Imagineer Eddie Sotto Interview - Part One: Lafitte's Island

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Eddie Sotto is a former Disney Imagineer who worked for the Walt Disney Company for 13 years. He remains one of the top designers and mixed-media producers in the world and is the founder in 2004 of SottoStudios.

He also worked on projects for Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott's Berry Farm, and Six Flags, as well as countless other businesses.

Over the decades, Sotto has been very gracious and generous in sharing stories of his time working in Imagineering with the Disney fan community and that kindness was demonstrated again when I interviewed him in June 2018 about his plans for New Orleans Square at Disneyland.

Sotto reviewed the text and made some additions on July 1, 2018.

Jim Korkis: How were you assigned to rehabbing the New Orleans Square area?

Eddie Sotto: There was tremendous pressure within the company to achieve 20% growth every year and to cut expenses. It was a very austere environment that we were working in. The management of Disneyland was under extreme pressure from corporate. I was at the top of the show master planning team down there under Tony Baxter. Ops (Operations) philosophy was that we had been adding attractions over the years adding operating cost, and what we really needed to do was take something away if something was added.

High cost per guest carried was also an issue when it came to attractions like the the Submarine Voyage, for example, as it was a very expensive attraction to operate (as is Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye). Cuts had to made somewhere. Skyway closed during this period, partially for operating costs reasons.

The Tom Sawyer Island (TSI) rafts were under discussion as well. TSI needed upgrades to address aging assets and modern codes. Tony liked to re-imagine versus just replace the same assets when it came to rehabs (i.e. Tarzan's Treehouse). I felt the park needed balance in the "history driven" IP area versus everything being character driven. It was weakening the believability of the more historic areas like NOS.

JK: What did you think of Tom Sawyer's Island?

ES: Amazing. Growing up in a La Mirada tract house, it was the closest thing to a real adventure. Used to play "hide and seek" with friends there. The Fort fascinated me as it did most of my generation. F Troop was the hot TV show back then, so it was cool.

JK: Did the architecture of New Orleans Square inspire you as a kid?

ES: Very much so, still does. It's still my favorite land, like a backlot movie set. A masterpiece. My first serious book was "New Orleans and Its Environs: The Domestic Architecture 1727-1870," a collection of historic images and measured drawings of the details. As a 10 year old, I would sit and copy the facades and draw the details all day. Then you'd compare the real to the land and connect the pieces the art directors used to make the land, a tower from this and a railing from that. Captivating. It was also restrained in its design, the colors were sophisticated. Romantic versus cute. Stunning that the interiors and merchandise so closely mirrored the theme! Cookery, Perfume, Antiques, Silver, etc.

This is the one land that when you went inside of the shops the theme got more powerful, versus diluted. Even the Rogues Gallery arcade had custom games! New Orleans Square was the benchmark for Main Street in Disneyland Paris as to the level of detail and research behind everything we did. I wanted to do something that rivaled that area of the park in quality and immersion.

JK: I understand you first started thinking of adding a more immersive pirate story to the area when you were in a grass hut in Hawaii?

ES: We were on vacation there in a literal hut on the beach. Thematically immersive! What better place to dream of Tall Ships, listening to the Norman Luboff "Songs of the Sea" (plays on the Columbia).

JK: Your ideas seemed to have emphasized the notorious pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte.

ES: I was looking for a connection to the Pirates attraction to do some sort of a pirate themed island idea. To even discuss it, we'd need to make it more profitable overall. I remember as a kid seeing the sign on the landing (in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction) and that it was dedicated to Jean Lafitte. I purchased the highly disputed memoirs of the famed privateer and read them thoroughly and used that as the basis for the whole thing.

You also have the anchor along the "Rivers of America" that is jokingly dedicated to him as well. So it seemed like there were elements that already connected him. His connection to American history and actually being a patriot (very Disney) distanced him from the issue I had with glamorizing crime without consequence.

The discovery of an historic island adjacent to the real city of New Orleans that was used as a thieves market for the wealthy, emboldened me to the idea of making this a pirate driven island experience. You could never use the word Barratarria, but you could call it Lafitte's island or Pirate's Island, something like that. I felt a bit hesitant because making the whole island pirate themed doesn't resonate as well, with so many of the western elements on the "Rivers of America".

As history has it, Lafitte was allegedly captured in Galveston Bay, Texas, so this particular theme historically does work. Still, this would have to be somewhat of a visually subtle transition, burying the pirate hideout under trees and earth. There would be no exposed pirate elements that the public can see because then it would never be a hideout!

Thematically speaking, the premise was to consider the south end of the island to be part of New Orleans Square as it faces the haunted mansion all the way down to the river boat landing.

As to books, the earliest one considered to being least sensational, was "A Pirates' Own Book". They were great stories of pirates from other countries of this inspired a few of the activities and other elements to the project.

I was very influenced by the Catacombs of Paris. They are filled with bones and are almost sculptural in nature and are extremely interesting to look at. I thought that creating a tunnel with continuous flow to and from the island would increase its potential from a business standpoint, help it operationally, and create an exciting way for a guest to experience the story as a pre-show.

I like the idea that the entire family experiences this mysterious title and an exciting show even before they get to the island. Most of the time, the parents sit on the bench while the kids run around for a half hour and it's not that exciting for everyone. This seemed like a big plus and the park is always been about exciting ways to get somewhere.

JK: Eventually, Disneyland did indeed re-theme the island to Pirate's Lair.

ES: The fans have really driven the meta theme idea in a way that I never could. They've expanded far beyond where I had begun, and I guess that's a great thing. In the signage and story the Lafitte legend is woven in a bit too. The caves are well done with all kinds of interesting activities so again, that's all good. I probably would have not exposed so many large pirate elements outdoors, but that's a matter of opinion not right or wrong.

JK: As I have told you, I loved your idea of connecting New Orleans Square, Haunted Mansion and Tom Sawyer Island together using Jean Lafitte. Guests would discover a small cemetery near the Haunted Mansion. Among the headstones was a crypt for the Lafitte family and thieves have broken into it in search of pirate treasure.

The ship on Lafitte's Island would have been filled with treasures and secret rooms.

This would be the entrance to the secret underground passage going under the Rivers of America to Tom Sawyer Island where there would be a capsized series of scuttled ships hulls were covered in Earth as secret interior rooms and hideouts like a Pirates' Court and a Treasure Lair.

What challenges would have confronted you with digging under the river and making it accessible for all guests?

ES: We never got that far. Things like digging a tunnel under the river is far more of a topic of concern than any kind of thematic aberration. I don't think I really got any pushback except from Paul Pressler who reviewed it in a very short meeting, turned it down, and that was it. Tony I think really liked idea though and it seemed to be part of a larger series of ideas that was presented. I don't think the idea got much play. Certainly Jack Sparrow crowing about all the redeeming qualities of a life of crime at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean with no consequence at all certainly trumps any kind of social conscience they might've had about that.

JK: Who else was involved in this project?

ES: This was pretty much something small that I cooked up on my own on vacation and brought back to the team. Matt McKim worked on the Fantasmic! upgrade project (terracing the riverfront for viewing) and our show quality team. It's his date of birth (minus two hundred years) that happens to be over the bricked-in arch that has been the subject of such discussion over the years. He was assisting in the carving of the stone at the time. Matt is a great guy by the way and the son of the legendary Imagineer Sam McKim.

That whole waterfront upgrade was inspired by a place I visited years earlier in Savannah, Georgia called Factors Walk. Stone ballast was brought in from English ships, offloaded and then turned into the Cobblestone and retaining walls. Cotton replaced the ballast as export.

I wanted to show that the waterfront had lived more than one life and had layers of theme, as Europe does. I thought the arch that was bricked-in would be a great way of showing that something was there at one time, but later removed or sealed.

JK: Would there have been plaques explaining things to guests?

ES: Yes, in Lafitte's Catacomb, you'd have plaques you could make rubbings from with clues, etc. I think plaques are great as we have annual passholders now who are always searching to drill deeper into the story. I would rather just have strong visuals, like the tomb of Lafitte decorated in cannons with dedication plaques to each crew and each ship that was sacked. You would hear perhaps sound effects and things that would tell the story. In a perfect world, a kid would want to research more about the real stories of these real people.

A sign would have greeted visitors to Lafitte's Catacombs

JK: How would you have addressed the challenge of guests with disabilities?

ES: I imagine there would be a second crypt that would actually be an elevator that would connect to the tunnel on either end. There is not enough land to do ramping.

JK: What would have been removed from the island?

ES: We would probably have re-imagined all of the cave experiences and take out the fort. An earth structure, almost like a berm with trees and gun ports would be coming out of the sod; inside, it's a capsized ship hideout. I always enjoyed the scenes in the film "Goonies" where the kids end up in this Pirates Lair. What kid would not enjoy doing that?

JK: I was told that you considered some details like a cannon-firing arcade and a saloon where you could get pop-rocks mixed in your drinks in imitation of Chinese pirates, who mixed gunpowder in their grog. Would there have been references to Disney films like Treasure Island?

ES: If we would've actually had a budget to go further, I'm sure there would've been a lot of elements from all of those films. The small details you don't wait in line for that just make Disneyland more believable are very valuable and precious to me. That's why the upstairs window sound effects on Main Street came back or the laughing apple at Snow White. Most people enjoy those little details that could only happen at Disneyland.

JK: How was Lafitte to tie in with the Haunted Mansion?

ES: That's something fans created because some of the leftover props that involved Andrew Jackson (in Fort Wilderness on the island), and they got recycled in the Haunted Mansion. The mansion is a part of the river front of New Orleans, so to me it just naturally fit in. Lafitte being in the common graveyard across from it seemed like a natural tie-in without getting too literal about it.

JK: Why did you move Lafitte's anchor to where it is today?

ES: I was on vacation first in Hawaii and thinking things through second. The anchor was most likely subconscious and when it came to re-doing the waterfront we decided to make that a more central element as part of the show. I thought it was more appropriate in front of New Orleans Square than it was in front of the Golden Horseshoe.

JK: You left Imagineering in 1999. Did the fact that this project didn't go forward influence that decision?

ES: I guess you could say that. Overall, the appetite for doing new things and pushing the envelope is what drives me and if that appetite wasn't there or I don't see opportunity, then I feel like I have to reinvent myself in other ways and another places. It so happened that other opportunities such as the Internet and television came along when there was a bit of a hiatus creatively at WDI.

At that time, projects like Tokyo DisneySea and Euro Disneyland were not seen as the future. Disney California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland were the new direction. I did not really feel challenged by that as they were "lite" versions of the kinds of things I was used to doing.

I'm always excited by challenging, exciting projects. But the atmosphere set by management did not seem to be that challenging and so other opportunities caught my eye.

WDI has its "pendulum swings" and they are in a historically amazing period right now with so much going on, it's all about timing.

Next Week: The interview continues with Sotto sharing memories of working with Disney Legend Herb Ryman, Sotto's plans for a Roaring Twenties Main Street U.S.A. for Disneyland Paris, and some random thoughts on a variety of things—including his comments on Imagineer Bruce Gordon and a great previously unknown story about Dave Bradley and Walt Disney.