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

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Last week, fformer Imagineer Eddie Sotto talked about his work for the proposed-but-never-built Tomorrowland at Tokyo Disneyland that was to be called Sci-Fi City. Today, he talks about working with George Lucas on Disneyland's Tomorrowland and how Horizons became Mission: SPACE.

His aunt, Marilyn Sotto, was a costume illustrator and designer who worked for Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios and, for two decades, the Walt Disney Company.

She designed costuming for Euro Disneyland and then relocated with her husband John to Florida to design Walt Disney World parade costumes, resort and cruise ship attire, Super Bowl spectacles, and more, eventually becoming Senior Costume Designer. A high point for her was researching ancient costuming for the rehab of the audio-animatronics characters in Spaceship Earth.


As a teenager, Eddie Sotto built a scale model of Disneyland based on plans obtained from WED Enterprises.

As a teenager, Sotto built a 1/200 scale model of Disneyland based on plans obtained from WED Enterprises. At 19, he was hired as an Assistant Project Director at Knott's Berry Farm. There, he designed the Wacky Soapbox Racer attraction and contributed to elements of Camp Snoopy.

In 1983, Sotto became a show designer for Hollywood-based Landmark Entertainment Group. His work on the "Laboratory of Scientific Wonders" for a Six Flags project in Baltimore, Maryland, caught the attention of Tony Baxter, vice president of Design at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), who hired Sotto as show producer/designer for Main Street, U.S.A. at Euro Disneyland. Sotto's Disney mentors included veteran Imagineers Herbert Ryman and John Hench.

His website is filled with photos and artwork.

JK: How did you get involved with George Lucas and Disneyland Tomorrowland projects?

ES: Tony Baxter brought me into WED in March of 1986 from a company called Landmark Entertainment specifically to be the designer/producer for Euro Disneyland Main Street. Somewhat of an anomaly as I was pretty young (28) to get a VP level job like that, and was certainly in over my head, as I was going from doing projects that were less than five million dollars to over a hundred and fifty million. Literally within a week or so the name changed to WDI, so I may have been one of if not the last person hired at WED.

The minute I got there the contract for the French park went on hold and so did the development. So I was there without an assignment. Marty Sklar decided to try me out my first week in meetings with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg so literally the first art I ever did was re-imagining the Carousel Theater in Tomorrowland as a traveling show aboard a space ship of some kind.

I developed a robotic gladiator, battling droid concept, a sort of "Droid Dome," where guests would cheer for their favorite droid to win the battle (on the top floor of the Carousel Building where the Progress City model had been) and the outcome was determined based on audience response.

Lucas liked the idea a lot. We had a snotty little "underdog" droid that came out at the end with huge firepower, etc. funny stuff. Of course time has caught up and TV has done this idea with shows like BattleBots. We saw a mini-stadium guests could flow through on the way out. If you are interested, you watch the match and if not, you're moving on.

I can't recall all the ideas for the turntable audience theater below. It was a series of audio-animatronics acts from around the galaxy as I recall. Later I proposed a really fun digital maze leading to the top, when it didn't look like the Droid Dome would happen.

For the earliest rendering, I blew up a small sketch to nearly eight feet long and then added detail and colored it with marker. It was a Millennium Falcon-inspired overlay to the Carousel Building to make it appear to look like a giant docked ship that had landed from another galaxy and there was a traveling alien show inside. Audio-animatronics shows like this are expensive to build and maintain.

JK: What was it like working with Lucas?

ES: The creative meetings with George were intimidating to me as he did not say that much. He is an introvert and a bit of an editor in that he listens to everyone's ideas and then summarizes them himself, for which Disney management sees it all as his contribution!

I liked him a lot as he is a regular guy and really wanted us to be relaxed and just not be too "precious" about his "universe," but would adjust the Star Wars logic to fit a good idea. Would love to work with him again any time.

He recommended we meet Moebius, the iconic French artist that inspired much of the look, and that was great as well. Jean Geraud did some Tomorrowland sketches as well and worked with Tim Delaney a bit (perhaps for Discoveryland in France). Moebius sat with me at the opening of Captain EO. The only thing he liked about the film was the spinning rock at the opening!

Meanwhile…

Internally a leader in WDI management seemed threatened by this massive eight foot long rendering I brought in of the Carousel spaceship and attacked the design, saying it was irresponsible and too costly, but would not allow me to get an estimate to defend the design. This was a good first taste of internal politics.

In defense, I worked quietly with an estimator and engineer to refine the art and showed sections of how we would overdress what was there, but the attacks continued and I finally got to work with my good friend from Landmark, Bob Baranick, to build a model to show George and demonstrate the idea, which he liked, which kept it alive in spite of the incoming "missiles." Had a similar thing happen on EuroDisney's Main Street a week earlier, so I was getting used to it.

The show lived on beyond me into other designers developing traveling shows, etc. Rick Rothschild and Mike West come to mind. The Plectu Intergalactic Circus schemes for the rotating theater came later with others involved as I went back to Disneyland Paris. I'm not sure why these ideas did not go forward.

I was not involved in Captain EO or Star Tours, so I don't know exactly what the relationship was like between George and Disney in terms of his changing Tomorrowland. As I recall, I think the Tomorrowland discussions were more about the "worlds" of Star Wars and doing something fresh. Not a retelling of A New Hope or anything.

Star Tours was already going when I got there in 1986 and satisfied that need, so Lucas was looking to do the rest of the land. My first WED week was spent being an "extra" in the instruction loading video for Star Tours. I'm right behind Chewbacca.

At Disney, you stepped in and did a little bit of everything. In the FedEx re-do of Space Mountain, I am the Robin Leach sound-alike "Lifestyles of the Rich and Alien" and the announcer on the "Blast off Channel" on the queue video. Also the "Launch Sequence Engaged. We have ignition," voice-over on the Dick Dale soundtrack in Disneyland.

I heard Dick Dale play many times. He was the king of the Surf Guitar and influenced the Beach Boys, Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix and others. In 1996 I brought him in to do the first digitally synchronized music on a Rollercoaster, Disneyland's Space Mountain.

CEO Michael Eisner wanted a recognizable classical score as in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a waltz, given the dynamic speed of the ride, felt inappropriate to the action. Composer Arrin Richard and I finally settled on using a classical melody that was familiar, but with a faster tempo. Although the mood was there, it was not driven by the action and movement of the vehicle.

We wanted to accentuate the G-forces guests feel when pressed into the twists, turns, and drops each rocket endures. An electric guitar "lick" or "riff" over the score might give us that effect. To that end, we wanted Dick Dale who invented them. We rode Space Mountain after hours at least 30 times, listening and timing each solo of Dale's guitar over the score till they were synced perfectly to the action.

Dale's throbbing Ghost Riders in the Sky was synced to a music video depicting the development of the NASA space program and played on a loop for waiting guests, later Camille St. Saens Aquarium melody played out on a revolutionary on-board audio system attached to each ride vehicle.

Arranged and performed by Disney's Arrin Richard, Dale (who did not read music) would then add his "chainsaw" riffs that were to be triggered to compliment each twist, turn and drop of your "rocket". Dale's music played continuously on the attraction for millions until 2005.

I called and persuaded Dick to be a part of the Space Mountain experience in part by promising him he could play live atop Space Mountain (I started with the Matterhorn and was force to renege when they would not let him up there) which he agreed to do on the re-opening of Tomorrowland on May 21st 1998.

That moment meant a lot to him personally, and to us as well. From a tiny platform between the spires of the Mountain, high above the park and a packed Tomorrowland, Dick yelled to the crowd, "It can't get any better than this!"

By the way, getting back to Lucas, George got a million dollars per attraction per year or something like that for each attraction he lent his name to. I'm not really sure that Disney was that serious about Tomorrowland other than getting Lucas excited about doing more things at the park. Alien Encounter and Indiana Jones attractions came out of all of those meetings, and I worked on several versions of Indy long before what you see today.

JK: I loved Horizons as a glimpse into the possible future.

ES: Horizons had very low guest satisfaction ratings, to the point where people didn't even remember which show it was. I think the topic of Horizons is great and that retro-future attraction should be there in some form, but the economics of running unpopular shows was not an option, so we jumped in and filled the "need" with a different attraction. GE had left and there was no one to pay for Horizons. WDW wanted it gone. Sad but true. They wanted a thrill ride.

I saw the numbers and you can't expect WDW to operate something with no lines forever. Horizons was pretty good and to me it was the "theme show" of Future World. You got the whole future vision that the park promises all in one ride. The rest of the pavilions lean too much on looking back and that is not satisfying or aspirational. It should have been in Spaceship Earth or the first thing you do when you enter.

So to lose Horizons is to gut the dream, or storytelling of what the whole park means and that's powerful. Replacing Horizons with the Mission: Space attraction does not really fill the gap left by the hole made in the story or mission statement of the park. I think Mission: Space is a great pavilion and is the "science fact" challenging story of the real journey to space, not the Disneyland "Moon Ride" version we've all experienced.

JK: There have been many proposals for an Epcot Space Pavilion.

ES: There have been a continual litany of proposals for a Space pavilion and yes, sponsors or lack of them can kill it, or even being too ambitious can kill it. Disney's position at the time was that "other people's money" will build the thing and unless you find it, forget it. So pitching to sponsors is a job in and of itself.

Another team had developed a "Space Station" with "Hollywood or SciFi visions of Space" ride concept for the Space pavilion. I took issue with it (and so did Walt Disney World), as in the end you're in large open spaces with tourists, screaming kids, etc. to do what? Look out a window? I thought of the Living Seas Sea-base as it's a similar experience with lots of crowding to distract from the reality. It felt so typically theme park.

It was the notion of being in a fake "Space Station" filled with tourists, screaming kids and real world "exit" signs that blew any realism you could achieve. Plus no weightlessness. Epcot to me had to tell the more science oriented story.

Epcot should break that mold and defy some of those formulaic scenarios. I just thought we were missing what guests expect from Space (the journey, blast off thrill, etc.) as what's out there is just "gas and rocks." There's "no there there" and isn't that why they call it "Space"?

WDW wanted an "E-Ticket" Thrill Ride and WDI basically only wanted to build the spectacle they pitched and pretty much walked away. Susan Bonds, the producer on it, came to me frustrated and asked if I was interested in pitching something more thrilling as that’s what WDW will fund ASAP. She assured me that the project she was on was dead, so I spoke to WDW management and it was true.

I reviewed the Horizons numbers and listened to their concerns and what they thought would help Epcot's image. In response, I pitched to Marty Sklar a very intense, claustrophobic "science fact" Space Capsule type attraction that was more about the heroism of the journey versus the destination.

The real challenge of going to Space, a la The Right Stuff feature film. He approved doing a mock-up of the capsule for Eisner based on my pretending to be in the capsule pressing buttons, etc. Embarrassing, but it got us $100,000. We rented all the interior switch panels used in the movie Apollo 13, housed them in a capsule mock-up out of plywood and put the six foot plus Michael Eisner in it, lights flashing and space footage playing outside the capsule window. He got the idea, loved it right on the spot. Florida was thrilled as well.

We developed with the ride engineers a track-based rollercoaster type ride to fit the existing Horizons building, but for lots of good engineering and other reasons, it eventually evolved into the spinning centrifuge design we have today. Believe me, centrifuges are not cheap and an entirely new ride system. That was considered a breakthrough as it generated sustained G-forces, something coasters do not do, but lift-off does.

The ride really reflected those forces of liftoff in a realistic way. That meant a lot to me. We had all ridden the military centrifuges and even flown the NASA Shuttle simulator in Houston. We tried to make it very "science fact" and Epcot, leveraging the fact that eventually the public will be able to go to space.

Susan Bonds deserves the lion's share of the credit, as she really championed that show getting made as I quit during design development (for which she has reminded me numerous times). I'm really happy that Tom Fitzgerald and his team have put in so much love and cash over the years, tweaking the journeys, upgrading the video, even doubling down on it by now adding a restaurant.

One thing I miss that was changed after I left was the story itself. The original treatment called for a moment to pause and look back at the Earth, and a rescue in space. The current version, as good as it is, was more about the continual thrill and G Forces racing around Mars, etc. and all that extra spinning may have contributed to motion sickness for some guests. Can't know that for sure.

Maybe my first treatment was too boring, but I do like having pauses and rests in an experience (love how your banshee in Pandora pauses so you can take in that "world" before leaping off the cliff, stuff like that) to make them a bit more episodic. The unbuilt pavilion concepts never suffer budget cuts and always have the unfair advantage of being flawless in our imagination!

JK: Thank you once again for your time and patience in answering all my questions. I know the readers will enjoy all these insights.