Monday, April 28, 2014

Why This Blog? (2016 Update)

Some of you are probably wondering what could motivate me to put the time and effort into doing this blog. It's a fair question. In order to answer it, I have to tell you a couple of stories.  But before that, I'll give you a short answer; Walt Disney was an amazing individual. There are already over a dozen Disney biographies and it seems like a new one comes out almost yearly. He's been compared to Steve Jobs and the company which bears his name is known and admired around the world.

Five years ago I decided to try discover and understand the things that made Walt who he was.  That is what I intend to put in this blog. Not Disneyland trivia or movie facts. This blog is supposed to be about the Who, What, Why, When, Where, and How of Walt.

Now to the story; It's about a jacket which an friend of mine gave me many years ago.  It's not an ordinary, run-of-the-mill jacket, as you can see from the picture below. It's a Walt Disney Imagineering "cast member" jacket. That means its intended for employees. (Disney refers to employees as cast members and patrons as "guests".)

The copyright tag on it is dated 1988, so I've had it for over 25 years.  It came with one condition; under no circumstances was I to wear it in The Park.  The request was from one of my closest and most trusted friends and I honored it until a few of years ago, when he let me know that I was released from that obligation.  Since then it has been worn at Disney's California Adventure, but only once.  

On that occasion cast members treated me differently. One asked me when I'd worked for Disney. I felt uncomfortable and replied that it was a gift from an old friend and that I hoped to be working for Disney soon - which was true, my profile was on DisneyJobs and I'd applied for a couple dozen openings. I also have a companion piece to the jacket. (Isn't it amazing the things you can find on eBay.)

This item will not leave my house. It's too symbolic and I'm a little concerned that it should never have left the Disney Creative campus in the first place. This badge and the jacket represented what had become my highest employment aspiration; to be an Imagineer.

When I was a kid, I didn't really care for Disney one way or the other.  We watched the show on TV, but in those days my humor ran closer to Bugs Bunny than Mickey Mouse and I had no interest or desire to be a member of the Mickey Mouse Club.

My parents took me to Disneyland when I was about 8. It was fun, but I didn't really "get it", except for the rides.  Half a century later, I know that Disneyland isn't about the rides. It's about how the experience.

In 2011, I read Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real. After that I read; Inside the Magic Kingdom: Seven Keys to Disney's Success. Next was Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney. Then came; DisneyWar, Work in Progress, Be Our Guest and The Imagineering Workout, followed by The Disney Way, The Revised Vault of Walt, How to Be Like Walt and Disney U.  Most recently, I've completed Diane Disney Miller's The Walt Disney Story and was at the time of this post's writing, about half way thru Bob Thomas' excellent An American Original.  There were a few other artistic books and memoirs of the Nine Old Men. I've also been to the Disney Family Museum and Disneyland twice.

That's a lot of Disney to digest. Some might call it compulsive.  It didn't feel that way to me, particularly since I opted out of Disney when I was a kid. Eventually I decided that I'd just matured enough to really enjoy and appreciate it. My wife says I'm finally having a childhood.

Late in 2012, I made the acquaintance of an ex-Disney employee who has become the closest thing I've ever had to a fairy-godmother.  She listened to my jacket story and understood. After that she bacame regular source of guidance and insight. One of her comments was that I really didn't need to work for Disney to be an Imagineer. (We'll come back to that idea a little later.)

In his book, Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull says that by 1973 the technically adventuresome Disney was long gone. That may have been so. I've also been told by a couple of ex-employees that Disney is now big and bloated and buried in bureaucracy. Then, they'll turn out a movie like Frozen or a short like Paperman and I'm not so worried about the nay-sayers.

For ten years I was with Apple Computer. For a while I thought that was the closest I'd ever get to being an Imagineer. It's been interesting to learn that many of the traits of an Imagineer have a direct parallel to Design Thinking. I also decided that if I didn't get to work as an Imagineer before it was my turn to move on, I was going to tell my youngest daughter to slip that badge in one of my pockets before they closed the lid. It turned out that wasn't going to be necessary.

Update - December 2014

Back in the fall of 2014 I had the opportunity to spend about two hours with four remarkable men who are on the inside of the bubble surrounding a part of Disney Imagineering. It was in the context of a somewhat impromptu job interview. I'd been advised that one of them was very, very smart and known for getting to the heart of the matter very quickly. It may not have been my best interview ever, but it also wasn't my worst. We talked about my background and accomplishments, they talked about their needs. One of them also talked about The Magic. He commented that it had been a long time since he'd had a conversation like that.

After the interview I received some feedback that there was a project I might get a shot at, if it was funded. That wasn't a job offer, but it was a small sign that I was good enough to make the cut.
At the time I was OK with that. Sometimes circumstances combine to prevent things coming together perfectly, right then. When that happens, you make the best of it and keep moving forward. It was a good feeling to know a smart, tough, veteran Imagineer thought I was good enough to give me a chance.

I decided I still wasn't going to wear that jacket in the park, but that I would wear it elsewhere, as a sign of my commitment and respect for what it represented. I also started doing Design Thinking workshops, began coaching a team of mechanical engineering students working on their senior year project and put my plans with Mickey on the shelf.

Then the phone rang. The project was funded. You may of heard of it; Tokyo Disneyland is doing a multi year expansion to Fantasyland. I started work on November 10th, 2014, for the Ride Engineering Group in Glendale.

A dream is a wish your heart makes when you're fast asleep, but luck favors the prepared. The new cast member jackets are pretty cool too. Mickey is only on the front, but they have a nicer hood.

I miss Walt, even tho I never met him in person. What he stood for resonates with me and I hope it does for you also.  I wanted to help with what he was doing and to the degree that what I do at work honors his vision, I'm getting the chance to do that. 

My intention here is to explore some of the things about Disney that haven't been overworked and which sparked some insight in me. The things which helped shape and build him into the remarkable person he became and create the things he did.

Oh, speaking of Walt. He used to work in an office that used to be behind this wall; I was recently told that the IT guys occasionally hear his cough when they are working around there.

You can still start reading my thoughts on what all this has to do with Walt here.

Update - August 2016;  I was the lead Ride Engineer for the Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast for 368 days, from November 10th 2014 to Friday, November 13, 2015. Belle got put on hold and I was a "green badge" aka Staff Extension. The dream is still alive. In July OLC published this concept sketch of one possible scene from the show; That ten passenger creamer like cabin design is the visible legacy of my year doing work for Walt's muse.  I still hope experience it, in 2020, or so.

TDL Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast attraction concept art


  1. I've found this blog very entertaining and insightful. I love the quote about Disneyland playing a role in helping keep families together. Please keep the posts coming.

  2. Brian - Thank you for the comment. It's been my hope that readers would share their stories here too. Your comment also motivated me to update this post with the next part of the story.

  3. Nice blog post Dexter, I too have been there a few times now for impromptu interviews, and the same thing has basically happened due to if a project gets launched or not. I'm not worried though, as I have some very good friends on the inside that have been there more than 20 years, all rooting for me and even possibly able to bring me on when the next big thing happens there. It's all timing, not being low-profile, making as many contacts and friends on the other side of the wall at 1401 Flower as you can, and then finding ways to impress them so much they can't say "no" forever... :)

  4. I understand the Imagineering Jacket connection. I remember visiting Disneyland as a kid and seeing someone wearing a really cool looking letterman jacket that had Imagineering on it. I thought it looked way too cool and at the time I didn't really know what an Imagineer was. I asked about the jacket at the park and was told the only way to get one of those was to be an Imagineer. Fast forward to me finishing graduate school and my first job out of school was at WDI. About a month after I started there, I walked into Mickey's of Glendale and purchased my own Imagineering jacket. I can't really express how much it meant. I still have the jacket and treasure it. I spent about two years working directly for WDI and now have my own design company and have had the opportunity to work for WDI as a contractor over the years. I've worked on a lot of amazing projects for all parts of the industry, but the magic of that jacket is still the tops.


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