Navigating the gauntlet and being selected to become a Disney Imagineer is a privilege, an honor, and a dream come true for most. Like many things, though, the reality of something often differs from the perception by those that have never actually walked in the shoes of an Imagineer.
It’s all so important to note that what I’m about to convey in no way degrades my Imagineering experience nor do I have any regrets of fulfilling a life goal and a childhood dream. My personal time at Walt Disney Imagineering was incredible, I worked along side some of the most talented individuals in my industry, established life-long personal and professional relationships, and it surpassed all of my career goals I had as a young adult, back in junior high school talking about one day becoming a Disney Imagineer.
I believe it is important for people to understand the reality of working at Walt Disney Imagineering. Imagineers recognize there is a vast difference between them and a Disney super fan with an Annual Pass that claims to know everything about Disney theme parks.
Again, it’s all about perspective from one’s viewpoint. Super fans may know a lot about the Disney theme parks, but one should remember everything they know is only what Disney, and the Imagineers for that matter, has allowed them to know.
There are still many secrets and unique design processes that only Imagineers and their vendors are privy. Imagineers are bound by non-disclosure agreements they sign the first day of their employment to never reveal certain details and facts about how Disney actually designs and operates their theme parks even if they leave Walt Disney Imagineering.
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As previously noted, Walt Disney Imagineer’s are considered by many to be the best-of-the-best when it comes to creators of immersive Guest experiences and immersive storytelling. When you work for the best, you are expected to be the best. There is very little room for anything less than bringing your A-game every day in your role while working at Imagineering.
Given the complexity of theme park design, the teams (depending on the project) can be large and take several years to complete. The project scope can also be technically complex and require multiple design disciplines and various stakeholders to bring it to fruition. An Imagineers’ leader, or boss, not only expects you to bring your best every day, but also the project team to which an Imagineer is assigned expects your best every day.
Unlike decades ago, when Disney theme parks had few competitors, today nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been noted by industry experts that at any given time there are seventy plus new theme parks being planned, designed, and/or built around the world each year; with that number increasing each year.
The global competition to grab Guests attendance and money in the theme park industry has increased dramatically over the past decade. So, what does that mean for Imagineers? With worldwide competition from both major and regional theme parks, Imagineers are constantly being tasked by Disney’s executive leadership with getting new projects to market faster and under or on budget. Imagineers are expected to give 110% each day.
A Typical Day of a Disney Imagineer
The concept of a 9 AM to 5 PM day at Imagineering is rare. The perception from Disney Guests and fans is that Imagineers romp around the parks all day, riding attractions, having lunch in the onstage restaurants, etc. The reality is much different.
For Imagineers, if you’re in a theme park – you’re working. Since Imagineers are expected to be clandestine, unobtrusive, and hiding in plain sight when they are in the theme parks or on-stage, they are often limited in what they can do in their role. Therefore, they typically spend their time in the Disney theme parks, on the Cruise Ships, etc. either in the early morning hours or late at night – and some days both; before and after the normal operating hours when Guests are typically in the theme parks.
So, what does a typical day for an Imagineer like? This depends greatly on one’s role, their physical Imagineering office location around the world, where their project(s) are in their respective design or construction evolution, etc. Like many Imagineering roles, having a typical day is almost a misnomer since many days at work can vary greatly depending on the demands and requirements of the projects. Based on my experience, here is typical day for a Senior Facility Design Manager, in Florida, early in the project’s design process can look like this:
- The work day started with an early morning site walk in a theme park. It was required so that the Imagineer and their designers or vendors can look at an issue prior to Guests arriving and the site visit required the site walk attendees to access areas of a ride or attraction that are restricted during normal operating hours. In many instances, the early morning site walks start at 6AM or earlier if needed and typically concludes at the park opening hours at 8 or 9AM.
- 9AM to 12Noon: The morning hours are often spent in various team meetings which can either be full team meetings or more focused design team member meetings.
- 12Noon to 2PM: On several days, meetings will span the lunch hour and conclude around 1:30PM. On the days there are no meetings across the lunch hour, Imagineers are free to have lunch, but often lunch consists of sitting at your desk working and catching up on emails.
- 2PM to 5PM: The afternoons can consist either of more meetings or if one is lucky time at their desk to actually get work done. In some instances, and certain times of the year, there may be large Imagineering quarterly meetings or company training seminars that require one’s attendance.
- 5PM to 8PM: Often team meetings, which can be a mix of in-person meetings, telephone conference calls or video conferences, can keep an Imagineer at work after the 5PM hour. Remember, Walt Disney Imagineering is a multi-state and multi-country organization often with project team members residing in various locations around the world. Many times, on domestic projects, meetings on the East Coast of the U.S. extend past the 5PM hour if there are meeting attendees on the West Coast in California.
- 8PM to Late Night: On certain occasions, Imagineers work late into the night or during the third shift in the theme parks. They often get to work just before the park closing to Guests and work all night until the park opens to Guests the following morning. During the construction phase of a new attraction or land, late night site visits are sometimes required due to the installation of trees and vegetation, late night installation of show set pieces, all night concrete pours, issues that arise in the field that need the attention of the Design Manager, underground or high voltage utility work that may require the shutdown of existing assets near the project site. The list can go on.
As you can, see there are many hours of meetings in a typical day of a Senior Facility Design Manager (and for many of the Imagineers for that matter). Disney is synonymous for having many meetings, due to the number of project stakeholders that influence and affect the outcome of the project’s design.
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There are many weeks throughout the project where I could have 24 to 30 hours of meetings during a typical Monday through Friday work week. In most cases, due to the heavy meeting cadence during, I would work at home or in the office on the weekends to catch up on my work and emails that I couldn’t address while I was sitting in or leading meetings all week.
My normal work week at Disney consisted of roughly 50-60 hours of work, some of that which extended through the weekend. Busy weeks late in the design phases, around design deadlines or post design during construction, I could easily work 70 plus hours a week at all hours of the day. A typical forty hour work-week results in just over 2,000 work hours in a calendar year. Most years at Imagineering, I worked more than 4,000 work hours in one year; a few extended to just over 5,000 work hours in a year.
As you can see, being a successful and well-respected Imagineer requires a lot of hard work, long hours, focus, dedication, personal sacrifice by not taking vacations, working Holiday’s to catch up, etc. The reality conveyed in this article is not to dissuade anyone from becoming an Imagineer.
The point of this article is two-fold:
- First, to convey the hard work, effort, and personal sacrifice dedicated Imagineers provide to bring Disney’s amazing immersive Guest experiences to fruition.
- Second, to note that with all great positions, comes great responsibility and accountability.
Every Disney Imagineer has a role on a project(s). It’s important for those wanting to know how to become an Imagineer to understand their individual talents, the level of their dedication, the amount of their personal passion, and their personal subject matter expertise are all critical to bringing highly immersive Guests experiences and projects to fruition.