Creating the future, with Disney's Imaginations competition

January 28, 2017, 12:31 PM · This week, six teams of aspiring Imagineers gathered at Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale for Disney's annual Imaginations design competition. Intended to help Disney identify and recruit its next generation of theme park designers, Imaginations is open to U.S. college students in their junior year and beyond, who form small teams that work together to create a project that meets that year's design requirements.

This year's project challenge was to create a new outdoor space at the students' college or university that "addresses current students, faculty and visitors needs while providing a respite from the stresses of college life."

The competition attracted entries from 336 teams across the United States, hoping for an all-expenses-paid trip to Glendale, where they would spend a week meeting with Imagineers and making the presentations that they hope would lead to a career with WDI.

One of the frequently asked questions on Theme Park Insider is, "how do I get a job designing theme park attractions?" Well, entering the Imaginations design competition ought to be a must-do for any college student who aspires to work in themed entertainment design. Disney Legend and former WDI chief Marty Sklar started the competition in 1991, in an effort to improve the diversity within Imagineering. In the years following, dozens of Imaginations alumni have earned internship and job offers from WDI, and many current Imagineers who got their start with the competition attended the awards ceremony on Friday.

The six finalists this year were:

University of California, San Diego for "Pacific Trove," a "rejuvenating outdoor space saluting the famed history and natural icons of La Jolla, California" where "guests follow the numerous paths to share an experience of rediscovering their relationship with nature, through walking trails, tree slides and zip lines."

Howard University for "Campus Canvas," a "celebration of artistic expression and creativity inspired by the street art of Washington, DC." Using electronic "spray cans," participants "paint" special interactive glass to create temporary digital graffiti on designated spaces around the campus.

Savannah College of Art and Design for "Hideaway Grove," an "urban forest" occupying a city block in the heart of Savannah, Ga., that offers "a variety of unique spaces including five open-air tree houses that serve as collaborative workspaces for small groups."

The third place honor went to a team from Carnegie Mellon University and Miami University for "Niihka: A New Tradition," a multi-leveled space that would "provide a number of diverse atmospheres, from structured to more relaxed, integrating technology and an innovative Smart Roof concept to remind the community of its Native American roots."

Second place went to the University of Notre Dame for "Spirit of the Isle," a manmade, shamrock-shaped island where "guests can choose to explore sweeping terraces or venture beneath the falls... For others seeking solitude, individual pods provide a place for quiet contemplation or creativity with hands-on interactive displays."

And this year's winner was the team from Iowa State University for "Hourglass," a representation of an hourglass placed on its side, symbolizing the stoppage of time and allowing guests to "find a respite from everyday stresses." Using material with a one-way mirror quality that reflected the park surrounding it, while allowing guests inside to see through the structure, the Hourglass installation also featured heated benches and individual underground pods with rear-projection digital displays.

Let's take a look at the highlights and hear from an alumna of the program... and from this year's winners:

I love that Disney chose to focus on designing a public space for this year's competition. Although Disney retains ownership of project plans submitted in the competition, WDI doesn't intend to develop any of them. But the competition this year inspired about 1,000 would-be designers on more than 300 teams around the country to think deeply about how to create more inviting, rewarding and productive public spaces.

Great theme parks are much more than a collection of great attractions. It's the spaces in between those attractions that elevate the best parks above their competition. People want to come to Disneyland not just to ride Splash Mountain, but to sit on the hub at twilight, watching the sun set behind the trees and the lights twinkle to life on Main Street. People come to Universal Studios Florida not just to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, but to sit on the steps next to Gringotts and watch the expressions of people as they round the corner and enter Diagon Alley for the first time.

Public spaces turn communities from social concepts into a physical presence. By bringing us together, the best spaces literally civilize us. They deserve our thoughtful attention. Even as politics, religion and business drive people apart in this country, I've seen the power of theme parks to bring people from every belief and background together in joy.

We need more places like that in our lives. And we need more people who are thinking about how to create them.

For more information about the competition:

Replies (4)

January 28, 2017 at 2:15 PM · As somebody currently with WDI, I highly recommend PIs and CPs. I met an Imagineer while working at the park on a CP; I interviewed the next day and started the following week with a PI for Architecture and Attraction Design. Imagineers are almost always hired from within Disney. Other things I recommend are working with Morris Architects, HHCP, and Cunningham since most projects are joined with one of these firms. I will try to check back if people have further questions.
January 29, 2017 at 10:31 AM · Thank you for the info about the architecture firms and the best to you in your work with Disney. If anyone knows of any others companies please let me know. Similar to many creative field, I think becoming an Imagineer involves a great deal of luck and being in the right place at the right time. Even those who are so lucky, for many it lasts only as long as the next round of layoffs or what executive likes which people. That being said I would love to become an Imagineer and wish I knew what it was when I was much younger.
January 31, 2017 at 9:59 AM · Can you please define PI and CP for me?
February 2, 2017 at 11:29 AM · PI: Professional Internship, CP: College Program.

I was an Imagineer for 1 year and it is exactly as you say, right place, right time. I knew there were far better artists out there looking, but I just so happen to be on a project working on Shanghai at the time with creative entertainment and next thing you know, they pull me to WDI. It was a fun experience however.

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