Pixar-Neering: An Interview With the Minds Behind The Magic

Posted by Sasha on Monday, June 10th, 2013

Pixar Animation Studios

What happens when you cross Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering? Answer: the Theme Parks Department at Pixar, headed by Liz Gazzano and Roger Gould. While small, this department has the mighty responsibility of helping Imagineers faithfully bring Pixar stories to life within Disney theme parks. As Executive Producer of Theme Parks, Liz oversees the use of Pixar IP in Disney Parks and Resorts, supervising attraction design and animation production. Roger, Creative Director of Theme Parks, wears many hats – including art director, animation director, and writer – to help make Pixar stories a physical reality.

Liz and Roger act as part-time Imagineers, traveling to Imagineering’s headquarters in Glendale several times per month to review mock-ups and concept storyboards. Liz explains, “The Imagineers bring us in as early as possible during the brainstorming process to integrate Pixar magic with Disney concepts.” Once an attraction reaches the final leg of construction, Liz and Roger help make sure everything comes together during show integration.

EntertainmentDesigner.com had the opportunity to visit Liz and Roger at Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, CA, to learn more about their unique “Pixar-neering” roles.

Pixar Theme Parks Department

Liz Gazzano, Executive Producer of Theme Parks

Pixar Theme Parks Department

Roger Gould, Director of Theme Parks

How did the Theme Parks Department come about?

Roger: There’s always been a good connection between Pixar and Imagineering, starting way before Pixar even existed, when John Lasseter worked as a Jungle Cruise skipper in Disneyland.

After Pixar’s first movie “Toy Story” came out in 1995, the Imagineers wanted to bring some of the characters into a parade at Disney MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios) – Lasseter couldn’t believe that his characters were going to be in a Disney parade. After that, the Imagineers were building “It’s Tough to be a Bug” in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park at the same time as Pixar was making “A Bug’s Life” – in fact, the attraction was ready before the movie was, and the characters for “It’s Tough to be a Bug” were even finalized before the movie characters.

Its Tough to be a Bug Theater

As time went on, anytime Imagineering needed animation done, they kept coming to the Animation Shorts Dept. where Liz and I worked and we helped out in our off time. It wasn’t until “Turtle Talk” at EPCOT that our current relationship with Imagineering kicked off. Disney had just greenlighted three more big projects: Nemo and Friends at EPCOT, the Monsters Laugh Floor at Magic Kingdom, and the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage in Disneyland. I pointed out to Lasseter that we needed someone to be consulting full-time, and suggested myself for the job.

What are some of the challenges of bringing Pixar worlds and characters “to life” in the Disney theme parks?

Liz: Once of our biggest challenges is figuring out the scale. Most of our movies don’t have people as main characters, so our challenge is to answer: who are we as guests? Where are we in time and space? How do we make this believable? For example, in Cars Land, we had to figure out how humans fit into the car city of Radiator Springs. And for Toy Story attractions, we have a similar challenge: why would the toys be alive around a human audience, when toys go limp around people in the movies? Sometimes we just don’t mention it and allow guests to suspend disbelief, allowing them to become honorary cars and honorary toys.

Roger: (chuckles) You get very honored in Pixar rides.

It’s also a challenge to convey the story authentically. Our guests have a strong emotional connection to our characters, but they don’t read stories – they’re so immersed in the physical environment that they don’t necessarily realize what the storyline is. Our goal is for an attraction to be simple, clear, and coherent in a way for people to say, “I was there.”

What project has been the most challenging?

Liz: Cars Land has been the biggest challenge because everything was larger, all-encompassing, and highly detailed. Between media, animatronics, design, restaurants, rides and all the facets of the land, it was a lot to cover and took about 6 years.

Roger: When Pixar and Disney first merged, John said, “The first thing we have to do is fix California Adventure Park. It’s an unworthy sister to Disneyland.” When Cars Land was about to open, we all expected to be proud of the project, but what I hadn’t anticipated is that the guests would be proud. People love Disneyland and they think it’s theirs – it’s not a product that they consume, they own it. On opening day of Cars Land, I was in Flo’s getting an iced tea and this woman I didn’t even know turned to me, needing to say to the nearest person, “Oh my god. For the last 3 years I have been looking over that construction fence, dreaming of this day, and hoping that it would live up to my expectations. And when that fence came down and I went in, I cried because this is what I dreamed it would be.”

Cars Land, Disney's California Adventure

How do certain Pixar characters and stories get picked for Disney attractions?

Liz: It’s a complicated process. The first question Disney asks is, “Does a park have a need that fits the concepts of a particular Pixar movie?” For example, does a movie lend itself well to a family ride, and is there a park that needs a family ride? Demographics determine a lot of the decision – whether the concept fits in with the nearby attractions and properties, and whether the local market supports a particular movie. Lots of ideas are thrown around at Imagineering, and there are probably 200 ideas for every 1 that gets executed.

Roger: We get surprised all the time. We’ve learned not to get too excited at the beginning because ideas can get shelved. Take “The Incredibles,” for example: to the public, it seems like we haven’t explored this movie as a potential attraction, but there have been lots of pitches – it’s just that none of them have gone anywhere yet.

What’s on the horizon for Pixar attractions?

Liz: The Ratatouille Ride is coming up in Disneyland Paris, which is a 3D dark ride as well as a land and a restaurant. It’s a mini version of Cars Land, but with more media.

Roger: “Monster Summer” is also coming up.

Ratatouille Dark Ride location: Disneyland Paris
What do you love most about working in the Theme Parks Dept.?

Liz: What I love most is the variety. Each job is a different science experiment, and touches on a range of disciplines from live action theater to animation. Sometimes we’re helping to build animatronics, and sometimes we are producing CG animation. We end up using all of our skills in every project we undertake.

Roger: Producing Pixar attractions requires us to go back into the films, and going back into these stories is like visiting old friends. If we do our job right, the characters feel so alive in the theme parks that people feel like they’re watching the extended story of the movies. It’s so much fun to take the same characters and films and bring them to life in different ways. “Finding Nemo,” for example, started with the interactive show Turtle Talk, and then came the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, and most recently, Crush’s Coaster in Disneyland Paris.

Crush's Coaster Disneyland Paris
Do you have any funny stories to share?

Roger: When we first visited Toy Story Mania in Florida, we were going through the queue to the loading area, all of which is designed to be Andy’s bedroom, and suddenly John Lasseter stopped and gasped, “I’ve never been in Andy’s room!!”

Liz: When we did Turtle Talk, before we started to understand the vernacular of Imagineering, we were talking about materials and carpeting and such, and the Imagineers mentioned “magic circles.” We were like, “What’s a magic circle? Is that some kind of award?” For Turtle Talk, little kids sit on the floor. Turns out, when little kids sit on the floor and get excited, they sometimes have accidents – magic circles are pieces of carpet that they throw down to cover the floor in-between shows.

Roger: It’s a sign of success when you get a magic circle!


Today, is seems as if Pixar-themed attractions have begun to catch up to the classic Disney animations in terms of park representation. The list of Pixar-related attractions includes dark rides (such as Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters and Midway Mania), roller coasters (Crush’s Coaster), floats, parades (Pixar Play Parade), cruise ships, live shows (World of Color), and entire theme park lands (Toy Story Playland and Cars Land). While we lament the fact that more and more exciting new Pixar attractions are opening overseas and out of reach for U.S. fans, it’s exciting to see how universal and widespread Pixar stories have become.

Brave from Pixar

Merida from the Pixar movie “Brave” spotted in the Pixar Animation Studios parking lot


image sources: insidethemagic.net, geektryant.com, wdwtourguide.com

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