ESI Team

How Disney Uses Technology to Create Magical Experiences

February 22, 2023
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On the 17th episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, hosts Evan Reiser (Abnormal Security) and Saam Motamedi (Greylock Partners) talk with Diane Jurgens, CIO of The Walt Disney Company. Disney is an American multinational entertainment and mass media company, with pioneering experiences in film, TV, theme parks, and more. Today, Diane shares how Disney uses technology to create magical experiences for their guests, next-generation innovations that are reimagining film production, and her best practices for building a culture of innovation. 

For its entire existence, Disney has been at the forefront of developing and deploying some of the most innovative technologies for film and television production. As Diane describes it, their latest foray into post-production capabilities is rethinking how green screens and virtual environments work. Whereas traditional screen green technology forces a certain imagination when shooting, StageCraft allows the creation of real-time virtual environments so actors and directors alike can have a better sense of what’s being shot: “With Stagecraft, you have these physically constructed partial sets that allow the directors, actors and the camera operators to position themselves accordingly. Then you have a much more expansive virtual reality set with models from different cities, different countries, and even different worlds, and shoot live to that. It allows actors to see and visualize what they're actually shooting in; it's unparalleled creativity to render this in real-time.”

Another area where Disney is deploying innovative technologies is in their theme parks, which are world-renowned destinations visited by millions of people each year. A key theme is ensuring a magical experience for every guest while being mindful of not letting technology take away from the spectacle. Diane shares a striking example of Disney utilizing next-generation animatronics to create experiences that even her own family couldn’t believe: “My nephew loves Spiderman and we were recently at Avenger’s Campus. Spiderman comes out and interacts with the audience and then he crawls up high on the building and does a major flip in the air and lands on another building. Our Imagineers actually have designed and built animatronics; both my brother and my nephew absolutely could not believe that was not a person.” Far from being a distraction, Disney is harnessing technology to delight guests and even make them believe the impossible is happening right before their eyes. 

Disney has long been known for its exciting and innovative rides at many of its resorts, and Diane shares insights on how technology is creating more unpredictable and engaging experiences for guests. Far from the basic linear motion of a traditional roller coaster, Disney is incorporating next-generation trackless vehicles into their attractions, enabling guests to move backward, side to side, and even spin. Since their theme parks are very interactive, it’s imperative for technology to enhance the experience while not getting in the way.

As one of the largest media companies in the world, Disney’s technology organization is oriented toward customer-centricity and consistent innovation. Since joining the company two years ago, Diane has played a crucial role in developing a strong culture on her team. A recent initiative was the company’s 2022 Innovation Challenge: “For my team, I believe giving people time to innovate is really important. Our 2022 Innovation Challenge, for example, really encouraged our team members to submit ideas, and then it was really self-curated. We could go on, we could vote, and also ask questions. And after the voting, then a cross-functional team got together and looked seriously at all these ideas for business value versus ease of use, cost; a bunch of dimensions. The projects [that were voted on], those teams now have a commitment from myself and my leadership team to give them the space and the resources to make those ideas real.” By empowering her team and seeking innovation across all team members, Diane is developing a forward-thinking culture within the IT organization at Disney.

Collaboration with startups is another area where Disney’s focus on innovation is on full display. Diane shares how Disney’s Accelerator Program enables the company to foster meaningful connections with startups. Each year, a group of startups is selected to participate in the program, where they get actionable feedback on the applicability of their technology from Diane and other executives at the company. The program culminates in “Disney Demo Day,” where the startups share real proof of concepts. This past year, the company launched the Disney Music Emporium, a virtual experience built by one of the startups in the program. As Diane describes it, “the Accelerator Program goes from big picture thinking to connecting [the startups] to practical problems with executive sponsors, and then to demo days that often lead into commercial opportunities with Disney.” For a company like Disney, staying at the frontier of technology has been a hallmark for its entire existence, and the Accelerator Program enables that to continue successfully.

Listen to Diane's episode here and read the transcript here.