Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with Jason Surrell, a Senior Show Writer with Walt Disney Entertainment. In preparing for this interview, I spent some time researching some of the things Jason has done at the Walt Disney Company and came away completely awed by the breadth of his work. In addition to playing a creative role in the concepts for many Walt Disney World attractions, he’s the author of several books, including:
Jason was recently involved with creating the newest Tomorrowland attraction, Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration. When we met, that show had not yet officially opened; however, I was able to catch a performance as part of a soft opening preview. I’ll provide my thoughts on the show at the end of this article.
Jason brought along Raul Fernandez, someone he has worked with often and on the new Stitch show. Raul’s expertise is the technology used to create the character interactions with shows like Turtle Talk With Crush, Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor and, now, Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration. I was also able to sneak in a few questions for Raul.
The Stage for Stitch's Supersonic Celebration. Photo by Steve Russo.
I met Jason and Raul on a 90-degree day in May. We were able to find some shade, and a bench, under the Tomorrowland Transit Authority with the sights and sounds of Tomorrowland around us. They both possessed wonderful senses of humor as you’ll see in the first question.
Steve: Jason, I Googled you and…
Raul: Did you feel it?
Steve: …and was surprised to learn, in addition to working with the Walt Disney Company in Florida, you’re also a successful girls soccer coach at Asuza Pacific.
Jason: That’s the only other Jason Surrell that’s out there. The amazing thing is I know nothing about soccer so I could not be more proud of the girls and what they’ve done.
Steve: OK, then. That’s out of the way. I understand you’ve recently switched from Imagineering to Walt Disney Entertainment.
Jason: I’m now with Walt Disney Entertainment but I continue to work for Walt Disney Imagineering. I’m a Senior Show Writer for both and I’m working more with live shows now but I still do a lot of work with Imagineering.
I wrote Move It! Shake It! Celebrate It! and I also co-wrote the American Idol Experience which just opened and we’ve had a lot of success with, and now Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration.
Steve: What was the move to Walt Disney Imagineering like?
Jason: Actually, it’s surprising how little change it was for me because the role of writing and development, for me in my career, has been pretty consistent whether I’ve worked in live entertainment or attractions. There are a lot of transferrable skills. I started out in live entertainment and the main reason I was motivated to come back is our Creative Director here, Reed Jones, wanted to establish a writing department within Entertainment so we could bring more writers into our creative process to collaborate with our show directors, choreographers and music directors. I was kind of the test case for that.
Imagineering loaned me out for six months last year. I worked on Stars Wars Weekends and the What Will You Celebrate shows. I was quickly swept up in the American Idol vortex and by the end of that six-month trial they were happy with the way they were able to integrate writers into the creative development process. Since then, I’ve come on full-time as a Senior Show Writer and I’m building a writing department with both freelance and part-time writers that we’ll bring in as needs arise to work with our show directors.
Steve: How did the books come about?
Jason: I began in live entertainment and worked with Imagineering for three or four years. There was one day I was thinking… I wish someone would write a book about the making of all the attractions and their films. I emailed Marty Sklar and said “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if there was a book about the making of the Haunted Mansion in all of its incarnations all over the world?” And the second half of the book would be devoted to the making of the film.” Marty said, “That’s a great idea. Write up a proposal.”
I said “Great! How do I do that?” I had no idea because I’d never written a proposal before so I wrote a book proposal in much the same way we would write a treatment for an attraction, show or film. I just laid it out in terms of what I would want to read. I sent that to him and he helped me tweak it a little bit – refine it a little bit. Marty’s an amazing writer.
Marty said, “OK. Now write a proposal letter to the publishing group in New York.” I said, “Great! How do I do that?” Basically, I did the written equivalent of a “pitch” we would do for a show or an attraction and sent that to him. About 15-minutes later, he called and said, “Send it out to New York – they’re waiting.”
He had contacted Wendy Lefkon, who is head of Disney Editions, and I sent it out. Two weeks later, they called and said we’re taking it to our Acquisitions meeting and we’ll see how it goes. By the end of that week, they called and said, “The good news is we’re doing it. The bad news is we need a manuscript by January.” This was the end of October, so that’s how I spent my Christmas vacation in 2002.
Steve: There is a lot in your books that separate fact from fiction, particularly with the Haunted Mansion. How did you do that?
Jason: That was a conscious choice and one of the reasons for writing the book because, with the proliferation of the Internet, we started to see a lot of inaccurate information or urban legends that were slowly working their way into becoming facts. It was not terribly difficult to track down people that had worked on the original at Disneyland or we had people on staff, on the Imagineering Florida team that worked on the install here. It was actually much easier than I expected to track down whether something was a myth or fact.
It wasn’t an effort to quash anything people loved, it was a way of saying “Hey, this is what the real story is.” I acknowledged other things that had come up over the years such as the hitchhiking ghosts are not named Phineas, Ezra and Gus but I acknowledge that fans and cast members alike have come to refer to them that way.
That was the motivation. I really wanted a book that I wanted to read, but it didn’t exist.
Steve: Did I read that you designed Madame Leota’s tombstone?
Jason: I did not design it but I wrote the epitaph for it. I was on the creative team that developed it. That was an enhancement to give people a little extra show value as they’re in the queue, waiting to get into the mansion. The thing that I was passionate about doing… from the beginning, I said this should really be the epitaph of someone the guests are going to know by name. Madame Leota is one of the few characters that people actually do know by name. Coincidentally, Leota Toombs, the Imagineer who supplies Leota’s face, never got her own tombstone and yet virtually all of the other major Imagineers that worked on the show had been saluted with a tombstone of their own. This allowed us to not only tie into a character the guests would be meeting in just a few minutes but to finally give Leota her own tribute and I’m really, really proud of that.
Steve: We’re you involved with the Great Movie Ride, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and One Man’s Dream?
Jason: I actually did a new script for that show (the Great Movie Ride) back in 2003 that turned the tour guide into the ultimate film fan who knows everything there is to know about the movies.
Who Wants to be a Millionaire – Play It!, started as a water cooler conversation that ultimately became the show in the park.
I was the show writer on One Man’s Dream so I got to help develop that, which was wonderful for me because it’s a celebration of Walt Disney and that was an absolute joy to work on.
Steve: OK, now to the newest attraction. Why Stitch?
Jason: Actually, that’s a very good question. We started developing the “What Will You Celebrate?” entertainment around the same time last year and we knew we were going to do an enhancement to the parade – which we’ve done. We have our street party, Move It! Shake It! Celebrate It! and we wanted to develop something for Tomorrowland – especially because we knew Space Mountain would be going down for rehab. We thought this would be a great way to keep life in this land while one of our signature attractions is undergoing a transformation.
When I first came on the project, it was going to be Buzz Lightyear. One of the questions I asked was “Why not Stitch?” Between the two of them, Stitch is the character that most of our guests would recognize as more of a party animal… and he also represents just barely-controlled chaos so we thought he was the perfect choice to build a celebration around. We made a conscious effort to not only tie into the “What Will You Celebrate?” campaign but it was also important to tie into the mythology of Tomorrowland. That’s where we came up with the notion of Galaxy Day which is actually inspired by the Peter Jennings’ coverage of the New Years Eve millennium where he kind of anchored programming from all over the world from his little hub in New York.
So we developed Tip Trendo, sort of a 24th century Ryan Seacrest, who’s anchoring Galaxy Day coverage. He’s a combination of Dick Clark, Ryan Seacrest and the Peter Jennings’ millennium coverage that inspired Galaxy Day, the Tomorrowland News Network and our coverage of that event. Galaxy Day is something we can celebrate which ties into our overall theme of celebration but it’s also something that can live independently within the mythology of Tomorowland.
If you stick around after the show and watch our “living billboard” you’ll see tongue-in-cheek advertisements that celebrate Tomorrowland. There’s messages from the Tomorrowland Chamber of Commerce, the Tomorrowland Historical Society… we really tried to reinforce some of those stories as well.
Steve: Take me through the creative process. I see 60s and 70s influences with go-go boots, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking”, Elvis, etc.
Jason: Absolutely! It’s interesting. It stems from the look of the stage, which has a space age, pop look to the Galactic Girls. There was definitely an effort to make this kind of a retro-futuristic experience both from the look to the music selections to the way they’re arranged. To your point, we did consciously try to pick numbers that really spanned the generations. You have “These Boots Are Made for Walking” which gets the baby-boomers, then we move through the 70s and 80s with “Love Machine”, “Dancing Machine” then the Neutrons band which is classic 80s. Then we also have the song “The Future Has Arrived” from Meet the Robinsons, which is kind of a Disney anthem about the future. Because it’s Stitch, you have to have Elvis for the grand finale.
Steve: I was particularly impressed by the robot dancers.
Jason: Yes, the robots, Gadget and Gizmo, we’re very proud of them and that brings a flavor that we’ve never seen in a Disney park before. What appealed to us most about that is it’s something for little boys. With the princesses and the fairies, we feel we have the girls covered. We wanted to do something that is hip and cool that might appeal to the young boys out there.
We’re also very excited about, for the first time, integrating our living character technology in a live show. That makes this show a little different from anything else that we’ve done. Raul’s been with every living character show from the very beginning – from the first Stitch test we did out in Disneyland years ago. He’s been an integral part of incorporating the living character technology into the parks.
Gadget and Gizmo with the Galactic Girls. Photo by Steve Russo.
Steve: What’s next?
Jason: I’m going right into Star Wars Weekends, which begin later this month. I’m writing and directing some shows for that. I’m also working on developing some live entertainment for our new cruise ships, the Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy. After that, I’m going right into Christmas shows so things are moving along pretty well. I’m also working with Imagineering on the redevelopment of Pleasure Island.
Steve (switching to Raul): Can you tell me about the interactive characters? How did it start?
Raul: The first thing we did was a Stitch phone booth in Disneyland’s Innoventions. It was supposed to be a two-week test and it lasted five years. It was just a little phone booth that you could go in with your family. The challenge for us was (only) one family at a time. What came out of that was the possibility of doing something for Tokyo Disney Sea and out of that came the idea for Turtle Talk with Crush.
Tokyo didn’t buy it then but they’re actually buying it now. When we did the re-do of the Living Seas before the whole changeover to Nemo, we had the perfect opportunity for this idea that fit right into the Living Seas. It was just incredible for us because it was the first time the people got to see a character in a Disney park, exactly like they did on the screen–but they could talk to him.
Princess characters are not exact. They don’t look exactly like their animation. Fur characters are great but here was Crush just like in the movie. That was 2004.
People were excited because we knew we had the capacity to take this farther. From there, Stitch got beamed to Hong Kong, his first location. He’s done in three languages so we had to train three groups which was a challenge.
After that was the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor and Jason helped us with that. That’s really challenging because it’s two actors performing four roles: the two-headed character and Buddy and Mike.
We incorporated a new thing here (Stitch), which you saw which was that photo. Each time we try to raise the bar a little bit. He’s also now in Paris as well.
We now think of these as new characters – another part of the cast. They’re not stuck in their own box. They can be here, in the castle, maybe walking around somehow. We want to bring these characters to life, let people see them and interact with them as if they were alive.
Steve: Can you talk about the technology used?
Raul: That’s out there, probably on the Internet somewhere. What we try to do is shorten the distance between intention and emotion so it’s really important for them (the actors) to feel like their character. We have a bunch of different techniques we use and it takes a while for training but they really do become the characters.
Steve: What’s next?
Raul: We’re working on bringing them more places. That’s all I can say and it’s really exciting.
Stitch Beams Down (as Elvis) to join Tip Trendo in a big finale. Photo by Steve Russo.
It was easy to tell that Jason and Raul are two high-energy people that are passionate about their work. It should be exciting to see what they come up with next.
So… what did I think of Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration? My feelings are mixed. While I was impressed by the technology and the abilities of several of the performers, particularly the break-dancing robots (Gadget and Gizmo), I didn’t find the show itself very appealing. It appears, at least to me, that Disney has been unsuccessful in finding a suitable in-park persona for Stitch. It doesn’t seem that his mischievous personality, so apparent in the film, has ever come across in the parks.
Also on the negative side is the setting. The stage is exposed to all the elements with no shade or cover at all. There are several large mats on the concrete nearest the stage for sitting. Most guests stood. I mentioned I was there on a 90-degree day and it was quite uncomfortable standing in the sun for 30-minutes.
I thought the host, Tip Trendo, was just a bit too trite for my taste and some of his interactions with Stitch were overly contrived. The robots, previously mentioned, were talented dancers but looked to me as if they had been outfitted by the Power Rangers wardrobe department. The Galactic Girls certainly looked good, and there’s nothing wrong with some eye candy, but they mostly did some lip-synching and dancing.
What worked? The character interaction is taken to a new level. The photo that Raul mentioned is one taken of an audience member that then appears on the display screen, held up by Stitch as a Wanted Poster. Some of the songs are catchy and had some of the children in attendance up and dancing.
While my review of this show is mostly negative, I can see some real promise in the technology and its presentation. With some attention to audience response, and some tweaking, I could envision this show becoming much more than it is today. However, until there are some changes, I’ve seen it once and that will suffice.
That’s my opinion. What’s yours?
(Send an email to Steve Russo)
Steve's a Disney Vacation Club member that has been planning Walt Disney World vacations since 1984. Along the way, he's tried to learn everything he could about the Disney World resorts, restaurants and theme parks. He brings you that knowledge via planning tips and insights, often delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
His three children are now grown but still vacation at Walt Disney World with Mom and Dad. The clan has increased to include a daughter-in-law, two sons-in-law and grandchildren. Steve is now retired and he and his wife, Barbara anxiously await their next visit to the World.Steve is the author of So... You're Going to Disney World: How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the planning process.