Celebrating #HispanicHeritageMonth – A Conversation with Susana Tubert

From the Disney Parks Blog and written by: Michael Ramirez

Today marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, a time for us to celebrate the stories, cultures and contributions of Latinx individuals both inside and outside of our company. Walt Disney created Disneyland as a destination for everyone to feel welcomed. Today, our dedicated cast members are committed to ensuring that Walt’s legacy lives on by celebrating inclusivity among our cast and through the experiences we provide to our guests.

One of our talented cast members who plays a pivotal role in these efforts is Susana Tubert, Creative Director, Disney Parks Live Entertainment, who is based at the Disneyland Resort. We were fortunate to spend some time catching up with Susana about her work and some of the ways that her team has developed cultural celebrations that our guests know and love in our parks. 

A Conversation with Susana Tubert

Can you tell the Disney Parks Blog readers more about your background and career journey? We know you’ve had an impressive career prior to joining Disney!

Thank you for that! Yes, one could say that my career has been a long and winding road. And yet, when I recently celebrated my seventh anniversary as Creative Director it became clear to me that all of the career opportunities I experienced prior to joining Disney prepared me for this wonderful leadership role at the Disneyland Resort.

I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I began studying dance when I was five years old and piano by age seven. Moreover, I was greatly influenced by my grandmother Cecilia, an accomplished artist – and a woman ahead of her time – who moved to Paris in the early ‘20s to study sculpture and painting with the great Masters. I must credit her fearlessness for inspiring my own!

In 1980, shortly after my family and I immigrated to the U.S., I settled in New York City with big dreams of becoming an actress, but the roles for Latinx performers back then were even more limited than they are now. So, while the search for my big break-out role continued, I trained extensively as an actor while I performed in Off-Off Broadway shows, bilingual TV commercials, and in original musicals which I wrote and composed for an experimental children’s theater company.

A decade later, eager to have more control over my life and art, I decided to reinvent myself by turning to directing. I was one of six emerging directors to be recognized with a Theater Communications Group/National Endowment for the Arts Directing Fellowship. That prestigious award led to so many incredible opportunities developing and directing award-winning plays and musicals in NYC and at major regional theaters, while I also produced and directed a short film.

In 2005, I was invited to craft the mission of a non-profit producing organization and its high-profile festival of groundbreaking theater from New York, Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain. Within a year and a half, our joint fundraising efforts paid off, as the Latino International Theater Festival of New York, Inc. had garnered support from major corporations, city and state officials, international governments, as well as media sponsors.

When in 2007 Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the inaugural TeatroStageFest, the event took the city by storm! It featured an exciting line-up of theater, dance and puppetry performances, master classes, panels, concerts, TeatroStageFamily programming and a playwriting competition for high school students. Between 2005 and 2013, I curated and executive produced seven culturally diverse festivals that reached thousands of multicultural and multigenerational folks who came together to experience “Great Theater for ALL Audiences!”

When it was time to draw the final curtain on TeatroStageFest, I chanced upon an online description of a job opening at Disney that would mark the beginning of a new chapter in my life. Four interviews later, I went from the Big Apple to the Happiest Place on Earth! I relocated to California to step into my role as Creative Director at Disneyland Resort and, as of this year, also at Walt Disney Imagineering.

We’d love to hear more about your role as Creative Director, Disney Parks Live Entertainment and what it entails.  

As Creative Director, I oversee development of new entertainment concepts and shows, from the page to the stage. My role is to guide and inspire teams of hugely talented show directors, writers, designers, choreographers and composers on show content, design and execution of sets, lighting, audio, costumes, video mapping and music production. The Live Entertainment team collaborates on projects large and small, often with partners across the company such as Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Studios and more. The scope is ever changing and can include multimedia and fireworks spectaculars, parades, festivals, stage shows, atmosphere entertainment and character experiences, as well as special events produced together with the tremendously skilled Park Operations teams.

What are some of the new experiences you have led while in your role?

I have been fortunate to be at the creative helm of many signature entertainment offerings across the Disneyland Resort and beyond.

The team and I are really proud of the work we did on “Together Forever – A Pixar Nighttime Spectacular” and other experiences for Pixar Fest, as well as the Frozen Fun celebration, Pop-Up Disney! A Mickey Celebration in the Downtown Disney District, Disney Princess Breakfast Adventures at Napa Rose and of course, our contributions to the Disneyland Resort Diamond Celebration, to name a few.

With support from executive leadership, we’ve also had the opportunity to expand our entertainment experiences at Disney California Adventure park with inclusive and immersive cultural celebrations, including most notably, “Disney ¡Viva Navidad!,” Disney Festival of Holidays, Princess Elena’s Musical Grand Arrival, Plaza de la Familia, Lunar New Year Celebration and “Tale of the Lion King.”

In your role, you’ve led the Disney Parks Live Entertainment team in the development of new cultural celebrations that reflect the diverse guests who visit and love our parks. Can you share how you and your teams combine Disney stories with cultural relevancy to reach park audiences?

Over the past few years, Disney has produced an array of wonderful new movies and TV shows that reflect diverse cultural narratives — from “Black Panther” and “Mulan” to “Moana” and “Coco,” to name a few. What a perfect time to celebrate the universal values of these Disney stories and characters that have been traditionally underrepresented!

The first of these shows that the Live Entertainment team developed in 2013 was a Latin American holiday celebration for Disney California Adventure park that could complement its Christmas offerings. It was a great opportunity to develop a celebration that could be both culturally authentic and uniquely Disney.

“Disney ¡Viva Navidad!” invites our guests into a heartwarming Christmas street party that is hosted by Panchito from Mexico, José Carioca from Brazil, and, to the delight of everyone, Donald Duck, Mickey and Minnie who love to join their amigos in music and dance. To ensure that the show felt genuine, our team worked on infusing every aspect of the production with an authentic cultural perspective.

The vibrant Disney Festival of Holidays expands on the creativity of “Disney ¡Viva Navidad!” through the inclusion of additional holiday festivities that entertain and educate – Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa and Three Kings Day, in addition to Christmas and Navidad.

Given the success of this immersive model, the Lunar New Year Celebration has also grown as it commemorates Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese traditions, and features “Mulan’s Lunar New Year Procession” with Mulan, Mushu and other beloved Disney characters, who are joined by Chinese performers.

“Coco” inspired Plaza de la Familia at Disney's California Adventure park

Additionally, the Oscar-winning Disney and Pixar film “Coco” inspired Plaza de la Familia, where the everlasting bonds of family and the spirit of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated, and guests can write and post messages to their loved ones at the Tree of Life. A tribute to the film’s main character, Miguel, is recounted in “A Musical Celebration of Coco” as guests join the singing storyteller, dancing townspeople and Mariachi Divas on a journey from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead where Miguel gives his first performance surrounded by dancing skeletons. Last year, with the premiere of the live action film The Lion King, we developed a new adaptation of Simba’s beloved story called Tale of the Lion King. Told in the style of musical story-theater, the lead narrator Mwongozo (“guide” in Swahili) and the ensemble of 18 performers known as “Storytellers of the Pride Lands” stepped in and out of their characters to share a story that, in our own show’s mythology, had been handed down from generation to generation. Through an intensive process of research and collaboration with various cultural consultants, the show captured the spirit of African heritage through its musical arrangements, costumes, scenic elements, and props.

I am extremely proud of all the magical ways in which our Live Entertainment team brings to life these unique cultural celebrations year after year. They speak to park guests who love telling us know how moved they are to have their children see themselves reflected in our Disney stories!

And building on that last question… of all the experiences you’ve led here at Disney, what project stands out to you the most – either because it was the most challenging or the most impactful?

I would have to say that one of the most challenging and yet most rewarding projects for me was the creation of the fireworks and multi-media production “Together Forever – A Pixar Nighttime Spectacular” in 2018. It was my first time leading development of such a large-scale project. The show involved dazzling pyrotechnics in the sky, projections, special effects, a memorable musical score and a heartwarming story celebrating “friendship and beyond,” the theme of that year’s Pixar Fest at the Disneyland Resort.

From day one, the team and I knew we wanted to create an ode to the heart of Pixar. It was important for us to capture what makes Pixar films unique, and to show how they are driven by an emotional component that makes audiences fall in love with them for life! We set out to immerse guests in a full story with a beginning, middle and end, by curating a video montage that showed the five stages of friendship in so many of Pixar’s films: when characters first meet, fall in like, set out on adventures, overcome obstacles together, and in the end, forge everlasting bonds.

One of the most impactful moments of the show connected to the movie “Coco.” The moment involved a castle projection of Miguel looking up to the sky as a bridge of marigolds made from gold fireworks appeared above him. Upon strumming his guitar, Miguel and our guests found themselves transported to an immersive fiesta in the Land of the Dead where colorful skeleton townspeople partied on top of the rooftops up and down Main Street, U.S.A. It was colorful, festive, and inspired many guests to shout the traditional Mexican grito during this section of the show.

The second moment that lingers in my mind was towards the end of the spectacular. Every night, when the guests heard the first few notes of the theme song from “Up” and discovered Carl Fredricksen’s little house flying over the castle attached to a bundle of balloons, it prompted an audible gasp from the audience as the emotions overtook them. Sometimes getting right a simple and poetic moment in a show can be the hardest thing. But thanks to the dedication of John Addis, our talented show director, and the music producers, designers, and production team at large, it worked every single time!

Finally, if you could give advice to young creatives aspiring to do what you do one day, what advice would you give?

I would tell young people to first find their passion, then gain experience in multiple art forms and train to develop a solid craft, so they can be ready when opportunity knocks. I would also share the same life philosophy that my grandfather Carlos shared with me as a young girl. He taught me to persevere in the face of adversity by telling myself, “I already have the ‘no’ so I may as well go out there and look for the ‘yes’!”

With each new challenge we grow closer to the artist and individual we are meant to be. Looking back at the arc of my own career, I know that by having the courage to walk away from a “no,” I was able to pivot and either intentionally walk towards, or unexpectedly stumble upon, the next “yes!”

At Disney, creating entertainment that reflects our audiences, guests and fans from around the world is a critical part of telling the best stories. Looking ahead, as we continue to listen, learn, imagine and create, we look forward to sharing more stories of our amazing cast members who bring these important experiences to life. We also invite you to be a part of the month-long celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month as we share digital activations, #DisneyMagicMoments and more – follow along on social media using the hashtags #HispanicHeritageMonth and #DisneyFamilia!

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