Thea Awards Recipients

Thea Awards 2020

Buzz Price Thea Award - Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements

Nancy Seruto

Nancy Seruto, Portfolio Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering

As a creative executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, leading the design and development of highly immersive experiences is at the top of Nancy Seruto’s job description. It’s a natural fit, as storytelling and the arts have always been in her blood.

“Even as a young girl, all I wanted to do was be an artist,” Nancy said. “I loved to dance, to sing, to paint, to play piano. I loved stories, and I made up whole worlds in my head. My mom was a great storyteller, and taught me and my brother and sisters that reading was a gateway to imagination as well as encouraging us in creative play.”

Although she grew up in Southern California, she recalls only one childhood trip to Disneyland and instead drew most of her impressions of the park from The Wonderful World of Disney TV show. So, where did she get the theme park bug?

“I remember getting a Barbie doll and not being sure what to do with her,” Nancy said. “So I built her a kind of ‘Barbie world’ with materials I scavenged from around the neighborhood. She had her own split-level ranch house, a corral for her plastic horses, and a kidney-shaped pool painted blue. And that was the start of my love for imagined worlds.”

When it came time to go to college, Nancy tried to satisfy her father’s desire for a practical career by enrolling in a pre-med program at UC San Diego, but quickly found herself distracted.

“I discovered classes in music, filmmaking and theater, and I felt like I was home at last!” Nancy said. “However when the arts courses started dominating my schedule, my dad said ‘enough’ and cut me off.”

To support herself, Nancy took gigs on lighting and sound crews for local theater, concerts and events - anything to stay connected to the world of live entertainment. A turning point came in her mid-20s when she found full-time theater work at the newly formed San Diego Repertory Theater.

“I was exposed to brilliant professional actors, designers and directors,” Nancy said. “I did everything there; I took it all in and I was actually getting paid to do what I had always dreamed of.”

While finishing school with a graduate degree in theater, she continued to design lighting for dance companies and painted scenery on film sets. Eventually she landed at Lexington Scenery [now part of The Companies of Nassal] where she rose through the ranks into a senior leadership position.

“I learned a lot about running a business at Lexington, including estimating, negotiating and managing people,” Nancy said. “Every day I had to balance - artist, fabricator, manager, businessperson, designer and back again. We grew a lot while I was there, from 20 employees to about 250, and we took on bigger and more complicated projects. I’m proud to say that during my tenure, about a dozen of our projects were recognized for excellence with Thea Awards.”

Her experience at Lexington inspired her to partner with businessman Robert Koval to establish a consulting firm called Seruto & Company.

“I was driven to start my own business by the possibilities of defining my own destiny and for shaping a company around the things I was passionate about,” Nancy said.

Their portfolio of projects grew fairly rapidly, and included major touring exhibitions around African American history, women’s history, Native American history, science and space, and King Tut. After 10 years in business, a new opportunity came knocking when an industry colleague contacted her.

“Bob Weis - who is now the president of Walt Disney Imagineering - was leading the creative efforts on Shanghai Disney Resort and asked me to come on board,” Nancy said. “I loved the company Robert Koval and I had built and the people we worked with, but the opportunity to collaborate with Bob Weis on a project of this scale was irresistible. I weighed all the pluses and minuses and took the plunge. I felt like Indiana Jones about to cross a huge canyon, trusting that the bridge would appear before me as I took each step.”

Nancy oversaw the production of Treasure Cove, the first Disney theme park land themed entirely to pirates, anchored by the award-winning Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure. This jaw-dropping attraction seamlessly blends Disney storytelling and cutting-edge technology to take guests on a thrilling nautical adventure. It was a daunting task, but Nancy and her team pulled it off.

“Everything I had done to this point helped me navigate a complicated new world successfully,” Nancy said, while quickly giving credit to her team. “The breadth of talent and skill on a project of this scale is what makes the impossible, possible. When you’re surrounded by incredible people and supported by an organization like Imagineering, fear subsides and is overtaken by tremendous excitement.”

Today Nancy is focused on the expansion of Shanghai Disney Resort, and she relies on a philosophy honed by many years in the themed entertainment business to guide her.

“Being an artist of any kind requires you be in touch with a pretty special place inside you,” Nancy said. “You have to open up your heart, reach into your soul and be vulnerable and empathetic. But you also need to have a certain amount of armor in place so you can manage the business aspects of a project with a cool head.

“Keeping this delicate balance between vulnerability and armor has been at the heart of my journey — a journey in understanding humanity and navigating the complexities of the world. It is life at its fullest, and I feel very grateful to have found my way here.”

In addition to the Buzz Price Thea Award - Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements, Nancy has also received an honorary doctorate from the North Carolina School of the Arts and was the first woman to sit on the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions annual Legends panel.

Find out more about TEA member Walt Disney Imagineering

Award Credits