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Disney, virtual reality, Airbnb — Bruce Vaughn brings an ‘Experience’

Bruce Vaughn has been immersing people’s imaginations his entire career, from the deep space of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” to Disney World’s heart-stopping Indiana Jones ride, to the virtual reality playground known as Dreamscape. But as he settles into his fifth week as the new leader of Airbnb’s Experiential Creative Product team, he’s leaving the fantasy world with sights set firmly on the real world — the more authentic, the better.

“It excited me to let people experience the world in a new way,” said Vaughn, a Sonoma resident.

Airbnb is well established in the vacation rental business, with $1.3 billion in revenue posted in the second quarter of 2021 alone. The popularity of home-stay vacations continues to rise in the pandemic, in part because, unlike hotels, there is limited access to other people.

Vaughn, however, is focused on a different type of rental. Since launching in 2016, Airbnb has seen a rise in its “Experiences” line of business, which gives access to a wide swath of activities, from the more expected, like cooking classes of local cuisine, to the more unusual, like hanging out with a pack of dogs in Chernobyl.

“Quite frankly, this (team) is irresistible to me,” Vaughn said, explaining that he has always loved the type of travel that allows him to soak up the culture, get to know the locals and experience something genuine.

“It’s the authenticity that comes through the hosts, who are not only local but they love what they do,” Vaughn said of the people who create the experiences that are posted on Airbnb.

His passion for the magic of a deeply enchanting experience was born over one of the most influential films of all times: “Star Wars.” As a 14-year-old, he begged his father to take him to the George Lucas classic. His father wasn’t a fan of movies; the descendant of whalers in Sag Harbor, New York, he was the pragmatic town attorney, “a sort of Atticus Finch type,” Vaughn said.

“Luckily, my dad loved ‘Star Wars,’ too,” he said. “All of my friends wanted to be characters like Han Solo or Princess Leia. I wanted to be George Lucas.”

After graduating Colgate University, Vaughn took a job with Associates & Ferren, a special effects company led by his early mentor Bran Ferren, who worked on everything from “Little Shop of Horrors” to Paul McCartney’s World Tour. In 1993, the entertainment giant Disney bought out the company shortly after Vaughn’s team helped redesign Disney’s famed Tower of Terror ride, perfecting the terrifying elevator drop. Before that, ironically, Vaughn had never been to a theme park.

“All the sudden, I was an Imagineer,” Vaughn said, the term used for the creative minds who bring Disney magic to life at its theme parks, resorts and other entertainment venues.

Suddenly, his job was to bring pop culture’s most beloved worlds to life, such as Pandora of “Avatar,” Carsland of “Cars,” and even the “Star Wars” land, Galaxy’s Edge. He worked his way up to chief creative executive of Disney Imagineering, overseeing projects all over the world, from Shanghai Disney to cruise ships.

“It’s all about bringing these characters, these stories to life,” he said.

In his next role, as CEO of the startup virtual-reality company Dreamscape, he sought to create an even more fantastical experience. No longer would his customers just see a whole new world, with virtual reality, they could live it – jumping in on adventures to soar with dragons, or swim the ocean alongside whales. He began in 2017, the same year Vaughn and his husband Billy bought a home in Sonoma’s Mission Highlands.

The sale closed the first week of October, just before the Nuns fire destroyed hundreds of homes. Vaughn remembers watching the house on home security cameras when there was a flash as the power went out. “We thought, ‘That’s it, it’s gone,’” Vaughn said. “But we were lucky.”

At first the couple split their time between Silver Lake in Los Angeles and Sonoma, but when the pandemic hit, they moved north full time. He’s been visiting since 1993, when a trip with Disney introduced him to the wide world of wine. He said he especially loves drinks at the Beacon, the speakeasy at Taub Family Outpost, along with oysters at Oso with Meg the bartender.

After a career focused on make-believe, Vaughn is ready for a dose of reality. He’ll lead the efforts to expand Airbnb’s experiential offerings, bringing in more hosts and creative encounters all over the globe.

“Ultimately, it’ll be the best way to experience the world,” Vaughn said. “You get a local host who gives you the inside scoop, and now we add experiences to that.”

Alison Holberton, who oversees Airbnb’s Global Consumer and Product Communications, said there are tens of thousands of experiences currently available. Hosts set their own prices and Airbnb takes a 20% service fee on all transactions. Local examples include meeting rescued animals at Charlie’s Acres, candlemaking classes at Glen Ellen’s Sonoma 707 Candle, and cheesemaking with Sheana Davis of the Epicurean Connection, among dozens of others.

As to what the future holds, “this is something Bruce is creating, we’ve not done this before so it’ll be his to develop,” Holberton said.

Vaughn said, “These aren’t characters, these are the real deal. And that is way better to me.”

Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@sonomanews.com.

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