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03-27-2007, 06:50 AM
Tim Onosko, 60; futurist helped refine Disney's Epcot

By Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer
Posted March 27, 2007

Within the Disney empire, Tim Onosko was known as the go-to guy for the future. By often accurately forecasting how technology would alter the entertainment landscape, he developed a reputation as a high-tech soothsayer.

At Disney, he helped refine the newly opened Epcot in Florida in the 1980s by steering the theme park's designers toward cutting-edge gadgets.

He also played a more ethereal role: By celebrating what technology could do, according to company executives, Onosko helped the engineers and designers known as Imagineers lose their fear of stepping into the future.

Onosko, who also was a journalist and filmmaker, died March 6 at his home in Madison, Wis., after battling pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Beth Abrohams. He was 60.

Walt Disney had barely sketched out plans for Epcot before his death in 1966, and the company was looking for someone to help inspire Imagineers as they wrestled with technology's ever-evolving effects on society, said Tony Baxter, senior vice president of creative development at Walt Disney Imagineering.

"We knew we were opening a park that was half about technologies that move us into the future, so we thought, 'Why not have someone on board who lives in that world?' Tim became an aid in maturing Epcot," Baxter told The Times.

Onosko's influence could be far-reaching yet invisible at Epcot, Baxter said, because most ideas are cultivated in communal brainstorming sessions.

Before joining Walt Disney Imagineering as a consultant in 1987, Onosko was a journalist who covered technology and pop culture. He had published a book on amusement parks, "Funland U.S.A." in 1978 and wrote about Epcot in an article headlined "Tomorrow Lands" for Omni magazine in 1982.

The Omni article invigorated the Imagineers because "it was inspiring to see that a professional writer found such value in what we were doing," Baxter said.

The magazine piece also led to Onosko being hired at Disney. Later, Onosko worked for Disney in publishing and new technology.

When Disney Adventures magazine for children debuted in 1990, the design and creative concepts were largely Onosko's, said Steve McBeth, who was then executive vice president of Disney Consumer Products.

"He nailed the idea of what it's like to be an 8- or 10-year-old," McBeth told The Times. "He had this wonderful quality to be able to be curious and exploratory about everything."

For Disney's new technology and new media division, Onosko spotted trends in user-generated content long before they happened and did pioneering work in desktop publishing, said Bob Lambert, senior vice president of worldwide technology strategy for the Disney Co.

"Tim made it easy for our folks to understand complex trends," Lambert told The Times. "He was often contrarian but always insightful and in a way that made you think outside the box."

In 2003, Onosko moved to Universal Studios to help develop new ways for consumers to view content. As a prognosticator, Onosko was right more often than not, said Jerry Pierce, the company's former senior vice president of technology.

A Wisconsin native, Onosko commuted from his home in Madison to work in Los Angeles. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he did not want to fly as much and turned to filmmaking.

With his wife, he made a documentary, "Lost Vegas: The Lounge Era," which chronicles the fading world of lounge singers in Las Vegas. Magician and actor Ricky Jay narrates the movie, which debuted at the CineVegas film festival in 2005.

"It was like finding a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk," Onosko said of the film's subject, the Capital Times reported in 2005. "I couldn't believe their stories hadn't been told."

Born Feb. 4, 1947, in Kenosha, Wis., he was the only child of Edward and Lee Onosko. His father worked in international licensing of stainless-steel products.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Onosko was always interested in the future, said his wife, who met him in college.

The couple married in 1987. She survives him, as does his father.

Conjecturing the shape of the future always intrigued Onosko, his wife said.

In 1979, he published "Wasn't the Future Wonderful?" The book, drawn from Popular Mechanics and other science magazines from the 1930s, was filled with often dead-on predictions of such things as superhighways, moon rockets and backyard bomb shelters.

By 1982, Onosko was billed as a " 'future' historian" in an appearance on "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report" and was presaging the advent of the Internet community that would start forming in the 1990s.

"New technologies are giving us new fields, new areas of expression, new tools for expression," he said on the show. "Machines are in fact opening up a remarkable world for people who are finding brand new avenues of expression."