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Love, Hate, and John Lasseter

The theme park savior we've been waiting for?
Or is that impossible... even for Lasseter?

“The Next Walt Disney,”
a title attached to John Lasseter a few years ago, admittedly had me excited. No, I never for ten seconds thought he’d hold a candle to Uncle Walt, but compared to the other clowns trying to run Walt’s company, Lasseter appeared to be the theme park savior we geeks had been waiting for.

Among the many differences between Walt and John, one is more important than all others. Lasseter is a creative genius who is trying to fix what has already been done with the Disney parks. Walt Disney was a creative genius who did what had never been done. “Hold on. JL pioneered CG animation, something that had never been done.” Yes. He sure did. And he did a bang-up job. In the world of CG animation, he is king. Allow me to be clear on one thing: Two thumbs up for the accomplishments of Pixar and their brilliant leaders, including JL. We are talking about theme parks though.

Lasseter has, with help from Jobs, Catmull, and others, built what is quite possibly the only existing near-perfect creative environment… no thanks to the Eisner Disney Company. Can a similarly creative and successful environment be established at WDI? I have spent time at the Pixar Animation Studio. I walked the halls, seen their creative process, and mingled with talent. I was delightfully overwhelmed at the amount of talent oozing out of the place. I worked off-site on a few small Pixar marketing projects. I met with Lasseter both at Pixar and at the parks. We spoke of animatronics, animation, and even about his and my careers. His face lights up when you talk about Disneyland . He enjoys talking about the time he worked as a Disneyland custodian and Jungle Cruise Skipper. He couldn’t be more genuine and passionate about so many of these things.

The Pixar studio itself radiates a sense of passion. In the animation wing of the Pixar building, Disneyland memorabilia artfully clutter every hallway (along with other cool memorabilia). The big “D” from the old Disneyland sign on Harbor Blvd. is there. Props and themed offices are everywhere, including at least two offices with secret passages. A set of actual Chuck E. Cheese animatronic figures greet you around one corner. It is a wonderland second only to W.E.D of the 1960’s. One thing is for sure. The appreciation for Walt Disney’s legacy does not go unnoticed.

Photo from the Los Angeles Times

Lasseter’s office
(next to Steve Jobs’ simple-as-can-be office with one desk, two chairs, an iMac and notheing else) is a perfect reflection of everything he is passionate about. Looney Toons animation cells, stuffed Miyazaki animated characters, an original Sunday Peanuts comic strip signed and gifted to him by Schulz himself, original Lucas Films artwork, toys galore, Pixar stuff of course, and an impressive collection of old and new ViewMasters and slides. A collection of model trains on one wall and on another wall, a photo of JL with “Nine Old Men” famed animator, Ollie Johnston at the Disneyland Railroad tracks next to the full-sized train Ollie sold to JL. One thing really caught my eye. A stack of “Extinct Attractions” DVD documentaries. Hmmm. Clearly, no lack of love for what I consider the right way to run a Disney theme park.

A return to the old-school? Jim Hill Media reported a couple years ago that Lasseter wanted to fix Journey Into Imagination. Journey was one of the documentaries in his office. He was reported to have wanted Western River Expedition to be built at Hong Kong Disneyland, DCA or elsewhere. After reading this I mentioned it to Marty Sklar. Marty hadn’t a clue that Lasseter ever mentioned such a thing. He said “I highly doubt that would ever happen. That thing is too expensive.” That thing? I got the impression that Marty wasn’t on-board for any more glorious animatronic-filled attractions. He also mentioned, “Mickey Mouse Review was boring.” Oh and he too threw in the “they say John Lasseter is the next Walt Disney” line while we were conversing.

I lose no sleep at night pondering the future of Pixar Animation. It’s exactly where it should be and I love it. I do however fear the path Disney theme parks are on.

Questions. Are the Sklars of the Disney Company the ones who are holding Lasseter back? Is it the notion that today people won’t respond to how things used to be done? Is the (false) doctrine of “Pixar is the only thing that sells” the only thing driving new development? Has Lasseter bought into the idea that more and more Pixar attractions need to fill the parks because no other Disney-related entertainment has been successful lately? Are Lasseter’s theme park tastes influenced too heavily by his involvement with Pixar animation? Are we to settle for Pixar-based attractions that slightly resemble classic rides?

One concept pitched and green-lit was the idea of a hub-cap flying saucer attraction for the new DCA Cars Land. The Imagineers said they were excited to see what JL had to say about a ride inspired by an old-school Tomorrowland attraction. He was impressed.

To be fair, a lot of the ($1.1 billion+) DCA improvements are not Pixar-based. JL is championing the effort to bring more heart, soul, and emotional impact to the life-lacking park. Thank you for that.

Answers (according to me): In a nut shell, the current philosophies of Disney management prevent Lasseter from doing certain things he’d love to do. When two ideas are presented- one that completely appeals to nerds like you and me (fixing Journey, Western River Expedition, etc.), and one based on something that recently made $800,000,000 at the box office- you can guess which will win.

So here we have it. John Lasseter loves good-quality Disney. He also likes Pixar stuff in the parks. He also has bosses who like to say “no”. He also is spread like too little butter over too much toast. He also has a wreck of an animation studio (Walt Disney Animation) to fix and a thriving animation studio (Pixar) to help maintain.

So love, hate, and John Lasseter… Love his passion. Love his successes in the CG animated industry. Love his potential to positively influence what I hope can be a new generation of Imagineering. But by golly, I hate singing fish and joke-cracking monsters in Tomorrowland. Hate Woody dancin’ around the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon, or even worse, Woody and pals (and any other character for that matter) in “it’s a small world”. And I will hate to be an old man at a Disneyland that doesn’t resemble the Disneyland I knew as a young child.

References (3)

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Reader Comments (26)

Well said. I really love John Lasseter as much as the next guy, but I have noticed the parks slowly turn from Disneyland to Pixarland. It has me worried. I also was surprised he attached his name to such a sub-par film as The Princess and the Frog. It is obviously as you said, he is just spread too thin. There is too much to do and not enough time.

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Click on the second photo and you'll notice a W.E.D. name tag. That is not old. I have recently seen other Imagineers wearing them... I wonder if JL had a part in that. And if this is a sign of what's to come, at least with the name of W.D.I?

February 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterAdmin

I'm always bothered by comparisons to great people of the past. Republicans hang on to and idolize Ronald Reagan, and are always looking for the "Next" Reagan. And, we as Disney fans seem to be lost and looking for the next "Walt". Why is that? Is it because we have no hope in the current management? Or is it because of the great things Walt did, that we're hoping for him or his spirit to be re-born in somebody else? The realization, and even frustration is that there will never be another like him. And, while this is saddening in some way, it's also encouraging. Sure, he was a great man with big dreams and visions and he created some incredible things while he was alive that we still enjoy today. But, he's gone now, and we should move on and embrace the new leaders. No, they're not Walt, but there will never be another Walt, however, there may be a John, or Joe, or Pete, or whoever, that takes us to newer and even better places in our fantasy world, if we allow them too, and stop comparing their works to Walts'.

February 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGrumpyFan

I don't think anyone actually wants another Walt Disney, but rather someone who has a similar positive impact.

As for current management, I think most people would like to have more hope in them, but sadly they do so many things that frustrate us.

John Lasseter will never be Walt Disney but maybe he can bring a similar standards to the parks.

February 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermolly_tompson_88

The more I read about Lasseter, the more I like him! I am of a generation that grew up with uncle Walt in our family rooms: I miss the creative excitement that Walt brought to his company and our lives. John is a superb Imagineer and I hope he will be given a free rein at the parks: John, don't forget the classic rides that have been discontinued and those that have been "updated", often with disastrous results... Bring back the magic!
And... we both collect old View Masters!! John, I feel like you are family, as was uncle Walt, way back then.....

February 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGiovanni Abrate

No Horizons 2.0... but they still have some silly "centrifuge" ride that kills people (but love the late 90's color scheme - Nice & modern!)

Still have Ellen Degeneres inside Universe of Energy. Love the late 90's tech in the intro movie.

No Kitchen Kabaret... but you can sit on a moving park bench in front of a really big screen.

No Communicore... but you can buy over 20 different kinds of Disney pins at Mouse Gear (If you re-mortgage your house to afford it).

No Sea Base Alpha... but they still have lots of "Nemo," though, with talking turtles.

No Wonders of Life... But it's open once a year for a food festival. I wonder what other pavilion might have been appropriate for a food festival?

No World of Motion... but they still have some silly "rollercoaster" in it's place.

No Tomorrow's Child... Replaced it with some silly "e-Surance" animated short.

No Communicore... But you can drink bitter Italian soda for free.

No Energy Exchange... but you can now ride a Segway (for a price)...

No Dreamfinder... but they still have Eric Idle.

No second floor of Journey Into Imagination... but they have... Oh, wait. They didn't replace it with anything.

Good job, Lassiter. EPCOT = Every Park Crumbles Over Time.

February 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

An interesting post. I think far too often, one person becomes the focus of all our praise or complaints. Nobody has the singular power that Walt did, anymore. Someone like JL, or Iger, or Sklar, can wield a lot of influence, but they still have to deal with accountants, shareholders, and park management, who all have their own concerns, often more short sighted than is appealing to us Disney fans. I can't see Lasseter coming in and using only his animation prestige to get Western River built. I can however see that if a major Park investment like Carsland or Fantasyland Forest, pushed for and greenlit by Eisner, proves to be a big attendance booster, than he may gain more trust from the money people, who might then be willing to risk larger sums on single attractions with less obviously marketable themes.

February 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric Scales

Anonymous is being completely over dramatic and bitter about EPCOT problems. Of course it has problems, but looking in the past for answers isn't being progressive or realistic. Technology doubles over and over at a quicker pace as time progresses. What was significant in 1982 is not significant anymore. Furthermore, it is far more difficult for a venue like EPCOT to keep up with very expensive and mostly permanent installations to keep up with that ever progressing technology. Communicore has no significance in our world. the amount of information we take in and decipher on a daily basis can not be rivaled or even made marvelous in a theme park pavilion. It isn't possible. So, looking at what was once great and expecting it to still be great (had it remained) isn't realistic.

What IS realistic is looking at what can be fixed, yet relevant for this age. World Showcase will always be relevant. A new pavilion would be great. My guess-if it were to happen- is India, based on India's growing economy.

Imagination Pavilion. Obviously, we need a new ride with Figment and Dreamfinder (as the article says, Lassetter wants this) and a new show to replace Honey-and without falling back onto EO).

Universe of Energy is still relevant in concept. A new film needs to be made, with a focus on alternative energy, Eco-friendly energy, etc. Energy that is significant in our times and times to come.

Mission Space is fine, as is Test Track. What could be done is an addition to Mission Space and find more educational and interactive possibilities for guests to get involved with Space and interested. Space is the final frontier after all, and it is quite amazing as a real thing.

Wonders of life as a concept should go. In its place they need to think of Horizons 2.0. Horizons 2.0, in my opinion, would save EPCOT. It would be a brilliant move on Disney's part to solve the lack of cohesion and the breaking away from the original meta concept for EPCOT, and also satisfy EPCOT fanatics and casual guests alike. So, I agree Horizons must be resurrected, but not as it was, but relevant to the future. A realistic approach, with what we know now of science and technology, that tries to imagine 300 years in the future and where we would be.

Another mistake you make, Anonymous, is that you forget that Disney is ultimately a business. The article makes a point of this. There are amazing things that won't be done because of money. Kitchen Cabaret went away because the sponsor changed. There isn't much they can do about that. Just like the old Mt. Fuji ride didn't happen because of sponsor conflicts. This happens all the time. I for one think the fantasyland expansion is a good sign of what is to come at Disney. It may be geared towards young girls, and it might be relying on characters, but those are classic Disney characters and not Pixar heavy or something like that. The focal point to all of WDW is cinderella's castle so it seems a fine, cohesive corollary. I have no problem with the Fantasyland forest concept. I think it looks as if it will be well executed and add some much needed water features and atmosphere to the Magic Kingdom. The only danger here is that Disney might think that this will be enough to "fix" all of WDW.
But I digress from Epcot.

Epcot is not in the shape it used to be, but that shape is impossible with what they had. All is not lost. I see ways to fix it. But it all comes down to money. I don't know if Disney will look at EPCOT anytime soon and say, "This park needs a billion dollars put into it," (like DCA) but it may happen. After this fantasyland update, they will leave magic kingdom alone for awhile. The next up could be EPCOT, and if that is the case, Lasseter and W.E.D. seem at the ready to take up the challenge.

February 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Chris -- awesome post. You hit many of the nails right on the head.


February 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjoefox97

Oh yes, "Anonymous", how dare they update the park! Why have it looking like the 90's when it could look like the late 70's/early 80's. And for the record, Eric Idle is far better than any "Burger King" rip-off..But the ride itself...Ehhhhh. They need to just knock that sucker over and put something totally new.

Still, don't count on any "World's Fair" type rides in the future (Aka Horizons). People aren't interested in slow moving rides with semi-animated animatronics. That was cool about 30 years ago, today it's not so much.

February 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBobo

"Still, don't count on any "World's Fair" type rides in the future (Aka Horizons). People aren't interested in slow moving rides with semi-animated animatronics. That was cool about 30 years ago, today it's not so much."

But isn't that exactly what the new Little Mermaid attraction is? Granted it's in Fantasyland, which is all dark rides and boat rides, but I don't think they would exclude animatronic rides from any future development. A good example is the great moments with Mr. Lincoln animatronic over at Disneyland. The imagineers are really proud of it and how it is the most realistic animatronic they've ever done.

I wouldn't say that animatronics are going the way of the dodo quite yet. They have a ton of things they could perfect in them still, like walking for instance. I see animatronics being used for a long time to come in some degree. I know what you're saying. It is perhaps a bigger risk to go with a slow moving/ edutainment ride than a thrill ride, but I don't think Disney has counted out a Horizons-esque ride yet. Just based on the potential they still have and the guest response to old rides that still use this method.

February 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris

I'm not talking about killing animatronics off. Disney is going to use them as long as they're around, and I'm sure they're going to get even better as the years go by. Just don't count on seeing any new 'Old School' type of Epcot rides in the future. People want a little excitement in their Edu-Rides.

February 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBobo

I like the animatronic-filled rides. They are something you just don't see anywhere else. Out of all the most-loved, great rides that have endured the test of time, most are animatronic-based. Space Mountain is the exception that comes to mind. I really think most Disney park fans feel the same.

March 1, 2010 | Registered CommenterMitch

Mind you, it's the INTERESTING animatronic rides that last. Rides like the Haunted Mansion and POTC will always be there since they're crowed-pleasers. Rides like World Of Motion and Horizons..Not so much.

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBobo

World of Motion I agree. Horizons I don't agree. The animatronics weren't the focus of the ride really, as much as they are on haunted mansion or POTC (POTC more so than HM). But I see your point.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Will always have their own dreams forever! Believe in yourself!
By Air Jordan shoes
Air Jordan shoes

April 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAir Jordan shoes

Thank you so much for this!!! Really, you have no idea! I've pondered this subject so many times it isn't funny. I've gone back and forth with it to the point that I had no idea where I stood. Your article is the exact viewpoint that I was looking for. I completely agree 100 percent! Keep up the great work!

July 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterReesieCup

But....Woody is on it's a small world O.O?

November 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephany Cuellar

ok the comment about the "sub-par film princess and the frog." hold up now. princess and the frog is a revival of disney's beloved hand drawn classics. i mean, don't get me wrong, i love me some 3d animation, but who doesnt love the old disney hand drawn classics? the princess and the frog is by far my favorite disney movie ever made. i think walt would have been proud.

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersavannah

and guys. remember my name. i want to replace lasseter one day when he's retired. if it's possible... we'll see ;)

(i'm 15 now so i have plenty of time)

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSAVANNAH-MAE-

For all you Horizons lovers, check out my project at

December 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris Wallace

LOL! The top picture has a Woody guy in it! Just showcasing the "hate" here!

July 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily Oriotis

Unfortunately, I feel that the classic Disney World rides will slowly be replaced by more "up to date" movie character themed ones. It's such a sad thing to think of. I really don't think John Lasseter is the answer. Like mentioned before, I think Lasseter would change everything to Pixar rides. Disney needs leadership that involves a balance of keeping with tradition and the implementation of newer attractions. For me, I don't really have a problem with parks like Magic Kingdom being expanded with newer Pixar attractions. I just never wanted to see older ones go like...20k leagues under the sea, If you had wings, etc. to make room for them.

April 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFishPharm

I don't remember much about EPCOT's early years except the odd open/close hours and being told we only needed room key for charging & then getting to EPCOT'S & finding the things I wanted to do cost money & no way to get it. Weird and irritating. It was something about virtual reality headsets in one of the invention pavilions. But that aside, we hated EPCOT at first but quickly came to love it. I too see that it's losing original focus and find it sad. We spend much less time there now than we used to. Love love love everything about the Land Pav. Living seas is way too Nemo themed but overall pleasant if not too crowded with screaming three year olds. Imagination Pav is just sad. Honey I Shrunk is in serious need of an upgrade but NOT to anything related to Pixar characters. Imagine NEW. Love Mission Space but agree that more space centered interaction and learning could be a great addition. Text Track is ok but tired although I understand it's getting a facelift. I hope it's done well and not just an injection of fake Botox. The Energy thing also needs updating. It's message is truthful but dull. Great place to spend a chunk of time cooling off. Our kids napped there each visit after the initial fright of the dinosaurs. Some things don't need to too much. Tweak, update in the spirit of invention but don't alter the basic character of the place. That magic Kingdom ride (Take Flight?) that was replaced with Space Ranger Spin is one I still miss. I have great memories of it & so do our older kids but the younger ones only know Buzz. I also miss very much, the COLORFUL happy entrance to Small World. All that white & gold just shows dirt & grime. Hate it. Also either replace Spectro Magic with something incredible or leave it alone. It's the most ridiculous but best parade! Jiminy could be much less sappy during fireworks too. Even little kids just want to see sparked & hear 'boom,'. We don't need all that sappy junk to go with it.
AK & Hollywood are fine for now if they don't over Pixar it. Don't get me wrong. I love Woody & Buzz. Just not in every nook & cranny!

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterL montin

@Admin: in response to your second comment, the WED Imagineering nametag in the second photo is quite old. It was first used in 1965 when WED Enterprises was sold to DIsney. The nametag was used well into the 1970's. Current Imagineers wear a similar nametag that features the origina WED and Imagineering logos, but the two tags are quite unique and distinct.

May 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Myers

Well reasoned and insightful as always. Your Tolkien reference was icing on the cake. :D

I've been resigned that the WDW and EPCOT that I grew up with is long-gone. With the revamp of Tomorrowland, I knew I'd never go's too heartbreaking.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill Thompson

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