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Twelve students selected as semifinalists in Disney Imaginations Design Competition

Julia Brown | Mar 8, 2018

Students and faculty during the COMM 4023 Storytelling, Technology and Digital Media in Theme Parks class trip to Disney World in Dec. 2017. / Photo provided by Beth Novak

Twelve students selected as semifinalists in Disney Imaginations Design Competition

By Julia Brown

ATHENS, Ohio (March 8, 2018)–For students in the Storytelling, Technology and Digital Media in Theme Parks class, the pinnacle of the class is entering the Disney Imaginations Design Competition. The competition, which began in 1991, is created and sponsored by Walt Disney Imagineering to help develop the next generation of Imagineers. The 2018 competition challenged students to revitalize a real-world abandoned ghost town.

This year, out of over 270 entries, three teams from the Scripps College of Communication class were selected as semifinalists, placing them in the top 15 percent of participants. Semifinalists are invited to apply for select Disney internships and have an opportunity to get feedback from Disney Imagineers. First place went to a team from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

For Media Arts & Studies Associate Professor Beth Novak and Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab Director and Instructor John Bowditch, there is hardly a better way to learn about storytelling than to examine the Disney theme parks and the magic that goes into them. Thus, the Storytelling, Technology and Digital Media in Theme Parks class was born.

“While visiting the parks in 2011 with my family, I was struck by the convergence of everything we do in the college into a deep storytelling experience that respects the audience,” Novak explained. “I thought, ‘This is the perfect example to demonstrate to students what we can achieve with our disciplines.’”

Since its inception in 2013, COMM 4023 has acted as a synthesis class that attracts students from each of the five schools within the Scripps College of Communication. Their fall semester is spent studying the storytelling elements that go into creating the multimedia, immersive environments of theme parks, followed by a weeklong trip to Disney World to see these elements in action. For students like Dani Young, a senior publication design major, this class has been on their radars since freshman year. In her words, “Who wouldn’t want to learn everything about Walt Disney World?”

“This interdisciplinary course and study abroad program is distinctive in how it provides students to see how digital storytelling applies in a world-renowned setting like Disney,” said Dean Scott Titsworth. “Professors Novak and Bowditch have carefully crafted this experience to make it high-impact and exciting. This extra effort on the part of faculty members that results in an experience that students will remember and benefit from for years.”

Senior news and information student Megan Ryan revealed she was first interested in the class because of the glitz and glamor of being able to go to Disney World. “But once I learned more about it, I figured out it would be incredibly interesting to learn how Disney was able to portray and tell their stories so well in their theme parks,” Ryan said.

This knowledge about the background and behind-the-scenes of the parks made the trip to Disney World even more special, especially for Patrick Evans, a senior integrated media major. He described seeing parts of the park he had seen before in a brand-new way. “The whole in-class experience prepares you by dissecting the parks. Upon arrival to Magic Kingdom, having been there before, I saw the park in a whole new way...Everything you learn in the class makes you really appreciate all of the small details.”

The students’ appreciation for these small details came in handy when it came time to work on their Disney Imaginations submissions. For many students, the competition ended up being the most exciting part of the class. “The Disney Imaginations Competition was a requirement to complete the class, but looking back I think it was the best part about the class,” said Ryan. “I learned a lot about harvesting my creativity and using it for something useful. Instead of letting my mind wander off with ideas, I was able to hone in on them and apply them to this project.”

Her teammate, Patrick Evans, agreed. “While this is a required part of the course, it never felt like a requirement—it was a fun challenge...It was a long, long journey, but one that brought our group together as friends.”

The course and the Disney Imaginations competition opened students’ minds to potential new paths for post-graduation. “This incredibly unique course opened my eyes to a whole new career path, and I am now applying to many professional internships with Disney because of it,” Young said. She explained that the Imaginations project was one of the biggest accomplishments from her time in Scripps, adding that her team’s ability to go from a prompt to a fully conceptualized theme park in a month was an incredible feeling.

Eric Perzanowski, a senior screenwriting and producing major, is considering re-entering the competition post-graduation. “The competition is open to past participants (assuming they weren't selected as finalists) as well as recent graduates, so I wouldn't be opposed to entering again next year, assuming I have the time post-graduation and a good team to do it with.”

In 2016, two Ohio University alumni, Geoffrey Backstrom, BSC '15, and Katie Eastman, BFA '15, and then-senior MDIA student Courtney Irby, BSC ’16, worked with a University of Washington student in the competition and won first place. Eastman went on to work at Disney and now works full-time as an Imagineer.

A common thread that the students found throughout the competition was the ability to rely on and collaborate with other students from across many different academic backgrounds. “It isn’t often that students in the Scripps College of Communication get to form a community from other majors within the college during a class. These students each have a different approach to the course content, making the class much more interesting,” Novak pointed out.

Strategic communications senior Sarah Kelly stressed the importance of collaboration across majors. “There is no way I could have made our project look as great as it did [by myself] and having people on my team with completely different majors than me was a huge learning opportunity,” she said. “We all came together to hone in on the theming of our project, which I think helped us a lot in the competition.”

“Scripps students have so many skills,” Young concurred. “It is great to see what we can make when different skills and media come together.”

The Tier III class is offered every fall through the Office of Global Opportunities. It is open to seniors who have completed at least 15 credit hours in COMS, ITS, JOUR, MDIA or VICO. The deadline to apply is March 19.

Disney Imaginations Semifinalists from the Scripps College of Communication include:

Jacob Agle - Integrated Media
Adriana Navarro - News and Information
Taylor Rohrig - Games and Animation
Sarah Wagner - News and Information

El Toro
Patrick Evans - Integrated Media
Sarah Kelly - Strategic Communication
Megan Ryan - News and Information
Ryan Struckel - Integrated Media

James Edelstein - Games and Animation
Charlie Folk - Games and Animation
Eric Perzanowski - Screenwriting and Producing
Danielle “Dani" Young - Publication Design