SXSW Event Recap: “Creating Happiness: The Art & Science of Disney Parks Storytelling” with Josh D’Amaro

Disney Parks, Experiences & Products kicked off SXSW 2023 with a presentation that married all of the festival’s core interests – tech, film, music, education, and culture. Hosted by Disney Parks, Experiences & Products Chairman Josh D’Amaro, “Creating Happiness: The Art & Science of Disney Parks Storytelling” was a celebration of the legacy of Walt Disney’s creativity through all of the disciplines required to immerse Guests in their favorite worlds at theme parks around the world.

While The Walt Disney Company is celebrating 100 Years of Wonder this year, Josh D’Amaro reminded the audience that in 1923, it was nothing but a small startup that struggled until it struck gold with its first upstart character, Mickey Mouse. At the core of the Disney brand since the beginning was happiness, a value that continues to this day. He also touched on the three guiding principles behind everything the company does – storytelling, creativity, and innovation. As the leader of Disney’s theme parks, he pulled a quote out of Walt Disney’s Disneyland dedication speech when he referred to his Anaheim theme park as “this happy place.”

With theme park resorts around the world, Josh D’Amaro explained that the goal is for Guests to enter a “Disney bubble” of immersion. As an example of the attention to detail that goes into each project, he boasted that tire tracks from the original R2-D2 droid used in the first Star Wars Trilogy can be found in the pavement at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Storytelling is also included in meals created at Disney’s top-secret flavor lab, with offerings at Pym Test Kitchen in Avengers Campus plugged as examples of the edible magic at the parks. Music and sound were also touched on, from iconic songs created for attractions like it’s a small world, to the ambient sounds of Batuu.

Josh D’Amaro literally lit up when touching on the topic of Star Wars, sharing that his first memory of seeing a movie in a theater was the original film in the 1970s. Since consumer products are part of his purview, he pulled out a Kylo Ren playline lightsaber and gifted it to a member of the audience. Next, from Dok-Ondar's Den of Antiquities, he produced a screen-accurate Luke Skywalker collector lightsaber and, after briefly wielding it, passed that out to the audience as well. So you can imagine that people were sitting with bated breath when he pulled out the “real” lightsaber that was developed for Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. He was joined by Imagineer Leslie Evans, who has an industrial engineering background and leads Research and Development at Walt Disney Imagineering. She showed off an early prototype of the retractable lightsaber, of which there were over 100, telling the tech crowd how they not only used off-the-shelf products, but used 3D printers and lasers to create custom pieces. The blade itself also required the creation of a special oven, at which point Josh stopped Leslie from giving away all of their secrets.

The few pieces of actual news to come out of the presentation stemmed from a conversation about meeting characters in the park. With the help of Imagineer Michael Ilardi, audience members got to see a miniature Tinker Bell interact from within a lantern, which looked like a miniature version of the Rey hologram preshow in Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. This technology originally was conceived in 2020 as a way to provide socially distant character experiences, play tested at Disneyland in 2021. And while it hasn’t yet materialized as a regular feature in the parks, something like this could be on the near horizon. Jonathan Becker talked about the exoskeleton with pneumatic joints that allowed Hulk to stop by Avengers Campus for an 8-week period last fall. Hulk came out to greet the audience and Josh D’Amaro shared that this character will next make appearances at Disneyland Paris’ Avengers Campus. Giving a behind-the-scenes look, Jonathan shared that the Imagineers turned to nature to help create the exoskeleton, showing off a prototype foot inspired by the bottom of an ostrich foot.

Hot off the success of the Spider-Man stuntronic at Avengers Campus, the big reveal at SXSW was another prototype robotic character. Morgan Pope and Tony Dohi wheeled out a giant crate and introduced a rollerskating rabbit dynamic robot. They didn’t refer to her as Judy Hopps, but they did hint that she has taught them a lot and that they will “Try Everything,” giving clues that his technology is being developed for the Zootopia land coming to Shanghai Disneyland. The robot crawled out of the crate all by herself and the Imagineers talked about how their goal is for people to feel empathy for the robot. They drummed up concern for her safety by working together to teach her how to roller skate, with the rabbit taking a tumble on the way. After the demo, the lightweight robot was even picked up and placed on Tony’s shoulders like a small child.

As much as the presentation highlighted the breadth of imagination that keep pushing Disney forward into a “boundless future,” Josh D’Amaro concluded by echoing a statement that Walt Disney made in the earliest days of Disneyland. As much as Guests love the themed environments and immersive experiences Disney Parks offer, the majority of letters are about experiences with Cast Members. Josh talked about Wish Lounges in the parks for Make-A-Wish recipients, sharing a handwritten letter from a child whose wish was to visit Disneyland. The touching letter listed off highlights of the trip and ended with a thank you for a wonderful week, during which the boy almost forgot he had cancer. It was a touching reminder of the power of escapism and the wonders of being within the “Disney bubble.”

Stay tuned to Laughing Place for more coverage from SXSW.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).