How Disney's Imagineers Keep The Magic Ideas Coming

Peter Rummell, the former chairman of Disney's Imagineers, shares inside stories and secrets about how Disney's teams work together to make magic happen again and again.

From the teacup ride to Splash Mountain, Disney's Imagineers have, for decades, built the magical real-world counterparts to the fantasy lands depicted in Disney's movies. Thanks to the engineering and design team, Disney's empire spans 11 theme parks around the world, a town, four cruise ships, dozens of hotels, water parks, and various other happiest places on Earth.

Peter Rummell served as chairman of the Imagineers for 12 years, from 1985 to 1997. Under his leadership, Disney undertook its most ambitious project ever, per him, designing and building Euro Disney and Disneyland Paris. He also oversaw the development of Blizzard Beach, and other additions to Disney's American theme parks.

Peter Rummell

Rummell came to the Imagineers not by way of running other creative teams, but through real estate. When Disney acquired Arvida, a development company he worked at, because of "accounting efficiencies" Rummel soon found himself in charge of the creative enterprise.

Over the years, he learned, much like Pixar president Ed Catmull, that creativity doesn't just happen; it has to be engineered. "If there is any lesson I've learned it's that lightning bolts don't hit very often," Rummell told Fast Company. "It is a process and if you don't understand that and if you sit around and wait for the lightning bolt, you're not going to be very productive."

Rummell has since moved on from Disney, but is still helping others with their creative ideas, currently backing One Sparka real-life version of Kickstarter. Here are his other lessons on how to encourage creativity from his decade overseeing Disney's theme parks.

The Boss Is Not Always Right

"I think one of the major lessons I learned was that despite the hierarchy of an organization, an idea can come from anywhere," Rummell explained. "If you're the top guy that doesn't mean you have a great idea; doesn't mean you have the best idea; doesn't mean you're going to be the most valuable person in the process."

Rummell learned this his first very weeks at Disney. Then brand-new CEO Michael Eisner pitched what he thought was a great promotional idea to reenergize the brand: Marry Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Eisner had even secured a Time magazine cover story for the affair. (Time was a big deal back then.)

But when Eisner gathered Disney's top guard in a room to discuss the idea, one person pointed out a huge flaw with the idea. As soon as you marry them, you freeze them in time. "Right now if you're eight and you meet Mickey and Minnie, you think they're eight. When you're 58 you think they're 58," explained Rummell. As soon as you define their age, the icons lose a lot of their meaning to a lot of people.

When Eisner heard that logical explanation, he gave up his passion project. "That was the power of listening," said Rummell.

Hire An Eclectic Team

"An accountant sitting next to a poet is a really good idea," says Rummell. The best teams weren't best friends, but played well off of each other.

Often times, the least likely people will have the best ideas. When Rummell first came to Disney he thought the smartest people, or rather people with the best pedigrees, were the most valuable. But, when it comes to creativity, he learned that doesn't matter as much. "It doesn't mean you load the room up with idiots. But IQ, and fancy education, and that kind of thing, is not an automatic pre-requisite to success," he said.

Vet Even The Most Terrible Ideas

This goes beyond the tired adage "There's no such thing as a bad idea." Through the right lens, even "bad" ideas can turn into great products. Rummell offers up the example of the birth of Blizzard Beach, one of Orlando's water parks. "We didn't want to do another Pirates of the Caribbean or some Caribbean island. We were trying to figure out what would be fun or different," he explained.

The people brainstorming couldn't think of anything, until someone stepped out to go to the bathroom and walked by a cubicle decorated with snow globes. He thought: What if there was a freak snowstorm in central Florida? That idea eventually turned into Blizzard Beach. "In one sense that was the lightning bolt, but it was also a group of people that didn't make fun of it." Even the silliest ideas are taken seriously at Disney, which brings us to the next lesson.

Laugh At Yourself

"If you don't have the ability to laugh at yourself then you don't have the nerve to say something stupid," explained Rummell. "As long as you’re worried about that you’re not going to be positive for the conversation." Thanks to Walt Disney himself, Disney's culture encourages crazy ideas, which allows for fluid thinking and creativity.

Prepare For Panic

With every project, something (or sometimes many things) will go wrong and panic will ensue. "Panic is as much a part of the process as the original idea is. It’s as sure to happen as anything," explains Rummell. The tendency in these situations is to freak out. But, if you prepare for things to go wrong, then when something doesn't go as planned, you can handle it calmly.

The most important thing to remember in these situation, says Rummell, is the ultimate goal. Keeping that in mind, you can figure out how to make compromises that fix the current problem, without compromising the idea.

[Image: Flickr user Hubert Yu]

Add New Comment

3 Comments

  • So many will nod. So many will share. So few will absorb it in themselves and instill it in their teams. And that's why it's so rare to see what all the crazy and silly and terrible caterpillars of ideas we have could have become. But hey, that's why there's a Disneyworld.

  • Miste Kehaunihiikapali

    I love the basic principles that you share because we can apply them to any industry or team. Thank you.

  • Daniel Molitor

    You have got to be kidding me. Mr. Rummell NEVER understood the Disney culture and way of doing things. Projects that were initiated and carried forward to completion during his tenure happened DESPITE his involvement (or non-involvement, as was more likely the case). His team of executives did their best to transform Imagineering into yet another real estate development company, run by the numbers, not the quality of the ideas. It remains a testament to the dedication of the Imagineers and their resolve NOT to see that transformation take place that Imagineering designed and built the projects mentioned in this article. Rummell had a habit of walking into meetings filled with creative people, giving the room a quick scan, then making a beeline for the highest executive, utterly ignoring anyone of lowly stature. I'm glad that he seems to understand and value the process now, but he certainly didn't give that impression at the time.