Engineering the Disney Magic

Walt Disney World
Written by Gary Goettling
Rob Mitchell is always on vacation--not his, but other people's. As director of engineering for Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Mitchell has a principal role in creating the unique and spectacular attractions that lure an estimated 25 million vacationers year to Disney's three theme parks: the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and the Disney/MGM Studios.

Most people are surprised to learn what he does for a living. "They have engineers at Disney?" laughs the 1971 industrial engineering graduate.

"People don't realize how big a challenge engineering is within the Disney company," says Mitchell, who also has a master's in management from Rollins College. "Unlike a lot of other parks and entertainment companies, we do almost all of our design in-house.

"The challenge doesn't stop when the facility is built," he adds. "We're continually trying to improve it, make it more reliable, improve the quality of the show. Almost all of the shows have been improved through the years to make them more reliable and a better experience for our guests."

Mitchell heads a staff of about 140 engineers and designers organized into three areas: ride and show engineering, facilities engineering and industrial engineering. The first two groups are concerned with the development and maintenance of the park itself and its attractions, and the third group provides internal consulting.

"I think we've got one of the best engineering organizations in the world," he says. "We've had good luck in attracting very strong, competent engineers. We attract a very energetic type of engineer--I'd say our energy level is extremely high.

"We've been fortunate to find a mix of recent graduates from schools like Georgia Tech, and more-experienced engineers who have spent many years working in various areas of engineering. We have engineers in virtually every discipline--civil, mechanical, structural, electrical, machine design--you name it."

The skills may sound familiar, but the end products are anything but ordinary. The ability to take people on a ride across a primordial swamp past fighting dinosaurs, or through 2,000 years of history, or 20,000 leagues under the sea requires a tremendous amount of creativity.

"A lot of engineering jobs are monotonous, and require repetitive and uncreative thought," Mitchell says, "but this one is just the opposite.

"One of the things that appeals to our engineers is the opportunity to apply their creativity to their work. Our company requires a tremendous amount of creativity in the designs that we provide. Most of them are one-of-a-kind, first-time designs. We're building something that's never been built before almost all the time.

"Disney is a perfect match for engineering," he adds. "I can't think of a better place for an engineer to work."

Actually, Mitchell wanted to work for Disney long before he thought he'd become an engineer. He had visited the original Disneyland at age 12, and recalls thinking then that Disney would be the "ideal" place to work.

The Monticella, Ark., native says that when he was looking for a college, "I wanted to go to the best engineering school that I could, but stay fairly close to home. Georgia Tech was a natural choice."

The Georgia Tech Years: Sports, Study, Military and a Bride From ASC

As a student, Mitchell was in the Navy ROTC program and was a member of Sigma Chi, ODK and the Scabbard and Blade military honorary.

Although a three-year letterman on Tech's gymnastics team, Mitchell's real passion was kayaking. A three-time national champion in the one-man kayak, Mitchell was introduced to the sport while in high school. He honed his skill on the Chattahoochee River while attending Tech, and earned a spot on the U.S. national team.

During his years in Atlanta, Mitchell also met his wife-to-be, Karen, who was a student at Agnes Scott College in Decatur. The two married soon after college, and now have three children: Robbie, 12, Todd, 9, and Christy, 5.

A post-college stint in the Navy didn't hinder his sports involvement. "I spent my military career racing kayaks for the Navy around the world," he explains. "Those three years in the Navy were a great experience."

In 1972 he was picked for the U.S. Olympic team and raced in the one-man kayak event at Munich.

Mitchell is pleased that his sons have shown an interest in making Olympic competition a family tradition.

"I'm training my two boys now for the Atlanta Olympics, and I think they both have a chance to make the U.S. kayaking team, particularly the 12-year-old, who will be 18 in 1996."

The Mitchells now live in a lakefront home in Clermont, Fla., where they enjoy windsurfing, sailing, skiing and, of course, kayaking.

And where does someone who works for Walt Disney World go on vacation? "We like to get to the national parks," Mitchell says. "We're about halfway to our goal of visiting every one of them."

Mitchell's boyhood dream came true 15 years ago when he joined Disney World as an industrial engineer developing preventive-maintenance programs. He worked his way up to director of industrial engineering, then to general manager of the Magic Kingdom and transportation maintenance. In 1989, he was named to his current position.

Inside the Wonders of Life pavilion, a queue of "guests" (as tourists are called by Disney employees) wait patiently for a chance to experience one of Epcot Center's newest and most popular attractions.

"Body Wars" imparts the physical sensation of a roller coaster using special-effects film techniques along with a little adaptive engineering by Mitchell's department.

The premise is a trip through the human circulatory system. A 70 mm film, produced by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic and directed by Leonard Nimoy, is projected before an audience strapped into four 26-ton flight simulators. When the motion of the simulators is synchronized with the visuals on the screen, the effect is awesome.

When Disney engineers bought the simulators, they knew they faced a big challenge, Mitchell says. Typically, pilots handle the equipment gingerly; their objective is to avoid "crashes" or violent movements of any kind.

"We took just the opposite approach," Mitchell explains. "We put the simulators through as much stress as we possibly could. Needless to say, they required quite a few enhancements to the technology that was available."

From the Mind of Disney, Imagination Continues to Flow

Dancer at the Japan pavilion Like a magician who guards the secrets of his art, the Disney Co. is tight-lipped about how most of its magic is performed. But Mitchell relents a bit after repeated pestering about an unusual attraction--the Epcot Center fountain where segments of water leapfrog over the sidewalk. "It's all in the nozzle," he smiles.

New rides and shows originate at California-based Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), which was established by Disney himself and serves as a kind of "think tank" for the theme park side of the company. Their sketches and ideas end up in Mitchell's area for refinement and the nuts-and-bolts engineering work--the bridge between imagination and reality, as Walt Disney might say.

"Our role is to dovetail with WDI, and try to develop new ideas as well to fit into their shows," Mitchell says. "We spend quite a bit of time trying to maintain and improve the quality of our shows. We're constantly evaluating new technology and how it can be applied to our company."

The engineering department has recently added its own research and development group, according to Mitchell, and is experimenting with new techniques in shows and support materials that could have a significant long-term impact on the Disney theme park.

"You can't just let a park like this sit and stay the same from one year to the next--you've got to keep improving it," Mitchell says. "Walt said that you've got to be continually growing and changing. The whole company is rooted in his philosophy of constant innovation."

The Disney Engineer: Personal Creativity Blended with Group Interaction

To Mitchell and the other Disney engineers, an extremely important aspect of their job is to blend their work with that of the other professionals who together create the seamless Disney "experience." This approach not only influences their designs, but necessitates close interaction with a variety of other disciplines.

Disney World, like its sister parks in California and Tokyo, derives its format from the motion-picture business. Each attraction focuses on a theme, and every ride has a meticulously arranged beginning, middle and ending. The parks are designed to move guests from one area to another without jarring contrasts. Using light, color, sound, landscaping and even the feel of the pavement, visitors shift from one "scene" to another.

"The interesting part, from an engineering point of view, is the quality level," Mitchell asserts. "We maintain the highest standards of quality in all our design. You can't find that kind of standard anywhere else in the entertainment business."

The philosophy that no detail is too small even extends beneath the Magic Kingdom, where a maze of tunnels contains metal shops, carpentry shops, dressing rooms and a host of other support functions. "Up there," says Mitchell, pointing to a cluster of pipes and cables running along the ceiling, "are the utilities. When something needs to be repaired, we can do it from down here and don't have to tear up the street or the grounds."

The dozens of souvenir shops above are always packed with merchandise, yet no one is ever seen making deliveries. That's because everything is transported through the tunnels. The costumed Disney characters move from one end of the park to the other via the tunnels, to avoid the incongruous sight of, say, a Mickey Mouse in colonial dress skipping past Tomorrowland.

Nor would one see Donald Duck--or anyone else for that matter--hauling a bag of trash to a dumpster. The reason, Mitchell points out, is a network of pipes about three feet in diameter that also hug the tunnel ceiling. It's a pneumatic waste-disposal system with access portals at all of the Kingdom's facilities. The trash is sucked out through the pipes to a central disposal area where it is separated for recycling.

Tradition and Excellence: Disney Hallmarks for Three Decades

Walt Disney World is very nearly that--a self-contained, self-sustaining world. Almost anything, from 120-foot-long ferry boats to audio-animatronic robots to ride systems, can be built at the Disney shops.

The Central Shops are located just a few miles from the theme parks amid a compound of corrugated-steel buildings, sequestered from the outside world by a tall chain-link fence. It has the blue-collar look of any other light-industrial manufacturing facility, except for the miniature antique-car replicas parked on trailers and the freshly painted waste receptacles warming in the sun-splashes of brightly colored Disneyania. Over the door a sign is posted: Home of Excellence.

Trevor Larsen "If you can put it on a piece of paper, we sure as hell can build it," says Arnold Lindberg, director of manufacturing.

Lindberg is a living link to the Disney tradition. He started working for the company in 1954 and figures he's among the top four or five employees in seniority.

"I knew Walt Disney well," says Lindberg, who helped build Disneyland in California, then moved to Orlando when it was little more than swamps and dunes, to begin planning Disney World. "When he entered the studio gate in the morning, the first place he went was right to the machine shop to see what was going on. He stopped and talked to us, asked questions, gave directions."

Millions of Hands and Feet: Coping With Problems of Repair And Renovation

In the late '60s, when Disney moved to Florida to begin work on the World, there were no manufacturing facilities in central Florida that could handle the huge task, Lindberg says, so Disney built its own.

The shops still do fabrication work but the shops' primary role now is to maintain the entertainment and resort complex. Fighting the wear and tear from 25 million pairs of hands and feet makes renovation an ongoing project, Mitchell says. "Everything the guests can touch is repainted at least once a year. Virtually everything is either refurbished or replaced at the first sign of wear."

To keep Disney World from showing its age, the shops employ nearly 2,000 craftsmen--everything from animation technicians to electricians, and metal workers to carpenters.

Very Few Disney Employees Think of Their Work as "Just a Job"

The cavernous, 300,000-square-foot shops building is organized by craft. In one area, painters apply delicate strokes to a magnificent carousel horse destined for Euro Disneyland, the theme park under construction near Paris, France, and set to open in 1992. "We are also building the shows for Euro Disneyland," Lindberg adds.

Against a wall, a life-like horse stands motionless, its side open to reveal a tangle of red, blue, yellow and black wires. On a wood platform are scattered foam rubber characters in various states of repose--forms for fiberglass fabrication. In fact, Disney craftsmen excel at fiberglass work and have developed proprietary technology that enables them to work the material into startling realism with extraordinary detail.

"You can take almost anything, from its conception to its completion, and never have to move it outside the building," Mitchell says.

Lindberg and Mitchell describe the steps involved in creating or repairing an item--and like everything else about the Disney operation, it is a meticulous, scrupulously detailed process. "It costs a little more money to keep those kinds of controls," Lindberg says, "but the beauty of it is that you can go home at night and rest assured that it isn't going to fall apart.

"The Disney magic was created by Walt Disney," he adds. "He set the standards, he set the pace, and it has been up to the rest of us who worked with him to continue with his philosophy. It has been successful--there is no question about that."

Lindberg checks the time because he has a design meeting to attend. He's wearing--what else?--a Mickey Mouse watch.

If it sounds like Disney employees take their work home with them, it's because they get emotionally caught up in the work, says Mitchell. "Very few people who work here think of it as just a job," he adds.

"One of the main reasons I enjoy working here so much is that it's a family experience," Mitchell says. "When I go home, the whole family wants to know what's being done, what's being built.

"It might sound hokey," he continues, "but providing the highest quality in entertainment to millions of people every year is something that really binds us together--and we all have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for this company and its principles."