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April 3, 2017

Jennifer Hudson used stint on the Disney Wonder as a springboard to success

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Singer and Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Hudson, a former Disney Cruise Line cast member, poses with Mickey Mouse on board the Disney Dream. [Disney Cruise Line]

The presentation of "Hairspray: Live" last December was a pre-holiday gift to television viewers, as well as fans of the smash Broadway hit musical.

The broadcast showcased the considerable talents of a number of actors and singers, among them Derek Hough, Ariana Grande, Martin Short, Maddie Baillio ... and the incomparable Jennifer Hudson.

During a trans-Atlantic cruise on the Disney Magic in the fall of 2015, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Ed Whitlow, a long-time Disney cast member who helped guide Ms. Hudson from Disney Cruise Line performer to American Idol contestant to Academy Award winner.

Jennifer began her meteoric rise as a cast member aboard the Disney Wonder. Whitlow, a veteran cruise performer and director, said "I first met Jennifer in Chicago. She was quite green, raw, but amazingly talented ... a truly gifted singer. A lot of people don't know that Jennifer got her start as a cast member on the Disney Wonder."

Whitlow remembers that Jennifer left her greatest impression on guests during performances in shows themed to Hercules and The Lion King. "When she sang 'The Circle of Life,' it literally stopped the show," Whitlow said. "I told her that if she wanted to advance her career, that she had to get on television."

So Jennifer set her sights on the then-mega hit American Idol. The day she got off the Wonder at the end of her contract in 2004, Whitlow [at the time, he was serving as her manager] and Jennifer drove up to Atlanta to try out for the show, which was in its third season. She made it through the arduous audition process and, although she would only finish seventh that season, she had made an indelible impression.

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A beaming Jennifer Hudson performs during christening ceremonies for the Disney Dream. Ms. Hudson had the honor of being named the Dream's Godmother. with her are Mickey Mouse and Disney CEO Bob Iger. [Disney Cruise Line]

"The director of the movie Dreamgirls [Bill Condon] saw her and gave her a call, asking her if she would do a screen test for the part of Effie in the movie. She flew up to New York and did great. But we didn't hear anything for months. I was walking around a Walgreens in Florida one day when I got a call. 'Can you and Jennifer come to Los Angeles for another screen test?' I said, 'When?' The answer was, 'Tonight.'

"We got on the first plane we could, showed up at the studio and before you knew it, she was on stage, singing." The problem was, her first performance wasn't very good. "The director asked me to go out and check with her and make sure she was OK." Whitlow said. "'You realize they're filming, right?' I asked her. 'Are you ready?' 'Oh, yeah,' she said, 'YOU better get ready.'"

On the next take, "She blew the roof off Paramount Studios. Obviously, she got the part and that led to a lot bigger and better things ... like an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. It was so special. And to think, she started at the Disney Cruise Line, doing all the things the others crew members do, like safety drills and eating in the crew mess hall."

The topper for both Ed Whitlow and Jennifer Hudson came in late 2010. "I got a call from [Disney chairman and CEO] Bob Iger, asking me if Jennifer would be the godmother of the Disney Dream [which was christened in January of 2011]. Needless to say, she was thrilled. The entire experience with Jennifer, watching her blossom into a superstar, is something I'll never forget."

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Jennifer Hudson used a stint as a cast member on the Disney Wonder as a springboard to success. [Disney Cruise Line]

Whitlow began his talk with an overview of DCL entertainment. "We have a team of 15 people and we train about 320 cast members in our facility in Toronto," he began. In all, he and his staff put together eight casts a year who appear in shows on DCL's fleet: The Magic, Wonder, Dream and Fantasy. "The entertainment on the Disney Cruise Line is something we're really proud of," he added.

Whitlow then delved into his own career journey, which he said began at the age of 3. "By 7, I was performing on the beauty pageant scene," he said. On the screen above, there was a photo of him on stage at a pageant, belting out "There She Is, Miss America."

"Little did I realize back then that it all would lead to this wonderful career," he added.

Whitlow said he landed his first important job as a performer at Tokyo Disneyland. From there, he went to work "for another cruise line. But I got a call from Disney saying that they were starting up the Disney Cruise Line and asked me if I would I be interested" in joining the cast. He was a member of the very first cast on-board the Disney Magic during its debut season in 1998. "Does anyone remember "The Voyage of the Ghost Ship"? I was in that cast," he said. "I loved being a performer, but my decision to go behind the scenes as a producer was the greatest thing I could have ever done."

Performing on a cruise ship is not without its challenges, he added. "When you're on stage during rough seas, it really stretches your dancing muscles. We actually have different versions of dance numbers depending on the weather. For example, six tumbles during a routine might be reduced to three if it's rough. It's challenging, no doubt." He recounted how, while performing a number on roller skates during a Norwegian Cruise Line performance of "Starlight Express" years ago, the ship was rocking so much, "I skated right off the stage!"

He detailed the arduous journey from performer to choreographer to producer and the level of talent he's seen over the years. "Some cast members come to us with Broadway credits. Others get Broadway credits after performing on the Disney Cruise Line." To back up that statement, he said that five current members of the Broadway hit Beautiful earned their theater stripes as DCL performers.

He discussed the always nerve-wracking audition process. "Auditioning for a show is really quick. Those who rise to the occasion usually get the job. During auditions at Disney, we try to make it an experience, more than just 20 seconds. We're looking for something special, a spark, in each performer. Once you get the job, you are working hard, pushed to be better, forced to step out of your comfort zone," he said.

The latter stages of Whitlow's presentation included insight as to what the folks at Disney are looking for when they cast their wide net in search of talent:

"Triple threats. People who are actors, singers and dancers."

The importance of the script: "It's the heartbeat of what we do."

And the burden carried by a director: "The director is the owner of the vision of the show."

For more Disney-themed gems like these, check out my latest book, An American in Disneyland Paris [Theme Park Press].

April 9, 2017

Disney Fun Around The Country - 2017

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A few years ago I wrote a blog describing several Disney fan events that take place around the country. Carol and I really enjoy this sort of fan get-together. For us, they are an easy way to keep the magic alive without making that long trek south!

The response to that first blog was immediate. People said things like:
“I wish I had known about this, I live very close by.”
“I would love to know when this is next year!”
“That sounds like so much fun; I’d love to go some time.”

So if you’re looking to spend some happy times with fellow Disney fans, people who share your Disney addiction, here is an update just for you! It’s a list of a few of those “non-theme park events” coming up in 2017.

These local events can help you put the maximum “Disney Magic” in your life!

1. Southern Ontario “Canadian Disney Addicts” – April 23 2017 – Whitby Ontario
In June 2015 twenty-four strangers met in a Denny’s restaurant in Whitby Ontario. The only thing we had in common was a love of all things Disney.

Canadian Fans

We spent a wonderful afternoon talking about our happy place, sharing ideas, trading Disney pins and Vinylmations and most importantly, making new friends. You can read about the first event in an AllEars blog HERE.

That first meet was so much fun that we have continued to get together about every three months since then. As many as 60 die-hard Disney fans have joined us! If you live in Southern Ontario please come out and be part of the fun.

Canadian Fans

The next meet will be held Sunday, Apr 23rd at Blue Sea Restaurant, 836 Brock Street North, Whitby Ontario from noon to 5:00 p.m.

There are similar Ontario groups which have recently held meets in Niagara Falls and Ottawa. If you live in those areas please post a comment below and I'll send you further details.


2. Trade ‘til You Fade – Apr 28 - 30 2017 – Somerset New Jersey

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This weekend-long event, organized annually by Central Jersey Disney Pin Traders, is a fun-filled experience for those who collect and trade Disney pins and Vinylmations.

CJDPT Meeting Room

There are games, raffles and even an optional gift exchange which can be hilarious!

CJDPT Name That Toon

Full details are available on the Central Jersey Disney Pin Traders web site HERE.

Read a blog about the 2012 event HERE.


3. Dayton Disneyana – Jun 10 - 11, 2017 – Dayton Ohio

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Another wonderful weekend-long event, however this one caters to Disneyana collectors. The Dayton “Plane Crazy” Chapter of the Disneyana Fan Club does a terrific job organizing this annual bonanza for Disneyana collectors.

Dayton Disneyana 2015

A hotel ballroom is chock full of vendors tables overflowing with high quality collectibles. This is not a flea market, these are real collectors selling quality product. Carol always finds some unique treasures to take home with us!

Carol and Mickey


An eager vendor

There are always a few interesting speakers who pass on some fascinating tidbits of Disney history and gossip during afternoon and evening seminars.

This year’s event will feature some well known guests:
Mike Peraza, a Disney artist, designer and animator for over 35 years. Mike has used his range of talents on projects as varied as the animated Mickey’s Christmas Carol and the real-life Carsland at Disney’s California Adventure Park. I’m sure he’ll have some interesting stories to tell!

Mike Peraza

Patty Peraza, another Disney artist with years of experience across a broad spectrum of projects. Patty was the first female hired by Disney from the prestigious CalArts program and was the first female effects artist at Walt Disney Studios. Early in her Disney career Patty worked with her husband Mike on Mickey’s Christmas Carol and later was a project leader for the animated feature Beauty and the Beast.

Patty Peraza

Jim Hill, who has become a wonderfully entertaining regular at the Dayton event. Jim is a well known Disney blogger and historian and a very engaging speaker who shares plenty of insider knowledge.

Listening to speakers like Mike, Patty and Jim is what I like most at Dayton Disneyana. When you talk with them one-on-one it’s like having a back door into Disney lore and legend.

Tables line the halls outside the ballroom where attendees can mix and mingle; there is even a room set aside for Disney pin and Vinylmation traders.

Busy trading

Full details are available on the Dayton chapter’s web site HERE.

Read about last year’s event in this AllEars.net blogs: Dayton Disneyana 2016


4. Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet – Aug 12, 2017 – Lynnwood Washington

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Carol and I have not attended this annual event held near Seattle; it’s a long way from where we live! But we’ve heard very good reviews from friends who have been there. There are always some top-notch speakers and interesting activities.

Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet - Bob Gurr

Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet - Marty Sklar

Fellow AllEars blogger Jeanine Yamanaka wrote about last year’s event, you can read about it HERE.

Arrangements for the 2017 meet are not yet finalized, but you can read more details on their web site HERE:


5. Indy Disney Meet – Aug 26, 2017 - Hamilton County 4H Fairgrounds Noblesville Indiana

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INDY Meet

This is another event Carol and I have not attended but it sounds wonderful.

INDY Meet

It’s family oriented, it’s free and they have raised a lot of money to support Give Kids The World.

INDY Meet donation

It sounds like a great way to have fun and support a worthy cause, all at the same time. This year Yehaa Bob from Port Orleans Riverside will be a featured guest!

YeHaa Bob

Check out their web site HERE:


6. Swap ‘til You Drop – Oct 20-22, 2017 – Somerset New Jersey
Another fun-filled weekend-long event, organized annually by Central Jersey Disney Pin Traders. The format for this event is very similar to the Trade ‘til You Fade event held each spring. Refer to their web site HERE:


So . . . if you’re feeling blue because you can’t get to one of the Disney parks . . . why don’t you plan to attend one of these locally organized fan events!

Disney fans always make a fun-loving group; imagine how easy it is to make new friends when you are surrounded by kindred spirits.

Maybe Carol and I will see you there!

April 17, 2017

The Mousy Mindboggler

Riddle

THE MOUSY MINDBOGGLER

As you know if you subscribe to the AllEars® Weekly Newsletter, each month our friend James Dezern (known as "dzneynut" around several Disney discussion forums) supplies us with a puzzle of his own design.

Every month, James also Shares the Magic in another way -- by posting an all-new puzzle here in this AllEars.Net Guest Blog.

This month, James writes:

Here is the solution to the last crossword puzzle.

http://allears.net/ae/mb032217-key.pdf

We received 29 correct responses. All of you knew that the individual titles of the three television shows that were combined to create this motion picture were "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter," "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress," and "Davy Crockett at the Alamo."

The winner of a Mickey pin, randomly drawn from the correct responses, was Sandy D. of Pittsburgh, PA. Congratulations, Sandy!

If you missed it last month, that’s OK, because here’s another chance.

http://allears.net/ae/mb041717.pdf

This month we will take a look at one of the many live-action films that Disney produced starting in the 1950s. Some of these films are quite obscure, like "The Sword and the Rose," "Rob Roy," "The Littlest Outlaw" and "The Great Locomotive Chase." I'm going to try to stick with the more well-known films, such as "Old Yeller" and "The Shaggy Dog."

This month’s selection, "Johnny Tremain," really falls more in the first category, but I wanted to do it anyway, because it is one of the few Disney movies set during the Revolutionary War -- or any war, for that matter!

The object of this puzzle is, as always, to have fun, but if you'd like a chance to win a Disney collectible pin, send me the answer IN THE SUBJECT LINE OF AN EMAIL addressed to dzneynut.puzzle@gmail.com.

Send your entries no later than 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on May 10, 2017. All correct answers will be entered into a random drawing, and the winner will be awarded a Disney pin. The answers and drawing winner will be posted in this Guest Blog sometime in May.

As always, any feedback on the puzzle format or topics would be appreciated! Drop me a line at dzneynut.puzzle@gmail.com.

Thanks for playing, everyone!

April 24, 2017

Former Imagineer Eddie Sotto reflects on his contributions to Disneyland Paris

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Eddie Sotto poses for a photo in front of Main Street Motors right after Disneyland Paris opened in 1992. [Courtesy of Eddie Sotto]

Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland was Walt Disney's pride and joy ... a window into his life as a young boy growing up in Marceline, Missouri, in the early 1900s.

According to Disney historian Dave Smith, Walt's plan for Disneyland's Main Street "was to present an idealized town at the turn of the [20th] century. Such a town never really existed, but if guests were to conjure up their ideal town, it would be something like Main Street U.S.A."

In the minds of many of Walt's trusted lieutenants, including John Hench, Main Street also was much like the opening scene of a movie, drawing guests into "the show" with the promise that what was ahead, beyond the quaint shops and themed restaurants, were areas "threaded with adventure, romance, thrill and fantasy."

Since Disneyland's opening in 1955, every designer who has been tasked with creating a new Main Street for a new Disney park has had to live up to that first nostalgic thoroughfare, the only one Walt actually had a hand in designing, watched being built and experienced first-hand for more than a decade before his death in 1966.

Imagine, then, being given the daunting assignment of designing a Main Street U.S.A. for a new Disney theme park.

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Main Street in Disneyland Park. [Disneyland Paris]

That's what Eddie Sotto was faced with when he was hired by Tony Baxter during the early design phases of Disneyland Paris, which is located in Marne-la-Vallee, France. On April 12, Disneyland Paris celebrated its 25th anniversary.

On going to work for Walt Disney Imagineering, Sotto said in a recent interview: "I was working in Baltimore at the time and had lunch with Bruce Gordon, who was Tony's No. 2 man. I showed him this project I was working on that had images in it that were very Victorian, very 19th century. Kind of Jules Verne-inspired, with submarines and lots of sets.

"Tony really took to it. He thought it was really neat, as far as the design was concerned. So when he was thinking of Disneyland Paris, he hired me directly out of that. I didn't have to work out of the model shop, didn't have to pay those dues [at Walt Disney Imagineering]. I was named a vice president, which is relatively rare, especially at my age. It was very exciting."

When the assignments for the park's different lands were handed out, "I thought I was gonna get Discoveryland, because of the submarines and things I had shown them," Sotto said. "Tim Delaney justifiably got that and I ended up with Main Street."

Chronologically speaking, Sotto was asked to design the fourth Main Street in the Disney theme parks' catalogue, after Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland, but the first on European soil, which was a challenge unto itself. Once given the assignment, the question facing Sotto was: "Do we change things up or stay with a tried-and-true formula?"

"It was always was going to be a Disney-themed Main Street of one type or another," he said. "We explored turning the clock ahead, somewhere in the 1920s, something that Europeans might relate to more. We thought about that for about a year, but that idea was rejected and we went back to kind of a Walt Disney World base."

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The arcades in Disneyland Park, located behind the Main Street shops, are attractions unto themselves. [Disneyland Paris]

Designing Disneyland Paris' Main Street had its own unique challenges, not the least of which was weather. Paris, in fact, has a rainy, often chilly climate.

"There was a time when the company thought about some type of covering [for DLP's Main Street] like they have in Tokyo Disneyland, but we talked them out of that and switched that protective covering to behind Main Street with the arcades."

The arcades - one called Liberty and the other Discovery - are long, heavily-themed hallways located behind the shops along Main Street. They add a unique and practical element to the overall design of Main Street in Disneyland Paris: They protect guests from the elements and they assist in traffic flow, particularly in the evening, after the nightly fireworks shows. Plus, they are an attraction unto themselves.

"When we designed the arcades, the president of the company at the time, Frank Wells, was adamant about making the arcades really beautiful ... making it just as nice an experience to walk there as it would be walking down Main Street itself," Sotto said.

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Main Street in Disneyland Park under construction. [Courtesy of Eddie Sotto]

For the Discovery Arcade, which leads guests from the main gate to the Discoveryland section of the park, "We put on display real patent bottles from the U.S. patent office that a collector lent to us. We wanted people to see real inventions from the 19th century. We also used murals and posters of what people envisioned American cities to look like in the future."

The Liberty Arcade, which leads to Frontierland, is an homage to the construction of the Statue of Liberty, as well as to the entire immigrant experience. "Each arcade was an intellectual show or pre-show for each land they led to, so they would make sense in their own way," Sotto said. "They are exclusive to Disneyland Paris."

The overall philosophy of Main Street in Disneyland Paris pays tribute to Walt Disney.

"Preserving Walt's memory kind of drove the thinking behind many of the concepts on Main Street," Sotto said. "Walt Disney as a brand is very well-known throughout the world. And the films are well-known. If you look at Main Street in Disneyland, it initially was kind of based on the nostalgia Walt had for his own hometown on Marceline, Missouri. The sort of idea of the little town that was transitioning from no electricity to automobiles. It was about America at the time, kind of growing up a little bit."

So you have stores named after Walt's wife [Lilly's] and his mother [Flora's]. There's a faux gas station [Main Street Motors] and there's also Walt's, an American-themed restaurant that has a Club 33 vibe, but is open to the general public.

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Elegant Walt's in Disneyland Park was modeled after Club 33 in Disneyland. [Disneyland Paris]

"I thought Walt's restaurant on Main Street should be something that would tell the story of Walt Disney, the man, vs. Walt Disney, the corporation. The ground floor is about Walt Disney's beginnings, pictures of his home town, kind of connecting him to the culture of Main Street and the steam trains. The second floor shows him photographically, through the success of Mickey Mouse.

Was it intentional to make Walt's look and feel like the legendary Club 33 in Disneyland?

"Completely," Sotto said. "The thinking was, 'Why can't people who don't have a membership get the experience like Club 33? Why can't you watch a parade, especially if it's raining, from a beautiful window looking down on Main Street? The elevator in Walt's is a definite reference to Club 33, and as a matter of fact, the initials of Walt Disney, the WD on the railings of New Orleans Square where his apartment was to be, are on the doors of the elevator, they're on every gas light sconce, they're in the furniture ... so those WD initials from his first apartment are filtered secretly through that restaurant."

Sotto also had a hand in designing another signature element at Disneyland Paris ... the Disneyland Hotel, which was a Disney Parks first in that a hotel was located at the main gate.

"Initially, for weather protection, we designed a gigantic roof structure to cover the people waiting in line to buy tickets. But it was very expensive. So I made the structure look almost like the del Coronado Hotel in San Diego, which was almost the reference for the Grand Floridian. But that was too expensive.

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The Disneyland Hotel serves as the entry portal to Disneyland Park in Marne-la-Vallee, France. [Courtesy of Lenny Myrhol]

"So I said, 'Why don't we put hotel suites, just a few, on a second floor above it and people could stay there? They liked that idea. One of the people on the Disney Board, Gary Wilson, from Marriott, decided to take the notion of a few suites and turn it into hundreds of rooms. I believe we did studies at the time that the hotel could be extended to the second stories of the stores on Main Street, and the hallways could lead into the park. We didn't go that far with it, though.

"You have to give Tony Baxter credit. He was the senior vice president at the time and really fought the operations folks, who were dead set against the idea if this hotel, and convince them it was a great idea. And [then chairman and CEO] Michael Eisner really loved the idea, too. I even have a memo from Michael congratulating both Tony and I about never giving up on the idea of a hotel and fighting everyone to make it happen. But I give Tony all the credit for that."

Sotto was the point man for another Disneyland Paris attraction and another Disney Parks staple: The steam trains.

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The George Washington steam train pulls into the elaborately-themed Main Street Station at Disneyland Park. {Disneyland Paris]

"The Disneyland Paris trains were built in Wales, England, and they were all based on the blueprints of the No. 1 Disneyland steam train, which was the C.K. Holiday. We took that basic design and then cosmetically changed it several times because we only built three trains when we opened the park [a fourth was added] and we did three different trains out of one. The boiler is the same, but the cabs are different. We had guys in the shops who were rail fanatics, and I'm a rail nut. We said, 'Let's make this something a purest would love. If you're from Europe and you love trains, you'll be able to see these American trains. They are kind of historically inspired, so we went to the Sacramento Rail Museum to get really the most beautiful and unexpected color schemes and so each locomotive has a true story behind it."

Each of the four trains used in Disneyland Paris have an embracing theme.

"The George Washington has a France-America connection," Sotto said. "It's is based on the Revolutionary War and has a red, white and blue color scheme. The W.F. Cody [named for Buffalo Bill Cody] is a Western train with Denver and Rio Grande gold and green. There are antlers on the headlamp.

"The C.K. Holiday is based on the East Coast trains which the trolley companies would build to take people to Coney Island and Atlantic City and other popular East Coast towns." The last of the four trains, the Eureka, celebrates the California Gold Rush of 1849 ["Eureka is Greek for 'I found it!'" Sotto noted].

"If you look at the coaches, they all have the names of cities from those places, so if you look at them closely, there's some depth there. You get some history there.

"Herbert Ryman, a gentleman I had the privilege to work with, said, 'Bad taste costs no more,' meaning it's just as expensive to do something that's well-researched and has some depth to it than it is to do something with no meaning whatsoever,' so we tried to put a lot of meaning into" the trains' designs.

Sotto also designed the Main Street train station and even supplied the voice of the train's conductor.

"It was kind of a first-time thing, doing the voice of the conductor. As a kid, I spent time practicing doing different voices, things like soundalikes of the attractions. It's easy to cast yourself when you're controlling the project. It was kind of an honor and a privilege to be the railroad conductor voice.

"Each land designer had his own responsibility. We all knew each other and all consulted with one another. It was very collaborative effort."

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The interior to this modern airplane was designed by Sotto Studios. "It's like being inside the Chrysler Building or the Queen Mary," says Sotto Studios founder Eddie Sotto. [Courtesy of Eddie Sotto]

Sotto left Walt Disney Imagineering in 1999 [not before working on several other noteworthy projects, including the short-lived Pal Mickey interactive plush] and formed his own experiential design firm, Sotto Studios.

"When I left Disney I went out to take what I learned about experiential design, working from emotion backwards, working on what the design should be. After working there for so long, I tried to analyze what was so different about working for Disney. Who thinks of it the way we experience it? Which means you walk in a room, your body is absorbing all of these things, the sound and the temperature in real time and you're making an opinion about it in real time, collective opinions.

"So my thought was, if you could manage all of these collective senses and at least think about the project holistically, and then have the architect come in and guide it like an Imagineer would, you'd have a much more emotional project. So that's what we started with the company ... you'd start with WOW! and then go backwards to what the design should be.

"This has led to everything from restaurants to technology, even a new aircraft, which is literally like going back in time ... like being inside the Chrysler Building in New York or the Queen Mary. It's a 1939-themed private airplane. We do a lot of just fun projects."

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About April 2017

This page contains all entries posted to All Ears® Guest Blog in April 2017. They are listed from oldest to newest.

March 2017 is the previous archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.