Behind all the magic created in Disney theme parks are countless engineers, artists, and designers who create the experience enjoyed by millions of guests each year. Disney calls them Imagineers, a combination of imagination and engineer, bridging the gap between science and fantasy to create believable make-believe worlds.
It’s a dream job for many, especially among Disney fans, who often hold Imagineers in higher regard than most celebrities and political figures. Imagineers are the “rock stars” of the themed entertainment industry, so it’s no wonder that positions at Walt Disney Imagineering are often strived for, but so difficult to land.
With few jobs ever available and thousands of interested applicants, the question is often asked, “How do I become an Imagineer?” With the aid of former Walt Disney Imagineer and current Disney freelance artist Don Carson, we attempt to answer that question, at least a little bit. There is no easy answer, as no one specific formula will offer anyone the coveted title, but a few helpful tips can begin a trip down the path toward creating Disney magic.
Below is a partial transcription, photos, and additional details surrounding Don Carson’s journey to becoming an Imagineer and advice for all the future Imagineers out there. (That’s you!) If you prefer to hear Carson’s advice and stories rather than read them, listen to Show 309 of our Inside the Magic podcast, available for streaming from this web site as well as to download directly.
The interview begins roughly 30 minutes into the show. Just click here to listen or read on…
Don Carson was employed at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) in Glendale, Calif. from 1989 to 1995. He worked as Show Designer for Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World and in the development of Toontown at Disneyland in California. During his time as an Imagineer, Carson produced more than 700 concept drawings and paintings, many of which have ended up in the WDI archives, to potentially see the light of day again in the future.
Currently, Carson is a freelance artist, still contributing to Imagineering projects when asked, but also offering his artistic talents to other entertainment companies including Universal Studios. Carson’s online portfolio and blog offer a glimpse into the wide range of talent he possesses. Of course, with Carson not currently employed by Disney (or any one design group), his tips and opinions given below are not officially that of Disney or any other themed experience company, but completely his own, based on his personal experiences.
Carson’s own road to becoming an Imagineer is both typical and unique. Any time an Imagineer is asked how he or she came to work there, the answer generally involves a tale of hard work, perseverance, natural talent, and a bit of luck. Below is Don Carson’s own tale of finding his way into Walt Disney Imagineering.
QUESTION: How did you become a Walt Disney Imagineer?
DON CARSON: I actually didn’t even really know that Imagineering existed when I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area.
I actually went to the Academy of Art college in San Francisco and majored as an illustrator. Pretty much at that time illustration was kind of on the way out so we were basically learning the skills that were going to launch us into a career into editorial illustration and the like. And I found really quickly that I didn’t really enjoy working on “finish work” and I didn’t really enjoy working with advertising agencies. What I really liked was coming up with the ideas, getting it done roughly, and then forgoing that finished painting part. I had gone and talked to all of my counselors and head of the illustration department and she assured me that a career where you just came up with ideas and didn’t take it to a finish just didn’t exist. So I launched myself into an illustration career.
Probably about the time the new Fantasyland opened at Disneyland, there was a lot of press and they talked a lot about these Imagineers – these people who designed the theme park attractions and I thought, ‘Oh, what I have a done? I just spent four years in college to learn to be an illustrator when really I wanted to be an Imagineer.’
On his own, Carson then produced around 150 paintings of elements of Disneyland, from doorknobs to lamp posts, as he was a fan of the parks to begin with and thought this would be the perfect way to show his knowledge of the product as well as create a portfolio to show Disney.
He landed an interview at Walt Disney Studios, mostly “as a gesture,” as they were impressed by the amount of work Carson had put into his drawings without any real indication he would get his work published or even get a job there. But even with that initial meeting, it wasn’t until roughly six years later that Carson finally did land a formal interview with Walt Disney Imagineering.
DON CARSON: They asked the question: ‘Are you familiar with our product?’ and I whipped out hundreds of paintings and they went ‘Well, obviously you are!’
Timing was finally right for Carson to get a position at Imagineering, with ongoing projects including doubling the size of the Disney-MGM Studios and other large-scale projects in parks worldwide. During this rare time, Imagineering was hiring artists “off the street,” a practice not often done, especially today.
Advice for Students
Having found his way into Walt Disney Imagineering, worked among some of the world’s most creative and inventive minds for six years, and ultimately deciding to leave to pursue freelance work, Don Carson is in a perfect position to offer his advice for anyone seeking to follow in his footsteps. He does so via our interview below:
QUESTION: What should kids study in school to work toward becoming a Walt Disney Imagineer?
DON CARSON: Imagineering is such a large organization with hundreds of disciplines that if you’re interested in audio or you’re interested in engineering or you’re interested in architecture, they’re all possible jobs for you. One of my friends is a themed lighting designer and she designs all the one-of-a-kind light fixtures that are applied to the attractions and I just can’t think of a college that has a program specifically for themed lighting. What you have to do with Imagineering is you have to show them that you have the skill base to take on whatever the job is at hand that you’re interested in.
I was working as a show designer. There’s the show design and concept design departments and they’re the guys and women who are responsible for those first sketches that are done. Being a show designer can be a lot of different things even into the category of being an artist. You might be someone who spends your entire career doing nothing but storyboards so having a really strong basic drawing ability, any artistic foundation that you can get through art school is valuable.
If we’re talking specifically about what kind of schooling you should get and we’re talking specifically about doing a show design or concept design job, go to art school and learn all the basics because even if the industry changes […] those basic skills are still utilized whether or not you’re doing pen-and-paper or whether or not you’re doing computer work. And when you go into Imagineering or any theme park design company and you’re looking for work, the first thing they’re going to look at is whether or not you have the ability to draw and that you communicate the ideas that are in your head.
You never know from one job to the next what you’re going to draw. […] At Imagineering, you’re going to be asked to draw anything. So whatever training you can get, and I would recommend some kind of art training at art school, getting the ability to feel comfortable enough to communicate your ideas through drawings and no matter what you’re asked to draw.
Getting a job at Walt Disney Imagineering
QUESTION: What job should college graduates be looking for to gain experience before applying to Walt Disney Imagineering?
DON CARSON: Imagineering, being the pinnacle of theme park design, doesn’t want to necessarily talk to you until you’ve proven that you understand what they do. Although I can imagine you could bring in examples that showed you could do theme park design, if you come in with work you’ve done for other companies, that’s a sure sign that you understand this unique industry. […] Look at the other forms of entertainment, whether that’s a theme park company or even theatrical companies, people who do stage set design, any of those things will give you experience that will inform Imagineering that you understand their product.
QUESTION: “Imagineer” unto itself is not a job title. Can you give some example job titles that people actually perform while at Walt Disney Imagineering?
DON CARSON: There’s countless numbers of them. The closest to me was show design and concept design. There’s producers, production designers, dimensional designers – they’re responsible for the models -, sculpting, painting, various audio engineers, show writing – who are responsible for not only coming up with the scripts but also for recording all the talent, bringing that talent in and all the sound effects and the orchestration as well. There’s people who are responsible for making sure that the props are purchased. Prop purchaser is a full-time job for somebody who hunts the world for anything from pirate cannons to bird cages to fill the theme parks. There’s just no end to the types of jobs that are there.
QUESTION: What about personality? Is there an Imagineering culture that would help someone get in if they were a certain type of person?
DON CARSON: Someone who’s a huge fan and is very verbal about it is probably less apt to get in, because really you’re there to do the job. In fact, I’ve known people working in the industry who actually don’t like, necessarily, going to theme parks but they’re marvelous designers. They’re really, really good storytellers.
So one of the worst things you could do is go in there and say, ‘I love Mickey Mouse and it’s my dream to work on things that involve Mickey Mouse.’ It’s much better to go in and say, ‘I really, really understand this industry. I think my talent is a good fit and I’m willing to do whatever’s necessary to get in and help you do that.’
QUESTION: How does one actually go about applying for a job at Walt Disney Imagineering? Do you log onto a Disney career web site?
DON CARSON: I think the HR of any company would insist that’s the best way to get into the company. I’ve found it to be the opposite – that going in the front door is often a way to ensure you will never, ever work for that company. We live in a time of the Internet. You really need to foster relationships with people who are there or people who know people who are there.
Being able to have a conversation with someone, even if it’s, ‘I’m really interested in your work as a designer.’ I think designers, artists, engineers – they like to be recognized and if you’re honestly interested in the work that they do and you’re willing to – not pester them mercilessly – but to just [say], ‘Hi, I’m really interested in this industry. Can you help me? Can I talk to you? Can I show you some things?’ Give them the opportunity to mentor you a little bit and then at some point, if you feel as though you have enough stuff, [you can say], ‘You know, I’ve been working on this, you’ve seen the kind of work I’ve done, is there someone at Imagineering I should talk to, that I can mention your name?’ That usually works better for any company you want to work for. That inside connection is what gets you in there.
It’s clear that there is no secret shortcut to becoming a Walt Disney Imagineer. Imagineering is held in such high regard for a reason, as those who do get to call themselves Imagineers have reached a position within a leading force of the themed entertainment industry. And anyone who wishes to pursue the dream to work there must arrive with a high skill level and expertise as anyone else who is employed at WDI. It’s not an impossible task, but it’s not an easy one either. Fortunately, there are plenty of stepping stones along the way. Carson highly recommends taking job opportunities in related companies in whatever field suits an individual’s own talents. Whether it be sound engineering, writing, or traditional illustration, Imagineering has a home for hundreds of skill sets and it’s simply a matter of honing those skills and seeking out the right avenue to show them off to a decision maker.
Don Carson offered many more stories and additional advice for getting a job at Walt Disney Imagineering, which you can hear unedited in Show 309 of our Inside the Magic podcast.
For additional advice for becoming a theme park designer, don’t miss our wrap-up of the Entertainment Designer Forum from April 2010, where we sought advice from seven leading themed entertainment experts at Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Studios.