Want to be a Disney Imagineer? D23 offers some tips and secrets

Want to be a Disney Imagineer? D23 offers some tips and secrets
A woman takes photos of the Abominable Snowman and Matterhorn Bobsleds on display at a Disneyland history exhibit at the D23 Expo at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Retired head of Imagineering Marty Sklar had advice on Saturday morning at the D23 Expo for aspiring theme park designers: Prepare to fail.

"It's important that you fail from time to time," Sklar said at the all-things Disney convention, the D23 Expo. "If you don't fail, you're probably doing nothing new."


Sklar on Saturday morning was speaking on a panel centered on his upcoming book, "One Little Spark! Mickey's Ten Commandments and the Road to Imagineering."

He had stiff competition. Across the way in the Anaheim Convention Center on Saturday was Disney's live-action movie panel, offering glimpses of upcoming films from the Marvel Universe and more. Sklar joked that he couldn't compete with "Ant-Man."

Still, he had a modest and devoted crowd eager to hear advice on how to become an Imagineer, Disney's relatively secretive arm that develops attractions for its theme parks around the globe.


His new book repurposes his "Mickey's Ten Commandments," which he describes in the book as the "foundation principals on which our success has been built," and then illustrates how they've been used -- to good and bad effect -- in the Disney parks.

Among Sklar's commandments are such tips as understanding your audience, trying to walk in the shoes of your audience and to tell one story at a time.

The actual rules figured little into the panel discussion, which focused more on tales of how four Imagineers snared jobs at Disney. They were all varied, and showed that there is no direct path to building the next Cars Land.

Senior special effects designer Daniel Joseph, for instance, went to college for an industrial design degree and worked at haunted houses in Philadelphia before catching the attention of Disney. Dex Tanksley, project design manager, once won top prize at Disney's Imaginations design competition for a heavily themed indoor ski slope.

Shelby Jiggetts-Tivony, a creative development executive, had a less direct path. "I didn't go to the Disney parks," she said. "I didn't have any affinity for the Disney brand." Instead, Disney Imagineering headhunted her after she made a name for herself as a dramaturge, working for a time at the Lincoln Center in New York.

Kevin Rafferty, a creative director, was attending college at Cal State Fullerton when he found a job as a dishwasher at Disneyland. His goal was to be an animator, and after graduating with an art degree, he applied to work on Epcot, earning an entry-level Imagineering job. By then, he had been promoted within Disneyland and took a pay cut.

Imagineers stressed that for every one product that makes it into the Disney parks, dozens are left on the cutting room floor. Rafferty discussed one, an attraction tentatively dubbed the Creature's Choice Award Theater. The show was destined for Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Fla., and had a sci-fi monster theme.

Rafferty told the attentive audience Frankenstein was to host a monster award show in the attraction. Godzilla was also to make an appearance, but the experience proved "too expensive" and was lost to history.

There have been plenty of looks at Disney history at the D23 Expo, which began Friday and ends early Sunday evening. On Friday, for instance, a panel celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Jungle Cruise, detailing how the ride differs around the world. A recently updated Jungle Cruise in Tokyo Disneyland, for instance, has a massive fog section and more modern digital effects.

Friday night, the first day of D23 Expo came to a close with a two-hour panel with past and present Imagineers discussing the enduring legacy of Walt Disney. Songwriter Richard Sherman regaled the audience with Disney's songwriting advice on various attractions, including It's a Small World.


"It's a celebration of children around the world and hope for the future, but don't get preachy on it," Sherman remembers Disney telling him.

There were other choice tidbits about famed Disney attractions.

When Imagineers fretted, for instance, that there was too much dialogue in Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney told them not to worry. Retired Imagineer Orlando Ferrante remembers Disney telling them to think of the ride as a "giant cocktail party," one in which you won't hear all the conversations. The goal: "So you have to go back and ride it again."

Saturday at the D23 Expo, Disney is expected to outline future plans for its parks around the globe, including a close look at the "Avatar"-inspired land coming to Animal Kingdom at Orlando, Fla.'s Walt Disney World.

Regardless of what's revealed, here's a safe bet: Imagineering will still remain something of a mystery. "You can't go to school to learn how to design a parade," said Steve Davison, an executive of parades and spectaculars at Imagineering, on Friday night.

Follow me on Twitter @Toddmartens