“How do I become an Imagineer?” Not surprisingly, it’s one of the most common questions I’m asked on Imagineer Podcast. As I’ve continued to interview Walt Disney Imagineers, I’ve found there’s no easy answer to this question, but there are a few pieces of wisdom that can help you get started, whether you want to work with this legendary Disney team as an engineer, artist, architect, programmer, project manager or beyond.
In this podcast episode, I compile some of the advice I’ve received from Imagineers interviewed on the show, including advice from McNair Wilson, Jim Sarno, Bob Gurr, Leslie Iwerks, Russell Brower, Brian Collins, Timmy Britt, Theron Skees, Brian Crosby, Tony Baxter, and more. Whether you’re an aspiring Imaingeer or just need some career advice, I hope this episode will provide you with some inspiration and wisdom on your journey to accomplish your career goals. I also strongly encourage you to head back to previous Imagineer Podcast episodes to listen to the full discussions with each of these Imagineers.
What goal are you hoping to accomplish this year?
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Matt: Hello and welcome to the Imagineer Podcast, your unofficial guide to all things Disney. I’m your host Matthew Krul and you’re listening to episode 129 of the Imagineer Podcast. In today’s episode we’re going to be covering a subject, a question, that I get so often on the show, which is, “how do you become an Imagineer?” It’s a very very difficult question, and one that has no simple answer. But because I have interviewed a number of Imagineers throughout the show’s history, I thought I would take the opportunity to create a sort of compilation of some of the advice I have received when I ask this very question. Including of course, how do you get your foot in the door, what are some of the common traits, what should you study and even more importantly, once you get into Imagineering, how can you ensure that you stay an Imagineer, if you desire to do so, and continue to develop within the company. If you don’t want to become an Imagineer, I still think this episode will be very relevant to you, because a lot of the advice offered not only applies to a career in themed entertainment, or specifically in Imagineering, but any career path you might want to pursue there’s a lot of great wisdom here, and I’m excited to share with you some of the best advice I have received over the years about how to become an Imagineer. Before we jump into this episode I of course want to give a very special thanks to our sponsor, WDWMagazine. You can learn more and subscribe to WDWMagazine’s print and digital editions by clicking on the link in the show notes of this episode or by heading to ImagineerPodcast.com. At the end of the episode I’ll come back and tell you a little bit more about how you can connect with the Imagineer Podcast on all your favorite social media channels and how you can help to inspire and create the future of this show. So, grab some headphones, pull up your favorite armchair, and enjoy this episode of the Imagineer Podcast.
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Matt: Although I’ve never worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, and in fact, have never even worked in a similar kind of role, as a lifelong fan and historian of Imagineering, a former cast member, and of course a podcaster with a show named in honor of the Imagineers, one of the most common questions I’m asked from listeners around the globe is “how to become an Imagineer?” The more I’ve researched this very question, the more I’ve learned that there’s no clear way into Walt Disney Imagineering, part of the mystery stems from the multifaceted nature of this famous department. According to the official Imagineering website there are over 100 different disciplines on the team, everything from “artists to architects, scientists to show producers, project managers to programmers, model makers to mathematicians, and so many more.” Disney hires the best of the best in each of these areas, which require their own unique field of study, experience, and skill set. There are some common themes when it comes to soft skills, such as the ability to work well with others and share credit on ideas, the willingness to work hard and think outside the box, the passion to love what you do and always strive to learn more and do better, even in your most senior years of Imagineering, the eagerness to take initiative without losing patience, and the ability to both deeply know your craft and understand how it fits with other disciplines. At the end of the day, most Imagineers are enthusiastic, curious, results driven, creative, team oriented, and perhaps sometimes a bit eccentric. They’re fans of their work and respectful of the past, but focused on the future. While I can’t advise on one clear path into Walt Disney Imagineering, I have had the incredible opportunity and privilege to chat with some incredible Imagineers, each of whom have left some pearls of wisdom about how to become an Imagineer. So in this episode, I thought it would be worth recapping some of the lessons learned through Imagineer Podcast by playing back some of the advice we’ve heard the last five years of the show. I hope you find this recap to be informative and inspirational with perhaps a bit of wisdom, even if you’re looking to pressure a totally different career. To start, I would like to jump back to my first interview with an Imagineer, which was a discussion with former Imagineer McNair Wilson, who worked on Tower of Terror and the Adventurer’s Club, but was more famous for his extensive work designing the Streetmosphere performances at Epcot and the early days of Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I asked McNair what advice he would offer to aspiring Imagineers and he had some rather useful information to share which shows just how many types of talent, careers, and personalities, are present at Imagineering.
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McNair: You wanna be an Imagineer. I would say probably go to college, maybe not. Get a generalist degree, get a degree in Library Science or History of the W-, Hist-, da-, ah-, you know the art and scientific history of the western world, but we also had a woman at Imagineering, who had a PhD in polymer chemistry, she made fake stretchy things.
McNair: She figured out a new way to do what’s called the rubbering process, that’s the skin that’s put on the face of Pirates and Presidents and other audio animatronic –
McNair: – figures. She, she told me about going to, we’re comparing notes, about going to our reunions, her college and my high school. And we were both the big hit of our reunion, cause we’re the magic Disney Imagineer, and of course my friends are like, well of course you are [slams hand down on table], you know goofy, you know.
McNair: And she, she was a PhD in polymer chemistry working at Imagineering and her [inaudible]. Be a generalist, if there’s something specific you want to do in the area of engineering or graphic design, if you’re a visual artist, be able to draw an-y-thing, be able to draw eve-ry-thing, don’t specialize in one thing or another. If you’re an architect be also a conceptual architect, that can sit and say ‘maybe it’s like this, maybe it’s like this, maybe it’s like this’, and then starting as soon as this interview is, you’re done watching it, go online to disney.com, go to the Imagineering page, see what positions are open and start to do that on a, at least on a monthly if not a weekly basis, and see what they’re, see what all the different kinds of jobs are which ones of those gets closest to what you want to do, then write to ‘em. Say hey I’m a junior in college, hey I’m a sophomore in high school, here’s what I like to do, any advice? They’ll help you out, they’ll help you out I’ve gotten friends hired there, and so they’re going to need more people all the time, I watched eh, some of the videos from D23, and Joe Rohde did a panel discussion with three of their top people, I didn’t know any of them, no I left there in ‘92, ‘91, so there’s not a, there a, there a good number of, a guy, a kid who was my summer intern, part time, I shared with, a kid named Matt McKim, son of Sam McKim, Matt’s now there, a regular full-time, big time Imagineer, but started as an intern, so write to them, find out about the intern program, and they have imagineers all over the world, every theme park has what’s called an SQS team, Show Quality Standard, that live and breathe in the park walking around all day, every day, making sure that everything’s up to standard quality, and those are, those are Imagineers as well. So be a generalist, focus on what you want to focus on, but don’t get so focused that that’s all you can do, and start to keep tabs on Imagineering, and write to them and say here’s my interests. You know, at, my new book, I talk about who Imagineers are, they’re ordinary people, they put their pants on one leg at a time –
Matt: [Laughs] That’s right
McNair: – Some of them, you know, one of, one guy that’s an Imagineer, Bil-, puts up this tent every year out in Simi Valley for his community Summer Shakespeare Festival. He’s a technical guy, he’s a build, you know, big big guy, not pretty. One of the Imagineers that lives in your neighborhood that’s, is the guy you borrow tools from, because he has every tool God ever made –
McNair: – Cause that’s what he got, another guy might be the guy in your church who figured out how to, how, how to have the angels suspended over the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, in the choir loft, you know?
McNair: They’re ordinary everyday folks, they’re moms, they’re dads, they’re gay, straight, tall, old, young, silly, serious, Christians, Republicans, Democrats, they’re everything, every- I mean literally, I don’t I don’t say that to you know be something fanciful, tho-, tho-, all of those are there, you know and so be one of ‘em, be one of ‘em, don’t, it’s got, the next 200 Imagineers got to come from somewhere, there’s no reason you can be one of those.
Matt: That’s great advice –
McNair: but if you don’t –
Matt: – and I hope it’s great inspiration.
McNair: -If you don’t apply, you know the best way to not get hired there is to never apply.
Matt: That’s true
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Matt: I hope McNair’s advice just shows how many different types of people work at Imagineering, and inspires you to go out there and be one of them. Next I’d like to turn to some advice from Imagineer Jim Sarno, Jim worked on some original Epcot attractions like The Land Pavilion, Imagination!, and Spaceship Earth. He offered some more practical advice about the importance of working well with others.
Jim: Well I have to say with all the kids I teach, and I, I always tell them, I say you don’t have to be the best at what you do, but you really do have to get along with the people you work with. Now, for us it was a collaborative adventure, we worked together constantly, I hear now in Imagineering it’s a little more isolated, a lot more computer work than hands on, so it might be different, but I would still say, be good at what you do and mostly show up and get along with the people you work with, and for me that worked and I think that works in life. There –
Jim: – are plenty of people who can do a lot of things, but get along with who you’re with.
Matt: Taking things a step back, one of the first Imagineers I had the honor of interviewing was Disney Legend, Bob Gurr. Bob designed some of the most iconic attraction vehicles at Disneyland, everything from the Monorail to the Haunted Mansion Doom Buggies, he also designed the track layout for Matterhorn Bobsleds and the mechanics for the Abraham Lincoln animatronic at the 1964 World’s Fair. When I asked Bob about what it takes to become an Imagineer he shared the value of mixing innate talent with unyielding curiosity and arduous study.
Bob: I get this ah, question all the time, obviously I meet literally a hundreds of people a year everywhere, and they’ve always got youngsters with ‘em, maybe six, seven, eight, years old, maybe seventeen years old, gals and guys. So I get the, the parental question all the time, in a general sense, to be realistic I sarcastically look at the child, at the, his, wants to be the Imagineer and I give ‘em a little sarcastic barb from Uncle Bob here I says, ‘well you have to choose your parents very carefully because you want the –
Bob: – D, no seriously, you want to gather up the best DNA you can get that you can, with your worker use very very well.’ Of course the eyebrows on the parents shoot right straight up –
Bob: And usually the kid, the kid gets my point in an instant. And then I say, with that in mind ah, you have to be totally curious, now you might not be born totally curious, but you can le-, you can work at that and then they say, well give me an example, and I say well it’s a simple thing, if you were to, as much as you can, explore every subject and every area that you know absolutely nothing about and are not interested in, and you do that for many many years, by the time you’re seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old and somebody’s asking you to do something that’s interesting, you will have so many ideas immediately that have been in your brain because you’ve been collecting ‘em all those years and you will immediately get in a conversation with somebody about a wide variety of subjects that you you thought were worthless that you don’t know how you’re ever gonna use ‘em and then you surprise yourself, by golly it was sure worth learning all this extra extra stuff because of this characteristic of curiosity. Now you compare that with a student that ah, is very very high-tech in the sixth grade, they got their own smartphone, they know how computers work, they know how to bypass parental controls all that sort of stuff, and guess what they do, they they text and party all through high school and by the time they graduate from high school, they know almost nothing about the world and its history and its realities, but boy do they know everything on social media, with information going right and left back and forth none of it being useful for what you need to do for the rest of your life. That’s a gigantic contrast and you have to have the judgment as you’re growing up to have some wisdom that you gotta create for yourself, through that curiosity, the day that you wanna send a resume over to Imagineering you will have some very intelligent things you can share with them that why you are needed at the Imagineering, that you can bring skills to them, to help them, not walk up to them and say I’ve always wanted to be an Imagineer, what do I need to do now, and it’s too late. This is a very serious serious approach, and a very serious subject, but the ones that have thought about it they will get get attention eventually from Imagineering if you just keep bothering them until they see that you are really really serious but you never can go a company like Imagineering says oh I need a job, oh I love being, an idea of being an Imagineer. Well little girl being an Imagineer is one thing, but doing Imagineering work is where it really is, and if you want to know how hard this is you just go get your parents to get you on Disney+ and you watch those six episodes of the Imagineers and you’ll see how hard work this is to try to make a dream work.
Matt: As you can tell from Bob’s response, being an Imagineer takes a tremendous amount of hard work and curiosity, so if you’ll already have those traits, you’re already on the right track. Shortly after interviewing Bob, I had the privilege of chatting with Leslie Iwerks. The Iwerks family is Disney royalty, Leslie’s grandfather Ub, was Walt’s business partner in Kansas City and the first true animator of Mickey Mouse. Leslie’s father Don kept his family’s legacy alive as an Imagineer. And Leslie has made her mark as a filmmaker, producing such iconic documentaries as The Pixar Story and The Imagineering Story. Behind the lens Leslie spent several years researching and interviewing the Imagineers, I asked her if she noticed any common threads among the Imagineers, and she had some great insights to share about the common personality traits and culture at Imagineering.
Leslie: I think, well first of all, I think every Imagineer stands on the shoulders of those who came before and those original Imagineers who collaborated with Walt you know really kind of were standing on the shoulders of Walt, so I think that there’s this lineage and this DNA that exists at Imagineering today that everyone has a respect for the founder, everyone has a respect for Walt Disney and what he did. And what I’ve seen is that you know these parks they get more challenging with every park that’s built, for any number of reasons, money, constraints, physical constraints, governments, you name it, but, they, it’s always this sort of can do attitude there’s always challenges but that’s exactly what Walt went through when he built the first Disneyland. And I think that they’re trying always to learn the lessons that they learned from previous parks and I think it’s just constant iteration and certainly the technology gets better and better, it makes things more efficient but it doesn’t necessarily mean things take less time to get built and it was that meaning to watch you know the building of Shanghai Disneyland because there were times, I mean I think a lot of people just thought how in the world is this, is this ever gonna get built, how’s it ever gonna get finished, and it was daunting, and I still marvel at Bob Weiss, and you know all that whole, team who pulled that together, it was incredible and I don’t even know the half of it you know, so what they what they had to go through to get that park completed, but, but I think ultimately it’s kinda how we end our last episode which is that constantly asking that question of what if, and what if we did this, how could we do this, and the the ideas just are always so you know forthcoming with Imagineers and the excitement around you know like, Star Wars for example, you know all those guys were huge Star Wars fans, so you start with, with a group of passionate people who love and respect the IP or the content in which they’re working and they have, they wanna, they wanna make it better and bigger and brighter than any of the fans might expect and so they’re always about surpassing what, what the expectations might be, and so that is in the exciting and invigorating world in which to work, when you’re constantly thinking how can we surpass what we did yesterday um, you know so, it’s just, and it’s, there’s also, I felt, always very welcomed by the Imagineers when I was there, I would, I never felt like I was you know invading their space or I just felt like they were always so welcoming to share what they were doing and how and why and the thought process behind it and and that was refreshing too, there, I didn’t ever feel like there was a bunch of egos or that the culture was kind of, you know, not right. I felt like Imagineering I think gets so much respect becauses they bring, their job is to bring to people and no organization is perfect no organization you know or company can do it all right but I’ve been, I’ve told a lot of documentaries about companies, and you know cultures, and I have to say I feel like Imagineering was just super special and it’s so dif-, it’s different and I think it’s definitely had its challenges and its low points when it comes to management or the way in which they were run, but I feel like you know, it, it’s just the, it’s a special place, and the fact that they were sort of coveted for so long, and they weren’t put out there into the public eye, and only recently they’re kind of, you know with this documentary series, and other, and other things they’re doing internally now to show the world what they do. It’s, it just feels like we opened this huge gift, like unwrapped a big gift box for the world to see who’s been creating the beloved attraction that these people have been experiencing throughout their lives.
Matt: I hope Leslie’s response gives you at least some insight into what the culture is like in Imagineering. As we’ve learned it takes a lot of hard work to become and remain an Imagineer, and the same is true of almost any career path. Another Imagineer I interviewed, Russell Brower, turned an interest in music into an award winning career. I asked Russell what it takes to make it in music, or a similar field and he spoke to the determination, commitment, and support it takes to turn an artistic passion into a full time career.
Russell: Well this is me, the tough love part, and that’s where, if we had more time I would probably spend about ten minutes trying to talk anyone out of it.
Russell: Saying run, screaming, do not, here there be dragons,
Russell: But, but, but after that then I would say but the good part is this, and then that’s the talk we’ve just had this is all, this is all the good part. I think my advice would be to just be aware of what you’re getting into to, because where art and commerce converge, is an intersection that is very compelling, it’s exciting, it’s, it has everything to do with what we love and what makes what we love possible and all like that, but also for a creative person who is also probably depending on where they come from, how they’re wired and you know what kind of just, what their personal story is, often creative people are pretty sensitive, you know, our emotions are close to the surface, things like that. That intersection of commerce and art can be a very dangerous place, a very volatile place to be, so it’s not for everyone and it, or it won’t always be for everyone all the time, and so I tell people especially students, I go, be sure this is what you want to do and they’ll usually nod and go yeah that’s why we’re here, why, yeah, but then if it’s students, I’ll ask okay how, how many of you, how many of you have a plan b? You know and it’s typical in school maybe you know, made a deal with the parents in order to major in music one had to minor in business or something like that, and invariably hands shoot up cause that’s what happens, and I, and I, and that’s the point where I tell them, if you have a plan b you should do that, because as long as there is a plan b waiting in the wings it’s it’s a human nature, that’s, that’s where you will end up, most likely, to make it you kinda have to like, you know make it to the new world, burn your ships behind you, and stay with it, and just and it’s a 24/7 full-body contact sport. I’m not saying it will screw up all your relationships, but it will effect all your relationships and that’s important, so just know, just know that going in, you know, and if you have the right support system in your life, you have the right, whether that’s a person, or a pet, or your family, or whatever whatever it is, and if, and if they’re, and if they are supportive and if they get it and they support you no matter what, then please when you go home tonight show them how much you love them and appreciate them because they are worth their weight in gold cause most people don’t get it, they don’t understand the level of dedication, the sheer hours, they don’t always understand that when you say you need some time to work on this music project you don’t mean an hour in between two other errands, no you mean like two days without being bothered or something like that, maybe not that bad but you know, you know what I mean, its its there’s a level of focus and tenacity that is essential and if that flags it’s not gonna work and I all I can say is I know it from experience cause I’ve had time when that energy’s been flagging, I’ve had times where I, I, I just couldn’t make that my focus and I, I suffered during that time, creat- career wise it’s a really fickle and and selfish taskmaster, but if you’re okay with that and at that point in the talk I’ve still got, frankly cause usually these classes are pretty, when I speak to students, that’s just like the SC film scoring people and stuff like that, they’re, they’re in it to to, they’re in it to win it, so at that point they realize no I’m not trying to talk them out of it I’m just trying to tell them how important it is that they have their eyes open, take care of those you love, don’t neglect them, no matter how easy it might inadvertently become as you get completely immersed, in in, cause every waking moment will be spent trying to get your career off the ground, and then even after it’s off the ground you’ll be working to get the next gig and the gig after that so, people, some people eat this for lunch and love it and it’s, but it’s not for everyone so there you go, that’s the tough love answer, and that’s really the only one I know how to give.
Matt: I really appreciate that Russell not only brought up the tenacity required to make it as an Imagineer, but also the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family who understand and endorse what you’re looking to accomplish, hopefully this tough love will get you primed for what it takes to make it as an Imagineer. While Russell mentioned that having a plan b can sometimes be detrimental to an artistic goal, another Imagineer I interviewed, Brian Collins, reminded me that Imagineering is not the only rewarding career path in themed entertainment, he offered some really helpful advice about the various avenues available to aspiring Imagineers which doesn’t so much contradict what Russell Bower had mentioned but sort of fine tunes the various options available when you do devote yourself to your specific career of interest.
Brian: Yeah, you know I mean, I’ll kind of go back to, to what we were just saying before, don’t limit yourself and think that Imagineering is the only option for you. Themed entertainment is just such a cool, fun thing to work in and you know sometimes it’s a lot easier actually to maybe get into one of these other companies, boutique companies that works in the industry and then from there, you know a lot of times you’re going to be working side-by-side with Imagineering because they contract like I said a lot of the time with these other companies, so so, you know just kind of keep an open mind get really good at your craft, you know do something you love to do. Gosh you know it’s a th-there are just so many pathways in-into it but as a whole its you know it’s it’s just been a really, for me just just a really kind of a fun ride and hopefully everyone out there that’s open to kind of hop in and come along you know keep your options open and do your homework and good luck out there, eventually it will come to you if you’ve got the talent.
Matt: Brian’s advice carries a lot of weight, because I’ve not only interviewed Imagineers, but also creative folks who have worked with Walt Disney Imagineering through a third party, which is a great way to work on Imagineering projects, and perhaps even get your foot in the door. In early 2021 I had the chance to interview a couple of folks, Adam and Rebecca who worked on Pandora. Adam was an official set decorator for Walt Disney Imagineering, and Rebecca was a scenic artist who worked with Adam on Pandora through a third party. I asked them both what it takes to become an Imagineer, and they had more practical advice to share on this subject.
Adam: So for me, I know that one of the, one of the best aspects, so the reason, so the reason that I, the reason that I joined up with Imagineering was I, I was jumping around as a freelance designer in DC and I mean I was, I was working for pennies in terms of, there was a job that I had got, where the parking cost more than I was making. And like, so just for me to park in the parking lot and go to work, I was ending up getting charged like 75 bucks a day and I wasn’t even making that, and so I decided at some point, I was like, I can’t, I need to find a livable wage, and so that’s what attracted me to Disney at the very beginning is I had been a few times and I was like, you know I wasn’t, I mean, I grew up in the ‘90s, so of course I loved like every single Disney movie, and you know was obsessed with like Genie as a kid and you know like Disney had a very influential impact on where I grew up but at the same time the biggest reason why I ended up gravitating to Disney wasn’t that I had a commitment to the brand, for me it was a commitment to story, and a commitment to quality and it was something that they really really when I joined up really pushed you know commitment to quality and a commitment to story, I had been I had been lectured at by Joe Rohde three times in my existence.
Adam: Every, and it’s always like it was always a time where I was setting something up, a bunch of set decoration, and he’d come over and he’d ask a question and I’d be like, you don’t like what I’m doing, like I can just tell that you don’t like it, and he and he’d and he’d be like it’s not that, let’s go back to story and we’d always kind of like talk through the history of it, and that’s why I, that’s why I joined up was that it was like a great place to tell story and make people really think about a lot of stuff but the reason that I stuck around for so, for seven years was the people. I have worked now in a few different industries, I’ve worked in the theater industry, I’ve worked in the themed entertainment, and now I work for a company that designs and builds museums, so I my, that’s my job, is I do like visitors centers for like National Parks services and Smithsonian museum and stuff like that.
Adam: And, not knockin them, but you will never find people more dedicated and people who are willing to like chop off their right arm if it will somehow serve the design and I guess that’s why I’m a big proponent of hiring people from Disney in my view, I mean in every job you’re ever going to do there’s politics and there might people that you may get along with and may not get along with and there may be times when tension gets really really tough and you know stakes gets really high but the dedication that people have to storytelling at Disney, is not only commendable but but I don’t, I don’t know that I’ll ever, I don’t know that I’ll ever work with people like I did at Disney.
Rebecca: Yeah, I would, I would agree with that I mean obviously you know I didn’t work directly for Disney but just everyone in that industry is very dedicated to doing good work and producing quality quality content –
Rebecca: – and quality productions and shout out to all my former coworkers, they were some of the the most dedicated incredibly talented artists –
Rebecca: – and incredibly creative and some of them have like really gone on to do some really awesome stuff and –
Rebecca: – I always highly recommend them to anyone who is looking for artists because they were just all really incredible and also you know I would echo the the storytelling getting to be a part of telling some incredible stories, cause really really awesome and you know, no not knocking what I do now I love what I do now but there’s nothing quite like being a part of the Disney storytelling.
Adam: Yeah, that that being said, for all you young budding Imagineers out there people who want to be Imagineers and what not the biggest thing, the biggest thing that Imagineers don’t, don’t do is value themselves, or value themselves correctly so many of them are like, like oh I’ll do this for free, or like you know this and that –
Adam: – and it’s a hard lesson to learn to learn how to price yourself correctly and how to know how to set your rates and everything.
Rebecca: Yeah know what you’re worth because you’re worth a lot and you know I hate to see anyone who’s extremely –
Rebecca: – talented not think that they’re worth what they are –
Adam: and and a and a big and a and a the hard part is a big company like Disney will definitely use you for every single ounce of talent that you have and so you want to make sure that you are one that you’re dedicated to it but also that like Disney like it’s a symbiotic relationship you know you, you know Disney’s providing for you, but they’re also, but you’re also providing something very unique for Disney which is your talent and I just like like I said the the the talent of people there it is just nuts the the peanuts that some of them literally would –
Adam: – work for to create some of the world’s most most amazing attractions and
Rebecca: Also, I guess the last thing I would say about what I did that I think sets it apart from anything else I’ve done, there’s something very rewarding about tangibly making something with your hands that you then can see having a impact on a person’s enjoyable experience,
Adam: On purpose? Yeah
Matt: For sure
Rebecca: I mean I love doing graphic design, I really do, it’s very rewarding but this was rewarding in a different way, in a way that you could truly see the impact of every little thing you put into it, creating the, that atmosphere for the guests,
Adam: Yeah, unless the lines are really long and it’s really really hot –
Adam: – and you have [Indistinguishable] threw up
Matt and Rebecca: [Laughs]
Adam: and I’m just kidding, the classic.
Matt: I hope Rebecca and Adam’s advice resonates with you, especially since they’re more recent Imagineers. Another Imagineer who worked on Pandora, was Timmy Britt, who’s backstory you should absolutely go back and listen to, it’s fascinating. I of course asked Timmy a similar question, and he spoke once again to the idea of tenacity, but also to the idea of self-belief, timing, and so much more.
Matt: -Walt Disney Imagineering.
Timmy: It’s impossible –
Timmy: It’s impossible, it’s impossible, tell yourself it’s impossible every day and just don’t quit
Timmy: That’s the only answer that works, because otherwise the right job has to be up with the the right need –
Timmy: – and you have to fill that right gap at that right moment somehow, that’s how you become an Imaginner. So by the time I got there, I was ready to go, I had already built all of the Harry Potter stuff at Universal so here’s how I switched, I went down to see if I could maybe, I don’t know sit on Main Street and draw the watches that people get, that guest get, you know draw Tigger and they put it in a watch?
Timmy: Like I figured I could do something or creative fun, and I’m good with the guests, and I went back never knowing that my engineering degree, all my years of painting wall murals and understanding paint, and all the varnishes and all the substrates and building things in 3-D would ever come into play because I saw one path at Disney, I never even gave Universal a thought, because I was a Walt aficionado, so I had this story that that happened just before I went in anyway, we’ll save that for another time, it’s in the book, read the book, [Extra]Ordinary Everyday Magic,
Matt: There we go, that’s a good plug for the book, which by the way we’ll talk about in a little bit –
Matt: – and I have I have the link in the podcast description for those who are listening as well.
Timmy: Well thank you so much for that but if it comes up, I’m just excited about it.
Timmy: My path to Imagineering which was your original question, started at Universal Studios, because once I got fired, I said well then can I go golfin, because I gotta I need a new plan,
Timmy: And as a big Dallas Cowboys fan, they just happened to be playing that Sunday at a bar, and one of the animation guys, who left animation to go help all the cast members with the union became the vice president of the union, Isaac Cropp who’s amazing guy for cast members, really fought for everybody, animation had left and so he’s like well I’m going to fight for cast members in the union, so he did that and I got fired as a busboy, he’s like I can’t believe it come on out and we’re gonna talk so we go the we go the Gators up in Cagan’s Crossing, you know some of your listeners will know that,
Timmy: And I meet this guy, and he’s like wow Isaac tells us you can draw, so real quick I draw a Mickey Mouse with a sorcerer hat on, because his sorcerer hat is blue and it’s got silver stars, so I’m trying to convince everyone at the table that Mickey Mouse is actually a Dallas Cowboy fan. Cause he wears that hat, right so they’re having a great laugh about it, and I sketch it out and the guy’s like wow, you really can draw and Isaac’s like I told you the guy’s amazing. So he’s like, can you paint, and I’m like, well sure, he’s like call this girl and here that was just the beginning of Diagon Alley and, and all the parts of it. So I call her, I get in and now I’m working for Universal Studios building all of the Wizarding World and I actually had only seen three movies because of my daughter, she bought all the books, she read them all, I couldn’t get through to them I couldn’t you know –
Matt: They’re long books, I did read all of them so
Timmy: You did?
Matt: I did yeah, but ah –
Timmy: I’m older than you though –
Matt: They can be hard to read.
Timmy: I’m older than you –
Timmy: And I spent my time reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and all that –
Timmy: I read all that stuff –
Timmy: And then when they made these great movies I felt like alright I you know I’ll read the first book with my daughter and then I’m going to start watching the movies, cause I just couldn’t keep track of all the names that she had for everybody, like as an adult with really bad eyes and trying to make out Hagrid and all this I didn’t know what it meant, but my daughter wow she picked ‘em right up. So anyway we fall in love with the parks so if it wasn’t for that I would have been probably a little bit more like wow I’m really going to work for Universal, I felt like I was betraying Walt in so many ways, but the truth is it was Walt’s I I wasn’t getting to Imagineerf from working at the Animal Kingdom in operations, one’s creative and entertainment and Imagineering and one’s operations, they never they don’t even like really mix ever, like like the Imagineers will build something and then hand it over to operations and they will run it then the Imagineers can only come in and say this isn’t right or that isn’t right but that’s it, you know operations they do a great job too, and having worked for both I just figured I could work back and forth if I ever needed to, but once animation was gone and I was over in Universal. I had this friend named Jackie who just said hey these are our proprietary colors and this is what we’re doing, [snaps fingers] and something inside me just snapped, all my training, all my years of art, all my murals, and now I have all this energy and I have a new purpose in life So I start doing it and I understand all the vocabulary and I’m really energetic as you can tell right so I just –
Matt: Which is good, it’s good to have that positive strong energy.
Timmy: Well it’s carried me far you know I believe every day that if you just wake up grateful and try to serve other people, everything you need will kind of be taken care of for you –
Matt: So true
Timmy: – It’s kind of, it knda just lands in your path. So if you wanna be an Imagineer, just go and try and don’t give up, but to tell you oh you have to do A then B then C there is no A and B and C, there’s there’s you know put on your seatbelt, say a prayer, and work as hard as you can like honestly that’s it, the normal channels yeah they might have a need for it and with Imagineering moving from California to Florida now, man they have the land, they the Imagineers everything’ll be built first there, tried out first there so if you’re an artist and you want to start work and you think you do scenic work, go down and try and start, you know, if you don’t make it to Imagineering I’ll tell you what you could make it as a lead artist or even an art director make a great living, be really proud, win awards, have your name on lots of cool stuff, so Imagineering, you know you have to be an art director to be an Imagineer so that you can lead and teach others, so you almost have to be an Imagi- an art director first to become an Imagineer if you want to do it through scenic, or be an engineer that is creative like you, and then you would come to me and say I have to put in this animatronic sound board for, that goes for this guy and it moves, and I’m like well I have to get the wall behind it to look like you know 13th century gothic Spain or something –
Timmy: – well you know so we’d have to work together on it but in that way it’s again teamwork so I’m back so now there’s no guest it’s just me and other Imagineers but the teamwork is still there when we, I was on stage I was an animation artist there was teamwork to help the guests, now there’s teamwork to bring something for all the guests to to marvel at one day.
Matt; Just like Brian Collins advised, Timmy Britt’s career path shows how following your passion can lead to so many career opportunities within Imagineering and beyond. Yet another Imagineer who did not start in Imagineering first in his career but eventually made the jump was Theron Skees, who went on to lead projects at Disney Springs, Disney Cruise Line, Disneyland Paris, and beyond, Theron has so much practical wisdom to share about becoming an Imagineer so I of course had to ask for his advice he offered some really wonderful insights.
Theron: Well I think with any career it kind of goes without saying and that’s probably why I didn’t mention it in the video is you gotta have skill –
Matt: True [Laughs]
Theron: – I and I don’t mean that in kind of a cheeky way, I man that in a reality way where I do have, I’ve come in contact with people who have said something like, you know I I have so many good ideas, you know I would love to work at Imagineering and just you know institute all these ideas. And and I gently remind them that nobody gets hired because they have good ideas you get hired because you have a specific skill that the company happens to be hiring for, and and that conversation generally leads to, well should I be a subject matter expert in one area or should I be a jack of all trades, and that again is a very subjective kind of personal decision, you know if you are a graphic designer, I’ll just pick a, pick a discipline or a roll and and that’s what you love and you’re really good at it and you’ve put your passion and you’ve put your determination into it if you do that you’re gonna be very very good at that thing that you love and if you get hired as a graphic designer and you could then, you know that’s your foot in the door, that’s your entry point but graphic designers have, at least in Imagineering, they’ve grown into art directors, creative directors, they’ve moved around and and been able to do a lot of different things other than just graphic design and and I think that’s the cool part of themed entertainment. If you are a person like myself, that was probably a little ADD and you never really liked to do one thing, you liked to do 21 things then being good at lots of different things, gives you multiple entry points within the entertainment industry and and and gives you the opportunity once you’re in to really plot your career journey in a lot of different ways and and many of those categories, again that I’ve talked about in one of my YouTube videos those discipline categories, you, there are transitions that can be made between those categories and and you can move around within the organization, but understanding the whole process is really the thing that I try to teach even if you just enter as a graphic designer or a writer or something like that, knowing the whole process and every you know role that’s involved, will help you navigate your way in the industry, in your career, right? So I try to give people, students, anybody who’s interested that kind of perspective.
Matt: Very smart, it’s so important to have that skill, and you’re right, I get, I get that question a lot too I’m gonna –
Matt: – be, I’m gonna be asking folks to go here, and I have to remind people, I was not an Imagineer so I can’t really properly answer that question –
Matt: – but I can direct you to the right resources and this will be one of those resources for people to go and listen to but yeah it’s a, I have a lot of ideas how do I –
Matt: – What should I do in Imagineering well what are you good at, what are you interested in, you know you have to have a particular skill but and I, I can’t remember, and it’s gonna, it’s definitely gonna to hit me when we stop recording but there was an Imagineer I interviewed who said that you have to be able to be exceptional in one particular area but able to branch out into others and understand how to you know if you’re really exceptional at engineering still understanding the artistic side and the –
Matt: – you know show writing, and the business side of it, and all the other disciplines that, that support that, that discipline.
Theron: That’s right I mean it’s not that having ideas is bad –
Theron: – I certainly don’t want to leave that impression, you just won’t get hired because you’re an idea machine –
Theron: If you’re an idea machine, you know lean into a specific discipline, get hired for that discipline, then your ideas have a place to actually take root and grow and I think that’s, that’s a really important aspect that I try to share.
Matt: As always Theron has such great advice and amazing stories which is why I’ve had him on the show several times, and can’t wait to invite him back. Another Imagineer I recently interviewed, Brian Crosby, recently made the switch to Marvel Themed Entertainment but has developed so many iconic attractions and experiences across both Marvel and Disney. I asked him for his advice for turning your passion into your career, Brian has carved out an amazing career, through tremendous hard work and initiative, and he had some practical advice to share on following a similar path.
Brian: Yeah, well I think it goes back to what you touched on a little earlier with how I’ve handled my own career, and you know I can only speak from my own personal experience and I know for everybody it’s different but I have always worked under the, you know whether it’s through what I, you know growing up playing baseball or trying to become a professional artist, or whatever it was; I was always under the impression that if I worked really hard and worked harder than anybody else that I could achieve my dreams, that’s what my parents taught me and I’ve lived by that, so I don’t think there’s any good substitute for hard work and personal sacrifice. You know when I speak to college students, and being in the job that I have, I have the opportunity to do that quite a bit, and I always tell students, no one’s gonna just show up one your doorstep with your dream job, this is not gonna, it’s not, at least it hasn’t been my experience. Like Disney and Marvel and anybody that’s in that conversation in terms of pop culture they’re not just like desperate for people like it’s a very competitive space and a lot of people wanna work at those companies so if you wanna work in that space, you gotta go after it and you gotta show why you’re valuable and how you think differently than everybody else and what makes you, makes you different, what skill set do you bring to the table. And so that’s kind of been my approach, is if there’s something that I really want, you know something I really wanna do I’ve gotta show someone I can do it, nobody’s gonna take my word for it, Disney’s not gonna take my word for it, Marvel’s not gonna take my word for it, anybody else you know. I can tell you hey I’m a great comic book artist you know but like great, well let’s see your comic book art then you know it’s like what can you do, either you can do the work or you can’t you know so I kind of live by that so you want something you gotta go for it and you gotta prove to people that you can do it. And I, when I was at Imagineering I remember thinking, if I’m not here working on my craft, somebody else is, somewhere in the world, and that person’s gonna get the job, that person’s gonna get the opportunity. So probably to my own, probably against my better judgment sometimes you know working crazy hours and having a pull out mattress you know like a mat that I would sleep on in my office at times, but I really wanted it, I wanted it so bad, I wanted to succeed there, I wanted to work on some of these amazing projects that the other Imagineers were getting to work on and I just kept doing that you know until I showed people, and learning, you know putting your stuff out there and letting people react to it you know you’re never gonna, you’re never gonna know and learn if you don’t put yourself out there, so I’d so stuff and have people critique it, you know tell me, tell me what I need to do to improve tell me what’s good tell me what’s bad, you know, mom thinks everything you do is great –
Brian: – you know, you gotta show it to people outside of mom, and don’t get me wrong I love mom I love, my mom is the best, she has my art hanging up all over her house. Although some of my Disney art is a little too dark and scary so she only brings it out at Halloweentime, but you know I think you gotta show people your art show people what you can do and prove to people that you can do the job.
Matt: I love Brian’s work ethic and it’s a tenacity I hope you follow in whatever career path you choose. To close us out I want to turn to an Imagineer who so many aspiring Imagineers look up to, Tony Baxter. Tony grew up as a huge fan of Disney and ended up turning a dream into an award winning Imagineering career, working on attractions like Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure, and countless others at Disneyland Paris, not to mention Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and so many more. Rather than ask Tony how to get your foot in the door at Imagineering I asked how to grow a career there. As expected he shared some very useful advice.
Tony: Well you’ve just knocked out the hardest part of that question so –
Tony: and I don’t have to go into that again, and you can find that on about every single thing I’ve ever done so –
Matt: [Laughs] I knew it was out there in many forms, so I –
Tony: Yes, thank you for that,
Matt: – Didn’t want to ask the same old question again [Laughs]
Tony: When I get to that next part of it which is once you’ve gotten in the door and you’ve landed somewhere, probably because they looked at what you had to offer and you filled a entry level need, because you had a good portfolio or you had good background in your previous jobs to fill an engineering or you know whatever skill set it is, but that isn’t your dream of where you want to end up. You are here, like I was at Carnation’s scooping ice cream not because I wanted to learn how to cook hamburgers for the Carnation company I was only there because it was in Disneyland, that was the only reason I was there scooping ice cream, going to Baskin Robbins to scoop ice cream, no way. So once you’re in it’s up to you to really size up what’s going on, and learn how to both do two things, you can move horizontally, which is probably more easily attainable and then accelerate upwards once you’ve moved over horizontally, or you know diagonally if you’re lucky, and in some cases you might even decide to go down backwards to get over into a better area, I’ve literally, I’ve had people that’ve took a wage cut to get into another division because they felt they could show their value once they got there. You gotta determine like am I in a role where I’m fulfilling a need, I’m making widgets and there’s no opportunity for me to show that my widgets are better than any other widgets, they’re just simply widgets, then you’re probably not in a career path, you’re more in a job role so if you’ve gotta career path you’ve gotta like set your sites on people that are doing sorta the things that you would like to be assigned with and you start making friend with them, and you start you know like, could I pick your brain, can I take you to lunch I really am amazed by your career and so forth. And I’ve had people do that with me, I’ve got a very friend now who’s in the engineering side who’s doing really really well, he’s a very good personable person, so it’s been easy for him to approach people like myself, I met him on a ride at Florida at our, at the other company’s parks,
Tony: [Makes car honk sound crossed with alarm sound] Universal, and he said oh I saw your lecture yesterday over at Disney and what are you advise, so I gave him the how to get in advice, and on, in the run time of the Hogwarts Express actually [Laughs] and then I figured I’ll never see this person again, cut to six months later I heard him in Imagineering and then come to my office, we hit if off, we love movies, and one thing lead to another, and I’ve given him lots of advice on you know threading his way through and he’s in a very good position, he’s not a designer, he’ll never be that, but he definitely wanted to add to the creativity rather than just being a scheduler or a engineering layout of the time frame for different jobs and so forth, and then like I say when you’re looking at a company that’s like going into a China, as we were ten years ago I would say to you, whether you’re an engineer, writer, or an artist, you’d say okay that’s what I do and oh by the way I’m fluent in Mandarin Chinese –
Tony: – you know and and then you you realize you’ve just weeded out 75% of your competition you know in art or in engineering because they’re thinking right away okay that eliminates another position that we don’t have to worry about, maybe he can do translating for everyone on the team, you know so, you always got your ears, eyes and ears on all the things that are not you know in your little window frame that are going on there that you can suddenly bring in an and attach them to your value and then put yourself in a light that exceeds the others that would be vying for that same thing it’s no easy task, and like for me who grew up in an analog trained world it’s now a total digitally you know even working at home now has become kind of normal there, and so the camaraderie the interface of seeing all the Imagineers everyday and saying oh that idea that you were working on, how’s that going cause I remember getting out of my hole, which was working in the model shop as a, cutting out the mat knife you know facades and stuff and I went in and saw they were bringing all this Snow White stuff out of the mor, the archives of the studio from the movie, and what’s this for I say to the guy and they said, oh Claude Coats is going to be working on the Snow White ride, so I got bold enough to walk into Claude’s office and say, oh I see you’re going to be working on the Snow White ride and you know I just I want you to keep my name there if you would, I’d love to work with you on it, oh okay well I’ll think about that when it comes up, and the next thing I know I’ve been called by my boss that Claude wants you to work with him on the thing, but that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t of risked going into his office and being a little bit pushy and saying, if you think about being on his side, would you rather have someone assigned to your project, that you don’t know, or someone that walked in and gave you all these reasons why they would love to work with you on this project –
Matt: Oh it’s a no brainer.
Tony: – That’s the answer.
Matt: The folks in this episode represent a small sample of the various pathways into Imagineering, and while this advice is certainly not collectively exhaustive it provides us with a few common themes that I mentioned earlier, the ability to work well with others and share credit on ideas, the willingness to work hard and think outside the box, the passion to love what you do and always strive to learn more and do better, the eagerness to take initiative without losing patience, and the ability to both deeply know your craft and understand how it fits with other disciplines. It all comes down to a combination of talent, motivation, hard work, creativity, tenacity, passion, and timing. [Music begins to play in the background] As we move ahead with Imagineer Podcast I’ll do my best to gather even more insights for you in order to share more advice on how to become an Imaginener or how to achieve any other career goal you set out to accomplish. In the meantime I hope this episode inspires you to set your eyes on your dreams and work diligently to make them come true.
And with that we close out episode 129 of the Imagineer Podcast. I hope you enjoy this look back on some of my favorite interviews with select Imagineers throughout the last five years of Imagineer Podcast, I agiani get this question so often about how to become and Imagineer, and I often point people to all of these interviews, which if you haven’t listened to them before I definitely recommend going back and listening to the full discussions with each of these indidivudals because there were so many incredible stories that they shared and even more wisdom and insights that you can mine through that conversatnoi but of course I thought this would be a really practical resources, a one stop shop so to speak, of all of the advice I got specifically on the question of how to become an Imagineer and perhaps in five years from now when I have even more interviews that we’ve gotten through Imagineer Podcast, I’ll go back and perhaps another compilation of some more advice more up to date at that point of how you can become an Imagineer. I of course want to turn this conversation over to you and hear what goal you want to accomplish, whether it’s a lifelong dream or perhaps just a goal that you want to acocomplish in the new year, we’re gonna make this personal, because of course this is an episode all about accomplishing your goals and your dreams, whatever they might be. You can send me your answers and feedback as always in so many different ways. I would encourage you to follow Imagineer Podcast and reach out to me on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn @ImagineerPodcast, on Twitter @ImaingeerNews, and a great place to chat not just with me but with other members of this listener community about this subject and other subjects of the show, is in our Facebook Group, which is the ImaginNation, also called the Imagineer Podcast Disney Fan Community where you can again chat about this subject and all other subjects with other listeners of this community relating to all things Disney. If you don’t already subscribe to the show make sure you hit that subscribe or follow button whether you’re listening on Apple Podcast, Spotify, PodBean, Stitcher, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, or any other podcast app, and that will ensure you are the first to know when new podcast episodes become available. And if you have a moment to leave us a rating and a review in Apple Podcast that’s a great way to help us out it lets others know what they can expect when they come across Imagineer Podcast and increases our relevance in the Apple Podcast store and new starting in the Holiday Season of 2021 Spotify rolled out ratings for podcasts as well, so if you listen to the show on Spotify I ask you to do me a favor, if you haven’t yet left a rating in Spotify, please go back and leave us a rating. There is no opportunity quite yet to leave a review, perhaps by the time this episode airs, that might change, but at this point if you just leave, it’s literally a second at the top of the page on Spotify you’ll see Imagineer Podcast, go to the top of that page and there’s a rating system right there, you literally tap once, tap again to leave your rating, and you’re done, takes just a couple of seconds and certainly helps the show out tremondodously. One of the best things you can do for the show though is very simple, and that’s just to share it whether you share out this episode or any another episode of the show if you share out our content on social media or simply talk about it with friends and family who love all things Disney, that’s a great way to help this show out. 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Last but not least, especially this episode, this episode is all about how to become an Imagineer or how to unlock your goals whatever they might be, I hope the insights proved to be incredibly valuable to you and now more than ever is such a great time to go after your hopes, dreams, goals, whatever they might be and to remember as always that inspiring quote from Horizons, if you can dream it, you can do it. Thank you so much for listening to the show and we’ll see you again in a future episode of the Imagineer Podcast.
[TV playing in the background]
Rémy: Hey that’s Gusteau, Émile look!
Gusteau on TV: . . .Great cooking is not for the faint of heart, you must be imaginative, strong hearted, you must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from, your only limit is your sould what I say is true, anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great