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Imaginations Run Wild for Walt Disney Competition

A team of Olin students just took home the bronze — out of more than 360 original entries —  from Walt Disney Imagineering’s annual Imaginations Design Competition, which was created 28 years ago to seek out and nurture future generations of Walt Disney Imagineers.

Imagineers, for those unfamiliar with the term, are the creative forces behind Disney theme parks, resorts and attractions; they dream up and design magical experiences and bring them to life. Becoming one of them has been a career goal for Olin student MJ McMillen since she was a kindergartner. During a family trip to Disney World, she’d hopped aboard the Magic Carpets of Aladdin ride. It was magical to pretend to fly around on a carpet, and it was even better to see a robotic camel come to life and squirt water at her mother. “I said I wanted to be a flying carpet mechanic when I grew up,” she says.

The allure of working in animatronics hasn’t diminished for McMillen. When Disney announced its design competition challenge last August, she jumped at the chance and formed a team with classmates Eric Miller and Benjamin Ziemann, who is also eager to explore Imagineering as a career.

This year’s competition prompt challenged students to conceptualize an experience that would let families explore a Natural or Ancient Wonder of the World. Participants had to consider how guests could experience the wonder as a group near the original presumed location, and need to take into account technology solutions that allow the experiences to be shared. These “blue sky” concepts aren’t intended to be built by Disney, but rather are ways for students to demonstrate their storytelling skills and creative abilities.

The Olin team spent the next few months envisioning the Kiiġuyaruq Express, a five-day, wintertime train journey starting in Anchorage and extending far north to some of the most inaccessible and secluded regions in the world. On each day of the journey, the train stops at the site of a historical event or culture, where guests disembark into a recreated vision of the past. They can use their personal, magical compasses to act as agents of the Northern Lights, assisting the people they meet with various problems, while collecting memories.

During the development process, McMillen stepped out of her comfort zone as a robotics engineer to create artwork illustrating the train journey. Ziemann focused on computer-aided design and drafting modeling and renderings of the Kiiġuyaruq Express, while Miller made a prototype of the compass.

In typical Olin fashion, the team went through many iterations before they landed on a concept that they felt confident in. While it would be easy to get carried away into pure fantasyland, they felt it was important that their proposal was physically possible–except for the magic part, of course. So they considered, “What is the power source for actual train cars in Alaska? Is there an environmentally friendly way to get enough power? Is there cell service?”

“It tied together engineering and design in a really interesting way,” says Miller. “We went back and forth, asking ourselves, What makes the most compelling experience but would be physically practical?”

After initial rounds of judging, the Olin team was chosen as a finalist. They were flown out to Walt Disney Imagineering in California, where they presented their project, along with five other teams, in front of Imagineers and Disney executives. 

When they got the call, they were over the moon. Not only would they have the chance to compete against the nation’s other top teams and see how they interpreted the prompt, but they’d also get to network with Imagineers, go behind the scenes to see how Disney magic is created and interview for paid internships during their visit.

As they prepared for their presentation, they decided to embrace their unique position as technical engineers in the design-centric competition. They built and programmed a functional compass, complete with GPS software, which captures photos and allows others to interact with them in real time. During their presentation, they walked through the audience with the compass, taking pictures that appeared on a screen behind them, to demonstrate how a passenger’s photo might appear somewhere on the train, as a shared experience.

Judges especially liked how the team captured the romance of journeys and traveling, and how blending trains and memories captured the essence of family vacations and adventure. They were awarded third place.

Meeting Imagineers and learning about the research and development side of it was a highlight for all three. “I always thought of animatronics as shows and rides, but I learned how much goes into itit was incredible,” says Ziemann.

“There were so many kinds of robots and uses for them, I was amazed—it was even better than I thought,” says McMillen. “I wish I could get hired a million times over, so I can explore every wild and crazy idea to bring it to life.”