Miami students plan ride, compete in Disney ‘Imagineers’ design contest

Walt Disney Company took four University of Miami students on a ride this summer: an all-expense paid trip to California to work with an elite team of “Imagineers,” or Disney’s creative-engineering minds, on a prospective theme park attraction.

Since 1992, Disney has selected teams of students from around the world to participate in the Imagi-Nations contest, an annual competition which asks students to design and pitch ideas for new theme park attractions.

The four UM finalists were chosen among students from five countries to be one of 11 finalist teams in the contest. Finalists Lesley Wheatley, Eric Suarez, Michael Jenkins and Frank Stevens worked in Glendale, Calif., from July 16 to 27 to tweak their entry and present it to a panel of judges.

The UM team’s brainchild, “Kingdom Earth,” is a state-of-the-art theater that uses a movie with animated characters to educate viewers on how humans impact the environment. Technology such as hydraulics and holographic projections create an “activated theater” to enhance the audiences’ experience of the attraction.

The finalists decided to place the theater in Epcot because of its environmental concept.

“Disney gives this platform for students to express their ideas and have people actually listen to them,” Stevens said. “One of the really amazing things about it is that you get to have your ideas taken seriously by professionals in the field. It’s a unique opportunity, to say the least.”

Disney’s Imagineers have a diverse group of skills. Employees specializing in more than 140 disciplines, including sound technology, landscape design and model making work together to brainstorm new theme park attractions.

Alli Braswell, manager of diversity and inclusion, worked with creativity aspects of the contest.

“The goal here is to bring not only people with different nationalities but people from different backgrounds, disabilities and cultures to represent the real world,” Braswell said.

Although the “Kingdom Earth” design didn’t win the contest, Stevens said that just being a finalist was a confidence-building experience.

“The best part was the personal sense of self-confidence that it gave you,” Stevens said.

“That sort of self affirmation that, ‘Yeah, I did something, people enjoyed it and there are other students out there and working in the same way.’ ”

Kelly Herson may be contacted at