The one question I received the most when I was a Walt Disney Imagineer was, “How do I become a Walt Disney Imagineer?”.
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What is a Disney Imagineer?
To understand how to become a Disney Imagineer one should first understand what Disney Imagineer is and what is Walt Disney Imagineering.
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.“
The term ‘Imagineer’ is actually the combination of two words: ‘imagination’ and ‘engineering’ which implies the implementation of creative ideas in a practical and achievable manner. The term ‘imagineer’ and ‘Imagineering’ were not originally coined by Disney. Walt Disney, Inc. and WED Enterprises (the precursor companies that would later be renamed Walt Disney Imagineering), started using these words approximately in 1962, with Disney filing for a trademark to exclusively use the terms in 1967.
Walt Disney Imagineers are considered by many in the themed entertainment industry to be the best-of-the-best when it comes to creators of themed, immersive Guest experiences and immersive storytelling. Imagineering is responsible for the creation of the storyline, design and oversight of the implementation of all Disney branded:
- theme parks
- themed attractions
- theme park lands
- hotels and resorts
- physical Guest experiences
- Disney Cruise Line ships
- Disney Cruise Line island design
- retail stores and merchandise venues
Essentially, if a Disney Guest can walk through it, touch it, ride in it, sleep in it, shop in it, eat in it, etc.; then Walt Disney Imagineers are responsible for the story, the design, have Creative oversight, and Creative ‘maintenance’ of all these elements.
Everyone that works for Walt Disney Imagineering is an Imagineer, but not all Disney Imagineer’s are engineers. A common mistake that is often made when speaking with people that may not know or understand what a Disney Imagineer is. Walt Disney Imagineering has over 140 different design and implementation disciplines within the company. Everything from:
- Graphic Designers
- Interior Designers
- model makers
- IT and Data professionals
- construction managers
- project managers
- Show Writers
- Show Producers
- Research and Development individuals that pair with R&D colleges and universities around the world
Disney Imagineering, like most jobs in the public and private sectors, requires specific levels of education to meet the minimum level of skills to be considered for certain roles and positions. Imagineering has clearly defined minimum levels of education for their roles.
Typically, for the Senior Design Manager position, it’s preferred to have a master’s degree in Architecture or a similar design program, i.e. master planning, landscape architecture, architecture, etc. but it’s not required.
Though preferred colleges and universities are targeted by Disney for recruiting purposes, attendance at these instititutions are not a requirement for future candidates. Other disciplines within WDI target minimum levels of education. For example, if you are considering a position in the Show Studio, i.e. Show Manager, Show Producer, etc.; these individuals typically have some form of a liberal arts degree, often in theater or the performing arts. Individuals interested in becoming an illustrator or concept designer at Imagineering, often have liberal arts degrees while Show Writers and other Creative disciplines often have degrees in literature or English.
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I believe work experience goes further than the type of a person’s degree in landing any position, whether it’s with Disney or elsewhere. Dedicated work experience in your respective field or similar field goes a long way.
In my opinion (which I believe Imagineering believes as well) the college degree and education of a candidate was the ticket in the door, however, the type and quality of the work experience, an individual’s talents, and their personality were equally if not more important.
Again, all of this is clearly defined in the job postings that Disney provides on their Jobs and Career website. One thing that should be emphasized, is the quality of one’s work experience. Imagineering is a unique place to work that requires unique talents and unique problem-solving skills. If an individual interviewing with Disney Imagineering has a resume filled with similar project types or projects of similar scale and complexity, that will go further for their consideration than an individual with dissimilar work experience.
So, we’ve touched on education and work experience for future Imagineering candidates. Imagineering, at its very core, is in the challenge resolution business. Challenge resolutions bridging the gap between a story or idea in someone’s head and amazing and highly creative Guest experiences.
Imagineering, regardless of your college degree, your role, or your work experience wants individuals that have other talents that are both relative and unrelated to their role within the company.
Imagineering, just as Walt Disney did when he started Walt Disney Imagineering back in 1952, sought out individuals that were not only experts in their respective fields; they were also individuals that had other talents and skills that gave them a little something extra and made them stand out above the crowd.
Walt Disney Imagineering likes their Imagineers to have other talents and skills that may or may not be used on a daily basis in their respective role. Why then, you ask, do they want well rounded individuals? Being an Imagineer not only requires you to be a subject matter expert in your field, but it requires you to creatively solve design and implementation challenges.
Your Personal Portfolio
To truly be considered for a position with Walt Disney Imagineering, you will need some form of a personal portfolio. Your portfolio should be a reflection of ‘your’ previous work experience, ‘your’ unique talents, and it should be designed and laid out in a way that reflects ‘you’.
Many people believe their portfolio should be a collection of Disney-like projects. I disagree with this viewpoint. Imagineering wants to see what ‘you’ are capable of, what ‘your’ unique talents are, how ‘you’ put together the layout of ‘your’ best work that describes the intent of the work with ‘your’ unique influence.
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Know a lot about Something and a Little about Everything
Being a subject matter expert in your own field is as important as having general knowledge about a multitude of other topics. Becoming a well-rounded Disney Imagineer is about being an individual that is not only an expert in their day-to-day role, but they are also versed in various other subjects.
Disney Imagineers are well-rounded individuals that have the ability to bring that little extra ‘something’ to the table and to the project teams.
For future Imagineering candidates displaying these types of personal attributes during your interview process and be able to speak to a multitude of topics and personal interests will assist one in being hired.
That said, Walt Disney Imagineering is looking for individuals that are both experts in their field and are knowledgeable about other areas of interest that may have nothing to do with their college degree.
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One of the skills, for individuals wanting to become a Disney Imagineer, that could singularly be one of the most important skills to master and continually improve upon: the ability to clearly communicate your thoughts, ideas, and intent.
Many of the projects that Imagineers work on require hundreds of people, each with their own subject matter expertise and passion. Pulling together a successful theme park attraction, show, cruise ship, hotel, etc. requires one common thing – clear and concise communication amongst all the team members involved.
Being clear with the exchange of information between team members within all forms of communication, whether it’s emails, verbal, in video conferences, site walks, etc., is extremely important.
Your Character and Team Integration
When we speak of ‘character’, as it relates to Walt Disney Imagineering, it can mean a multitude of things. Some might be quick to say Mickey, Minnie, Donald and their friends.
Imagineers will need to work with a multitude of individuals and personalities to design and implement amazing Guest experiences. Individuals with solid character, that are trustworthy, and have good personalities will find it easier to work with the multitude of personalities on a project team.
Most large projects at Imagineering have upwards of one hundred or more individuals working on them. Large projects, such as new theme park lands or theme park expansions, may have well over five hundred team members.
Large projects such as the Magic Kingdom Fantasyland Expansion and Star Wars: Galaxy Edge can take seven to ten years to bring to fruition. Projects such as these, or any project at WDI, are highly involved, multi-faceted, complex and challenging endeavors.
An Imagineer with a good personality and disposition will have an easier time working and integrating with the groups of people that make memorable and successful Disney Guest experiences.
Bring Your Passion
Another very important trait that all Disney Imagineers have is ‘passion’. Passion for their respective craft, their respective role at WDI, and a personal wherewithal passion for the process it takes to not only become a Walt Disney Imagineer but the passion and drive one must have to sustain their position with WDI.
A person with ‘passion’ about theme parks and theme park design is different than ‘fanatics’ because the person with true passion sees their love, devotion, and passion as part of a much larger plan; a much larger process; and a much greater and more focused devotion in which they know their individual skills and talent will be crucial in bringing a theme park or theme park project to fruition. They are in it for the long haul; through design, construction, and to enjoy upon completion.
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The passionate individual is informed and intelligent enough to have an opinion of their ‘craft’ based on fact and personal experience, but they are open to broader opinions and constructive criticism of their work or their tribal knowledge that – in the end – will make the theme park project design even better.
The passionate theme park designer and Imagineer is devoted to potentially years of hard work and the long effort it takes to bring theme park project designs to fruition with little or maybe even no accolade at the finish line. The passionate individual is personally satisfied when the theme park project is complete and successful because they know their hard work and extended effort helped a broader collective of talented individuals complete the project.
The Reality of Being an Imagineer
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 those that have never actually walked in the shoes of an 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.
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.
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.
The reality being conveyed is not to dissuade anyone from becoming an Imagineer. The point is twofold:
- to convey the hard work, effort, and personal sacrifice that dedicated Imagineers provide to bring Disney’s amazing immersive Guest experiences to fruition.
- with all great positions and roles, comes great responsibility and accountability to meet deadlines and budgetary requirements.
Resources to Assist in Becoming a Disney Imagineer
Below is a list of resources that one can utilize to assist them in either learning more about Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) or search for open positions within the company.
The Walt Disney Company Career Website:
On the website type ‘Walt Disney Imagineering’ into the ‘Keyword’ search function. This will narrow down all open positions specific to WDI.
Themed Entertainment College and University Programs
Check out our article with links to the various colleges and universities in the U.S. that offer themed entertainment programs.
WDI Imaginations Website:
Imaginations is a design competition created and sponsored by Walt Disney Imagineering with the purpose of seeking out and nurturing the next generation of diverse Imagineers. Started in 1991 by Disney Legend and Imagineering executive Marty Sklar, the program has grown to include separate versions sponsored by Hong Kong Disneyland Resort and Shanghai Disney Resort. Throughout the years, hundreds of students from universities all across the United States have participated in this competition and had the opportunity to present their projects to Imagineering executives. Furthermore, many of them have become interns and fulfilled their dream of working alongside Imagineers and seeing their work installed at a Disney location.
Imaginations opens up the opportunity for students to showcase their skills and talents to Imagineering through a Disney related project. Provided with a project challenge, students and recent graduates work in teams to deliver a concept in a similar way to how Imagineers develop their blue-sky projects. In a matter of weeks, teams have to leverage their various artistic, technical and communication skills to prepare a submission that will appeal to judges whose backgrounds include a wide array of creative and technical disciplines. The top finalist teams win an all-expense-paid trip to Walt Disney Imagineering in California, where they present their projects to Imagineering executives and compete for awards.
Walt Disney Imagineering offers paid professional internship and co-op opportunities to students and recent graduates. Disney interns gain valuable experience and insight into our company by working alongside Imagineers on real project assignments and participating in professional and career development sessions. Disney internships will give you valuable on-the-job training while you work on challenging projects and present findings to our senior management team. You can participate in our paid internship opportunities if you’re pursuing or have recently graduated with an undergraduate or graduate degree. Now is your chance to be mentored by the best in the business.
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About the Author
J. Daniel Jenkins, RA, NCARB, LEED AP is a licensed Architect, a published author, a former Walt Disney Imagineer, and former theme park and themed entertainment design consultant with over twenty four years of Commercial + Themed Entertainment design, design management, and A&E subject matter expertise. Jenkins’ themed entertainment experience includes projects in: the Magic Kingdom Fantasyland Expansion, the Disney’s Hollywood Studios Expansion, and Universal’s new Epic Unvierse theme park. Currently, Jenkins is President | Owner of Holihoon Media LLC, and is also the Founder | Chief Editor of themeparkarchitect.com who’s goal is to teach individuals about theme park architecture, engineering, and design, how to become theme park architects and designers, and discuss themed entertainment centric topics and travel from an insider’s persepctive.