Getting to the finals of the Walt Disney Imaginations Design Competition was a pinnacle for three University of Nevada, Reno engineering students, who spent a week in a fun and intensive competition with five other finalist universities.
The student team of Gabbi Bachand, a chemical engineering and art major; Andrew McNeilly, a mechanical engineering major; and Nolan Nicholson, a chemical engineering major; spent the week of Jan. 26-30 "backstage" at the Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters - where Disney magic is created - in Glendale, Calif. In addition to presenting their projects to Imagineering executives, they networked with Imagineers and interviewed for paid internships.
"I wondered if going backstage was going to ruin the magic," team member Bachand said. "Was it going to change how I felt about the company? Was I going to see something I wish I hadn't? And the answer to all of these was a resounding 'no.' Disney is as magical backstage as it is in the parks, and I hold even more respect and admiration for the company knowing how effectively they operate.
"The internship interviews were absolutely thrilling. Meeting with such talented and dedicated people was truly one of the highlights of the trip. Everyone interviewing was exceptionally friendly and open. This has been one of the greatest experiences with some of the most fascinating people I've ever met."
The team was proud of their presentation, even though they didn't place in the top three of the finals.
"We definitely wish we could've worked more to improve our presentation, especially after seeing the other teams' absolutely stunning work, but we're happy with what we delivered," Nicholson said. "It's amazing to sit down and chat with such brilliant and creative minds. The judges were tough in their questioning, but they were remarkably kind as well."
The Imagineers were intrigued with the Nevada student's project.
"The Nevada team has put a lot of work into preparing for this visit, and it's been fun to see the excitement on their faces as the work 'pays off' in a week of surprises," Jonathan Friday, Walt Disney Imagineering associate creative producer and one of the Imagineer mentors for the University's team, said. "This year's prompt (project challenge) was especially head-scratching, and Nolan, Gabrielle and Andrew have risen to the challenge with fresh perspective and enthusiasm. As an alumnus of the program, I know just how intense - and just plain fun - the week of Imaginations can be. We're always excited to share it with each year's participants."
For this year's Imaginations design competition, students were given the challenge to take what Disney does best today and apply it to transportation within a major city. The Nevada team created a hypothetical Disney transportation experience based in Chicago's subway system. The project, titled Line 55, is an entertainment underground transportation system featuring four distinct, adventure-filled routes to various themed locations throughout the city. Guests would be able to "travel" into classic literature plots including a sci-fi space mission, a far-away jungle expedition, a deep ocean dive and a historic Chicago adventure with corresponding themed destinations within the downtown area.
"From the start, Line 55 stood out from the rest of submissions with its fun-for-all-ages educational approach, and further impressed the Imagineers with a clear and concise presentation," Soledad Boyle, internship program manager for Walt Disney Imagineering said.
"We pursued this project since we all share a deep respect for The Walt Disney Company and for the symbiosis of creativity and engineering," Bachand said. "Bringing this project to life amidst a senior-year workload was difficult for all of us, but the reward of a trip to Walt Disney Imagineering and to be a part of this amazing opportunity was well worth it."
Her teammates, who met through the University of Nevada, Reno's Disney Club based in the College of Engineering, shared her enthusiasm for the competition.
"The project is a cool combination of a lot of things we all like: it's got application of engineering design and creativity to a problem outside what we're used to, it involved making a lot of hands-on designs and concept art, and it's tied in with people and themes from Disney," Nicholson said. "We're all huge fans - especially, speaking for myself - of the work they do at Imagineering. I'll admit, though, the chance of the trip to Imagineering was what kept me going at times, especially since we all had a full class load and other projects going on, too."
"As soon as the team found out that they were finalists, they felt like they had won the grand prize," Candice Bauer, faculty advisor and lecturer in the College of Engineering, said. "Making it into the finals is an incredible accomplishment and a 'fast pass' to starting their career. While placing in the top three in the finals didn't happen, just being in the finals is an incredible honor for which they dedicated themselves and sacrificed so much time and effort."
College of Engineering Dean Manos Maragakis said, "This is a great example of the focus of our program to produce globally competitive graduates who are technically outstanding but also have a strong broader education and are engaging."
The team members may perhaps follow in the amusement park footsteps of another University of Nevada, Reno Department of Engineering student, Ron Toomer, who graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in 1961 and was inducted into the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Hall of Fame in the year 2000. He designed 93 roller coaster rides and had assorted other notable accomplishments. One of his first projects was his contributions to solving water issues on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.
Toomer, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 81, was reportedly most proud of his contribution to the development of the first practical upside-down coaster elements (The Corkscrew).
While only time will tell if they make it to the Amusement Parks and Attractions Hall of Fame, the students have made great strides in starting careers in that industry.
The University of Nevada, Reno team competed with finalist teams from Art Center College of Design, Drexel University, Ringling College of Art + Design, San Jose State University and Texas Tech University.