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Values Proposition

How Balancing Creativity and Rigor Helped Disney Build a Star Wars Vacation Experience

In this series, leaders tell stories about drawing on their core values in critical moments. Architect Ann Morrow Johnson ’14 is the executive producer and executive creative director for Walt Disney Imagineering’s immersive vacation experience Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. We talked with her about balancing innovative creativity and strategic rigor.

Anne Morrow Johnson standing in front of an image of a Star Wars starship

The Values Proposition series is made possible by The Forrest E. Mars, Sr. Fund for Values and Ethics in Management.

Balance is a big thing for me. I’m a right-brain and left-brain person. As much as I love drawing, theater, and the craziness of art, I’m also a strategic thinker and a problem solver. At Yale SOM, Negotiations was my favorite class, and I nerded out on Excel spreadsheet modeling.

I went to SOM and the Yale School of Architecture to get the tools to start my own firm. I was going to go love on old buildings and turn them into incredible experiences. Since I had worked at architecture firms, for my summer internship I wanted to try a corporate setting.

My sister suggested Disney. When we went to Disney World as kids, she was jazzed to meet all the princesses and go on all the rides and even back then I was the one who held up the line because I was obsessed with details like the trash cans matching the theme of each attraction.

When I got an internship as a Disney Imagineer, I was expecting it to make a good story at a cocktail party someday. Then I saw how rigorous design and storytelling come together at Disney. That balance is how we find the right answer around here. Being a creative organization involves people not being afraid to pitch the out-there, wrong idea just in case it sparks the right idea.

When I started full-time, I was placed in the Star Wars portfolio as a project manager getting Star Wars projects open in Tomorrowland to coincide with the next movie release. Then I was a global producer, opening 37 Star Wars projects around the world in the span of 14 months.

Several years ago, I joined a small team coming up with blue-sky ideas. What would be awesome? What experiences just ought to exist? The idea of living onboard a Star Wars spaceship and entering a story came out of that.

We started pitching a hotel model of life aboard a Star Wars starcruiser. In real life it’s on Earth and on the ground, but all the windows have a view out into space. For a few days, you get to feel what it would be to be aboard a spaceship. The food and activities are in-story—it’s what you would eat and do in a galaxy far, far away. But it is Star Wars, so of course, things go awry and the ship needs your help. There would be immersive theater moments—conflict between the Resistance and First Order and you can choose how you want to play.

“I could see it click into place for the different operations partners around the room, how the whole thing might actually come together and work.”

Our pitches got lots of nervous giggles and “you’re crazy” faces. Then one of our business partners at Walt Disney World Resort said, “You’re essentially describing people going on a cruise in space. Why wouldn’t we just make it a cruise model where everyone arrives and leaves together?” At that moment I thought, “Oh man, this could really happen.” I could see it click into place for the different operations partners around the room, how the whole thing might actually come together and work.

We had the balance—the pie-in-the-sky creative and the structure that let us execute from an operations perspective. Instead of people checking in and out any time like a hotel, we could deliver a more compelling guest experience by curating everything to be coincident with a story that’s playing out for all the guests at the same time. Instead of staffing it like a traditional theme park where guests roam to any attraction, we could flex to be where guests are in their story and make it high touch. Everyone gets the full story arc. At our heart that’s what we do at Disney, we’re storytellers.

Building a spaceship was not one of my career goals but it’s awesome that it wound up happening. I feel super lucky to have landed at Disney and to be both the executive creative director and executive producer on this project. Traditionally, the creative director is about, “What is the story, and what’s the right guest experience?” And the producer is about, “How do we get there from here, and how do we make it make sense?” This is a unique opportunity to practice both skill sets simultaneously.

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser will be a first-of-its-kind vacation experience. It’s a fixed length of stay. In that respect it’s kind of like a safari or a backcountry ski adventure where you come for a specific itinerary. But it’s also a two-day piece of immersive theater where you’re constantly interacting with characters. It’s also an alternate reality game where, depending on what you choose, your storyline is different. On top of all that, you get to feel like you’re sleeping and living on a spaceship in the Star Wars galaxy.

As we’re making this bananas idea into a reality, during a pandemic, balance is key every day.

Working with people who are really talented and so passionate is great. There are over 140 different disciplines within Walt Disney Imagineering alone and then we have all our various operations partners. Working with incredibly specialized people who just do not speak your language is a constant thing.

“It’s awesome to have a job where I get to talk about, ‘How are we going to make a space sandwich taste like something familiar but look totally out of this world?’”

It’s awesome to have a job where I get to talk about, “How are we going to make a space sandwich taste like something familiar but look totally out of this world?,” then go to a script review to talk about, “Are we getting to the heart of what Chewbacca’s trying to say with that intonation of roar?” And then walk the site and talk about the architectural language of the spaceship.

Or imagine sitting in a room with a special effects designer, an executive chef, an operations person focused on staffing, and a sound engineer trying to design a dinner show experience that’s going to make you feel like you’re in a galaxy far, far away, be delicious, be unexpected, and also work. Getting every detail right so guests can immerse in the experience while having their needs taken care of, it’s a complicated thing.

I think about the Employee class at SOM all the time. I think about Negotiations. I think of all those personality tests and learning what my strengths are and how to utilize them with people who think differently. That may be the single most valuable thing I’ve learned ever.

We all want to deliver an awesome guest experience, but the qualities that make up “awesome” are different for everyone. One thing that really helps me is, “OK, I hear your constraint, but what’s the ‘why’ behind the constraint?” If we all understand the why, then maybe we have room to creatively get to the goal. Listening to the various problems, finding the right balance within everyone’s reality in a way that lets us chart a path forward is a constant, exciting test.

Department: Values Proposition