Scott Trowbridge (Ep. 39)
BY Future of StoryTelling — June 10, 2021

Disney Imagineering Studio Lead and Creative Portfolio Executive Scott Trowbridge discusses his work on the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land at Disneyland and Disney World, what it means to be a Disney Imagineer, and what it takes to design immersive experiences that will be visited by tens of millions of fans.



Available wherever you listen to your podcasts:


Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Google Podcasts  |  Stitcher  |  iHeartRadio



Additional Links:

• Watch Scott's FoST Film

• Watch a panel discussion with Scott about building immersive worlds at Disney

• See Galaxy's Edge for yourself



Episode Transcript


Charlie Melcher:

Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of the Future of StoryTelling. Welcome back to the FoST podcast. My guest today is Scott Trowbridge, a studio leader at Disney Imagineering and the creative portfolio executive overseeing the Star Wars franchise. It's Scott's job to bring the stories of the Star Wars universe to life for nearly 40 million fans who visit Disneyland and Disney World every year.

Scott's very humble, so allow me to do just a little bit of bragging about him. In the world of experience design, there are few people who match his stature and prowess. Before joining Disney he designed rides and experiences for Universal, where he led the team that created the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride. That ride won Amusement Today's Golden Ticket Award for best dark ride 12 years in a row before it was finally dethroned in 2011 by Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a ride that was also designed by Scott and his team. It says a lot when the only person who can outdo you is you.

Since joining Disney, Scott has vastly expanded his scope and ambition. He's no longer designing individual rides. Now he's designing entire worlds that you can explore for hours on end, filled to the brim with individual stories and experiences. Scott's latest project, Galaxy's Edge, is the largest single-theme land expansion in Disney parks’ history, covering 14 acres. It's an astonishingly immersive and detailed step into the Star Wars universe that everyone who's interested in experiential storytelling, Star Wars, or just having their minds blown should absolutely visit. Scott is a giant in the field of world-building and experience design whose work is constantly breaking new ground and raising the bar. I am thrilled to welcome him to the FoST podcast.

Scott, it is really a delight and pleasure to have you on the Future of StoryTelling podcast. Welcome.

 

Scott Trowbridge:

Thank you very much. I'm excited to be here. I love what the folks that are part of this community do. In addition to being a participant, I'm a fan, so I'm excited to be a part of this community.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Thank you. Thank you. Well, you are the perfect FoST member, really. Your background was theater, film. I think you've done some improv. And then you moved into theme park design and experience design. So first of all I love everything that you have done in the past, all the things that made you who you are today, and I'm really interested in that experience you had of going into experience design at theme parks and joining Disney... That was a bunch of years ago now. And becoming an Imagineer. Was that a good fit for you? And then the second part of that question is what the hell is an Imagineer anyway?

 

Scott Trowbridge:

That is a great question. My path towards becoming an Imagineer might not have been so circuitous if there had been a clear, "This is a job you can do." But as a kid in high school, growing up in the Midwest in St. Louis, they didn't know about immersive experiences or immersive entertainment. And so that's why I ended up in the worlds of film and theater... Both of which I love, but it was really trying to circle around this idea of creating more immersive experiences. Real context, and the energy that comes about when you're having an experience in a space with other people, that spark that's happening right then and there that theater brings you, I loved both of those. And I just didn't know that it was possible to do them both at the same time until I stumbled into that world of immersive experiences later. And of course I think that world has also grown tremendously and continues to grow, which is so exciting.

 

Charlie Melcher:

And so Disney is the gold standard, right? They were the early success and just hundreds of millions of people it feels like have been through Disney parks. And what was it like, again, becoming an Imagineer? What is an Imagineer? And tell us a little bit about the history of that at Disney.

 

Scott Trowbridge:

So Imagineering actually... I think the reason why it is successful in this realm is if you think back to the very, very beginnings, it started off as Walt Disney's personal private skunkworks creative think tank and research lab. All of the things that were being done in those very, very early days back in the early fifties were around creating the tools and the technology to allow a stronger personal connection to the stories that he was telling at the time and the characters that were populating those stories. Find ways to create experiences that allow people to get closer to characters, to be more immersed in the stories, and to travel to places they couldn't possibly be really going but somehow they are.

And our tools have changed. Our techniques have changed. But that core mission and mandate I don't think has changed. It's all about how do you immerse people more into these stories? And if you think about the term Imagineering, it is imagination and engineering, and that's exactly... We bring both of those things to the process we use. So we have everything from people who are experts in computer science, whether it's AI or image creation or real-time rendering all the way to sculptors, writers, music composers, and then all of the folks who just make it happen, the technical expertise, the project management expertise, the financial expertise, that allows us to create these projects that range from the very, very small to the very, very large.

And today we have Imagineering offices literally across the world that are all still focused on that core mission of find cool stories to tell, find new, cool ways to tell those stories and then create the tools that allow us to do that.

 

Charlie Melcher:

You were doing this kind of immersive work before you joined Disney. I know you've worked with some of the world's most beloved and successful IPs, intellectual properties, like Spider-Man, Harry Potter. And now of course you're overseeing Star Wars. I'm just wondering when you set out to design an immersive experience around one of the world's most beloved and recognized IPs, how do you go about doing that? Where do you start?

 

Scott Trowbridge:

I think the answer is very carefully. When you're working with these beloved and super well-known story worlds and in-character sets, you definitely feel the weight of the expectation of the fans on your shoulders and you really, really, really want to take that duty of care seriously. In my... I'm going to put this in air quotes. "Career." Because I'm not quite sure if that's what it counts as because it's still... I'm not even entirely sure that this is a real job. And being given the opportunity to play in their universe or to extend their universe has been amazing.

There's nothing more stress-inducing than pitching a story back to these creators with their characters that they've created and they've been living with for years and to basically say, "I have an idea. What if we do this and..." I will say that for the most part being able to extend this world and to expand the world in many cases and be able to find ways to invite more people into these story worlds and to fall in love with the stories or to connect with them personally or to connect with the characters personally, I think there hasn't been a situation where that hasn't been met with anything other than A) concern we're going to do it right, but B) enthusiasm about us expanding those worlds. We're doing that for sure with Star Wars right now, where we are expanding that world in pretty significant ways, which is very exciting.

 

Charlie Melcher:

And you start with the core of the world, of the story, right? Or the IP. You're trying to start with, "What is it all about? What are the highest level considerations?" Once you get that set it helps to dictate a lot of other decisions. Is it starting from the inside out or is it the opposite? You come up with a ride idea and then you fit it to the characters and the world? Where does that start?

 

Scott Trowbridge:

Yeah. It's a great question. And I do feel like in order to successfully expand or represent these worlds or to create stories... And not just inside these story worlds, but any good story, you've got to start with, "What is this really about? And what is this really about for the audience member, for the participant, for the listener, for the viewer?"

When we started looking at what Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge... Which is our single largest themed land expansion we've ever done at Disney, a land devoted to an immersive Star Wars experience. Our first question wasn't actually where should we go or what attractions should we have. The first question was, "Who are we in this universe? Who are we in this galaxy?" Because that audience POV, that audience perspective, has to be... For an immersive participatory experience it has to be the first question.

Are we in this? Are we viewing? Are we a camera? Are we a character? Is the world aware of us? Those are the first questions you have to start with and then everything builds out from that. At least that's the way... I won't say that's the only way to approach it. I'll say that's the way that I typically approach it.

 

Charlie Melcher:

And that makes sense to me in that immersive experiences is shifting that paradigm from traditional third person where you're watching something, watching a movie, watching television, to first person where it's about you. You're the hero. You're making your guest the center of the world. When you do that, what are you trying to really elicit for your guests? What kind of emotions are you going for? Is there a conscious thought about a hero's journey for that guest?

 

Scott Trowbridge:

Yeah. I think there's nothing wrong with an experience that you are a spectator and that you're a third party viewer. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. We've got some great experiences that allow you to re-engage with stories that you already know and stories you already love and be reminded about those stories and be reminded about why you love those characters or that moment or that thing that happened or that location. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think that what we do today, though, in addition to that is we're creating experiences that make a different invitation, that make a different proposition, which is that invitation to engage in an invitation to play and to participate.

My hope is that when we are successful at creating experiences that do invite you in and allow you to engage and allow you to bring yourself to it... Or the version of yourself that you want to be, which might be a slightly different version of yourself. That we can give you opportunities to play in that world and to cause you to have connections to the content, I'm going to say, to the situations, that allow you to reflect on things, that allow you to make choices, that allow you to model behavior that hopefully will rise above just the, "That was cool!" And get to the point of, "Oh, wow. I'm having an experience that hopefully is causing me to think about things or causing me to experience things in a way that edge towards transformational versus just fun."

It all has to be fun, but on top of fun we're aiming for transformational. I know we've been successful in some of these things when I see people cry. And we're not always aiming to hit that mark, but I think that's got to be in the mix, to have those emotionally resonant and important experiences that really cause people to feel like they've had an experience.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I can say from my own experience that when I've had something like that transformational experience that I find it incredibly eye-opening. Sometimes I think about my life a little bit differently. And I always want to share it with other people. It's super memorable. I don't forget it. It's a story I can retell over and over again. Anyway, I just think of those as some of the other maybe signals of having successfully created that kind of moving immersive experience that I know that you're looking for.

So give us an example. What is a conscious design that makes something experiential for a group?

 

Scott Trowbridge:

I'll tell you the example that really solidified this for me and it was actually a theme park experience where... We have these in our Disney parks. Other parks have them as well. They're those round raft rides, those whitewater raft rides. It's all about the person sitting across from you. It is all about, "Where's that waterfall coming next? And how's this thing going to spin around? And who's going to get splashed next?" And all of the fun, all the laughter, the screaming, is happening between the people, right? Not between the people and the environment and the people and the experience, but it's all happening with those people. And for me that was this, "Oh yeah, of course this is what makes this so special, so magical."

We've tried to take that same idea and build it out in a more story-driven way in experiences like in our new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land, we have an attraction based on flying the Millennium Falcon ride called Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run. And that whole thing is you and your flight crew, up to six people, in that cockpit really taking the controls. It's a real-time based experience that is... Your success or lack thereof... However you choose to define success because success is not always fun. Sometimes those are different. Is really in the hands of you and your flight crew. And we encourage shouting and yelling and laughing between the members of your flight crew and cooperation between your flight crew. Because it's all about the experience that you're having.

There's nothing I like more than being a fly on the wall in one of those cockpits filled with a family of people that are just having the time of their life and yelling and screaming and sometimes obscenities, but they're just having a ball with each other. They're having a ball with each other, not just at the same time.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I read you said in some article the expectation of your guests are increasing exponentially. And it made me think that you're in a kind of arms race with people's not just expectations, but imaginations. I do wonder about that challenge just because you're working in bricks and mortar. You're working in things that have to be built. It takes years to develop your Galaxy's Edge experience and 14 acres and millions and millions of dollars. And it's not the kind of thing you can just reinvent next week. It's a huge job to be able to look around the corner like that.

 

Scott Trowbridge:

It is. I think that that is not new though. That is something we've always been doing, is to be building things that have one eye over the horizon towards where things want to be. Because yeah, you're right. These things, they take a long time to build. They're very expensive. But they're also unique. In this world of options that you can get in your living room or in other places, there is a limit to how immersive those things can be today.

Until we get the chip implants and we get the full body suits and we get the who knows what else, there's a limit to how much you can suspend your disbelief when you're staring at a rectangle in your living room. And one of the things that we do in our parks is we're thinking about all of the details. And we're bringing it to life with all of the senses. Yes. What you see, what you set, what you hear, the sound design of a place... There's things in the Galaxy's Edge sound design that I just think is so fantastic. The way things smell, the texture that you're walking on, the texture of things you're feeling, all of that registers. And it doesn't even all register consciously, but you just register it even subconsciously as reality, as the way you would expect it to be.

And it's less that you recognize, "Oh, there's a texture on the ground that I'm walking on that has just changed as I transitioned from this area to this area. I wonder what that means. I wonder what caused that." I don't think you're thinking about that consciously, but you're registering it subconsciously. And if it were absent you'd feel it. It's more of the things you feel than you think about, those little details that just make things... And we really try to sweat those details because I think they really matter.

 

Charlie Melcher:

So you mentioned smell. What are smells at Star Wars? What is a Star Wars fragrance?

 

Scott Trowbridge:

Fragrance and taste are so very, very aligned. And one of the amazing things that we have is we have a staff of creators that that's all they do, is flavor and fragrance design. An amazing culinary team that is creating all the beverage concoctions and the food that exists there and then thinking about, "What are the fragrances that are going to bring this to life? What does an alien planet smell like? What does the interior of a spaceship want to smell like?"

It turns out that... We also try to do a lot of research as inspiration. And in talking to some of my acquaintances who have been to places like the space station and other locations like that, it turns out that we probably don't want to actually recreate the smells apparently that come from long-term human confinement in a tin can. But we play our version of what we think those things should smell like.

One of the things that's important in Star Wars lore is this concept of blue milk, which we saw in that very first A New Hope, that very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, when Luke is drinking blue milk. That was never really described what that was or what it tasted like. It was just this thing, but it became anchored in fan culture about, what is blue milk? So we knew that we were building a real Star Wars location that we needed to figure that out. We needed to have an offering for blue milk and have it be the real thing. And then maybe it's a taste profile and a texture profile and a mouth feel that you've never had before.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I'm just curious. Traditionally theme park experiences are rides or a rollercoaster or a dark ride and you were on a fixed rail. There wasn't a lot of choice. There wasn't a lot of agency. How have you thought differently about that in your design to really allow for the opportunity for different levels of engagement? Some people who don't want to and some people who are ready to spend their lives there?

 

Scott Trowbridge:

I think that the idea of a completely emergent narrative where when I as a participant make a choice, now it opens up all of these things. Like, "If I go through this door there's a spaceship there that might take me to this other place," and completely ignoring all this other stuff. That idea of completely emergent, completely independent choice-based long-form narrative, it's something we're working on. It is not something I think we have completely solved in order to do it at any commercial scale. That core idea in Galaxy's Edge where you have the power to make choices, your choices matter, but your choices have consequence... We've expanded that now.

We're in the final stages of building a new experience at Walt Disney World that is called Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. And instead of spending just a couple of hours immersed in the world of a Star Wars story, this experience invites you to spend a couple of days in a immersive Star Wars adventure where you're living, eating, sleeping, drinking all inside this built story location that takes the idea of how you see yourself, who you choose to align yourself with, the choices you make, the things you do, are determinate on how the story in front of you plays out. And so we're continuing to grow down this path of more immersiveness, more personalization of experience, more agency in the experience, and more options for what that agency looks like. You can lean in and play hard if you want or you can just lean back and just watch. I'm not aware of anybody who's done anything like this on a commercial scale before-

 

Charlie Melcher:

People are going to lose their minds. They're going to be out of their minds. First of all, sign me up. I want to be in the first set, but just the idea that we could go and live in the world with Disney quality attention to detail and production and story and character... It's everyone's fantasy of being able to actually be in the movie, to live in the story world. I can't wait until I can join you there.

 

Scott Trowbridge:

Well, I can say we have announced that it will be opening in 2022. So I will say we're in the home stretch of building a spaceship. The experience all takes place on a Star Wars version of a cruise ship.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Can't wait. Remind me of some of the things that are so unique to the art form that you work in, which is theme parks and experiences there. One of the things that I've thought about is that in some of the best theme park experiences I've had I've lost track of a sense of time. You're creating experiences where we drop out of being conscious of time and we're in a flow state or awe state and we think it was much longer than it really was. It might've only been 90 seconds or two minutes or something and I think I just spent 30 minutes in there and I'm exhausted.

 

Scott Trowbridge:

Disney's in the unique position of we are the designer, developer, operator, maintainer, sustainer of all these things. I think we do have a benefit in that as this owner-operator, we can involve story and experience design in ways that I think are unique to us. We can design the role of the cast member, the person who is working in that curio store or that person who's working behind the bar in that cantina. We can work with those folks to develop their characters and who they are in that world and how they're going to then engage with our guests, which I think really helps bring it to life and brings a level of authenticity and a level of immersion that is... I think it's fun.

 

Charlie Melcher:

So where do you see theme park experiences headed? What are the next set of big challenges for your industry?

 

Scott Trowbridge:

The challenges are also not new. The range of experiences that you can get at home are growing and growing. And so we're asking you to make a big commitment to come to one of our parks. We're asking you to get in a car and drive someplace or get on a plane and fly someplace and we have to make that worth it. And I think we do, but we have to continue to earn that. We have to continue to earn that this was worth the difference in commitment between turning something on in my living room and getting here.

And I think our challenge is going to be to continue to earn that. And not just earn it in the models that people know, but to ideate new models and to innovate new forms of experience that might not look like a... I'm going to put this in air quotes. "A theme park," but an immersive experience that looks different. Galactic Starcruiser does not look like a theme park. It looks very different. Other things that we have in development look very different. Still just as immersive, still playing on Disney's strengths of immersive design, great characters and stories, and amazing delivery and service. All the trends that have allowed for these other experiences to exist are the same trends that are allowing us to do things different and differently than what we have done before. So that's terribly exciting, that expand the model or that go into even whole new territories.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Yeah. I think you're right. You could look at it as the stakes are higher, but on the other hand you could look at it as there is a bigger audience of people who are hungry for Imagineering or who are hungry for the kind of craft and skill that you and your colleagues have. And they're more educated now. They're going to be a better fan base if you will. And they're going to be even more receptive to the kind of magic that you all can pull off or provide.

 

Scott Trowbridge:

I sure hope so. It isn't just about accessing an audience that is more engaged, but also engaging an audience that might not typically have participated in this kind of experience. Around the world we're very mindful of making sure that the experiences we're creating or finding ways to create... Including the commercial models that support them. At the beginning of our chat I said we always think about, "What is the theme? What is this really about?" And I feel like that's really important for us to stay mindful of.

At the heart of these things I believe that when we create experiences that invite you in, that you can play in this environment and you can model behavior and you can try versions of yourself and you can do different things and you can imagine a world that is bigger and different than just the one that is before you... It is those people who can imagine a different world that are going to actually create a different world. Modeling behavior of possibility, modeling behavior of potential and agency and empowerment at any age, from three years old to 93 years old... We do things in our lives that we've been able to model in play.

And so finding opportunities to provide those opportunities is what's going to help a global population of people be creators and be innovators and to see beyond what's presented as just, "Well, this is the..." Not to see a wall, but to see a door in that wall. So I think at the heart of it that is a mission we have.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Beautifully said. And I would love to just have us end on that. And thank you, Scott, for being here and for the great work you do. And just one last request. Sign me up for the starcruiser. I can't wait to go on a galactic adventure with you.

 

Scott Trowbridge:

The folks at Chandrila Star Lines who run this and the glamorous star cruiser the Halcyon... I have it on good authority that they're preparing for some new adventures very, very soon.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Great. Well, FoST is going to be there in full force. Thank you, Scott. Great to speak with you as always.

 

Scott Trowbridge:

Great to speak with you. And again, I just want to say that I appreciate... As a consumer of these experiences and a fan of these experiences, I'll just say thank you to all the other folks that are making these advancements and doing these things to create new opportunities and new forms of experience around the world and all the different ways of doing it. Because selfishly I want more of them.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I hope you enjoyed this episode. And if you'd like to hear more, please subscribe to our podcast and share it with a friend. I'd like to extend a special thanks to Scott Trowbridge for this wonderful conversation. You can find a full transcript of it as well as a selection of links to explore more of Scott's work by visiting the link in this episode's description.

The FoST podcast is produced in collaboration with our talented production partner, Charts & Leisure. FoST also produces a monthly newsletter that curates a selection of articles, upcoming events, and original content showcasing the cutting edge of storytime. To join our community and subscribe to the newsletter please visit fost.org/signup. I hope you'll join us again in a couple of weeks for another deep dive into the world of storytelling. Until then, please be safe, stay strong, and story on.