The path to becoming a Disney Imagineer

John G. (NDI#194) (11 Posts)

John Gray is a curious person who is drawn to other curious people. He is a dreamer and a doer and believes that everyone and everywhere has a story waiting to be told—the trick is in how you tell it.


Mickey's Compass“I want to work for Walt Disney Imagineering. How does a person get to be an Imagineer? Where should I go to school and what types of courses should I take? What do I need to do?” These kinds of questions bounce around online all the time. Maybe you are one of those whose dream job is making other people’s Disney dreams come true but you just don’t know where to begin…

Green students, frustrated designers, neurotic Disney people, anyone with aspirations to join the ranks at Walt Disney Imagineering take to the internet and post their questions with the hopes that the magical path to the dream factory will be opened. For those few who have managed to get a response from someone within the organization, the answers are never quite what they were looking for. There are frequent doses of reality: WDI is not just a funhouse of fantasy but a business, contracts in the industry are very short (about 18 months) and you shouldn’t limit yourself by putting Disney up on a pedestal.

“Yeah, but…what do I need to do?”

Imagineers will remind people that it’s important to be passionate about what interests you and be the best at it, while still being a generalist. They say to chase your passions, not a just destination, and maybe—just maybe—with some luck and a little pixie dust, you too may someday be an Imagineer.

“Yeah, but…what do I need to DO???”

To many, the road to WDI seems frustratingly vague and without straight answers. If you happen to get ahold of the giant, circular ear of an Imagineer, you could ask, “How did YOU get there? What path did YOU take?” in the hopes of doing what they did, but that misses the point. People at Walt Disney Imagineering have personal stories that are individual and uncommon because Walt Disney Imagineering is a place for uncommon individuals. There is no magical path. WDI is not looking for people who have hit all the checkpoints, they are looking for people who belong.

Herb Ryman and his rendering of Disneyland

Rendering Credit: Herb Ryman, Disney Corporation

Who does belong?

When Walt Disney needed an arial rendering of Disneyland, he called artist Herb Ryman in to the studio who, after a little coaxing, agreed to put Walt’s vision on paper. “Herbie,” Walt said, “I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train.” With this as instruction, most of us would shake our heads in utter disbelief…twice…stammer and say, “WH-WHAT???” Walt needed instant brilliance and Ryman delivered, creating the single most important piece of art in the history of the Disney theme parks, and did so in a single weekend. Herb Ryman was special, and he belonged.

We can’t be Herb Ryman, but we can be special. What kinds of stories do you tell? What kinds of things do you build? What kinds of experiences do you create? Are you passionate about great stories or are you passionate about only great Disney stories? At WDI, anyone can do what Disney has already done, but it takes someone special to create something that looks like nothing else in the world (oh, and don’t forget it should be surrounded by a train). They have a word for a person like that at Walt Disney Imagineering—Imagineer.

Here’s a nice little bit of advice from from Imagineering: A behind the dreams look at making MORE magic real (below is the second of two passages from the back of the book, the first called So you want to be an Imagineer and the second called Or just think like one. One addresses being while the passage below addresses becoming. It is significant that the more useful of the two is the latter):

Do just about anything to solve a problem. Have a positive attitude. It will be hard, but don’t act like it’s hard. Be a student, and be a teacher.

Be inclusive, and make sure that everybody has a seat at the table. Be flexible. Learn to recognize the value of untargeted thinking, both creative and applied. Never give up; remember that there is a way to make it work. Wear a lot of hats. Be respectful. Listen. Cultivate a zen-like ability to be unattached to your idea while being passionate about it. Contribute, change, go with the flow. Be adaptable and open to different opinions and experiences. A successful organization is introspective. Always ask, “What’s next?” Most of all, have fun.

“Yeah, but…what do I need to…oh…OH!!!” I’ll see you there.

Contributed by: John Gray (NDI#194) John is the Imagineering Blogger.

  • Leo Muro

    From reading this I picked up on an idea on how to become an Imagineer. I got that you Disney looks for bright and unorthodox individuals who can think outside the box and not just by the book. To get into imagineering all you can do is show them your best and creative side. And if Disney likes what you have to offer then they will offer the job. Like you said there is no ‘There is no magical path. WDI is not looking for people who have hit all the checkpoints, they are looking for people who belong.”