Disney Gurus Mix Movies, Electronics to
Create New Toys
October 30, 2008
GLENDALE, Calif. — You can't get any more inside Disney
On the walls of a hush-hush conference room deep inside
the Disney Consumer Products headquarters are sketches
of toys-to-be for a year from now, the start of the 2009
holiday season. A team of eight Disney big thinkers
gathers to brainstorm about toys that mix technology and
This is Disney's new toys-of-the-future swat team:
Toymorrow has been top secret, and it's a first for a
reporter to sit in on a toy-planning meeting. This isn't
just any brainstorming. It could be the future of toys
for Disney — and everyone else.
"We used to sit down and ask ourselves, 'Is this a toy
or a consumer electronic?' " says Chris Heatherly, the
Disney vice president who heads the Toymorrow team. "But
that was a super-silly thing to ask. You can't draw
those neat and tidy lines any more."
Disney's toy gurus are trying to toss some serious pixie
dust in the face of the economic meltdown. Even before
the current crisis, the $22 billion toy industry had
been flat for years. To pump some oxygen into the
market, the Mouse House is trying to magically erase the
already fuzzy lines between toys and tech products.
It has to. While 2008 may not be a terrific holiday for
pricey toys, electronic toys are the toy industry's new
heartbeat, says Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of
TimetoPlayMag.com, a website with toy-buying advice. Ten
years ago, fewer than two in 10 educational toys
involved electronics, he says. Now, nearly 80% do.
This is even though electronic toy sales fell 3% last
year after jumping 26% in 2006, according to researcher
NPD Group. That said, sales of Internet-connected toys
continue to surge — more than tripling — in the past
year, NPD says.
"If you don't want to be left behind, you have to
embrace technology," says Vince Klaseus, senior vice
president of Disney's global toy division.
Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products, says
he sees that even with his 2-year-old daughter, Rose.
"She's equally at home playing with wooden blocks as she
is fussing with my iPhone or my wife's BlackBerry."
Much as Disney uses its Imagineers to bring buzz to its
parks and films, it wants similar over-the-top ideas for
toys from this Toymorrow group of designers and
But big ideas can come with big price tags. One of the
first efforts from this formerly secret development
project emerges this week: its $249.99 Ultimate Wall-E
robot, which can follow the sound of a human voice and
even detect someone entering a room. Also rolling out,
however, for a whole lot less, is a $29.99 Clickables
Fairy Charms starter set. Aimed at 7-year-olds, it has a
necklace, three charms and a USB-connected jewelry box
for Internet play.
"There is a virtual toy revolution," says Laurie
Schacht, co-publisher of The Toy Insider, a toy-buying
guide, "and Disney is at the front of it."
Taking toys to next level
Disney was on the leading edge earlier in creating
kid-friendly TVs, DVDs and MP3 players, but the
competition lapped it in taking such items as digital
cameras to the preschool level. "We were unsure if
parents would let kids that young have a digital
camera," says Heatherly.
Disney had to play catch-up, and the 18-month-old
Toymorrow team is charged with making sure that never
During this 90-minute session, the group brainstorms toy
ideas for the October 2009 re-release of Toy Story in 3D
and February 2010 re-release of Toy Story 2 in 3D. On
the table: how to "plus-up" two Toy Story toy concepts
on the drawing board — a dancing alien robot and a Buzz
Lightyear robot. "Plus-up" was founder Walt Disney's
term for taking a Disney product to the next level. It's
the mantra for the Toymorrow team.
Leading the session is Ken Ong, a robotics expert, who
acts as emcee and idea guru. Ong, head of research and
development for Toymorrow, stands at an easel with a
felt pen and scribbles down the ideas that come flying.
He had opened by showing the group a shelf of robotic
toys already on the market. The group's task is to move
well beyond them.
First up: the dancing alien.
On the table is a prototype toy based on Toy Story's
three-eyed alien-with-attitude. This one is programmed
to dance to tunes downloaded to it, in this case, Elvis
Presley's Viva Las Vegas.
"What can we do that makes this better?" Ong asks. He
looks at his watch, then gives the group 15 minutes to
Asks Brian Godlewski, a senior designer at Disney Toys
who works on toys inspired by Disney-Pixar movies, "Does
it have to do the same dance to all music?"
That leads Len Mazzocco, senior vice president of global
creative at Disney Consumer Products, to propose online
dance contests and online voting.
Jieun Kim, manager of interactive design, offers, "What
if the robot could mime whatever dance you do?'
That leads Heatherly to suggest a way for the toy to
"remember" the dance done by its owner. Or, Kim
suggests, what if it could remember your voice and
perform any dance you named?
Or maybe, says Heatherly, there could be a series of
collectable aliens, with each doing a different dance.
Better yet, he says, the alien mimics, via interactive
gloves for its owner, whatever dance the owner does.
Just a few years ago, all this would have been
pie-in-the-sky. But this think-tank's engineers and
designers know every one of these suggestions is doable
now. The only question: At what price?
For this toy, they want it to be less than $50.
Visualizing aliens and robots
Time's up. The group spends the next 15 minutes
brainstorming a $100 Buzz Lightyear robot for 2009. Then
Ong divides the group into two, and sends one to another
room. Each group has 10 minutes to sketch an image of
the toys they've been discussing to bring an idea to
Dominique Brown, the manager of global creative, is
given the job of sketching the Dancing Alien for his
group. He creates an alien whose eyes shift and knees
bend, and that comes with interactive gloves for its
When the groups reassemble, Randal Ouye, a product
design senior manager, is asked to pitch and explain the
"Show Me Moves Alien" his group has created and named.
He dances the way he suggests the alien should dance,
and the room breaks into applause.
But the applause could be for naught. A year from now,
the wacky alien toy on the sketch pad could be a
best-selling toy — or may never have gotten off the pad.
The next step in the process is for members of Disney's
research and development department to consider the
toy's plausibility. Then, Disney's top toy executives
must sign off. Finally, they need to find a licensee who
can actually make the thing.
From brainstorm to store shelf
That was the path followed by this year's big hope:
It was before Disney formally created and named its
Toymorrow think tank, but a similar meeting about two
years ago came up with the Wall-E robot concept. Disney
toy dreamers wanted the robot to show all kinds of
emotions: happy, excited, scared, even sad. Emotions had
to show on his face so he appeared alive.
"What makes him special is all the movement in his
face," says Heatherly. "Even his eyebrows go up and
down." The robot comes with a remote control on which
each button shows a picture of an emotion or movement.
Press the button, and Wall-E responds. Disney licensee
Thinkway Toys was able to accomplish this by stuffing 10
motors into the robot.
But in addition to the licensee, Ultimate Wall-E was
"touched" by 50 folks at Disney at one time or another
before it made it onto the shelf.
"We want our toys to be as special as a Disney movie or
a Disney theme park," says Heatherly, which is why
Toymorrow was formed. "Before, when we'd do brainstorms,
and someone would ask 'How do we do it?' " says
Heatherly, "the answer was always, 'We don't know.' "
Solution: Boost the brainstorm mix to include engineers,
computer geeks and designers.
With that mandate, the Toymorrow team was created 18
months ago during a meeting of 100 Disney executives at
the Bel Age hotel just off Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard.
The group came up with 75 big ideas in two days.
The Toymorrow team now is made up of eight experts who
meet monthly. It dreams up products to roll out within a
year to 18 months. It looks for ways to extend brands
such as the Disney Princess line. And it tosses around
long-term R&D concepts.
For example, says Heatherly, what if Disney toys could
sense your feelings and respond to your brain waves?
In a hallway at Disney Consumer Products, a video screen
flashes a photo of founder Walt by this quote: "I look
at the world with uncontaminated wonder."
Could be Toymorrow's motto.
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