Eddie Sotto Interview: Disney's Worlds of Tomorrow - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Eddie Sotto is a former Disney Imagineer who worked for the Walt Disney Company for 13 years from 1986 to 1999. He remains one of the top designers and mixed-media producers in the world and is the founder in 2004 of Sotto Studios. His website at SottoStudios.com is filled with photos and artwork.

During his time with WDI, he became Senior Vice President of Concept Design in 1994. His work included Main Street USA at Disneyland Paris, early concept development of Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure, the 1995 re-do of Disneyland's Adventureland, and enhancements to Tokyo Disneyland including Pooh's Hunny Hunt, concept development for Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom and many, many more contributions.

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

I previously interviewed him for MousePlanet about his abandoned proposal for converting Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island into Lafitte's Island with a tunnel going under the Rivers of America to the new pirate lair and his work with Imagineer Herb Ryman especially on Euro Disneyland's Main Street USA.

Over the decades, despite being busy with his own company, Sotto has been very gracious and generous in sharing stories of his time working in Imagineering with the Disney fan community. That kindness was demonstrated yet again when I interviewed him in June 2019 about his involvement in Disney projects involving the world of tomorrow. Sotto reviewed the final text and made some additions and tweaks in early August 2019.

Jim Korkis: Is the only way to keep a Tomorrowland from going out of date to do a retro approach that was done in Discoveryland in Disneyland Paris that was later adapted for the U.S. Disney parks?

Eddie Sotto: Seems like it, unless you design the land as a World's Fair pavilion or changeable platform that anticipates change (that the company has a program to support) or set the bar way out there to demonstrate things that are fairly far off, like autonomous cars or drone taxis etc.

The Monorail is a good example. It lasted fairly long as a unique mode of transport that captured the imagination. Airports have eclipsed PeopleMovers and Monorails now, but it took a decade or so for them to do so. The Innoventions pavilion was supposed to be that flexible platform, like the Computer Electronics show in Vegas, that represented the "just around the corner" technology, but even that was too hard to pull off, given Disney's sponsor agreements and slow to execute culture, and was uneven as to the entertainment value.

Another example…In the early 2000's I was invited to represent place-based design for the Italian design firm Pininfarina in the USA, (the firm that does the body design for Ferrari and branched out into hotels, etc.) I approached Disney proposing to develop an Italian styled Tomorrowland by Pininfarina for Shanghai Disneyland. The point here was to create a beautiful, seamless world, like Disneyland's Tomorrowland in 1967 but you could consume it. The style itself was really the exciting part.


Eddie Sotto led the team behind the Encounter Restaurant at LAX.

Imagine the shoes, jogging suits, flying cars, drones, architecture, all of it in a collaboration with Pininfarina USA. Later that year, Pininfarina had unforeseen fiscal issues and my proposed arrangement fell apart so it went no further. However, I think there are ways of defining an optimistic future without predicting it directly. I'd still love to do something like that. Imagine the level of depth and intense detail of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, but using high style in a romantic and optimistic way!

JK: What was it about the 1967 version of Disneyland's Tomorrowland that you found so appealing?

ES: The optimism, the seamless execution, the prototypical transport, and of course, the Eero Saarinen inspired design. I just stayed in the restored TWA Terminal Hotel at JFK, which was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962, and it is truly like being in Tomorrowland '67, but better, as you're actually living in it. So great.

Having the Saturn V Rocket as Tomorrowland's iconic totem in 1967 was really appropriate as the moon landing cemented the "anything is possible" vision of that land and was a rather unifying element. Not to mention the incredible kinetics of a "world on the move" as the Monorail spiel brought out back then. Every ride was woven in and through the others into a thriving sculpture of frictionless urbanity.

The fact that the Carousel of Progress completed the picture as it showed Progress City or "E.P.C.O.T." as a tangible outcome to the demos you were getting with the PeopleMover and Monorail systems was important. Of course, the model of Progress City showed how it all would fit together, as at the time Disney was planning to actually build it.

Even the Mighty Microscope in the Adventure Thru Inner Space attraction was styled to match the overall Tomorrowland look. I thought it was very sincere and actually demonstrated a tangible future. It was optimistic and seamless without being coldly minimal. Space Mountain is a beautiful and original design. It was not kitchy at all.

JK: You actually got a chance to design a Tomorrowland 1967 future for Los Angeles International Airport.

ES: Paul Williams, who designed the iconic Theme building at LAX, gave us the most "Jetson-ian" version of that style, which ironically became a pet WDI project in the Encounter Restaurant in 1996. I led the design team with talented people like Ellen Guevara and Michael Valentino among others. I can't help but think that the building itself was an inspiration for Tomorrowland '67, and we were just revisiting that.

"Barbarella-gant" was the style we invented for the interior. Again, it was a shot at reviving that "jet set" optimism that we lost when the Tomorrowland '67 went aged bronze. We designed flowing walls sculpted to appear as stone quarried from the moon and put in customized lava lights to add a "lounge" feel to the futuristic atmosphere.

We made bar guns that emit laser lights and futuristic sound effects when bartenders pour a drink. Encounter transforms LAX into an intergalactic gateway accommodating space flights to and from other worlds. The sophisticated sci-fi feel of the interior extends from the carpet, to the furniture, to the music, providing the perfect backdrop for what we call "jet set" dining in a space age atmosphere.

Ironically, it was one of my favorite design experiences while working at WDI. I liked working on the project because it was a chance to revive an historic landmark.

It was the first project done by the "Concept Development Studio." Marty Sklar (President of WDI) was kind enough to allow me to create my own budgeted "think tank" and gather a super small, but talented team. I explained that we could create more than theme parks, and build goodwill among other divisions on behalf of Imagineering.

Marty Sklar and Ken Wong, his operational partner, agreed and we went to work on everything from interactive foods, on-line interactive worlds, hotels, handheld electronic devices, ABC Times Square Studios, One Saturday Morning for ABC, and even a new SPACE pavilion for Epcot. The studio was dissolved after I walked away, but during its existence it generated hundreds of millions of dollars of funded projects.

JK: So the future doesn't have to be just metallic and white?

ES: Sure. The future CAN be fun, beautiful, cool and more recently up-cycled and reclaimed. By using natural wood, stone and glass in their stores, Apple conveys that the future is real and tangible, benevolent, and way more than gold spray paint.

People today are realizing that "a bright future" depends less on technology to save it, and primarily on the human ethics and brotherly love that society severely lacks. Walt Disney wanted "every guest to be treated as a VIP" so the park had that kind of universal equity and kindness as a backdrop to all of his innovations. It's harder to sell that in a divided world just beyond the berm.

It's not what we build, or what we own, but who we are as people that really drives contentment and that is the essence of a positive future.

JK: One of your first assignments in Imagineering was the Rocket Bikes for Tomorrowland that would later evolve without your participation into the disappointing Rocket Rods.

ES: It was developed for Tokyo Disneyland's new Tomorrowland that was to be called Sci-Fi City, which I was made design director of in the early 1990s, I felt that a competitive ride would be a hit, like it was at Knott's Berry Farm (nearby theme park where I started my career in 1979) with Wacky Soap Box Racers, my first project back in 1980.

Ironically the Wacky Soap Box Racers vehicles replaced Motorcycle Chase, vehicles that had a dangerously high center of gravity. The Rocket Bikes would address that by being chopper-like in that you sat very low. They popped "wheelies" on launch (front wheel raised off the ground like a dragster) and had on-board audio and banked movement through a crater filled alien world.

The theme was that racers from across the galaxy came to compete aboard rocket powered choppers and you can too. Like today's Radiator Springs Racers ride, you raced side by side, so the racing idea eventually got built, just not by me.

The area was to be called "Crater Town", an off-world "desert" of sorts like Radiator Springs in a way. We had a Rocket Biker Bar type food offering and retail, etc. then the city portion of the land was more urban with the Sci-Fi City architecture defined by mid-century design.

We built a test track for the bikes at the Disney Studio's Golden Oaks Ranch and demonstrated them for Paul Pressler, who oversaw WDI at the time, and from what I heard, he did not approve their further development as he felt they needed to be Star Wars branded to be viable in the USA. We also needed to increase speed and do a few more tweaks to really make the demo more compelling.

The Japanese management wanted shared cost endorsement to keep them going full steam. The Tokyo Disneyland management liked them as a part of an ambitious Sci-Fi City remake of Tomorrowland we were developing.

I needed other parks to amortize the cost so we proposed them for Disneyland to Imagineers Bruce Gordon and Tony Baxter, who liked the idea, but rightfully thought there was too much that would have to be done to adapt them to the existing track layout of the PeopleMover.

The thrill ride aspect and "wheelie" morphed onto vehicles they were developing for GM Test Track, so the Rocket Rods were the result of that. I did not work on it, other than being forced to develop another version for Tokyo called Mag Racers where we did the race idea on a closed circuit track. This was an alternative to the bikes. Of course, the Oriental Land Company (OLC) that runs the Tokyo park always likes to avoid development costs and wanted that "Mag Racers" ride instead.

I never liked the Rocket Rods as I saw it as a "D Plus" or "D" level ride, not an "E Ticket". Even though we could create a track in Japan that would give you more speed and thrill like GM Test Track at Epcot, it seemed to me that it was not that much different than driving a fast golf cart. It was not an experience you could only have at Disney. I fought it to the point of almost getting fired and was only saved by OLC coming out to ride it and finding it broken down indefinitely (and the tire shavings landing on burgers below). THANK GOODNESS!

They saw the light, dodged the bullet, and then I quit the company to do other things and management changed and all that development was wasted. Starting over is what happens when creative leadership changes.

JK: Tell me a little more about the Tomorrowland proposal you worked on for Tokyo Disneyland.

ES: The name of the land was to be "Sci-Fi City". In Japanese, SF or Sci-Fi is something that is understood, revered and easier to get than "Tomorrowland". The Oriental Land Company folks loved the name.

At TDL you have to think about what the guest understands in translation from English words sometimes and if you are fundamentally changing the concept how that expectation is met with the name. It's all about expectations. If you promise something in an area, then you need to give people something beyond expectation. So matching the experience with the name is important

You have to think beyond the nostalgia of what you like, but of a foreign audience and what these visual symbols mean to them and of course, what do they dream of?

I was looking for a genre that Japanese guests would respond to more than the future, as Tokyo itself was far more of a Tomorrowland that Disney could ever do. Sci-Fi or SF as they know it, provided a wealth of appealing "worlds" that can be aspirational. At the time, Tokyo Disneyland had a higher per guest-per-capita earnings so they could afford some additional expenses.

We had that "off world" section that I previously mentioned on "the other side of the tracks" called Crater Town which was all alien desert landscape with unusual rock formations. In a way, SFC is similar to New Tomorrowland in WDW as they both use a city metaphor as a theme.

It would have included "Cosmic Way" which was the "Main Street" with a theming inspired by the Jetsons, Buck Rogers and Rocketeer. That type of thing. To me, Rocketeer meant the jetpack. The streamline moderne design that futurist designers like Norman Bel Geddes was doing. The GM "Futurama" exhibit from the NY 1939 World's Fair is a "world" in of itself. We had a street of facades that are a bit mid-century, and art moderne. Think "Forbidden Planet meets the old TWA Rocket".

And brand new attractions like the "Rocket Bikes" which we discussed, "Sci-Fi Zoo" which was an indoor audio-animatronics extraterrestrial zoo, "Lunar Rovers" which was an Autopia version "on the moon", "Flying Saucers" to be an updated version of the Rocket Jets attraction but with UFOs and Hyper Space Mountain, an enhanced version of Space Mountain. There were other things like UFO Encounter using the same technology as Tower of Terror to tell the story of alien abduction.

It got killed because of budget overruns building Tokyo DisneySea. Money, or more precisely lack of money, often killed projects. There were always more ideas than room for them or money to pay for them. That's the business then and into the future.

Next Week: Sotto talks about working with George Lucas on re-doing Disneyland's Tomorrowland, how Horizons really became Mission:SPACE and the proposal for the Epcot Space Pavilion that was never built.

 

Comments

  1. By CJ Brown

    OMG! What a great interview .... and I would prefer the Tomorrowland '67 vs the hot mess fugly as all hell Tomorrowland '98 (Tomorrowland at Disneyland has turned into my least favourite section now due to all the different IP topped on top of each other AND lack of original Rides / Attractions that were future based!)

  2. By carolinakid

    I loved late ‘60s Tomorrowland ( I was there in ‘68!) and ‘70s classic MK Tomorrowland in FL. I still miss the fabulous waterfalls on each side of the bridge off the hub. And the shining white architecture which Space Mountain seemed a part of seamlessly . Today’s Tomorrowland sucks except for 2 or 3 attractions. It’s the land where I spend the least amount of time in both parks.

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