Students cash in on imagination

A team of USC students took first prize in a highly competitive design competition sponsored by the Walt Disney Co., wooing the judges with a proposal to build a ride based on the movie “Up” at the studio’s Shanghai theme park.

About 500 college students competed for an opportunity to present their ideas for a new ride or restaurant, and, perhaps more importantly, interview for a paid internship at Walt Disney Imagineering, the studio’s creative arm.

Just 20 finalists were invited to the creative campus in Glendale last week for 20th annual ImagiNations design competition. They represented USC, North Carolina State University and San Diego State University, which placed first, second and third, respectively.

A Woodbury University team made the finals, but did not place, although Woodbury student Mario Salazar soon will start a paid internship at the studio.

For the winning team, the announcement — which carries a shared $3,000 cash prize and bragging rights — was sudden jubilation.

“In an instant you know, and you go from being in the competition to being a winner — in an instant — and you’re not ready,” said Joe Rothenberg, who soon will start his senior year at USC, which gets an additional $1,000 cash prize for being the winning school.

For him and his teammates, Jannae Fong and Molly Martens, the journey began freshman year. Fong and Martens shared an astronomical engineering class and Martens would later meet Rothenberg, an animation major, because he lived on her dorm floor.

Martens recalled that Fong said she chose astronomical engineering because she wanted to be a Disney Imagineer. After a chat, they decided to apply their junior year.

Several brain storming sessions later and after four research visits to Disneyland, the three decided an attraction based on a Disney film would be the best way to go, Martens said. Once they decided to base the ride on the movie “Up,” everything came together.

And on Thursday, in front of about 150 Disney Imagineers, the USC students used humor, cultural elements and a slide show resembling the scrap book that was central to “Up” to showcase a balloon cart ride through the jungles of South America for Disney’s new Shanghai park.

The attraction, “Adventure Is UP There,” integrates aspects of Chinese culture, including the use of red and yellow and the number eight because they represent good luck.

SDSU’s Dylan Olson and Scott Sabens, who were semifinalists last year, initially debated between basing the ride on a Disney film and creating something unique.

Their “The Curse of the Mithica Mine” attraction would take guests on a haunting, dark and fast ride through an abandoned gold mining camp. Olson said the attraction could accommodate about 1,900 guests per hour.

“We decided to take a risk,” Olson said. “We are fascinated by the Old West, the adventures and the grandness of it.”

For the finalists, the opportunity to pitch their concepts to a group of professional Disney engineers took on its own sense of grandeur.

“This is a turning point in everybody’s life who’s been here,” Rothenberg said. “It shapes how you see the world and your career — that such a place as this exists, and that it really is this wonderful.”

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