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'Know Your Visitor, Make Them The Stars': Former Disney Imagineering Head On Injecting Magic Into CRE


Gensler Global Entertainment Leader Bob Weis isn't a typical commercial real estate executive, and he doesn't think like one either.

The former president of Walt Disney Imagineering spent more than four decades working for the global titan of entertainment. Now he has some advice for his new industry — and constructing buildings with impact — inspired by his years in the Mickey Mouse empire: Try a little razzle-dazzle.

Bob Weis, backed by a slide of Shanghai Disney Resort, at NeoCon 2024. The three-day event began Monday.

“At Disney, we used to always say that we were about making magic real for our guests,” Weis said during his keynote speech at NeoCon 2024 in Chicago, the annual three-day conference and showcase for commercial design that kicked off this week. “The corollary to this is that we have an opportunity to make the real world more magical.” 

Weis pointed to Gensler's work on the Moody Center in Austin as one example of how the company injected storytelling, magic and local flavor into a project.

The Moody Center, which opened in 2022, replaced the Frank Erwin Center, a multipurpose arena on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin that opened in 1977 and was demolished last month. 

The Erwin Center was “an island” with no flexibility, like a fortress cut off intentionally from the city, Weis said.

The former Frank Erwin Center

When the company was tapped to work on the Moody Center, Gensler principal John Hauser, an Austin native, led the way to create a new cultural center for Austin, Weis said. The new building has an open exterior and can host a variety of events in the same venue, he said.

The new building serves the community in multiple ways, with a series of moving wall and ceiling elements, as well as screens that allow users to customize the space for everything from basketball games to concerts to graduations, all inside the same building. The structure also “opens itself to the city,” offering dramatic views of the cityscape.

“Visitors can not just see a concert but also get the drama of looking out to Austin as well,” Weis said. “The new Moody Center is an experience first for all ages. There are hidden speakeasies, there's spaces, clubs. Regional chefs are coming in with new expectations about food inside, and from every corner, guests enjoy a total experience, including art and media experience walls.”

The Moody Center

Gensler has also worked on a children's hospital in Turkey that incorporates fairy-tale elements to “take the edge” out of the hospital experience for kids and make it more playful, Weis said. The hospital features inspirational quotes on the walls and small characters in the corners to put children at ease, he said.

“What once was quite a scary and foreboding journey had the potential to become something uplifting,” Weis said. 

Weis said he has found that the places people go that they love always have an element of newness to them. Designers of CRE can take advantage by engaging visitors not just with compelling designs but also experiences that engage all of the senses, he said.

This includes smells in a location, things visitors can touch, and the sounds or music they hear. Understanding how to target experiences to their end users is key to a successful project, he said, echoing an interview he gave in early 2023, shortly after joining Gensler.

Successful immersive projects share three qualities, he said last year: creating a sense of togetherness and community, pulling people into spaces by surrounding them with the theme, the story and the idea, and giving people agency to become involved with that theme or story as if they are a player at a theater.

“Know your visitor,” Weis said Monday. “Make them the stars of their own stories.”