The Road to Becoming a Disney Imagineer
Everyone has a different journey to becoming a Disney Imagineer. This story is mine.
I remember the day when I saw Walt Disney introducing his team of Imagineers on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” television show in 1968. I was five at the time. I was a creative kid who loved to make movies, draw on big canvases (usually the wall behind my parent’s couch) and dream. A lot. I learned how to read music before I learned how to read words. I loved to create magic and puppet shows for the neighborhood kids. I had a lot of creative qualities, but I was also a normal kid who loved riding bikes, playing football, and the piano.
My parents were good parents for the times — if you’ve seen the show “The Kids are Alright”, that was how it was. We did not have “helicopter” parents who hovered over our every move. We grew up without seat belts, bike helmets, or cell phones. All we had to do was be home by dark and everything was alright. It was a great way to grow up.
When I saw the Disney Imagineers making Disneyland come alive on The Wonderful World of Color show; I, like countless other kids, decided that I wanted to do that when I grew up. Become a Disney Imagineer — and also make movies, and become a magician, and a puppeteer (thanks to the inspiration of Jim Henson and his Muppets). I had many creative interests, but Imagineering to me was the ultimate ticket. Imagineering combined all those interests into one big neat ball of incredibleness. And then time marched forward.
Star Wars came out when I was thirteen years old, and that had a huge effect on where I wanted my career path to go — toward making special effects and robots at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the company that made Star Wars. At this time in my life, my dream of being an Imagineer faded some but it never quite went away. Even with Star Wars in the picture, there was still the heart and soul of an Imagineer inside me.
As time passed on, I found interests in video production, photography, graphic design, art, architecture, industrial design, technical illustration and drafting. I felt a lot of natural comfort and success in doing each one. I was never a gifted student as my test scores in elementary school might attest. I still found success though. For some reason, God just decided to make me good at those things.
The world was suddenly in love with robots in the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, thanks to two droids named R2-D2 and C3PO. As a teenager I saw some entertainment robots at a local computer show. With this as inspiration, I designed and built an entertainment robot of my own that could be both a butler and comic master of ceremonies. I performed with him at Sea World and also swanky parties in La Jolla and Del Mar. That’s when I discovered I had a pretty good sense of humor!
“I hope we don’t lose sight of one thing. This all started with a
mouse — droid!”
Years later as an adult with children, my then ten-year-old son wanted to build a robot with me. We decided to build our own R2-D2. So we joined the R2 Builders Group. We went to meetups in Los Angeles, learned as much as we could online, and started building. This was no easy task, unlike today. It was before the advent of 3D printers and the rise of a network of builders who made parts readily available. It took three years to build our R2-D2. We were on the “slow track” mostly due to time and money — a lack of both. Thus, we built our droid when we could, some from ordered resin parts, some from wood, and some from plastic. We built a lot of it from scratch.
Unknowingly, this would end up opening a lot of doors for me. Our R2’s first day in the world was on stage at our church for their “At the Movies” series. It was a hit of course! I still remember the long line we had when we brought him into the lobby for photos. One man was in his mid-30’s crying because he had waited his whole life for a moment like that! It was then that I realized that this was who God made me to be — someone who likes to bring joy to people of all ages.
Shortly after that, a good friend of mine at Disney Interactive invited me to bring R2-D2 up for lunch at the Disney Imagineering campus in Glendale, California. To say the R2-D2 was a hit is an understatement. I was surprised at all the praise and awe we received. After all, these were the people I looked up to and wanted to be like! Their reaction shocked me a little. I had always assumed before arriving that they would think it was neat, but after becoming jaded as Imagineers; they would see things like that all day long and regard my R2-D2 as pedestrian.
That day opened the door for me. Shortly after, I was invited to be a part of the 2013 D23 convention (along with R2-D2), as an honorary Imagineer for a few days! The D23 convention is the biannual convention for all things Disney and Imagineering hosted by the Disney Company. We helped take part in the new “Star Wars Land” teaser booth, thanks to another good friend, Jon Georges. To say that it was a dream come true doesn’t describe how it felt. Everyone at Disney treated me like I was part of their family. I wasn’t some guy just there keeping an eye on R2. I felt like an Imagineer! It was a wonderful experience.
Sadly, it all came to an end when I had to go back to my “normal” life. And there were times when I was angry with God — for giving me such a great opportunity, and getting so close to my dreams — yet only getting to taste what it was like to be a real Disney Imagineer. I should have been thanking Him for the opportunity. There was an inner struggle — a back and forth that played out in my mind. This reminded me a lot of conversations and prayers that David had with God, by the way.
A couple years later I got to go back to Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters at 1401 Flower Street in Glendale, California with R2 on Star Wars Day. I was able to see some of the old friends that I had made, and even got my dream interview with the casting department for a job at Imagineering. This was it, I thought! A job opportunity with WDI!
The interview went well — so well, in face that I could hardly believe it happened. They liked me and my abilities. They found the perfect “bucket” to put me in. To find out I was Imagineering material was great news, yet a bit sad, because I knew in my heart it might never be. (Spoiler: It never was, at least not to this day.)
Reflecting and Growing
It is an interesting thing, when you’ve chased after your dream job most your life. You do the things along the way that you think will eventually get you into the door. And before you know it, in the blink of an eye, you are old. So, you keep doing what you are doing, making a living at something that you are good at and even have a passion for. That was me. But then I hit a point — where something told me that working just to make a living was not enough. It was not what I was made for. So I made a change.
I hit that point in June of 2018. For the last fifteen years of my life, I worked in UX (user experience) Design. It was just something I fell into and never actually planned to make into a career. It was mostly fun, it paid the bills, and I enjoyed (okay loved) creating simple and wonderful user experiences for apps and software. Creating great experiences was my jam. But it was not what I was made to do.
I got out of UX for many reasons, but mostly because I felt it was time to pursue a career in themed entertainment. I joined the TEA (themed entertainment association) a couple years priors to this point, so I was already taking steps in the right direction.
A New Career Path
My next move was to start a new company aimed at building props and replicas for museums and parks. We made affordable replica costumes and props for cosplayers and replica movie cars. I designed and built themed vehicles for anyone who wanted one, whether for a business or a themed attraction.
I didn’t go down this path to themed entertainment without some previous experience per se. Something told me to prepare for this, and how to prepare. Maybe it was all the years of doing and learning all those other “things” I did along the way. Maybe it was that little fire (or as former WDI V.P. Marty Sklar once said, “That one little spark”) alive inside of me. Or maybe it was both. I was prepared, or so I thought I was.
But to be honest, nothing can really prepare you for the journey into themed entertainment design — aka being an “Imagineer”. Some of that work led to a job at a museum, my first job in what was more or less a massive career change, with a massive cut in pay from six figures to around $20 dollars an hour.
It wasn’t an easy job by any stretch — there were early hours and lots of physical labor involved with it. It ranged from building displays for graphics in the shop, to taking wings off an F-18 Hornet jet, to moving large airplanes and space vehicles around. Yet, I got to be part of a team that built one of the coolest museum exhibits in the country!
Once that job was finished, I found myself with an opportunity to work at one of the coolest “non-Disney” Imagineering magic factories in the world – Storyland Studios! It was amazing and scary at the same time. Both jobs had lots of varied work — media work, UX, or graphics, animation, video, sound, industrial design and even architecture. Those were all my tasks, things I felt instantly comfortable doing and I did them generally very well.
But this was the first time and I was a little scared. I had done some CAD work and lots of 3D modeling, but now I had to learn entirely new software in less than 4 weeks (Rhino), and engineer a steel frame for a massive 30 foot dragon! And then it got even crazier after that. I was pushed to come up with solutions for scenic elements and props that are seen all over the world, bringing smiles to thousands of faces, young and old. Every single day from the museum to Storyland Studios, I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants.
And I LOVED IT!
Sure it was insanely nerve-wracking and stressful, but I’ve always loved a good challenge. It was very satisfying to come up with solutions that created a great guest experience, or solving a problem that seems almost impossible at first. It was never about what I could do or accomplish — it was all about, “How can I bring someone more joy?”
The End of the Story?
And yet the Disney thing never quite happened — to this day I am not a Disney Imagineer. And I am okay with that. If it happens, great. And if not, that is okay too.
There was one day in particular that I can recall a few years ago. I was sitting on our deck, looking at the sunset and our incredible view, and a sudden calm and peace come over me about becoming a Disney Imagineer. I had always thought it would define me and be the pinnacle of who I had to be after all I had learned and pursued — but I realized in that moment, that who I am and what defines me is that I am a child of God.
And thus, I realized that the job at Disney would never be the end all and be all.
So you were probably thinking this was going to be an article about how to get a job in Disney Imagineering. To be honest, I don’t know how to do it. Really. I thought I did, but I don’t.
But, BUT, it really doesn’t matter at the end of the day. There are countless design and scenic shops out there, doing work in themed entertainment — from work for theme parks to trade shows to museums and more. And they need talented, smart folks with good hearts, whose dream and passion is all about making great experiences and bringing smiles to all those faces out there. Someone like you!
I’ve been told by friends who were Disney Imagineers — and some of the best Disney had, that I’m truly an Imagineer at heart. You don’t have to work for Disney to be an Imagineer. That is the real life lesson.
As for me, what is my plan? Keep doing what I’m doing, but eventually maybe hopefully open my own theme park. But until then I will keep working in this business, meeting new amazing people who all want to create great guest experiences. We are willing to push not only the envelope of what is being done, but also the things that haven’t even been thought of or tried yet.
As Arthur O’Shaughnessy (but more recently) Willy Wonka once said, “We are the Music Makers, and We are the Dreamers of Dreams.”
And Willy Wonka also said, “The suspense is terrible… I hope it will last”.
Keep dreaming and making music.
And never let the suspense come to an end.
– Greg Schumsky