The Walt Disney Company has been synonymous with creativity, innovation and imagination for nearly 100 years and have excelled at building the teams that have helped make Walt Disney theme parks what they are today. Disney Imagineers, as they’re called, are the individuals responsible for the creation, design and construction of Disney theme parks worldwide.
Over the years, as it happens with every profession, many Disney Imagineers have departed the company and have gone on to pursue other passions. One such former Imagineer is Ryan Harmon, current President and Chief Creative Officer at Zeitgeist Design and Production — the company he founded back in 2011 — which was borne out of Harmon’s curiosity.
“In the mid to late aughts, the term ‘zeitgeist’ became very popular to describe the spirit of the time, trends and what people were into,” Harmon said. “The term ‘tap into the zeitgeist’ meant to look at what’s happening out there. Because my personality is such that I’ve always been curious about those things, and I am continually traveling the globe to experience the latest immersive entertainment, theater, concert, museum, resort, or retail experience, I felt that the moniker was apropos for my new company.”
While Harmon is no longer a part of the Walt Disney Company, he does draw on those tried and true fundamentals that were responsible for creating some of the most well-known and memorable experiences and attractions. In fact, Harmon says the goal of the company was — and still is — to carry on the Walt Disney Imagineering torch. Zeitgeist conceives and designs experiential entertainment in the way that succeeded at Disney for some 60 years, producing the most successful and beloved theme parks and attractions on the planet.
Unfortunately, something that has plagued the theme park industry for a while now has been the over-reliance on existing media, such as movies or TV shows, which many believe has taken away the quintessential storytelling that was always at the center of theme parks.
“We didn’t always copy stories, characters, or situations from existing movies or TV shows — we created our own based on great human experiences,” Harmon says. “And we follow a logical process that results in the very best product, with contributions from some of the most talented and experienced designers in any creative industry. Those things continue at Zeitgeist.”
Harmon also says that while they do love to create IP-based experiences as well, they’re “often more excited to start from scratch.” One thing that is important to note is that the team at Zeitgeist is not made up of industry novices or individuals that have few or no industry credits. Rather, it is comprised of an “all-star” team of mostly senior-level Disney Imagineers who have collectively conceived, designed, and built over $12 billion in incredibly successful and beloved theme parks and immersive attractions. Simply put, there is no “B” team at Zeitgeist.
One such member of this all-star team is Joe Lanzisero, Executive Vice President and Chief Art Director at Zeitgeist, who spent 42 years at Disney. During that time, he was responsible for over $9 billion in built projects, including Mickey’s Toontown at Disneyland, Toy Story Land, Mystic Point and Grizzly Gulch at Hong Kong Disneyland, and dozens of classic Disney rides, shows, and attractions in the parks and aboard Disney Cruise Ships.
Having been a part of so many of these iconic projects, the Zeitgeist team is also very much aware of the possibilities that new technology provides when conceiving new ideas for these “out of home” experiences. One such technology is augmented reality, or AR, which combines the real world with computer generated content.
“Augmented reality is a new tool, just like Pepper’s Ghost is, that can be used to create an experience required by the story being told,” Harmon says. “It works great in a high-tech setting like Universal’s new Mario Kart ride, and it could be amazing in a Haunted Mansion-style attraction. Ultimately, once the technology is capable of real time photo-real renders in a standard pair of glasses, we will see entire mountain ranges, volcanoes, flying pterodactyls and other amazing visuals in an outdoor setting. But that could be decades away and we’d still have issues with battery life!”
Regardless of where the future is headed, one thing that’s for sure is that the team at Zeitgeist will continue to imagine, design and create. With the years of industry experience and knowledge that the company has, led by Harmon and Lanzisero, there’s no limit to what they can do.
“This is not something you learn in a class — you have to be born with this fascination and some measure of talent and skill, mentored, thrown out in the field, learn from your mistakes, and succeed enough that you become a master at your craft,” Harmon says. “Everyone we work with was born to do what they do. For many of us, it’s all we’ve ever known.”