Watson was described as the quintessential imagineer: someone who was both creative and technically savvy. Those who worked with him said he left his mark on scores of Disney’s theme park attractions, from Indiana Jones to Soarin’ Over The World to the upcoming Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge.
“He had a million ideas and was just a brilliant person to be around,” said Phil Lelyveld, who worked on projects with Watson over his 10-year tenure at Disney and now runs the Immersive Media Program at the USC’s Entertainment Technology Center, a think tank within the school of Cinematic Arts. “He came up with a number of novel ideas for the theme parks and other things in Disney, but he also had the technical skills to prototype them.”
The 55-year-old executive held 45 patents that spanned a range of innovation, from a new approach to theme park ride vehicles to an apparatus for rendering 3D computer-generated graphics in real time, to a system for delivering an enhanced interactive TV broadcast, in which the video broadcast to one screen is enhanced by a simultaneous content delivered to a second device.
“I remember Scott pitching me the concept of live interactive television, showing me a demo and jokingly referring to it as ESPN ‘The Ocho,'” Amazon Studios COO Albert Cheng recalled on Facebook of his time as digital media head at Disney’s ABC Television Group.
Watson was intimately involved in the development of Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride, an early virtual reality trial at DisneyQuest in Orlando, Florida. The trial, which lasted from July 1994 through September 1995, yielded key findings about how to tell stories in virtual reality, according to an account in the VR newsletter Upload.
One former Disney Imagineer, Mike Peterson, recalled how Watson stayed cool under pressure in one anecdote he shared on Facebook about the Aladdin VR attraction.
“I remember the night before opening, when he had a serious bug to fix, and he took a break to play a video game. Some managers would have screamed … ‘Get back to work! We have an opening tomorrow!’ Fortunately, our manager knew enough to leave us alone to concentrate on our projects,” Peterson wrote. “After the break had cleared his mind, he fixed the bug and the show opened on time. He was a truly unique and amazing person, who died doing what he loved.”
Digital 360 Ventures Principal and former Sony Pictures executive Mitch Singer, who knew Watson from industry standards work, recalled his love of Burning Man festival.
“He was adventurous and really enjoyed life. Funny always laughing. And the more you learned about him, the more you realized that he was the brains behind a lot of Disney projects,” Singer told Deadline. “I had an idea once and I was filing a patent with Sony and the patent counsel called me and said, ‘Do you know Scott Watson?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He filed the same idea a few years ago.”
Disney didn’t respond to Deadline’s request for a comment about its long-time executive. However, Disney Imagineering President Bob Weis issued in a statement to ABC News mourning his loss.
“The Walt Disney Company is stunned and saddened by the loss of our long-time friend and colleague, Scott Watson,” Weis said. “Those of us who worked with Scott during his nearly 30-year career at Disney knew him as a humble genius who made making magic look easy. Our hearts are with his family during this difficult time.”