I’ve written at length about the success of Pixar and how they leverage the power of storytelling to create hit after hit. So, it should come as no surprise that I am a massive fan of the Toy Story franchise.
During my time as Head of Innovation and Creativity at Walt Disney, I had the pleasure of working on many wonderful Toy Story projects. However, there was one project that stood out more than any other…a project so special, so meaningful, and so challenging, it took my team to infinity and beyond: Sending Buzz Lightyear into space…literally.
Our Mission: Making Buzz’s Dreams Come True
The year was 2008, and our team was deep in the process of planning one of the most anticipated Disney Parks launches in many years: Toy Story Midway Mania! With the attraction opening at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland just weeks apart, we were tasked with finding innovative ways to promote the new experience.
Now at Disney, it’s not uncommon for Cast Members (what other businesses would call their employees) to spend their time dreaming. In fact, Walt himself was a self-identified dreamer. To him, there was nothing that could stand in between a man or woman and their dreams. So long as they were determined, there was always a way to make it come true. As he famously said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
As my team and I dreamed of ways to promote the new Toy Story attractions, we realized that one of the heroes of the franchise had a dream themselves. From the very first moment audiences laid eyes on Buzz Lightyear, he made his intentions known. A well-trained Space Ranger, Buzz was clear: he wanted to return to space, and he wanted to fly.
Since I was a little boy, I have been obsessed with the exploration of space. And so, I couldn’t help but focus on this dream of Buzz. Though in the movie he does eventually learn that he’s a toy, and comes to grips with this reality, he never did, in fact, have the chance to fly.
My team and I wondered: what if we could somehow make Buzz’s dream come true? What better way to promote this amazing new Disney experience than by helping a beloved Disney character realize their dream?
The idea was sown. It was time to get Buzz into space…
Stretching the Idea
In my Imagination Emporium Innovation Workshops, I teach a tool called “Stretch It,” which was refined during my time at Disney. This is a tool utilized at the beginning of any innovative project and helps teams understand the full scope of the project, ensuring it is neither too broad nor too narrow.
In our case, we knew the idea of “sending Buzz Lightyear into space” was too broad. So, we asked ourselves the two core questions that make up the Stretch It Tool: How are we going to do this? And why are we doing this?
The first question was relatively simple. How are we going to do this? Well, there are only so many ways to get something into space. We realized our best shot would be starting at the top: asking NASA for Buzz to hitch a ride on the upcoming STS-124 space shuttle mission. But why are we going to do this? Well, that was a little bit more difficult to answer.
Our team was smart enough to know that “promoting a new Disney attraction” was not going to be incentive enough for NASA to partner with us on this project. We needed something bigger than us. Our group began discussing how much NASA and the space program meant to us, as we all bore witness to some incredible moments, such as the moon landing, the harrowing Apollo 13 journey, and the first shuttle launch. However, we knew that interest in space exploration had been waning over time, and this was creating challenges for NASA, especially when it came to securing funding from Congress.
We realized that sending Buzz Lightyear into space could serve as a way to revitalize interest in NASA’s exploration. Our aim was to use this partnership as a means to introduce a new generation of kids to space travel, and to build interest in STEM skills for youths across the country.
Using the Stretch It Tool, our project went from a broad “send Buzz into space” to a much more refined “With the help of NASA, send Buzz Lightyear into space to promote STEM skill development, and create a new generation of space exploration enthusiasts across America.”
With our idea scoped out, it was finally time to pitch it to the powers that be. When the day arrived, I entered a conference room filled with dozens of top Disney Executives and heads of NASA. Some of the brightest scientific minds on earth were all sitting around this table, and I was about to ask them to let a toy tag along on their next mission into space. Intimidating is too small a word for this.
But deep down, I kept reminding myself of the endless pursuit of the “impossible” dreams. I knew I had to give it my all. And so, I proceeded to make my pitch.
When I was finished, it was immediately clear that at least half the men and women sitting in the room loved the idea, but no one wanted to stick their neck out and say so. The other half wanted to throw me out of the window without opening it!
After what felt an eternity, the NASA Commander seated at the head of the table finally spoke up:
“Well,” he started, “if we’re going to bring Buzz into space, we’ll have to take him on a spacewalk.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had just pitched literally the most “moonshot” idea of my career, and it actually worked! NASA was in!
Buzz Lightyear’s Dreams Come True
On May 31st, 2008, at exactly 21:02:12 UTC, the Space Shuttle Discovery took off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Listed on the passenger manifest was the one and only Buzz Lightyear.
Mission accomplished – we had sent Buzz into space!
Buzz went on to spend a whopping 450 days in space at the International Space Station, returning home on shuttle mission STS-128. During his time in space, he completed all sorts of missions, each of which was documented online for kids and parents across the country to study in real time. We also developed all sorts of video content, six interactive online learning games, and even a patch design contest, where one lucky winner’s design became a real-life NASA mission patch to commemorate Buzz’s journey.
The results were phenomenal. Kids fell in love with “Buzz in Space,”, and NASA created a whole new generation of enthusiasts and supporters. And for our team at Disney, there was incredible publicity and excitement surrounding Buzz’s journey, and in turn, the opening of our new Toy Story Midway Mania. It was the perfect win-win scenario!
The mission was such a success, that upon his return Buzz was asked to retire at one of the most prominent places in the country, and was put on display at the one and only Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It
I, like many Toy Story fans, cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of pride and nostalgia thinking back to this amazing project. Sending Buzz Lightyear into space felt like an impossible task. But with an incredible team, and the lessons of Walt Disney himself serving as the wind in our sails, we made it happen. The dream came true. Not just for us, but for Buzz, Disney Parks, NASA, and little girls, boys, and parents everywhere.
It’s important to remember that some of the most incredible innovations across all of time were considered outrageous, strange, impossible, or all of the above at one point or another. Putting 10,000 songs in your pocket? Laughable at first…until Steve Jobs made it a reality. Sharing your car or home with a complete stranger? Never…until Airbnb and Uber made it commonplace. Having anything you want delivered right to your front door with a few taps on your phone, connecting with anyone, anywhere, at any time free of charge, accessing millions of hours of content with a few clicks of your remote; all of these “outrageous”, moonshot ideas were impossible–until they weren’t!
If you can dream, you can do it. You just need to get started. Soon enough, you’ll realize that it’s possible for anyone to reach “To Infinity and Beyond!”