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Imagineer That! Jayhawk Engineers Dream Big at Disney Theme Parks

Monday, December 15, 2008

[Disney-Pixar Toy Story Midway Mania]

Three University of Kansas alumni are busy engineering smiles, giggles, laughs and good times.

KU School of Engineering alumni Jerold Kaplan, Tanner Rinke and Carl Shaad are three Disney Imagineers working on Toy Story Midway Mania!, a new interactive ride attraction that opened this spring at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World and in mid-June in Disney’s California Adventure Park.

The Toy Story Midway Mania! project features characters from the Disney/Pixar “Toy Story” movies, said Kaplan, a 1984 mechanical engineering graduate who leads the ride team. The attraction is an elegant, high-tech, creative effort that took three years to complete.

“The story is that all of Andy’s toys have staged a carnival in Andy’s room while he’s out. So as you come through the entrance into the building you will immediately become ‘toy-sized’ as you enter,” he said. At the Florida attraction “the queue is filled with all the games you played as a kid, but completely oversized, and now a life-sized, fully animated, dimensional Mr. Potato Head is acting as the carnival barker at one end of the room. When you get into the ride space itself, you see the toys have set up a carnival midway game set, complete with spring action shooters, and that’s actually what you’re playing as you go through the ride.

“All the ring-toss, balloon-pop, plate-breaking games you find on a typical carnival midway are part of the experience. Except our games feature the ‘Toy Story’ characters as your hosts and coaches for each of the games, and we use state-of-the-art 3D technology, and some 4D effects as well, to play the games.”

[KU Engineering Alumnus Carl Shaad]

To hear the Imagineers tell it, technology is what makes this attraction amazing.

“The real-time 3D graphics are incredible!” said Shaad, who earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a computer science concentration in 1972. He serves as the principal ride control engineer. “I especially like the way the targets – and many non-target objects in the scene – react to being hit with a ‘projectile.’ The objects react with very realistic, physical motion, lending more realism to the guest experience.”

Kaplan concurred.

“I think one of the coolest things is the integration of all this technology. We’ve done dark rides before. We’ve done 3D before. We’ve done guests interacting with the space around them before. But we’ve never combined all those elements into one attraction with such a popular background like ‘Toy Story.’ ”

Attention to detail is crucial to any engineering project, but detail is the princess around which all the magic revolves at Disney. The process begins with a storyboard from the creative team.

“Often times, the concept doesn’t necessarily meet the laws of physics or target budget so there’s an iterative process we go through that begins to blend the creative intent with the realities of the financial and physical world,” Kaplan said. “After that stage and we’ve made sure what we intend to do still meets that storytelling goal, everything about the project – budgets, schedule, architectural development and engineering – begins to get more concrete.”

Like other engineering endeavors, a Disney project goes through a design-analysis-redesign-produce cycle, Kaplan said.

[KU Engineering alumni Tanner Rinke and Jerold Kaplan]

“And when we move to the field for installation, the fun really begins,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is everything we design and build is a prototype of sorts, mainly because it doesn’t usually exist anywhere else in the world. But unlike other engineering companies, our prototypes have to run 18 hours a day, 365 days a year for many, many years.”

Throughout the process, the focus is always on being true to the creative intent. That detailed craftsmanship got Rinke – the new kid on the Imagineering block – to stop and take note.

“One week when the show scenes were being installed, I kept stopping in the middle of my ride testing to walk over to the sets, because I couldn’t tell if they were 3D objects or painted flats,” Rinke said. “I’d put my face 3 feet from the backdrop and still couldn’t tell in some cases. Now, that’s detail. Anytime the Imagineers can keep the guests asking, ‘I wonder how they did that,’ we know the detail is impeccable.”

It’s a way of doing business that never gets old.

“After over 19 years with Disney, I’m still amazed when you go back and look at the creative sketches of the original intent versus what we’ve opened,” Kaplan said. “More often than not, you could put a photo next to the sketch and have trouble telling them apart. That’s what sets Disney apart.”

But, really, it’s not what they think that matters.

“It’s very rewarding to see the excitement and happiness on the faces of the guests — especially children — as they exit an attraction I’ve worked on,” said Shaad. “No amount of praise or recognition from my management could top that.”

The reaction of the guests is the fuel that drives the Imagineers many of whom make a point of watching the action on opening day.

“That’s the big payoff at the project’s end after all the long hours it took to get there,” Kaplan said. “Watching people enjoy firsthand something you’ve had a hand in is also pretty unique for an engineer. The public may be thankful you’ve put your engineering expertise into the nose gear of the plane they’re on or the brake system on their car, but it probably doesn’t compare to the reaction you get when you tell them you’re an Imagineer and their favorite ride or show at Disney was something you and your team designed.”

[Guests enjoy the experience of Disney*Pixar Toy Story Midway Mania.]

It’s a tough job, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Another Disney engineer, Tim Eck, once told me, ‘in what other industry do you get to turn a motor to make someone laugh or actuate a cylinder to make someone smile?’” Rinke said. “I think he’s right. As a theme park engineer, whether you’re working on a show effect or a ride system, you get to engineer products whose end purpose is for entertainment and creativity. This is the most rewarding for me.”

And the rewards will likely keep coming his way.

“This is my dream career,” Rinke said. The May 2007 mechanical engineering grad landed his dream job right after leaving KU.

“I grew up in Kansas and loved summer trips to amusement parks as a kid. In fact, the only thing I knew about most cities in the U.S. was which ones had amusement/theme parks. … After my first trip to Disney World in middle school, I discovered Imagineering and realized I could actually help create the places I enjoyed so much, and I could use my technical skills for a highly themed and creative end.”

Kaplan put in five years in industry before joining Disney.

“I always new I wanted to work in the machine design field working with big, industrial type equipment. But I didn’t have ‘Roller Coaster Tycoon’ as a kid so it took me a while — as a senior at KU in fact — to put two and two together and figure out engineers actually get to do design work in this environment as well.”

For all the enchantment the team members are able to create, there are some limits to their magical abilities, Kaplan said.

“For any of my old college friends who happen to read this, no I don’t have any extra Disney tickets I can get you. But it would be great to catch up.”

— Story by Jill Hummels

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