A Disney Imagineering adventure

Disney Imagineering winners

A "simple but elegant design" by three Iowa State University students captured first place in the 2017 Walt Disney Imagineering Imaginations Design Competition.

Cristina Diaz, Aurora, Illinois, senior in interior design; Alexander Doppenberg, Spencer, senior in mechanical engineering; and Joshua Kurnia, originally from Jakarta, Indonesia, and now of Ames, senior in architecture, were the first Iowa Staters to reach the finals in the competition's 26-year history.

This year's contest in Glendale, California, challenged students to apply the same design principles used in creating Disney's theme parks, resorts and immersive experiences to develop new outdoor spaces within their own colleges or universities. The goal was to create a design that could address the diverse needs of students, faculty and visitors while providing a respite from daily stress.

'Hourglass' project
The Iowa State team earned top honors with "Hourglass," a structure designed to look like an hourglass tipped on its side to symbolically "stop time."

The proposed space features individual, geothermal "pods" below ground for a more intimate experience, and above-ground seating with heated benches where visitors can socialize in comfort year-round. Special effects -- including sand that moves through glass handrails at 15-minute intervals during the day and embedded, glowing path lights to mimic flowing sand at night -- are intended to subtly remind people of time passing and encourage them to resume their normal activities.

ISU team members worked closely with faculty mentor Kevin Owens, lecturer in architecture and interdisciplinary design, last fall to develop and refine their winning design. Kurnia took Owens' "Design for Entertainment" class last spring, and Diaz is now enrolled in the eight-week course.

"Kevin was amazing, especially in the beginning of the project. We had a hard time developing our concept initially and he had us do sketching exercises to help us solidify the idea of the hourglass," Diaz said. "Toward the end, he helped us focus on the feasibility of the materials and technology."

After finalists were selected last December, teams were assigned mentors (previous finalists) from Walt Disney Imagineering. Students and mentors communicated via Skype and email to hone their project presentations ahead of the final round of competition in January.

Networking and internship opportunities
In addition to Iowa State, finalist teams represented Carnegie Mellon University, Howard University, Miami University, Savannah College of Art and Design, the University of California, San Diego; and the University of Notre Dame. Twenty-one students were awarded a five-day, all-expense-paid trip to Imagineering's headquarters in Glendale, where they presented their projects to executives, went behind the scenes to learn more about the various departments and interviewed for paid internships.

"The real goal of competing is all of the networking opportunities, and the ability to interview for internships and possibly work for Walt Disney Imagineering in the future," Kurnia said. "Winning is the icing on the cake."

All three students hope to work in the entertainment industry after graduation, and working for Walt Disney Imagineering heads their wish lists.

"I got to interview with one of the senior managers in ride engineering, a more behind-the-scenes area of creating propulsion and engineering and design of rides. It was also really cool to visit the research and development department. They have a lot of creative freedom to tinker around with ideas and come up with new technology," said Doppenberg, who completed a Disney College Program internship at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in the summer of 2015.

"Working in either of those two departments would be my dream job, but just getting into Imagineering and being able to tackle challenges in any of the departments would be a dream in itself," he said.

"It's funny because I thought I knew exactly what my dream job was before I went to Glendale, and then I started talking to people and having interviews in different areas and it kept multiplying; everything sounded like something I'd want to do," Diaz said.

"If I had to narrow it down, I'd like to work in the environmental design and engineering department, which is where a lot of interior designers go. Specifically, I would want to do retail and restaurants and resorts. I'm also interested in show set design."

Kurnia is interning at Walt Disney World through June. He wants to do "concept architecture for new attractions."

"I'm also really interested in doing visualization or architectural animations of the new attractions," he added. "One of the things I did for the Hourglass project was to produce a walk-through animation. I didn't realize before that it's something not a lot of students have exposure to."

A big win
The top three teams were announced at a Jan. 27 awards luncheon. Iowa State's winning team received an undisclosed cash prize, and the university was awarded $1,000. Notre Dame finished second, while the team from Carnegie Mellon and Miami University took third. Disney does not plan to build any of the designs; the competition is a way for entrants to demonstrate their skills and creativity.

"The real prize was going and getting to network with our possible future employer," Doppenberg said. "We're very grateful to all the people involved in our lives and in this project, and to Disney for the opportunity. It's a dream come true for all of us."