Students create magic in Disney Imagineering competition
Carnegie Mellon is famous for its prominence in the technical world, but recently, a team of Carnegie Mellon mechanical engineering students navigated their way to the top of one of the world’s most creative realms. Senior mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering double major Laura Laham, senior mechanical engineering and engineering and public policy double major Andre Sutanto, and senior mechanical engineering major Anisha Vyas were selected as one of six finalist teams in the ImagiNations Design Contest held by Walt Disney Imagineering.
Disney Imagineering is responsible for Disney’s design and development, including the creation of theme parks, resorts, cruise ships, and entertainment. The design competition, ImagiNations, is hosted annually to give participants the opportunity to exhibit their creative talents as well as gain practical skills to implement their ideas.
Vyas, Sutanto, and Laham entered the contest with Sophia Chan last year and were named semi-finalists; Chan, now a Carnegie Mellon alum, works for Disney Imagineers. This year, the three collaborated with Jane Liu from the Art Center College of Design in California.
The topic for this year’s contest was to choose any city in the world and design an entertainment experience for its citizens and tourists. Finalists were selected based on guest experience, marketing perspective, uniqueness, and collaboration skills.
The team’s project, “Legenda Emas,” is an interactive boat ride set in Jakarta, Indonesia. Unlike a number of Disney attractions, which focus on common Disney fairy tales, the team designed a project that immerses participants in an Indonesian legend of a betrothed prince and princess and a nefarious witch who seeks to keep them apart.
“When we took a step back and realized that this should be an original ride from the location that we’re placing it in, our project really changed and took on a lot more value,” Laham said.
The attraction takes the riders through scenes of the legend, and places them as volunteers in the Royal Search Party whose objective is to follow a golden trail to find the princess. Another unique aspect of the ride is that each set of riders has a different experience. “Participants feel like they are a part of the story, so they are interactively changing the story as they go,” Sutanto said.
The attraction integrates technology such as radio-frequency identification, Kinect sensors, and computer-generated imagery to allow the participants to interact with the prince throughout the journey. At the end of the ride, riders are rewarded with a fireworks show for finding the princess.
For the team members, bringing their idea to life was both invigorating and challenging.
“It’s pretty rare to have to put all of your creativity into one project. It’s interesting to be drained of that in a way. Also, working with the artist [Jane Liu], and us being engineers, we came from two completely different mindsets…even between the three of us, our mindsets were completely different…. So trying to find a commonality was both our strength and the hardest part,” Vyas said.
In addition to the pressure to apply their creativity to the fullest, it was also a challenge to manage the project in addition to coursework. “To me, one of the hardest part of this projects was the fact that we were very passionate about the project, so it was hard to pull away from it to do other classwork,” Sutanto said.
Putting the project together provided an opportunity to apply their education to bring their ideas to life. “One of my favorite parts was the engineering principles I picked up along the way to figure out how the engineering parts should look, or how the parts should be redesigned to accommodate our vision — also just applying the train of thought to the technology that went into it as well,” Laham said. “I didn’t think I would use the same principles that I learned in Intro to Programming to program a Kinect to follow my hand, so that when I moved it around, something would happen on a screen. But it was all the same principles, which was awesome.”
The finalist teams traveled on a five-day, all-expense-paid -trip to Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, California. There, they participated in a final competition, presenting their project in person to a panel of Imagineer executive judges. Laham, Sutanto, Vyas, and Liu won the second-place prize of $1,000.
In addition, finalist team members had the chance to interview for paid internships, interact with Imagineers, and receive behind-the-scenes tours. A number of past winners have proceeded to receive paid internships and even full-time employment with Walt Disney Imagineering.
All three hope to work for Disney Imagineers in the near future. “Working for Imagineers is one of those lifelong goals for any engineer,” Vyas said.