How I Made It: He’s the creative force bringing ‘Star Wars’ to Disney’s theme parks

Scott Trowbridge, portfolio creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, says his job is to challenge experts to combine their skills even when he doesn’t understand all of the technology himself.

Scott Trowbridge, portfolio creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, says his job is to challenge experts to combine their skills even when he doesn’t understand all of the technology himself.

(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
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The gig: Scott Trowbridge, 50, is creative portfolio executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, which makes him the innovation guru assigned to expand the $4-billion “Star Wars” franchise throughout the Disney theme parks. That assignment includes devising new “Star Wars”-inspired merchandise, food and drink ideas and overseeing the 14-acre “Star Wars” expansion that will soon be under construction at Disneyland and at Disney’s Hollywood Studios near Orlando, Fla.

Feeling the pressure: Walt Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger challenged Trowbridge and his team to build something ambitious. And Trowbridge knows that every “Star Wars” buff has huge expectations for Disney’s efforts to build a reasonable facsimile of their favorite space opera. “People have been living and dreaming about ‘Star Wars’ for 40 years, and for the first time we are going to give them the opportunity to take what they have only seen on the screen and we are going to let them walk into it,” he said. “Absolutely, it keeps me up at night.”

No rehash: The Disney executive wouldn’t spill details about the “Star Wars” project but said visitors can expect more than just a re-creation of scenes from past movies. “You will be participating in a story that literally involves you and not reliving somebody else’s story,” he said. No date for the opening of “Star Wars” land has been announced and Trowbridge said his only frustration is that he can’t open it tomorrow. “Unfortunately, ambitious plans take some time,” he said.


A Midwest boy: Trowbridge grew up in St. Louis and got his first taste of Disney when he visited Disneyland with his family, at the age of 7. His second trip to California came when he moved to Los Angeles to study film at USC. He later realized that creating theme park attractions combined his love of film and theater. “I was the worst 7-year-old to visit the park because I was constantly thinking, ‘How did they do that?’”

Hello Kitty: After college, Trowbridge responded to a help-wanted ad from Landmark Entertainment, a Pasadena company that was helping design a Japanese theme park for Sanrio Co., owners of the Hello Kitty franchise. “They shipped me out and gave me a job that was beyond my experience,” Trowbridge said. After a few years of seasoning, Trowbridge jumped in 1992 to Universal Parks & Resorts’ R&D division. There he helped develop the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the first ride to combine moving vehicles with synchronized film projectors and 3-D technology. That ride won a Golden Ticket award for 12 consecutive years from Amusement Today magazine. He also oversaw early development of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure in 2010.

Making a dragon fly: The biggest challenge is to create something never seen before, he said. Trowbridge, hired by Walt Disney Imagineering in 2007, recalls being asked to create a flying, fire-breathing dragon for a 2012 publicity event at the opening of Walt Disney World’s Fantasy Land. “When someone says ‘It’s impossible,’ that’s what gets me going.” Trowbridge wouldn’t say how he accomplished the task but news reports explained that the dragon was carried aloft by a manned ultralight vehicle, which wasn’t visible at night from the ground. “None of this is easy,” he said. “The hard part is making it look easy.”

Re-creating film magic: Trowbridge calls himself a fan of George Lucas and James Cameron but said the famed directors have complicated his job by fashioning on-screen worlds that people want at theme parks. “The expectations of our guests are increasing exponentially,” he said.

Be the dumb guy: Creating spectacles like the flying dragon means bringing together top engineers, electricians and pyrotechnic experts, among others. Trowbridge said his job is to challenge the experts to combine their skills to finish the project even when he doesn’t understand all of the technology himself. “My job is to constantly be the dumbest person in the room and surround myself with people who are experts,” Trowbridge said.

Harry Potter versus “Star Wars”: Universal Studios Hollywood is set to open the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on April 7 — an attraction nearly identical to the Orlando project that Trowbridge worked on briefly. Industry experts say the Harry Potter land is sure to be the biggest theme park draw in Southern California, at least until Trowbridge’s “Star Wars” expansion opens at Disneyland. But he brushes off suggestions that the two parks are gearing up for an arms race. “I don’t think of it as a competition,” Trowbridge said, adding that the technology used in both projects “raises the bar for the entire industry.”


The final test: Trowbridge has a simple test to determine a ride’s success. “The most rewarding thing is when I stand at the exit of a ride and I watch the faces and see how many people run out of the exit and run into the entrance again.”

Twitter: @hugomartin


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