“On The Bleeding Edge of Themed Entertainment. . .”

Eddie Sotto has played a large role in the design of some of the most successful themed attractions in history.  With Walt Disney Imagineering, he was most recently Senior Vice President of Concept Design.  Here’s part two of our interview with visionary and Imagineer Eddie Sotto.
2lax.jpg (26014 bytes)Eddie Sotto at Encounter restaurant at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).  Encounter was designed by consultatnts from Walt Disney Imagineering, including those from Sotto’s team who played a leading role in the design. Nate Naversen: That first interview was very stimulating.   I think it was very popular among all of our visitors.  Let us continue with your story, shall we?Eddie Sotto:  Sure, Indiana Jones ride was difficult as I arrived on the scene as designer for the second time.
NN:  Back in Glendale, after the completion of Disneyland Paris you mean?
ES:  Yes. At this juncture the project was way over budget and was a show ride with many animatronics. Tony Baxter was going to change out the team and I was going to take over to re-concept and bring it into line. We got in and made a significant change to the concept, but both Tony Baxter and upper management still needed to be convinced.
The strategy I thought made the most sense was to use one big set (ala Knott’s Berry Farm’s Calico Mine ride.)  The Knott’s ride had one central space you revisit several times. We also planned to make the Indy ride vehicle the show and use it more. After all, the Indy vehicle was expensive, and the moves the car could make were not being exploited. Before the car was to drive into big audio-animatronic scenes with Nazis.  It was more spectacle and linear story and not too thrilling.  Eventually we eliminated the expensive static show and turned it into more of a thrill ride.
We would eventually abandon the scenes with the audio-animatronic figures except for a few Indiana Jones figures. Tony Baxter liked our ideas, and then later the bosses got on board too.
With this new concept, the challenge was to get the vehicle track designed so the timing and spacing worked. Tony locked himself in his office and used a piece of string the correct length of the track until it was laid out. I worked with the set designers to get a block out. We hit budget and Tony was happy.
NN:  Overall, sounds like you helped get it back in line.  By the way, do you think we should tell Tony about AutoCad?
ES:  Well I have to give him credit. He had to create this winding track with many caveats and sightline issues. I was good for him at the time as he was married to a certain set of ideas and I was a catalyst for change. He later developed the rest of the ride. I suggested putting the changing room at the beginning instead of at the top of the lift and to do the projected bugs in the dead areas.
NN:  That changing room blew my mind…  that and the moving room in the rolling ball scene.  Who ever thought of stopping the car and moving the building to make the car seem like it was moving backwards?
ES:  John Stone, and later Skip Lange pulled off that magic.
ES:  Then I left the project to focus on getting the rest of the land prepared with a new Jungle Cruise dock and Adventureland Bazaar.
NN:  You and I might have even crossed paths at one point. The summer of 1994 was my last summer as a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disneyland, as well as an intern under Michael Korns / Pat McGarry.  I got to see your work first hand!  I must say you all did quite a good job.  I used to go sit in the benches on the second floor of the Jungle Cruise boathouse building after the park closed and just soak in the atmosphere.
ES: Wow, you must have seen the infirmary. The bone saw and all the gory bug stuff was my favorite.
NN:   Oh yes, I ate it up. Not the bugs. . . the infirmary.
ES:  Chris Runco and Ed Johnson were on that job and really did it up.  I put together the soundtrack for the 1940’s music that plays in the queue and performed one of the short-wave radio voices. We really worked hard to design that building to look like it is slowly sinking into the river.
The electrical system was a big fight to pull together correctly. I wanted knob and tube wiring to look like it was originally installed by the French army, and then later expanded by the Jungle Cruise Skippers into a touring operation. It was to look like the building was damaged by a fire, later to be followed by a curio shop to take the tourists on the Jungle Cruise.
NN:  They walked us through the new Jungle Cruise story during Skipper re-training. It was very interesting.  Did you ever work in the parks as a regular cast member?
ES:  Yes.  During the summers of 1975-1976 at Sunkist in Adventureland.  I was 16.
NN:  That sounds right.  Was it the stand in front of the Tiki Room?
ES:  It was across from the Jungle Cruise, what is now the Bengal Barbeque.
NN:  Do you feel that working in the parks helped you out as a designer later on down the road?
ES: Yes, I always remembered what the cast member must do in the environment and how guests will use or not use the space.
NN: Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you are the voice of the conductor in the Main Street U.S.A. Train Station at Disneyland Paris.  Do you have any interesting other tidbits of Disney lore you could share with us about either yourself, or Disneyland Paris?
ES:  Right. I also have done voice work in:
– Radio Toontown
– Big Thunder in Disneyland Paris
– Party line conversations on Main Street Disneyland and Disneyland Paris
– Shrunken Ned and Genie machines in Adventureland Bazaar in Disneyland
– Upstairs Main Street U.S.A. window sounds in Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.
– Tokyo Disneyland Tiki Room
– River Country, Disney World
– Blizzard Beach, Disney World
– Space Mountain video Walt Disney World / Disneyland,
startours.jpg (46174 bytes)In the pre-show / boarding video at Star Tours in Tomorrowland, the passengers aboard the “Starspeeder”are all Imagineers and their family members, including Eddie Sotto (behind Chewbacca).        – I sit behind Chewbacca in the back row of the Star Tours load video. We did sound effects in the upstairs windows and one of them was a barking dog. So realistic that security went searching for it!
NN:   Keep looking boys. It must be exciting to be immortalized like that.  Especially when you take a tour through and you can stop and listen to yourself. Pretty soon everyone will be looking for hidden Eddies along with all the hidden Mickeys.
ES:  It is fun sometimes to see the guests react while you sit anonymously on a bench.
NN:  Where are you at in the Space Mountain video… in the Federal Express post show?
ES: I am the Robin Leach soundalike “Lifestyles of the Rich and Alien” and the announcer on the “Blast off Channel” on the queue video. Also the “Launch Sequence Engaged. We have ignition,” voice-over on the Dick Dale soundtrack in Disneyland.
ES:  When we were working on Disneyland Space Mountain, finding a way to integrate Fed Ex into the show was tough enough but getting the right music on board the coaster was another.
dickdale.jpg (10999 bytes) Pioneering rock instrumentalist Dick Dale. Nicknamed “King of the Surf Guitar” in the’60s, Dale is known to today’s alternative rock fans as “The Sultan of Shred.”  Sotto worked closely with Dale on Disneyland’s Space Mountain roller coaster. Classical was the obvious choice and Tony Baxter wanted a John Williams score type thing. I had just seen Pulp Fiction and was listening to Dick Dale in my truck when it hit me that we could have dad think Dick Dale was classic old surf and the kids would associate it with an R-rated movie!  It was a win-win situation, so Dick did the theme!Dick could provide the licks to add to the acceleration of the ride and we could score it as a combo of spooky sci-fi at the start and end with this guitar adrenaline driven lick fest at the end. Dick came in and did a great job too. Most guests think the ride is faster than it is. We increased the tempo as the speed increases and it feels like it in your head!
NN:  A wonderful psychological trick. The idea was a good one as it was also put to good use again at the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster at Disney/MGM Studios with Aerosmith.
encounter1.jpg (16232 bytes)encounter2.jpg (15705 bytes)
encounter3.jpg (15260 bytes) Interior views of The Encounter Restaurant at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
ES:  Ironically, my favorite design experience was not in a Disney Park, it was the Encounter restaurant at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).  It is the building at the heart of the airport, themed as a Jetson-esque restaurant with lava lamps and “Barbarelegant” interior. I liked working on the project because it was a chance to do an historic landmark and develop my own style and create a non-Disney atmosphere derived from personal taste. Celebrities use it for private parties and premieres. It is still quite a hot spot!
NN:  I’ve heard quite a bit of good things about that project.
ES:  It was the first project done by the “Concept Development Studio.” Marty Sklar (President of WDI) was kind enough to allow me to create my own budgeted think tank and gather a super small, but talented team. I explained that I could create more than theme parks and service other divisions on behalf of Imagineering.
Sklar agreed and we went to work on everything from interactive foods, on-line interactive worlds, hotels, handheld electronic devices, The ABC studios, One Saturday Morning for ABC, and even a new SPACE pavilion for Epcot.
Susan Bonds made it all happen as Super Producer.  She and I were the principal leaders of a small group (86) of both in-house and consulting talent. Sometimes we felt like we were the “bleeding edge!”  At the same time we shared doing the portfolio of Tokyo Disneyland too. The crossover made a rich creative mix.
We had some superstar talent like Mike Ma, a designer/stylist from Mercedes Benz doing industrial and Ride vehicle design! It was the funnest time. I miss those folks terribly.
The studio was dissolved when I left. But in three years, thanks to the dedication of Susan and her team, we generated hundreds of millions of dollars of funded projects.
2abc1.jpg (48170 bytes)Front facade of the ABC Times Square Studios /   New York City. ES:  My last project to open is one that I am most proud of. It is the exterior design and concept of the ABC Times Square Studios. It features an eight story undulating electric led video marquee. The idea behind the facade is “Media as Architecture.”  It is a way to see the audience step through the screen into the show. Here the facade becomes a character in the show prompting the audience in the square to cheer and interact with the host inside. This is a hint of the future. Here the buildings have a beating heart, are of the moment, and even play a part in the show.
NN:  Isn’t that interesting?  For centuries, designers have been trying to design architecture that communicates to people.  Finally, this building not only communicates… it actually interacts.
ES:  Yeah baby!
ES:  I left Disney, and left behind the upcoming Winnie the Pooh ride in Japan (not to be confused with the Disney World one.)
NN:  Viva La Toad!   Errr. . . Did I just say that?
ES:  Our ride was the first ride where each vehicle is “free ranging” and can decide its own course with no tracks!
This will rock! I can’t wait to see this complete! Three Hunny Pots all go into a scene at once and “dance” with each other, even bounce up and down with Tigger, it is a true next level for WDI. I’m sorry to have to leave this one behind. It was a labor of love! But it in good hands and they can pull off anything.
NN: Are you saying that the ride vehicle freely enters and leaves each scene?
ES: Yes.
NN: What, if any control does the guest have over the ride experience?
ES: The guest does not control it at all and the pots are programmed to give different experiences.
ES:  There is the Space Pavilion at EPCOT on the horizon that Susan Bonds and I spearheaded. It will be a new level in E-ticket experiences too.
NN:  Possibly a replacement for Horizons?
ES:  Yes.
NN: We’ll wait with anticipation.
ES: So will I. I’ll admit I loved being an Imagineer more than you know and am dying to ride the completed Space Ride.
NN: As executive designer of Disneyland, you were the man in charge of the long-term attraction development strategy for the park. Could you tell us about the things you focused on, what we can expect to see in the immediate future there (maybe something that you laid in action before you left?)  What does the future hold for Disneyland?
ES:  Tony Baxter has all the parks now and I am not sure what he is cooking up. I took Tokyo as the park to manage as they spend the bigger bucks, better maintenance, and really go after the “vision”. Tokyo Disneyland has a higher per guest-per-capita earnings so they can afford the additional expenses. The strategy for Disneyland right now is to renew the older attractions before doing all new ones.  Actually, if they can take an old show and reinvent it at a higher level, it makes good sense anyway.
NN:  I think I agree with you on that one, in terms of the need for renewal of older attractions.  So many Disneyland attractions are brands in and of themselves, and it wouldn’t take much to bring them up to E-ticket level again. . . or beyond.
jungle_cruise3.jpg (19000 bytes)The Hippo attack at Disney’s Jungle Cruise
The Shark attack at Universal Studios’ Jaws Ride.
NN: Jungle Cruise, my pride and joy, for example, is in many ways analogous to Universal’s Jaws. The difference?  At Jaws the shark scares the heck out of guests and they eat it up.  But at Jungle Cruise the hippo pool attack scene is a yawner.At Universal, they shoot shotguns at the shark to blow it up. At Disney World they took PC route and removed the guns completely.  Bring the guns back, add an earthquake scene in the temple, a hippo attack, real arrows / improved effects from the attacking natives, a “flash” flood at Schweitzer falls, and all of a sudden you’ve turned a relaxing pleasure cruise into quite an exciting adventure ala Indiana Jones.
Sometimes you need to take risks to make these things happen, but maybe that’s what it needs? Of course, it’s easy for me to stand back and be a critic.
ES: The secret is the mix. You need to balance not only the themes but the intensity of the shows too. A mix of passivity and thrill makes a park that everyone enjoys. Not to say that souping up the F/X in Haunted Mansion or a improving the audio-animatronic show in the Jungle Cruise would be bad either.
NN: What’s the most successful themed attraction at Disney, in your opinion?
ES: Pirates in Disneyland. It was perfection! Those guys rule!
NN: I was actually trained there, and worked a few shifts during my stay as a Disneyland cast member.  Boy was I lucky!  I agree… it’s arguably the best dark-ride of all time. . . years before its time.
You could get lost underneath those sets for hours if you didn’t know where you were going.  It was a true labyrinth inside, with trap doors, secret passages, tunnels, pull down ladders, and blind corridors. It was actually kind of scary back there alone in the dark with all the animation and sound effects running.  I remember thinking to myself, “If my flashlight goes out right now, I’m in deep trouble!”
Have you been to Islands of Adventure yet?
ES:  Yes, I enjoyed it and would take my wife back.
NN:  Do you think Universal now poses a significant threat to Disney’s dominance in the theme park industry?
ES: They missed the mark. They need critical mass and they lack a clear vision of who and why they are. I think they can grab market share and will continue to whittle away at the Mouse.  But there is no emotion in anything they do. I don’t feel anything except in Seuss Landing.
Islands of Adventure was almost a cliché of the whole theme thing. You would see the decorated but emotionless facade, ride the ride, do the tie-in shop at the end. Am I getting too jaded and wonder if the public is seeing this as a thinning paradigm?  I’m not sure. However, they did some great design work and the Spiderman ride is awesome.
NN:  I like the fact that at Universal they abandon pretenses.  “Ride the movies” is their motto.  In other words, don’t look for meaning here. Just have fun. Movies are fun, and they are fantasy, and they are something we’d all like to be a part of in some way.
At Islands of Adventure they create rich, lush fantasy environments that are just plain fun.  And every ride is worth experiencing.
ES: Their fantasy stuff doesn’t work well for me. It is kind of meaningless, although well done.  Detail 10. Execution 8, but they spent the cash in the wrong places. They are naive in how and where they themed it.
dueling.jpg (10236 bytes)The highly themed entrance to the Dueling Dragons Roller Coaster queue at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando Florida.dueling2.jpg (11141 bytes)The dueling Dragons Coaster itself was designed by Bolliger & Mabillard Consulting Engineers, Monthey, Switzerland. The dueling coasters are named “Fire” and “Ice” after two mythological dragons.
Why theme the twin dragon queue only to blow it all off with and unthemed coaster at the end? Either you do it or don’t do anything. Why do they take people someplace they relate to in a movie and let them relive something?  It pushes no buttons on me; the physical coaster experience does but not the castle, It was pretty, but why? NN:  I agree.  hey must have spent a ton on that coaster queue.   I must say it was nice waiting the 20 minutes in a highly themed queue when I did have to wait.  It kept it interesting.  Plus, the coasters 3500+ THRC (Theoretical hourly rider capacity) kept the line moving at a nice clip.  If nothing else, the short wait time was nice.
ES:  They will never be able to afford to maintain and repaint that park. It is a “wow” in spots, and demonstrates that detail and cinematic theme is now a commodity. Was it emotional? No.
Was Spidey cool? Yeah. Is Seuss cool? Oh yeah. Will it be there in a year… maybe, but faded and peeling.
NN:   As for Disney, I think they will always have a winning formula as long as they don’t let dilute their brand too much. … And don’t lose their creative edge.
ES:  The two big issues…. you got it.
NN:  What is the future of themed entertainment?
ES:   People will always want to get out and do things. I think the future is good but the price tags of the big rides are coming down. Way down. Disney is spending way less, less often.
For example, Disneyland California Adventure (DCA) is mostly 3-D films and off the shelf rides.  There will be fewer big epic wows. It may be good, but mostly it will just be different.
The hard part is I am thinking that video games are the next story medium. They are getting better and with stars like Lara Croft emerging, they are the next wave.
I know small kids are bored by these big show rides like Pirates of the Caribbean that have no interaction and do nothing. Maybe DCA is wise to try other things.
At WDI I was working on interactive additions to answer these issues. We weren’t trying to do the Walt Disney of 1969, we were doing the “You” of 2001. We all live in a world that is changing faster than we can understand it. Attention spans, family size, vacation length, interactivity; all is up for grabs. We must be aware and adapt. Find the generic medium that will always be emotional, and look for the emotional buttons.
The secret is to find those new emotional buttons to press on people. Be physical. Be emotional. Relate to your audience.
blair_witch.jpg (2853 bytes) A final tearful confession. . . The Blair Witch Project.  Haxan films, 1999. The Blair Witch Project used the vocabulary of a handheld home movie to instill a sense of real threat as the audience related to their own past on this medium. It pressed a new emotional button. NN:  It will be interesting to see what the future holds.
You left Walt Disney Imagineering when you were at the top in order to pioneer a new type of entertainment on the web.  Will you tell us about why you left WDI to be the Den.net creative director?
ES:  Things at WDI had slowed and I need to be challenged. The stuff I created was in production and this year was going to be really slow. There wasn’t an appetite like there was for creative. I am 41. I want to reinvent myself in a new creative arena that has an upward career earning potential.
NN:   Then recently you left the Digital Entertainment Network to form a Company.
ES: Yes, as much as I loved the speed and innovation of the internet, I really missed the satisfaction of designing physical spaces. So, wanting a bit of both, decided to use my recent web experience to lend a new perspective on creating the “next level” in outdoor entertainment!
NN: How did it come together?
ES:  I had been discussing the idea of being in this type of business with a friend of mine who is a successful software entrepreneur. We had gone around on the notion several times before i even left WDI. Nothing ever materialized. Then more recently, he and I happened to be at Islands of Adventure discussing the idea anew when I received a call that the Internet company I worked for was going to declare bankruptcy! The timing couldn’t have been better!  It was there in Florida that we shook hands and he agreed to fund “Progress City”,   and he got himself a Chief Creative Officer. What a trip that was. (On the phone…”Honey, guess what happened  while we were on the Men in Black ride???”)
NN:  Why the name “Progress City?”
ES:  In the “GE Carousel of Progress” at Disneyland there was a giant (and impressive to a small boy like me) model of a City of Tomorrow, named “Progress City.” I later learned that it really was based on Walt’s pure vision of the real EPCOT, a place for Industry to test anything and everything that could make life better on its timeshared “residents.” That vision never happened.  So why not rekindle the spirit that gave birth to it? Why not try to build “Progress City” one idea at a time? Can’t you make your own big beautiful tomorrow? We said yes…
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it” -Alan Kay
We’d like our new little “Progress City” to be a 21st Century design and research studio. A modest space in Santa Monica where the best designers and artists in the virtual and real worlds are in “residence” and can create the “next level” of “brick and click” convergence with Industry as their clients.  We’d like to bring optimism back to the future.
NN: Interesting, any other inspiration?
ES: Sure, the quote from Rex Allen.. “Progress is something that you can’t take for granted, it takes a lot of people wanting it, and willing to work for it.” and the other line “As long as man dreams, and works, and builds, this progress will go on… in your life and mine..”
I love that!
NN: Every city has a Charter, what’s yours?
ES: The mission of this new venture is to explore (for hire) “the convergence of the Internet, Architecture, and wireless devices.” Seeing how far these worlds can be blurred, the physical and the virtual, may lead to the extension of each into the other’s territory.
NN: Why the convergence of the Web and Architecture?
ES: I guess it was recent experience at an internet company and looking back at projects like the ABC Times Square Studios. That project is really unique with its 5 story electronic facade connected to the internet. Guests can step through the giant video “scanning lines” and into a live TV show, or from outside see the facade become a massive live web page and participate in real time! This potential made me want to go bigger and further.
NN: What could be bigger and further?
ES: Buildings that breathe, or have a heartbeat. Perhaps the virtual extends itself as “wearable” technologies in your clothes? This way the environment knows you and reacts to you presence, even evolving the show to reflect your interests? Or the 3D physical world also lives in Cyberspace? All I can say for sure it will be fun trying.
NN: Where are you based?
ES:  In downtown Santa Monica, California.
NN: Do you have any advice for those interested in this new business?
ES: Don’t think you know it all. The medium is so fertile and new, just make your mistakes as fast as possible and make a lot of them. (Cheaply!) Don’t assume, observe and learn. The learning will go faster. Who knew how many light bulbs Edison made before the right one was born? Get out there and try.
NN: What are you doing now?
ES: Our first client is a Major League Baseball Team that would like us to help them explore what a wireless “21st Century Ballpark” experience would be like. We are in discussions with other companies regarding similar ventures.
NN: Why is it important to focus your attention in this area?
ES: Because it can bring together large audiences from faraway places and in the case of wearable electronics, add a level of story that we have not realized as yet. I’ve done work in this area for WDI in the past and it is a solid platform to explore.  Wireless is a an area that is expanding, and looking into its potential sounds exciting.
NN: Can I visit this place?
ES: Not right yet, we’re still building the indoor Monorail and the Nuclear Reactor for the Espresso machine, but you can e mail me in the City Tower. It’s eddie@progresscity.com!
NN: Any closing thoughts about “Progress City?”
ES: “It’s not exactly Disneyland, but it is clean, bright, and lots of fun” – Mother, Carousel of Progress 1963.
Walt Disney Imagineering, as great as it is had gotten stale for me. I wanted to take a break and come back when things were more aggressive.  I want to take my placemaking skills and use them on the web, a largely untapped medium where there are no guests, only users.
NN: Especially, like you said, because no one has been able to truly revolutionize a personal experience on the web yet. It should be interesting to see how it all shakes out.
I get a lot of questions from people trying to get started in this business.  Do you have any words for them?  What’s their key to success?  And further, what’s had been the key to your success so far?
ES: Walt Disney is dead, but you are alive. Use your life and your talent!
Walt seized a new medium and studied the audience. He saw what was coming and ran for it, catching the future and naming it after him. You can do it too. Stop collecting and start designing.
My key to success is that I am sincere and passionate about what I am into. You can see it when I am excited. Optimism is contagious. I love the new thing. Be careful with new ideas.  Sometimes it is easy to confuse newness with greatness!
I believe in trying to reach that next level and inspiring as many as I can to come with me. I want to do stuff that thrilled me as a kid. I am into taking my darker side and expanding it into story and transforming my inner loves and fears into emotional vehicles.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg turned their personal backgrounds and fantasies into films. It is fun to reveal yourself through abstract mediums and look for entertaining ways of pushing new buttons on people. It was Hitchcock’s joy. His fears were our entertainment. He knew what would scare us because it terrified him!
See your projects through the eyes of your audience. Do something that will make the world and you feel better if even for a moment.
Design can be satisfying but it always has a cost, be it personal or emotional. It is usually worth it.
NN: Thanks for your time!  I think the audience will agree that this was a very stimulating interview.

“On The Bleeding Edge of Themed Entertainment. . . Eddie Sotto

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar