Bruce Vaughn returns to co-lead Imagineering


Walt Disney Imagineering has announced it is bringing back Bruce Vaughn as co-head of creative, announced Parks chairman Josh D’Amaro. In this post, we break down the news and comment on his surprise return to WDI, Vaughn’s track record to date, and what he’s been up to since leaving Disney.

Let’s start with the last point. Bruce Vaughn left Imagineering in 2016 to become the CEO and CCO of Dreamscape Immersive, a company that creates location-based virtual reality experiences. He then joined Airbnb in 2021 as Vice President of Experiential Creative Product. At Airbnb, Vaughn led a team responsible for creating immersive offerings for Airbnb stays and experiences, including Catherine Powell, a former Disney colleague who was loved by fans during her time running Disneyland Paris.

Vaughn had worked in leadership positions at Imagineering for 22 years, with project credits that included DisneyQuest and the Starship Earth renovation. Before leaving, he co-led Imagineering for 9 years as Chief Creative Executive. Notable projects during this period included the Shanghai Disney Resort, New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, Pandora – World of Avatar at the Animal Kingdom, and early development of Disney’s Hollywood Studios overhaul.

Upon his return, Vaughn will assume the role of chief creative officer. He will assume this role effective March 20, 2023 and will co-lead Walt Disney Imagineering with current President Barbara Bouza, with both executives reporting directly to Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro.

“I remain an Imagineer at heart, so I’m thrilled to join Barbara and reunite with this phenomenal global team of creators and innovators at this crucial time,” Vaughn said in a statement. “With so many exciting projects underway and tremendous opportunities ahead, I look forward to partnering with Bruce to nurture creativity and deliver next-level experiences,” added Bouza.

Parks chairman Josh D’Amaro sent an internal note to Imagineers announcing the return of Bruce Vaughn:

As Bob Iger often says, creativity is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do at Disney. As we look back on our company’s 100 year history of bringing compelling and memorable storytelling to life, the common thread that unites us as a company across all segments is our ability to drive innovation through creative projects.

At Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, we continue to invest in new ventures that deliver the most compelling experiences and immerse our guests around the world in the stories they love most. In recent years, we’ve found ourselves at the crossroads of a wave of new technology and a seemingly limitless supply of new stories and franchises that have allowed us to create groundbreaking new experiences. Of course, none of this comes to life without a strong commitment to creativity and innovation from the amazing team at Walt Disney Imagineering.

With that in mind, I am pleased to announce that Bruce Vaughn is returning to Walt Disney Imagineering as Chief Creative Officer, effective March 20th. Bruce will co-lead the organization with WDI President Barbara Bouza, with both leaders reporting directly to me.

Together, Bruce and Barbara will work closely to combine visionary creative thinking with project opportunity and flawless execution and delivery. With significant developments underway and more on the horizon, this dedicated focus on creativity and innovation will help us deliver next-level experiences well into the future. To best achieve this, they will work together to quickly find the most effective way to structure Imagineering.

Many of you have had the opportunity to work with Bruce before. He has a rich history at Imagineering, having held leadership positions including at WDI R&D for more than two decades and leading the entire WDI organization as Chief Creative Executive for nine years. Bruce left Disney in 2016 to become CEO and CCO of Dreamscape Immersive, where he worked with teams to advance virtual reality technologies for mainstream location-based entertainment, and most recently at Airbnb, where he led the Experiential Creative Product Team developed and led.

Please join me in welcoming Bruce back to Disney.

Regarding the comment, I would like to start by saying that I am shocked by the positive reaction to this news on social media. That got me scratching my head because Bruce was Vaughn not just as popular, at least with fans, during his time at Walt Disney Imagineering.

As with the return of Bob Iger, I suspect this reaction is more about the status quo being so bad and morale so low any Change is celebrated. Kind of like “It can only get better from here” mixed with “It was better when he was here before”. From that perspective, fans aren’t entirely wrong. The company as a whole, and Imagineering in particular, had a better run during Iger’s and Vaughn’s earlier tenures.

When it comes to Bruce Vaughn specifically, my knowledge is relatively limited. I’ve heard stories and gossip over the years, both positive and negative, but nothing that would clearly pin him as part of the problem or solution. My understanding at the time was that his departure involved cost overruns and delays at Shanghai Disneyland – that he was essentially the scapegoat – but that’s pure rumor and conjecture.

In terms of timing, Vaughn rose to the helm of Imagineering in 2007, months before the announcement of Disney’s California Adventure revamp and just a few years before New Fantasyland got the green light for Magic Kingdom. These major projects resulted in over ten years of significant development in the national and international parks. In terms of park spending, Vaughn’s track record speaks for itself.

A potentially interesting aspect of this news is that Vaughn was ousted shortly after Bob Chapek rose to the role of Parks chairman and is returning shortly after Chapek’s ouster. This may or may not be pure coincidence. If not, I sincerely hope that this is the start of a return for previous leaders who (allegedly) clashed with Bob Chapek or were otherwise seen as a threat.

Speaking of homecoming, I’d love to see Joe Rohde, Bob Weis, Tony Baxter, Kevin Rafferty, and other Imagineers brought back. Walt Disney Imagineering has been hit hard in recent years, and it’s impossible to tell how many of the recent high-profile retirements have actually been “retirements” (with heavy citations).

Coming back to Bruce Vaughn, I attended a D23 expo panel he spoke at in 2013 and I can’t say I was particularly impressed. Vaughn displayed a certain arrogance throughout, uttering the infamous “nobody can touch us” line about Imagineering as he dismissed development at Universal. The decade or so since certainly hasn’t validated him.

In hindsight, Vaughn strikes me as the start of the trend away from Imagineers, with an impressive portfolio of creative contributions and projects. That was before the current “influencer era,” so he wasn’t, but he seems to fit the bill.

Still, I’m willing to wait and watch Bruce Vaughn’s return to Walt Disney Imagineering. I’ve been saying for months that I think Imagineering is on the precipice of his next major development cycle for the home parks, and Disney might bring him back, not because of his creative ability, but because he’s a good leader and project manager.

To be fair, that is every bit as required, as brilliant creatives who can dream up inventive and groundbreaking attractions. Imagineering is notorious for bloated budgets and project delays, and there are many instances of recent projects lacking a coherent vision and focus. Creatives need guardrails, and perhaps Bruce Vaughn is the kind of leader who can provide them. I really do not know it.

Ultimately, I’m here, so I’m reluctant to judge. While I can understand the propensity for excitement, or that’s positive news as it is suggests that Imagineering is gearing up for, they have also been so disappointed in the last 3 years that I would need to see a lot more of this before I get too excited. I would also prefer to see true creatives with institutional knowledge and well-defined portfolios. (It’s also possible that Vaughn’s return has nothing to do with substantive projects, but rather facilitates Imagineering’s move from Glendale to Lake Nona, Florida.)

On the other hand, Bruce Vaughn was at the helm of Walt Disney Imagineering during the development of the original Pandora – World of Avatar (another infamous “moment” of his was Photoshopping groundbreaking photos for it!). Perhaps Imagineering will reunite the gang for round two at Disneyland, and Joe Rohde will be the next reinstatement. All in all, I’m looking forward to the coming decade at Walt Disney World and Disneyland… and I really hope this helps!

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What do you think of Imagineering bringing Bruce Vaughn back? Do you think this will be positive or negative – or a mix of both – for Imagineering and Disney fans? Do you think WDI is laying the groundwork for big development plans that are on the horizon? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Feel free to share your perspective, but keep it civil in the comments. This is not the place for politically charged bickering, culture wars, antagonism, personal attacks, or cheap recordings. We will persistently delete any comments that cross the line, regardless of point of view.

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