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Dream Weaver


By Marty Sklar '56, Photos by Amanda Friedman

Published Apr 1, 2010 10:00 AM

If theme park designer isn't an L.A. kid's dream job, it has to be in the top three. For some Bruins it's a reality, as several work in Walt Disney's legendary Imagineering unit. Many took the popular School of Theater, Film and Television Imagineering class, co-taught by theme park design icon Marty Sklar. Here, Sklar reveals the secrets of a career in theme park design — and what a certain Mr. Disney would say about making wishes come true.



Imagineering a career

The good news is Imagineering (and Disney, broadly) is always looking for good, young talent. One way we seek it out is through a competition called ImagiNations that I started 18 years ago to diversify our staff and inject new blood. It's a team competition primarily for university students. Last year, there were 130 team entries, including 24 teams from outside the U.S.A., among them Australia, India, Sri Lanka and United Arab Emirates. The winners get internships, and we have other summer interns to scope out talent. Another way is to work at one of our parks; that's the way I started one month before Disneyland opened in 1955. And Bruce Vaughn, now the creative leader at Imagineering, is an adjunct professor at UCLA teaching a course through the TFT Theater Department called "Imagineering: The Art & Process of Entertainment Design." He had 155 students in the first quarter last year.

Wish Upon A Star

Besides Disney and Universal, some great local companies are key members of the Themed Entertainment Association, including BRC Imagination Arts, Thinkwell, The Hettema Group, Edwards Technology, Lexington, Scenic Design Group and many more. Dreamers can contact TEA at (818) 843-8497 or visit

Other kingdoms to consider

The Themed Entertainment Association in Burbank has 670 member companies representing about 7,500 individuals worldwide. TEA presents itself as "representing creators of compelling places and experiences" — meaning everything from theme parks to zoos, museums, live events, etc. Besides Disney and Universal, some great local companies are key members.

Three magic words for theme park design success

Believe it or not, Imagineering alone has 140 different disciplines internally: designers, writers, illustrators, engineers, filmmakers, R&D researchers, computer scientists, architects, musicians, live event creators. And we employ outside consultants with additional skills. Beyond that, my list would include curiosity about life and a passion for "dreaming and doing" it right. And, of course, a creative bent. That goes for the engineers as well as the storytellers. So my three words would be: Curiosity, Creativity and Confidence.

Experiences that can help

For the hundreds of young people who have written me over the years, I always tell them: Learn as much as you can about as many things as you can, and sample as many experiences as possible while you're young. Obviously, fields like engineering, architecture, acoustics, etc., require education and training that applies to many fields. But if you want to be a ride designer or engineer, you better love roller coasters.

Are theme park design skills transferable?

You bet! It works both ways: Good storytellers and designers can work in films, television, theme parks, museums and many other realms. Today, Imagineers are creating cruise ships, stage shows, hotels, restaurants, etc., because they understand how people use these spaces. There's also a shorthand form of communication that we practice. When you only have a few seconds to say something about an Audio-Animatronics pirate in a ride-through, or a line of dialogue in a "dark ride," you learn to tell stories in a minimum of words, facial expressions and gestures. One of my "Mickey's Ten Commandments" is "Tell one story at a time."

What you absolutely have to do

The most important of "Mickey's Ten Commandments" is "Know your audience." As Walt Disney taught us, you don't create for yourself or your bosses, you "make magic" for real people of all ages who come to our parks, resorts, hotels, cruise ships and other adventures to have fun and be entertained.

What you absolutely should never do

Never say, "No, it won't work" unless you have tried everything, and it really won't work. My good friend Harrison "Buzz" Price, who did the site studies that located Disneyland and Walt Disney World for Walt Disney, put it this way: "Yes, if ..." is the language of the dealmaker; "No, because ..." is the language of the deal-killer. We learned that from Walt himself. You could never say "no" to Walt, because he would find someone willing to take a chance and try something new.

Theme park design and the Daily Bruin

I learned to accept, appreciate and meet deadlines at the Daily Bruin. They never scared me again, even on billion-dollar projects. And as sports editor, I watched how Coach Wooden dealt with talent, organized practices and motivated players. Talk about education! Number three, I had the opportunity to lead and motivate my fellow students to perform. Basically, that's what I did when I had 500 Imagineers creating nine of the 11 Disney parks around the world.

His favorite rides

It's a Small World is easily the most important attraction we ever created. Just imagine what the world would be if, in the words Dick and Bob Sherman wrote, everyone really recognized that "There is just one moon and one golden sun, and a smile means friendship to everyone." As Walt said, "You can educate, but don't tell people you are doing it!" Second place goes to Space Mountain. It only happened because the designer, my mentor and partner John Hench, and I figured out how to make it work for the sponsor, RCA, in the early 1970s and they put up $10 million to build the first one in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. That's the equivalent of about $90 million or so today. Those two signature attractions are in every Disneyland-style park around the world today, and hundreds of millions of people have enjoyed their special Disney fun. As trendsetters and guest pleasers, only Pirates of the Caribbean can top those two!

What would Walt think?

I've been asked that question hundreds of times. It almost killed the Walt Disney Company in the year after Walt died in l966. Many Disney people spent their time asking that question, and it choked everything nearly to death. So I vowed I would never answer the question. But I relented once, when we opened Hong Kong Disneyland, Disney's first venture on the Asian mainland. When the interpreter translated "What would Walt say?," I responded that Walt would answer: "What took you so long?"



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