veteran, respected leader who previously worked as a co-lead will offset some recent brain drain and loss of history. Though it’s easy to ascribe every movement made since Bob Iger resumed the CEO role as "fixing problems," this move seems to be more of a maintenance and upkeep maneuver that will offset Weis’ departure and pair Bouza with an (almost) equally experienced leader for WDI.

D’Amaro sent an internal note to Imagineers today as well:

DATE: March 7, 2023
TO: DPEP Executives, All WDI
FROM: Josh D’Amaro, Chairman, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products
SUBJECT: WDI Organizational Announcement: Welcome Back Bruce Vaughn

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.