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ENTERTAINMENT

Sorcerers' apprentices concoct new adventures

Disney interns peek behind the magic and help brainstorm

September 26, 2008|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

Every childhood visit to Disneyland provoked the same argument between Patricia L. Caplette and her brother over which ride to hit first.

He wanted to head straight for the Haunted Mansion; she insisted on Pirates of the Caribbean. So they bargained: If she could start the day with her favorite scurvy crew, he could end it getting spooked.

"It still brings me back to that moment each time I go on this ride, because I'm basically going back to being a little kid, starting out my Disney day, going on Pirates," said the 27-year-old illustrator from Diamond Bar. "Even going on it as an adult, 20 years later, or just walking past it, it still brings up those memories."

These days, Caplette is not just another nostalgic "park guest," as Disney likes to call its ticket holders. The master of fine arts student at Cal State Fullerton was among five interns who spent the summer with Walt Disney Imagineering's Blue Sky program, brainstorming attractions for the parks.

The notoriously secretive Imagineering, which is responsible for developing new ideas and rides for the theme parks and resorts, took the unprecedented step of granting access to its creative trove -- a database with more than 1,000 technologies and ride systems known as the "blue sky project" -- in hopes of sparking ideas for future attractions.

This approach of bringing together "people who know too much and people who know too little" is a time-honored way to foster creativity, said Stanford University engineering professor Robert I. Sutton, who has studied innovation and has no affiliation with Walt Disney Co.

History is replete with examples of outsiders whose new perspectives, when paired with expertise, can produce groundbreaking work, Sutton said. Take the example of Apple Inc. founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, with some business oversight from chip industry millionaire Mike Markkula, revolutionized the computing industry.

"Disney's very smart to do this," Sutton said. "Not knowing how it's supposed to be done is very important."

Not that anyone would accuse the folks at Imagineering in Glendale of running out of ideas. Rather, the Imagineers were seeking insights into the kind of entertainment that would resonate with the generation that grew up with game controllers and computer mice in their hands.

"It's something that's called reverse mentoring," said Bruce Vaughn, Imagineering's chief creative executive. "It's our very, very seasoned and experienced folks that interns are exposed to. . . . They get the fresh perspective that these interns bring."

The results were unexpected.

"We all brought a bias toward interactivity, that this generation would be all about interactive, immersive experiences because they are the generation that was raised with video games from an early age," said Jon Georges, director of Disney Imagineering Blue Sky Studio, the team of people who explore new ideas for Disney parks and resorts.

Although the interns produced their share of game-like concepts, Georges said, he was nonetheless struck by their affection for the traditional storytelling of Disney's theme parks.

"None of them said, 'Take Pirates of the Caribbean away because it's not interactive enough,' " Georges said. "They all cited that as one of their favorites because it is a deep storytelling experience that doesn't require their active involvement in it. It is ride-through theater."

This sentiment seemed to reaffirm Disney's strategy of preserving the core of the parks while weaving new experiences into its tapestry.

The interns were chosen from the annual Disney ImagiNations Design Competition, in which more than 65 students submitted designs for new rides, attractions, themed restaurants or lands within a Disney park. Seventeen finalists presented their ideas in a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney Imagineering.

Four were selected from this group to join Imagineering's Blue Sky group for three months during the summer, in which they studied the Southern California parks and pored over a bank of ideas for new rides and attractions to come up with their own proposals. Another student was selected through a different program.

Janet Hwu, 20, of San Diego, who is a product design major at Stanford University, won with a proposal for a French bistro inspired by the Disney-Pixar Animation Studios movie "Ratatouille." Guests would enter Remy's Place through a human-sized mouse hole that leads to a subterranean waiting room "themed to look like a bunch of rats decided to collect random human objects, throw them together and form their own version of a restaurant."

Another intern, Billy Almon, 22, a Howard University architecture major, proposed a sports-themed attraction based on the Disney movie "The Game Plan," in which guests don virtual-reality goggles and gloves for a simulated NFL experience.

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