Just an elephant dancing in the woods


dance practice

I know I haven’t posted much here lately. Sorry about that, but I promise I will have a story or two about what it is like to work at Walt Disney Imagineering. For now, here’s something quick. Just an elephant dancing in the woods.

On the inside looking out

Walt Disney Casting, from the inside

This shot was taken from the window of the Walt Disney World Casting Center, where I was officially cleared to work for Walt Disney Imagineering over the Summer. I have driven past this sign a million times, staring at the building from my car, and always wondered what it would be like to work in such an amazing place. I’ve always wondered what Disney magic looks like from the inside.

The wonder goes. The pixie dust fades. Seeing how it all works will just kill the magic. This has never been a concern of mine. Magic for me becomes that much more magical when I see how it works. I want to see the stage director desperately trying to line up all those dancers behind the correct floats for the afternoon parade. I want to go out with the guys who run around with paint buckets frantically touching up the bare spots before the park opens. I want to see every grease stain on the machinery that makes those little dolls dance and sing “it’s a small world afterall” over and over and over. All of those things, all of those very un-magical imperfections, come together to make memories that last forever. That is what real magic is all about.

I have seen Disney from the outside a million times. Today I got my first taste of Disney from the inside and I can say that the view was pure magic.

Fast Lane

This video is part of a group project for a class about designing and prototyping experiences. We were given two weeks to design some sort of experience that would make people happy. Simple as that.

After a little wrangling, we went for big, goofy, inflatable bowling and called ourselves The Fast Lane. Just like regular bowling, people would get two tries to knock down as many pins as possible. Unlike regular bowling, people would have their choice of prizes, from glow bracelets to candy, depending on how many pins they knocked down. Also unlike regular bowling, our game would be free.

At the end of the two weeks, we went live at Forsyth Park in downtown Savannah, GA, where people came out in droves to play our game (they estimated over 4,000 people were in the park that night). Oh, and the city happened to be showing Disney’s Frozen for free that night, but really we know everyone came out for the bowling.

In case you are curious, the music is Rafstraumur by Sigur Rós. You will not find me anywhere in this video since I jumped at the chance to work the camera and eventually worked the video editing software. When you are camera shy you learn to move fast. Oh and by the way…your team is going to have to make a video toI’LL DO IT!!!

Chicago Grandé Casino

Music: “Crazy In Love” Original song by Beyoncé, Cover by Emeli Sandé and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra (Great Gatsby Soundtrack)
Video available in HD

The Chicago Grandé Casino is a project for my Themed Entertainment Design graduate studies program at SCAD. The challenge was to create a themed environment and I chose to create a casino located in Chicago themed to the Roaring 20s. It is a three story Art Deco structure with a speakeasy (called The Blind Tiger), a theater (called Années Folles) and a massive sculpture anchoring the entire environment.

We were asked to put together a power point presentation and present our projects in class, so I imagined mine as a design pitch to a client who was shopping their casino around to different design houses. Since I knew everyone in the class would likely take “power point presentation” quite literally and put together slides with lots of text that they would read, I thought a video teaser with a beat would have more impact. I made sure to present after 2/3 of the class had gone, once the “audience” had settled into the routine of one 20 minute presentation after another, making my project a surprising and welcome departure.

As far as the artwork goes, I decided to go with a very literal photobashing technique where I began with photos and textures and combined them with photo manipulation and digital paint to create the finished product. This is the opposite of my preferred working method where I paint an environment and then overlay photos and textures to enhance the image. This method was very new to me and I made the switch very late in the design process, but it helped get ideas out quickly and also helped to ground the project in reality.

Music: “Crazy In Love” Original song by Beyoncé, Cover by Emeli Sandé and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra (Great Gatsby Soundtrack)
This project was produced for the Themed Entertainment Design graduate studies program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. THED 730, Winter 2014. All art by Jon Plsek

I’m going to Disney World

Our SCAD team gave the final performance of our Imaginations project last week in Savannah for an audience of students, faculty and guests, and now that we have gotten that out of the way, I can feel comfortable posting the slides from our presentation. But before I do that I have to share one thing…

This summer I’m going to Disney World. “Going to” as in “working for” and “Disney World” as in “Walt Disney Imagineering.”

For three months this summer I will be working with Creative Design Development at WDI in Florida as a paid intern. One benefit of being a finalist in the Imaginations Design Competition was having the chance to interview with different departments for possible internships. Many employees, especially those who come through something like Imaginations, begin as interns and work their way into full time positions. I was offered a position both in Glendale at Imagineering headquarters as well as a position in Orlando and opted for the latter. While the location will be much easier on my family (I live in Atlanta), the place and the atmosphere have a certain appeal beyond what Glendale can offer.

The thing I fell in love with when dreaming of working for Walt Disney Imagineering was the stories about the early days of Disneyland—small groups of people with limited resources needing to move quickly to get things designed and into the parks because there was no time to waste. Everyone had to fill roles they never would have imagined simply because there was no one else to do the work (there are many stories of Walt Disney saying, “You know, what we need in the park is….” Prompting some unsuspecting Imagineer to say, “Sounds great, Walt. Who’s gonna do it?” To which Walt would reply, “You are!”). Today at WDI headquarters in Glendale, things are a little different. Of course the people there are very talented and multi-faceted, but the company now employs many many specialists who are insanely good at what they do, as opposed to a small group expected to do everything. This is by necessity, as the projects Disney produces today are so massive in scope (not to mention in budget), that it’s simply not reasonable to go over to the person in costuming and say, “You know, what we need in the park is an entire land based on the movie Avatar, and you’re going to do it!” The Imagineering home office has gobs of cash, tons of time and an army of elite troops and it deploys them all without mercy.

In Florida things are a little different. Cash is limited. Time is limited. Numbers are limited. While that may sound like a terrible situation to some, especially considering the alternative, to me all of these limitations add up to one thing—the necessity for creativity and ingenuity to be unlimited. The Orlando location, similar to the on-site office in Anaheim, feels a little like a startup business when compared to Glendale. At a startup, you work harder for less (if any) money and have to fill more roles than you signed up for, but there is something oddly rewarding about that. I am someone who craves more work, more challenges, more ways to stretch myself and discover new talents that I didn’t know I had. In an environment where more is asked, everyone must become more than they imagined. The Florida office is that kind of environment, so that is where I want to be.

This summer I will be spending my time in a little office right behind the old Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot, drawing my brains out and learning anything that anyone is willing to teach me. When my boss or some other senior Imagineer comes around the corner with something that we need in the parks and I say, “Sounds great. Who’s gonna do it?” I can only hope they will reply, “You are!”

The Living Library, Design: Puzzle Rooms and Guest Experience

This project was conceived by the Savannah College of Art & Design Team and created for the 2014 Walt Disney Imagineering’s Imaginations Design Competition. This project is the sole property of Walt Disney Imagineering and all rights to use these ideas are exclusive to Walt Disney Imagineering. The competition is a way for students and recent graduates to showcase their talents and for Walt Disney Imagineering to identify new talent. All content ©2014 Walt Disney Corporation, Walt Disney Imagineering and the 2014 Disney Imaginations design competition.


For a little context, please see my first post about the Living Library.

For the past few months I have been working with a 4-person team from SCAD on a project for the Disney Imaginations design competition. Our team was one of six finalists to receive a trip to Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, CA. I was asked to provide many of the visuals for our project.

A key element of the concept for the Living Library was our puzzle rooms, or “chapter rooms” as we often called them as each represented the next chapter in the story that guests were living. We had alot of talk over what these puzzle rooms would be, how they would function, and what impact they would have on the overall experience.

Chapter Rooms—ISOWe wanted to make our rooms adaptable to make sure guests had as unique an experience as possible every time they visited. One way to do this would be to make each room support multiple puzzles and challenges. For example, this early rendering of a pirate themed environment had many possibilities.

Pirates variationA guest may have been in this room during a past visit, but the tasks they had to accomplish then would not necessarily be what they need to accomplish now. Guests could have collected skulls last time, but now perhaps they have to raise a series of flags in order to move on to the next room.

Another element necessary to maintain the perceived randomness of the experience was to design quick change rooms, that is, “blank canvas” areas that could be rethemed instantly using practical effects and projection technology to become an entirely different Disney property. You can see this idea at work in these two rooms, one themed to Tarzan and the other themed to Indiana Jones-ish.

Tarzan Indiana JonesLooks a little easier to see with the lights off (and with the jungle pedestal still intact):

Side-by-side room comparison

A key turning point in our design process was deciding whether the puzzle room experience should involve multiple Disney environments (i.e. guests jumping from Toy Story to Cindarella to Mulan to Wall-E) or if guests should progress through a single story to maintain continuity. We finally decided that, while it would be easier to present the single story idea (particularly in our initial submission which provided very limited space to get our concept across), we didn’t want to limit the capabilities of the facility by only having four or five environments. Also, we thought this ran counterintuitive to how kids play with their toys. Jeff, our brilliant 3D modeller and animator, made one of the best points in defense of this idea during our presentation. He noted that when kids play they don’t separate their toys out by intellectual property, keeping Monsters University toys over here and Mickey Mouse Club toys over there. Everything is in the toybox and everything is part of that imaginative story they are creating.

To ease the potentially jarring effect of transitioning between unrelated environments, we developed the “adventure guide” concept, a sage-like Disney character that guests would choose at the outset of their adventure through the Living Library. This guide would appear in “transition hallways” as a projected effect on a fog screen (similar to the projected Davy Jones or Blackbeard found on Pirates of the Caribbean rides in Disney parks) and would help cleanse guests’ sensory pallets and prep them for what they are about to experience next.

Transition Hallway—Rafiki variation

With all these different Disney story lines, there are bound to be a few that no one in the group likes. How do we keep families from experiencing Oliver and Company or Home on the Range (two films that, for whatever reason came up quite often when our team was discussing not irritating the guests—btw, James Earl Jones came up often as well, but that’s an entirely different story) when absolutely no one in the group enjoys either film? We decided that the Living Library system, called Oracle, should be tightly integrated with MyMagic+, part of Disney’s NextGen initiative. We would encourage guests to establish a personal profile in which they could choose favorite characters and stories. This would ensure that no one got Dinosaur if no one liked it.

Magic Band—guest personalization (show)

It’s worth noting that dad’s number one favorite character is Jessica Rabbit. Mom isn’t much better, however, as three of her favorite characters are all played by Johnny Depp, not to mention Ty Pennington is bringing up the rear….

Once this was decided, we knew our presentation needed quantity to show that anything was possible. We tossed around a few ideas and i got to work, adding a few extra guest experiences as well.

The Living Library

This project was conceived by the Savannah College of Art & Design Team and created for the 2014 Walt Disney Imagineering’s Imaginations Design Competition. This project is the sole property of Walt Disney Imagineering and all rights to use these ideas are exclusive to Walt Disney Imagineering. The competition is a way for students and recent graduates to showcase their talents and for Walt Disney Imagineering to identify new talent. ©2014 Walt Disney Corporation, Walt Disney Imagineering and the 2014 Disney Imaginations design competition.


For the past few months I have been working with a 4-person team from SCAD on a project for the Disney Imaginations design competition. Our team was one of six finalists (chosen from what we have been told was about 230 submissions) to receive a trip to Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, CA to present our project and meet the people who create the Disney magic.

For my part, I was asked to produce all of the illustration and concept art for the project. We were under a gag order to not show any portion of our Imaginations entry until after our presentation was finished. Well, our presentation is finished.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Living Library—

Living Library Attraction PosterThis is going to be a super quick overview of our concept with a few images and some explanation. In future posts I’ll talk more in depth about design choices, the finished product, as well as what it was like presenting on back to back days to a room full of 50 or so Imagineers. It should be noted that, while I produced the artwork you will see on this page, the finished project was the result of close collaboration with my teammates (for example, I created the attraction poster above using a layout sketch from our team leader Morgan). On to the pitch…

The Living Library is a one of a kind experience that blends storytelling, gameplay and learning in a real, fully interactive, fully immersive themed environment. It’s housed in San Francisco’s Candlestick park, the former home of the San Francisco 49ers, and makes use of all aspects of the stadium, from the surrounding concourses to the central bowl, even the sub-levels beneath the building. The Living Library allows guests be active participants in some of their favorite stories, giving them a chance to really live out these Disney adventures. Guests move through themed environments (made up of both physical and projected effects) and must solve various puzzles and challenges in order to move on (think Legends of the Hidden Temple on steroids). Eventually, guests work their way to the center of the stadium where they find themselves in a massive recreation of Peter Pan’s Neverland.

Prologue Room

When guests enter the Living Library, they are escorted to a small reading room, or what we call the prologue room. While in this prologue room, they are told to find a specific book and place it on a pedestal in the center of the room. Initially the pages are blank, but as they look closer, writing begins to appear and the entire room comes to life. Guests discover that the room they are in is the beginning of a new story, one that will be “written” as they experience it.

Prologue Room—detail

Tangled Flooding Gorge

Here in the flooding canyon from Tangled, guests have to find a way to divert the flow of water so they can get to the distant cave exit.

Incredibles Volcano

In this room, inspired by the Incredibles, guests must activate a series of buttons in the correct sequence to move the Omnidroid’s arms so they can escape.


Guests have to work quickly to try and weigh Carl’s house down to keep it from flying away.

Beauty and the Beast

In this Beauty and the Beast inspired scavenger hunt, guests have to locate items from the film.

Entering Neverland

Guests eventually make their way to Neverland where they have to find a hidden object and bring it back to the Living Library

Ending and Gift Shop

Once guests return from their adventure through the Living Library, they can find a seat, grab something to eat and stop off at the gift shop before heading home.

Again, this was a very brief overview of the project. We produced a ton of artwork and design which I will share in later posts.



Just a quick heads up. I have started a new website at ThemedEntertainmentDesign.com. Currently it is acting as my portfolio site, and a few of the images will give you more information about the thinking and design that went into the finished piece (thanks to Dave Cooperstein at PGAV for the advice).

As my experience with various themed projects grows I will build the site out to cover everything that goes into themed entertainment design, from “blue sky” to smiling guests. For now, though, enjoy a few pretty pictures. Eventually they will be joined by school work, personal work and, with a little luck, my project from the 2014 Disney Imaginations competition.

Winter Project #2

During my holiday break from school I am assigning myself random design projects to make sure my brain doesn’t go to sleep entirely. After Mario’s Superstar Resort I asked my random number generator what I should work on next, and it said—

Project type: Video Game
Project theme: Polynesian

There are many ways to go with both criteria. I have spent some time on a few Polynesian islands, so that gives me a place to start, and video game variations are all over the place (iPhone, computer, console…role playing, simulation/strategy, mmo…). Once I settle on direction, I will need a general storyline, concept art, environments (high level & detail), character design, prop design, a color script (probably should find out if they do those for video games), possible game menus and, if I have time, possible cover art. I’m sure there are other things needed for video games (apart from coding the things of course), and if I come up with them they will be added to the list.

One of my goals for this project is to really try and convey a mood and sense of place. My other goal is to develop a better workflow, one with more intermediate steps so I can develop my design rather than just jumping right into a final piece.

I don’t really see video game design in my future, and in fact it is because of video games that the Themed Entertainment industry is in a little bit of a mess right now. However, many of the same techniques used in game design are the same as those for themed entertainment, without the pesky limitations of what is and is not physically possible.

From a scheduling standpoint this project is going to be a little strange. The plan is to get these things done in a week, but I am starting off with this one late and I will be out of town for several days, so I’ll have to find a deadline that makes sense.

To ensure I am sticking to a good workflow, I plan to post more incremental stuff. By putting my thought process on display I hope to get rid of some bad habits. I may be able to work on some sketches and a story while I am out of town, and if so I’ll post things from the road (I always think I’ll draw when I am on a trip, but somehow I never do…that whole “enjoying the people I am with” thing). For now here’s a few quick thumbnail sketches I did to try and find my mood and setting.

color thumbs

Lessons from Mario


Ok, so we are all friends here, right? We can talk openly and honestly with each other, right? Good. Over the course of the past week and weekend, I decided to design a Resort themed to Mario and, on the whole, it was ok. If I had to rate it, I would give what I produced a big, fat meh. I don’t want to be too critical (a bad habit of mine) but I do need to be critical. The point of doing these projects is so I can learn, and being honest with myself about what went wrong is the best way to do that. More important than understanding what went wrong, it’s important that I understand why it went wrong so that I can do better next time.

First I’d like to begin by talking about what went right.

So then, on to what went wrong…

WebI kid, I kid! But not by much. My absolute favorite part of my design is the “future expansion” area in the shape of a “W” for a hotel based on Mario’s evil twin, Wario. I’ll explain why I like it so much later, but for now let’s just say I think it is a great example of what storytelling through design is all about.

Now on to what went wrong (for reals this time). I left the actual task of painting until quite late in the week (by design). I spent most of the week thinking and “researching” (i.e. playing video games). Things looked good in my head and my little sketches looked ok, but problems showed up once I finally started to paint. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about architecture and even less about hotels, and this negatively impacted both my design and my rendering style. Since Mario’s world is a big, goofy, cartoony land, I wound up painting everything in a big, goofy, cartoony way. This would be fine if I was designing a cartoon, but the project called for a resort, a thing that needs to be built in the physical world. While the pieces weren’t meant to be blueprints, I still need to get a sense of environment and atmosphere across that has some physicality to it.

The obvious solution here is to begin painting earlier. Not only will this allow me to spot problems sooner, but it will help me produce better design overall. Essentially I took my first painting of the hotel and, because of time constraints, was forced to make it my last painting of the hotel. Ideally you want to try out as many designs as possible in a loose and quick fashion and start to reign in that design through subsequent paintings. Big, broad ideas early and then gradually refine. This is what concept art is for and I somehow forgot that entirely.

coffeeThe project’s biggest shortcoming, I feel, is that it is simply unimaginative. There are some cute bits here and there, like my little packet of 1-up coffee (I admit I did like that), but not much that I would call a standout.

I mentioned earlier that my favorite part of the design was the “future expansion” shaped like a “W.” I think it is my most clever bit of design by far, and it’s something that isn’t even there! In fact, that little gag is the whole reason why the hotel maintained its “M” shape. That little space implies alot of things and really gives the viewer permission to fill in the gap.

Many fantastic artists, like Rembrandt, Craig Mullins or Herb Ryman, paint extraordinary detail where they need it, but leave other parts vague. Whether we want to or not, our brain begins to fill in the gaps and we slowly discover an entire world in our heads that is only implied by a few quick brush strokes. Themed environments can work this way as well by knowing which details should be stated, and which should just be implied so that the guest can discover their own world.

What would a Wario hotel be? Maybe some kind of reverse negative image of the Mario hotel? Maybe the cast of people working the two resorts would put on opposing shows every night. Maybe they would fight over who had control of the pool. Maybe one side would take over the other hotel, “vandalizing” elements to make it more themed to the other guy. It leaves room for you to finish off the story and we all know that our own stories are always the best ones.

I’m not saying that I need to leave big, gaping holes in everything that I paint, but the key thing here is to learn to be aware of the psychological implications of my design.

How do I fix this? What is the solution? Easy. Do more projects. Luckily for me, the next one is on deck.