Frequently Asked Questions Asked of Walt Disney Imagineers and Theme Park Architects

For several years I have been compiling Frequently Asked Questions I received when I was a Walt Disney Imagineer and after I left Disney consulting as a Theme Park Architect. These questions arrived from all sorts of people: theme park fans, college students inquiring about future jobs and insight into the themed entertainment industry, parents of future potential theme park designers, friends, family, etc. I have filtered the questions and boiled them down to major categories for easier navigation.

I’m sharing these FAQ’s because in keeping with the intent of this website I want to:

  • Teach people about theme park architecture and design
  • Suggest actions for an individual to take to land a role in the themed entertainment industry
  • Share the reality of working in the theme park design business
  • Convey the reality of brining theme park designs and concepts to fruition

Frequently Asked Questions Topics

For ease of navigation, I have broken down the questions by general topics:

  • Education/Degrees and Colleges/Universities
  • Computer Software Utilized by Imagineers and Theme Park Architects
  • What Is a Walt Disney Imagineer
  • How to Learn More About Walt Disney Imagineering
  • Theme Park Architect vs. Architect
  • Walt Disney Imagineering Salaries
  • Theme Park Architect Salaries
  • Typical Day of a Walt Disney Imagineer
  • How Are Theme Park Attractions Designed
  • Project Code Names for New Theme Park Projects
  • Technology’s Impact on Theme Park Design

Education/Degrees and Colleges/Universities

Q: What college degree should I obtain to become an Imagineer?
A: Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) has over 140 unique disciplines and roles within its organization. You should tailor your college/university degree path based on the role or function you desire. For example, if you love graphic design – WDI has a specific department focused solely on graphic design. Research colleges/universities that have a strong graphic design degree program. Check out our post on How To Become a Walt Disney Imagineer.

Check out or post on colleges and universities that offer themed entertainment degree programs.

Q: What college degree should I obtain to become a Theme Park Architect?
A: There are currently no specific accredited architectural degree programs, in the U.S. or aboard, uniquely tailored to theme park design or the themed entertainment industry architectural design. I suggest you seek out the architectural degree program that best suits your personal goals and interests then post graduation try to land a position in an architectural firm that has a Themed Entertainment division or Studio that works on theme park projects. Check out our post on How To Become a Theme Park Architect.

Q: How many years of experience does one need to be considered for a position as an Imagineer?

A: It purely depends on what role you are specifically trying to land at Walt Disney Imagineering. Imagineering does a really good job of defining their individual roles and the required years of experience (and if required professional certifications) for each role. For example, if you are trying to land an ‘Associate Architectural Designer’ role in Imagineering, that role only requires approximately 1-3 years of prior professional experience and no licensure or professional certifications. My role, when I was at Imagineering, required a minimum of 15+ years prior experience, I had to be a licensed Architect, and have a broad range of specific, professional related work experience.

Computer Software Utilized by Imagineers and Theme Park Architects

Q: What computer software should I learn to prepare me for becoming a Walt Disney Imagineer?
A: Similar to which college degree you should pursue, the various types of software Imagineering utilizes depends – again – on your specific role and your role requirements. For example, if you would like to become a Ride Engineer they tend to utilize programs such as Solidworks to model concepts of ride components, ride vehicles, etc. Many of the Creative Studio roles require the use and understanding of SketchUp or even Maya to model early and on-going 3D concepts and ideas.

Q: What computer software should I learn to prepare me for becoming a Theme Park Architect?
A: The various design software used in theme park architectural design is similar to that used in large scale commercial (real-world) architectural design. Many theme park facility Architects use Revit, SketchUp, 3D Studio Max, NavisWorks, AutoCad, Photoshop, etc. to create construction documents and/or early 3D concepts and renderings.

Disney Imagineer Hardhat

What Is a Walt Disney Imagineer?

Q: What is a Walt Disney Imagineer?
A: Per Disney, Walt Disney Imagineering was founded in 1952 by Walt Disney and is “the master planning, creative development, design, engineering, production, project management, and research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company. Its talented corps of Imagineers is responsible for the creation – from concept initiation through installation – of all Disney Resorts, theme parks and attractions, real estate developments, regional entertainment venues, and new media projects.” To learn more about WDI, check out our post on How To Become a Walt Disney Imagineer.

How To Learn More About Walt Disney Imagineering

Q: How can I learn more about Walt Disney Imagineering?
A: There are a host of books, etc. you can read about Walt Disney Imagineering, the history of theme parks and amusement parks, etc. We have created a list of some of our favorite books on theme parks. We also suggest checking out the new documentary on Disney+, “The Imagineering Story” which provides insider stories behind the history of Walt Disney Imagineering. If you plan on visiting Walt Disney World, research the ‘Dining With an Imagineer‘ (check current availability due to the current global health issues and their affect on normal theme park operations).

Theme Park Architect vs. Architect

Q: What is the difference between a Theme Park Architect and a (real-world) Architect?
A: At their core, Theme Park Architects and Architects that design commercial buildings are very similar. The main difference between Theme Park Architects and Architects that design commercial projects is the added extra layers of design disciplines and extra project scope a Theme Park Architect must coordinate with – design disciplines and project scope that you would most likely would never be required in real-world, commercial projects. Check out our article where we discuss the additional design disciplines and project scope Theme Park Architects need to manage and coordinate.

Walt Disney Imagineering Salaries

Q: What are the salaries of Walt Disney Imagineers?
Q: How much do Disney Imagineers make a year?
A: To be honest, even though I get this question quite frequently I debated adding this to the article. My belief is an individual’s yearly salary is a personal matter between their boss and the company they work for – regardless of whether it’s Walt Disney Imagineering or another company. I’ve decided to not reveal my salary – when I was a Walt Disney Imagineer – or any other individual’s salary at WDI for a host of reasons. I can say this. The salaries at WDI, regardless of the WDI location you may work, are competitive with (and in some instances slightly better than) industry standards for a similar role outside of the Walt Disney Company or Walt Disney Imagineering. If you would like to get a rough idea of industry standard salary ranges, check out websites like Salary.com – be sure to put in a specific location such as Glendale, CA or Orlando, FL for the specific role you desire. In addition to salaries, there a host of other metrics one should consider when searching for a position with a company. Items such as healthcare benefits, potential performance bonuses, company benefits (i.e. complimentary tickets to theme parks and employee discounts), etc. All of these line item metrics should be discussed when negotiating your position and overall compensation package with Disney or any company.

How Many Hours Per Week Do Architects Work

Q: How many hours do you work in a week as an architect?

A: My average hours worked per week can depend on the project and which phase the project is within, however most weeks I work 45 – 50 hours. Weeks leading up to milestone design deadlines I may work 60+ hours. When I was at Imagineering, my role and projects were very demanding, so on average I worked 80+ hours every week – usually spread across all seven days a week. 

Theme Park Architect Salaries

Q: What are the salaries of Theme Park Architects?
Q: How much do Architects make a year?
A: Theme Park Architects and real-world Architects salaries in general will follow similar industry standard metrics depending on geographical location – where you work – and your years of experience within the business. A great resource, provided by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), lets you search by geographical region within the U.S. and by role; what an Architect’s salary range is on average. As I stated for Imagineering salaries, there a host of other metrics one should consider when searching for a position with a company. Items such as healthcare benefits, potential performance bonuses, company benefits (i.e. does the architectural firm pay for your annual membership with the AIA, NCARB, USGBC or your annual state architectural license fees), etc. All of these line item metrics should be discussed when negotiating your position and overall compensation package with the architectural firm or company.

Qualities and Achievements Employers Seek

Q: What qualities and achievements are employers looking for?

A: Employers, regardless of whether they are Architecture firms or Walt Disney Imagineering, are looking for individuals that have a balance of:

  • subject matter expertise or awareness
  • willingness to learn and be self-starting
  • a good personality – someone easy to work with
  • someone who is willing to challenge themselves on a day-to-day basis.

Employers do not like:

  • people who are not self-motivated and only show up to get a paycheck
  • people that are not willing to self-start to seek out the answers for themselves prior to asking for help from their work peers
  • people with a poor personal disposition that are not easy to work with and are disruptive to the entire team
  • people who do not have long-term goals within their career path.

Typical Day of a Walt Disney Imagineer

Q: What is a typical day like for a Walt Disney Imagineer?
A: It’s almost comical to put the words ‘typical’; ‘day’; and ‘Imagineer’ in the same sentence. Designing theme parks is a unique world to work within. There are very few typical days for Imagineers, regardless of your role or responsibility. Your days as an Imagineer are going to vary depending on what phase of the project you’re in; where you project is located; the size of the project and project team; and the overall nature of your project team – how they work with one another. If you would like to learn more about a typical day when I was an Imagineer, check out my article A Day in the Life of a Disney Imagineer.

Click here to learn how theme park sites are designed.

Typical Day of a Theme Park Architect

Q: What is an average workday like for you?

A: My average workday varies depending on what phase of a project or projects that I work on. For example, in the early design phases I may spend more time researching building codes, zoning laws, state and Federal laws, etc. that may impact the overall design – all the while working on early conceptual design of the project. Also, early in the design phases I may be interviewing and onboarding my design consultants that will be required to bring the full project design to fruition, (i.e. mechanical, plumbing, electrical, structural engineers, interior designers, kitchen consultants, acoustical engineers, fire protection engineers, etc.)

Later in the design phases, I may spend more coordinating the full design of the architecture with my aforementioned design team, working out specific design details, working on advancing the project specifications, monitoring the design estimate versus the design schedule, projecting and tracking the manhours it will take to complete the design, etc. During construction, I will typically have weekly project site walks, design coordination meetings, review and resolve necessary design changes to keep the construction schedule on-time, etc. My workday may consist of several coordination meetings with design team members and/or the client or building contractor. Other days I’m reviewing or creating drawing and design details to assist the design team members for inclusion into the overall design. Some days consist purely of meetings with the various client and owner’s stakeholders who have an impact on the outcome of the project.

On occasion, I may meet with the local Building Official or Fire Marshal to review unique and specific design issues we need to resolve and come to an agreement on. Many days I’m meeting with the project Financial team to track the monthly design budget and estimate and review the financial health of the project. During construction I may have daily or weekly site walks with various team members to review the progress (or lack of progress) and conformance of the construction to the legal construction documents of record my design team created.

How Are Theme Park Attractions Designed

Q: How and why are theme park attractions designed?
A: Theme park attractions, regardless of whether they are rides, shows, restaurants, hotels, retail/merchandise locations, etc., are designed and built for a purpose. There are a multitude of reasons that prompt the need for a new theme park attraction, but at a high level here are some of the major reasons:

  • A rise in the projected theme park attendance requires additional attractions to accommodate a high Guest count
  • Projected theme park attendance increase requires more eating establishments, meals per hour, and additional restaurant seat counts.
  • A five to ten year projected annual attendance increase requires more on-property hotel rooms and more accommodation amenities.
  • An attraction is a day-one attraction (ride) with a low hourly Guest count and the theme park Operators need a new attraction in the same location with a more popular theme and story that will accommodate a higher Guest through-put and increased hourly count.

Project Code Names for New Theme Park Projects

Q: Why do new theme park projects have project specific code names?
A: New theme park projects, depending on the type of project, can take many years to bring to fruition. For new theme park lands, it may take upwards of a decade from early Blue Sky concept work to opening day when the first Guests are able to experience this new land. Most theme park projects are kept secret many years prior to being announced to the general public. Most new theme park projects often are tied to that company’s (or a licensed partner’s) IP or Intellectual Property. Because of these reasons and many more, new theme park projects receive unique code names or unique, benign project code numbers. Project code names ensure if someone overhears their conversation when the project teams are talking amongst themselves internally at work or externally – say off-property at lunch – they will not understand what specifically the project team members are talking about. The theme park business is a very competitive business. Not letting the cat out of the bag too soon ensures the design will not be compromised (or leaked) prior to its final design being approved and resolved.

Technology’s Impact on Theme Park Design

Q: How does the use of new technology factor into and impact theme park design?
A: The continual influx and research on how new technology can be incorporated into the storyline of theme park attractions, rides, restaurants, and even some hotels is a constant journey. One of the many things that differentiates theme parks from amusement parks is that theme park attractions seek a means to incorporate new technology to enhance the story – find a better way to tell a story – where as most amusement park rides or attractions take a piece of new technology as a focal point and wrap a story around it. Theme Park Architects and designers work to incorporate new technology into every facet of the process from enhancing or improving the design process; to infusing new technology into the attraction’s storyline; all the way through to construction and implementation by the contractors and trade partners that bring these amazing new venues to life. Regardless of where a new piece of technology, new software, new hardware, etc. may be utilized there is always a discussion of cost vs. pay off or return of the investment.

✳️ Do you have more questions that weren’t answered in this article? If so, contact us here! I will respond directly to you with an answer.

About the Author J. Daniel Jenkins, AIA, NCARB is a licensed Architect, Theme Park Design Consultant, and former Senior Project Design Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering with over twenty years of subject matter expertise and design team leadership experience. Jenkins is the creator of themeparkarchitect.com who's goal is to teach individuals about theme park architecture and design, how to become theme park architects and designers, and discuss themed entertainment industry related topics. For nearly a decade, Mr. Jenkins has worked in the themed entertainment industry on new themed entertainment attractions, theme park lands, and new theme parks. Upon leaving Walt Disney Imagineering, Jenkins started his own Design Management Consulting company where he has consulted with and provided subject matter expertise and project leadership for new, confidential projects for several themed entertainment companies. Mr. Jenkins holds a five-year Master of Architecture degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design and a Virtual Design and Construction Certificate from Stanford University.
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