In January, Gensler announced that Bob Weis, former president of Walt Disney Imagineering, would be joining the design and architecture firm as leader of Global Immersive Experience Design. Weis joined the Disney Imagineering team in 1980, immediately after receiving his BArch from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Over the course of his 40-year career with the media and entertainment juggernaut, Weis led more than 200 major projects around the world from Shanghai to Tokyo and Paris, including Disney theme parks, resorts, and cruise ships. In his new role, Weis will collaborate with Gensler project leads to design unique experiences for clients across a variety of spaces, including entertainment, lifestyle, hospitality, retail, sports, mixed-use, cultural institutions, and workplace environments.
Weis spoke to RECORD about his unique career, the value of storytelling in architecture, and his goals for his new role at Gensler.
Tell me about your architectural education—how did it lead you to Disney?
In college, I split my time between the theater and architecture departments. I spent a lot of time learning storytelling—scenic design, lighting, and projection—because I was stimulated by all of that as well as by architecture. When I went to architecture school, it was pretty white-box and Modernist—it’s much different today. I found my own balance between the richness of theater and the rigor of design school. I was lucky because I happened to be in school when Disney was rapidly expanding. They were going to do a big project outside the U.S. for the first time in Tokyo and also Epcot…they brought a lot of young people out of design schools for the first time.
Weis (left) during the construction of Tokyo Disneyland in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy Bob Weis
Was there ever a point where you were drawn to a more traditional path in architecture?
Everything that Disney does is part of a built environment. It’s just driven by storytelling more than traditional architecture is. Throughout my career, I’ve worked closely with very talented architects. I had the great luck during my Disney career to be there when Michael Eisner took a big step up in terms of the quality of Disney's buildings outside the parks. I got to meet some of my icons from architecture school—Charles Moore, Michael Graves, Bob Stern, Antoine Predock, Aldo Rossi—and had a lot of chances to talk and sketch around the table with them, which was a unique opportunity I probably never would've gotten otherwise.
What are some of your favorite projects you worked on with Disney over the years?
Oh, it’s like having favorite children. I worked for seven years on Shanghai Disneyland [opened in 2016], which is like its own city. It was just a huge piece of property that we were able to plan from the ground up, and with [Disney CEO] Bob Iger’s enthusiasm and guidance, reinvent all the traditional aspects of Disneyland in a new culture.
When the company acquired Lucasfilm, we undertook two Star Wars projects at the same time, one in Florida, one in California. And there was this lab project that the Star Wars group brought to me when I was president of Imagineering. They said, ‘We have an idea to do a hotel, but it’s going to be like a cruise ship in space—we want it to feel like you're truly living in this Star Wars world. The timeline got pushed up and down because of Covid, but [Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser] opened last year, and it brings together hotel design with scenic and storytelling design as well as technology and live theater.
Looking back at your career with Disney, what do you think your biggest legacy is?
My career is so much about collaboration. I really pushed for everybody to consider themselves creative. There was never a creative group and then everybody else. Everybody who came to the table had to come with a sense of story, a sense of creativity. I've never found any design or any problem that couldn't be solved by getting a group of diverse people around the table. It's usually a high-pressure environment but being able to function in that kind of very creatively charged world is something that I love doing. I love that what you come away with is nobody's idea, it’s everybody's idea.
Weis in an undeveloped area of Walt Disney World in Orlando, late 1980s. Photo courtesy Bob Weis
What new opportunities are you looking forward to now that you’re a part of an architecture firm?
First of all, Andy [Gensler co-CEO Andy Cohen] and I had been wanting to work together for a long time—we had worked together on projects at Disney, but we wanted to do so more comprehensively. Obviously, I had a great career at Disney doing cruise ships, parks, and resorts, but here I find myself being able to dabble in large-scale sports stadiums and in residential projects. There are cultural projects, museums and theaters that are closer to my park background, but it's very exciting to think about designing experiences for people that are a part of their regular lives.
Can you tell me more about the work you’ll be doing in your new role?
I'm focused on two or three main buckets. There are a lot of projects underway that have growing interest in experiential design and how it can help in connecting to guests. For example, there’s the sports world, where stadiums and arenas are becoming much more of experiences in themselves. There's also a big industry where entrepreneurs and talented people are trying different kinds of experimental, immersive experiences–like in warehouses or pop-ups. At the same time, there are mixed-use and retail projects around the country looking for different kinds of anchors, especially post-Covid.
Are there any specific projects you can talk about?
It's a little early, but I can say that they are exciting because it's like looking at a new field. The idea of immersing people in the sights, sounds, smells, and the feelings of a place has been around for probably as long as we've been storytellers. But today we're at this juncture where you suddenly have the technology at your fingertips and people who want to engage the public deeply. We’re in a time where we can leverage that as a unique tool in the way we think about space, cities, and places where we live.
Photo courtesy Bob Weis
Looking to the future, what are you most excited to contribute to?
There’s great entertainment technology and immersive experiential design that’s already been developing within Gensler. I'm excited to reach out and bring in a new set of collaborators that may not be in a traditional architecture office: writers, media producers, artists, and directors. At this juncture, I think the architecture world would benefit from thinking about storytelling more. After all, going back to Leonardo DaVinci, architects are great storytellers, right? But we must be very consumer-facing and think about the visitor and what their story is, and how they will experience a space through the lens of their own personal history. We have to recognize that we are part of communities. The more architects can connect emotionally to our visitor, the more they will bond with the places that we create.