Elevate the Design: An Interview with Alumna Laura Sanden Cabo

October 14, 2021

Laura Sanden Cabo (M.Arch ‘83), AIA, creates Disney magic on the seas. As a portfolio creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, Cabo is entrusted with leading the teams that envision and execute the creative development of almost everything under the Disney Cruise Line umbrella. In our latest alumni interview, Cabo talks about applying her architecture skills to a non-traditional career and what designers can bring to the table at any company.

How does your work at Walt Disney Imagineering differ from your experiences at an architecture firm?

Scale. In every way. Storytelling through design has always been the focus from my first job as a junior designer at RTKL in Baltimore, in which I designed something as small as a graphic sign to commercial mixed-use projects, and then onto GUND Partnership in Cambridge, MA, where I led transformative designs for the Cleveland Botanical Garden, The National Association of Realtors Headquarters in Washington, D.C., to countless theaters and art-based projects.

Laura Sanden Cabo
Alumna Laura Sanden Cabo

I would say the power of design to represent a client mission or a brand has been the same goal wherever I have worked, but at Walt Disney Imagineering everything has global impact: storytelling, innovation, collaboration. Our brand consists of vast characters and rich stories to draw from and that we are tasked to evolve in new and diverse ways.

Walt Disney Imagineering is also the original and only design think tank formed by Walt Disney himself and built upon the optimism of design to deliver upon making wonderful family memories and to ultimately touch millions of people across the world. Imagineering is the creative force for our theme parks, attractions, cruise ships, and resorts. These are at a world-building level and are technically complex, immersive, and entail collaboration at a level I have only seen at Imagineering.

And at the same time, our globally impactful designs are built upon resonating with each and every guest at a personal level. I love that we can reach out to experts from Pixar, Marvel, ESPN, Walt Disney Animation Studios, or to our own Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development team. We work with partners like these on interactive technology, Audio-Animatronics figures, rockwork, aeronautics, consumer products…you name it!

Plus, we are owners and operators and care passionately about the longevity and adaptability of our experiences. I could go on and on, but the strength of our brand allows us to work alongside world-class organizations learning from each other and working together to support less advantaged groups.

What has working outside a traditional design firm taught you about what designers can contribute to an organization?

It’s taught me that to have an important seat at the table is not necessarily driven by what you know, but how you think and how you work with others. It is a hallmark of The Walt Disney Company to build its leaders with experience across many different sectors to create strategic thinkers and problem solvers. I have always felt that architects are blessed with generalist knowledge of the world and an innate curiosity and drive to find opportunities to create environments that more than deliver on the desires of the client.

Alumna Laura Sanden Cabo and her team at the bow of a Disney Wish Cruise Ship.
Cabo and her team at the bow of a Disney Wish Cruise Ship.

How do you communicate the importance of design, or advocate for the design process, with the non-designers that you work with?

I tell them a story. As a designer, you should never point out the obvious—here is this and that on a plan or elevation. Elevate the design. Take the time to respect your audience by engaging them in the story that is driving the design, no matter how far removed they are from what you might define as creative design. This gives everyone the same passionate drive to support a laser-focused mission and the knowledge that they too are helping to deliver the design.

What has been your favorite project to work on so far in your tenure at Walt Disney Imagineering?

I have enjoyed my 8+ years at Imagineering beginning with the leadership of the global architecture studio intent on building and supporting amazing talent. I have to say I am over the moon to lead the hands-on design visioning and execution of the creative for Disney Cruise Line. Our primary focus is on the delivery of our three new Disney Wish-class ships through 2025. If you have never sailed before, the experience on a majestic ship gliding across the sea is sublime. And the experience on a Disney cruise ship is a magical destination unto itself.

Cabo discusses the new Disney Wish Cruise Ships.

What advice do you have for design students and recent alumni?

The world is a vastly different place and what is clearly in demand around the world are resilient and creative problem solvers. YOU HAVE A LOT TO OFFER. I challenge each of you to think beyond the traditional career routes and am sure you can find options as a trained designer that involve all the things that you value in life and to put that into a job that you love.

Images courtesy of Laura Cabo and Walt Disney.

It was while flipping through a magazine in the old Rapson Library that David Krummel (B.Arch ’84) stumbled across the field of set design for the first time. Although he no longer remembers the magazine, the article on production design for the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil stuck with him, sparking an interest he’s never lost.

At the time of her graduation, Susan Hegland Blumentals (B.Arch ’59) was one of only two female students in her class at the School of Architecture. Her husband, Janis Blumentals (B.Arch ’59), was born in Riga, Latvia and immigrated to the United States after World War II in 1950.

Judy Olausen (B.S. ’67, Related Arts) entered the University of Minnesota intending to study architecture. But a twist of fate and a full class led her to enroll in a photojournalism course taught by Dr. R. Smith Schuneman. It was a decision that would change her life.