Scot Drake imagined and built the company’s most futuristic attraction.
If you have young children, you probably know how tricky it can be to explain your job to them. (“Mommy is an investment banker” doesn’t mean much to a 5-year-old.) But for Scot Drake, little explanation is required. His three kids understand very well that Daddy builds roller coasters for Disney (DIS) in China.
Drake, the executive creative director of the Walt Disney Co.’s (No. 53 on the Fortune 500) Imagineering division, moved his family to Shanghai three years ago. His mandate? To oversee the construction of Tomorrowland, one of six “themed lands” in the soon-to-be-opened Shanghai Disney Resort. At a cost of $5.5 billion, it is without question the Mouse House’s most ambitious park to date.
Indeed, everything is bigger at Shanghai Disney, which features the tallest and largest Enchanted Storybook Castle of any Disney location (and the first-ever pirate-themed land). Drake’s section of the resort is a futuristic city first developed by Walt Disney himself at the original Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. When the first Tomorrowland opened in 1955, it represented the future as the year 1986. Building a Tomorrowland for the 21st century, especially in a city like Shanghai, was a very different undertaking.
“The biggest challenge we had was, ‘How do we tell the story of Tomorrowland in a city that is already the city of the future?’ ” Drake asks. “This pushed us to think differently on all levels.”
With a population of about 24 million and a skyline boasting some of the world’s newest and tallest skyscrapers, Shanghai has become a model of modernity and a hub for finance and tourism. Disney’s massive resort, slated to open on June 16, sits on nearly 1,000 acres in the city’s Pudong District. For Drake, even a portion of that massive sandbox in mainland China means plenty of room for creative thinking.
“This was the opportunity to design what an optimistic future looks like,” says Drake, 39. “We wanted to showcase humanity, nature, and technology in perfect harmony.”
The pinnacle of that vision is the Tron Lightcycle Power Run, the fastest coaster Disney has ever built. (For those unfamiliar with the Tron franchise, “lightcycles” are two-wheeled, motorcycle-like vehicles that create trails of colored light. They were first featured in Tron, the original 1982 film.) The track for the Tomorrowland ride is 966 meters long, and the cable and wiring required to run it could circle Shanghai 37 times.
“We got to do this Tomorrowland in a new way,” Drake says, “with cutting-edge tools and technologies that didn’t exist when Walt built the original.”
The brainstorming process was straight out of the Disney founder’s playbook, however. Imagineering, launched by Disney in the 1950s, brought together interdisciplinary teams of creative specialists to come up with new experiences for the company’s theme parks. In 2009, when Disney CEO Bob Iger first tapped Drake to lead the Shanghai Tomorrowland project, the Imagineer convened architects, designers, roller-coaster engineers, and other experts to drum up ideas. Once the team narrowed down their “what-ifs,” as Drake calls their ideas, they got to work on the details. In this refinement stage, the group decided which ideas would become reality and which disciplines would address different tasks. Ride designers and engineers began work on the coaster system. Interior designers and landscapers drew up blueprints. Throughout the process, Drake says, they continually met to stitch the pieces together and ensure that everyone was on the same path.
Drake’s team also devised whiz-bang attractions like a jet-pack experience (fledgling pilots are actually tethered to an orb) and a color-shifting canopy. To get a better sense of their creations before they were built, the group made use of Imagineering’s virtual reality room at the company’s headquarters in Southern California. Drake and company were able to walk through their city and even ride the coaster before ever setting foot in Shanghai.
Top: Drake and his imagineers used 3-D design tools, like this immersive projection room to envision and refine Tomorrowland’s design before any construction started on site; Bottom: Along with his vehicle designer, Derek Howard, Drake used full size mock-ups to refine the design of the lightcycles.Photos: Courtesy of Scot Drake; Chris Lee—The Walt Disney Company
“The secret sauce of Imagineering is how all of these things come together,” Drake says. “This is not a tech showcase, but it has more technology than you can possibly believe.”
Years after its inception, Shanghai’s Tomorrowland is ready to welcome its first visitors. It has been a long and costly ride. Iger intended to open Shanghai Disney by the end of 2015 but had to push its debut to this summer, reportedly due to construction problems and design changes. (Disney blames an “expansion plan” for the delay.) The $5.5 billion park is a joint venture between Disney and Shanghai Shendi Group, a consortium run by the city’s government.
There is much at stake. Disney has grown and diversified under Iger’s tenure, but subscriber numbers at its ESPN cable television network have recently slipped. Disney’s media networks division, which includes ESPN and ABC, is its largest unit. Its parks division is its second largest. With Iger set to retire in 2018, that means the fate of the Shanghai park could define his legacy.
On the one hand, competition will be fierce. In an interview with a TV network, billionaire Wang Jianlin, whose Dalian Wanda Group runs competing theme parks, vowed to make Shanghai Disney “unprofitable.” On the other hand, the Disney park could be its ticket to selling more rides and content (from Star Wars to sports) in China.
Drake is bullish that Shanghai Disney and its Tron roller coaster will be a hit—and not just with kids.
“It was an exciting day when we finally got him on it,” Drake says of CEO Iger’s maiden run. “He loved it.”
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A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Building Tomorrowland.”