Leading With Imagination: How Disney’s Imagineering President Barbara Bouza Curates Creativity 

Have you ever wondered who the team is getting cultural details eerily spot on in Disney’s theme park experiences? 

The Walt Disney Imagineering team is responsible and part of a creative engine that designs and builds all Disney theme parks, resorts, attractions, and cruise ships worldwide. Walt Disney Imagineering embodies innovation, storytelling, and technical expertise to bring Disney stories, characters, and worlds to life, immersing guests worldwide in experiences that make memories of a lifetime. Imagineering’s unique strength comes from the teamwork and synthesis of creative and technical professionals representing more than 100 disciplines. 

Barbara Bouza is the innovative woman at the helm of the company’s creative arm. As president of Walt Disney Imagineering, Bouza, FAIA, leads the global multidisciplinary team behind creating Disney’s theme parks, attractions, resorts, cruise ships, and entertainment experiences. She previously served as co-managing director and principal for Gensler Los Angeles. In this collaborative leadership role, she brought strategic design management to highly innovative clients such as Amgen, City of Hope, Debbie Allen, JPL/NASA, and Netflix. A fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), she was the 2019 AIA Los Angeles president. She also served on the board of the Southern California chapter of the International Interior Design Association. Bouza holds a Bachelor of Architecture from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and studied in the Graduate Diploma Program at the Architectural Association in London.  

Leading With Imagination: How Disney’s Imagineering President Barbara Bouza Curates Creativity 

Most recently, she shared her perspective on inclusive leadership at the 2023 ESSENCE Festival of Culture during the Disney Parks panel, “Unveiling Disney Parks: Transforming Stories to Reality,” where Disney revealed Princess Tiana’s brand new style at ESSENCE Fest for the 2024 opening of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure – a thrilling attraction coming to Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort. We caught up with Bouza before ESSENCE Fest to learn more about her career journey, what continuously sparks her creativity, and where Disney Imagineering is headed next. 

Leading With Imagination: How Disney’s Imagineering President Barbara Bouza Curates Creativity 

ESSENCE: How did you find your way to Disney Imagineering?

Bouza: I’m a licensed architect, and before joining Disney, I was with Gensler, one of the largest global architecture firms in the world, where I co-lead the Los Angeles office for 18 years. I worked across multiple practice areas in health and wellness, sports, and entertainment. It was the fall of 2019 when Disney reached out to me.  

I started thinking about Disney and its creative programming; they have such a diverse group of stories, and besides the parks, one tends to think of the sports, and movies, including Marvel and Pixar; it just goes on and on. But what resonated for me was those early conversations I had with Disney, as leadership let me know that they are looking for someone who didn’t just design theme parks because they wanted to think much bigger. They also sought a people-focused leader passionate about health and wellness. So I decided to have a conversation. I didn’t end up taking the job, then. Fast forward to 2020, and Disney decided to close their parks. And we all know the history of March of 2020. But anyhow, Disney reached out again about a month or two later and was interested in speaking with me. I thought, “The world needs Disney now more than ever.” 

When I joined Walt Disney Imagineering in June of 2020, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Parks had recently just reopened. So there was that glimmer of hope, but certainly many challenges along the way.

Describe Walt Disney Imagineering and your visions for this organization as its President.

Starting my role during the pandemic, companies faced many challenges, such as parks opening and closing. So I set out to build our foundation. We celebrated our 70th anniversary this past year, so although we’re a tremendous, extraordinary legacy, we are very focused on the future and imagination to continue expanding Disney. So, when people ask me, “What do Imagineers do?” I respond, “We immerse our guests and experiences that make memories a lifetime.” And so when I talk about that vision, it’s really about service and how we create story-driven experiences to create those memories of a lifetime. 

How do the experiences that Disney Imagineers create connect with diverse audiences? What do you do to try to make them inspiring and memorable?

I love that question because it refers to the vision I am passionate about. Whether working with the studios or it’s an evolution of a story we created at Imagineering, we strive to ensure that we’re meeting our guests where they are, and how to do that is rooted in authentic storytelling. While our stories may be fantastical, ensuring those creating the story come from diverse backgrounds is important.

What does it take for someone to be an Imagineer? 

That’s such a great question! At Imagineering, we have over 100 different disciplines. While a lot of them lean into STEM, there are other creative areas, such as writers creating stories, painters, interior designers, architects, engineers, mechanics, and construction, leaving open the opportunity to get involved. We have a robust internship program that ensures students gain a cross-disciplined experience. I encourage the students to find out what they’re passionate about because chances are there’s an opportunity at Walt Disney Imagineering, and our program is very accessible and welcoming. 

How major is it that you are the head of one of the most influential divisions in the Walt Disney Company? How does that make you feel?

Sometimes I have to pinch myself. To spell it out more explicitly, as a licensed architect in the United States, African-American women architects represent about .4% of the profession. I could’ve let that statistic deter me earlier in my career, but I’m glad I didn’t. I see it as an opportunity to be more encouraging to ensure I am responsible for meeting with students, young designers, women, and people of all different backgrounds to motivate them to stay within our profession. I am grateful for the opportunity at the Walt Disney Company, as they honored my professional experience, credentials, and I’m so glad I didn’t let those statistics hold me back. 

What excites you most about your job?

I love what I do, but what excites me is the global nature of our practice. If you look around, Walt Disney Imagineering and even our parks celebrated 30 years in Paris and 40 years in Tokyo. Our vision here at Imagineering is to ensure we’re truly global. If you think of the history of storytelling, it exists in many places worldwide. We’re also trying to leverage best practices around construction methodology.

What are your thoughts on the new attraction, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, opening next year at Disney World and Disneyland?

I​​’m incredibly excited. I mean, in terms of how we’re looking at the figures, the story, the bayou magic, it will be stunning, and delivering it at both parks will be just transformational. 

What is one word that she would use to describe your team? And the magic that you all bring?

Innovative. I know that’s a word that’s used a lot. But our Imagineering team takes what seems impossible and makes projects magical. 

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