A team of Drexel students’ Disney dreams came true last month, and they didn’t even have to wish upon a star.
“From when I was really young, I always wanted to work for Disney and was always designing theme parks,” said Justin Petronglo, a senior mechanical engineering student. “My teammates had the same interest and passion as well.”
At the end of January, Petronglo, along with fellow seniors Bader Al Moulah, Ahmad Jamal and John VanZelst all traveled to California as finalists in the annual Walt Disney Imagineering Imaginations design competition .
“It was really just an amazing experience for all of us on the team,” Petronglo said. “They really gave us the VIP treatment when we were there. We got to see amazing things and meet amazing people.”
A design competition created in 1992 and sponsored by Walt Disney Imagineering, the people behind the designs of Disney theme parks, the Disney Imagineering Imaginations Competition tasks teams of students at United States colleges with a special design challenge in the mold of the Disney experience.
Drexel's team for the Imaginations Design Competition, from left to right, Ahmad Jamal, John VanZelst, Justin Petronglo and Bader Al Moulah. Photo by Gary Krueger, copyright Disney.
Last year, Petronglo’s team missed being one of the six teams invited to the finals on the West Coast.
“One spot off the final — it was heartbreaking,” Petronglo said. “This year we spent a lot of time coming up with the perfect story and the passion for it.”
Imagineers gave students the challenge of re-imagining mass transportation systems with the Disney flair for the most recent go-round.
Petronglo said they spend a lot of time thinking about “what makes Disney Disney.” Brainstorming went on for about two months, he said, with the team spending a lot of time together working everything out.
Eventually, they came up with one idea: campfires.
“The main thing in our idea is throughout time, people have gathered around the campfire,” Petronglo said. “We really wanted to have this focus on storytelling and we thought, ‘What is the most quintessential part of storytelling?’ And we thought, ‘The campfire.’”
Petronglo and VanZelst, who is also a mechanical engineering student, worked on concept development and developing the backstory to their concept. Al Moulah and Jamal, both architecture students, created the art and design of the concepts.
They developed an idea for a rail system called “Woollahra” for Sydney, Australia, that centers around the theme of campfires.
The rail system would connect different districts of the city to a main station in Sydney’s central business district.
“We wanted to emphasize that guests tell their own stories,” Petronglo said.
More concept art of "Woollahra" depicting the experience of riders aboard a train. Photo by Gary Krueger, copyright Disney.
VanZelst felt one of the biggest challenges was trying not to add too much to their concept.
“We would get so excited about the project that we would want to stick as many awesome things into the experience as possible,” he said. “Knowing when to step back and look at the project as a whole, seeing what truly fit and what was added-on, was definitely a skill we had to master.”
Threaded throughout the experience from regional stations, to the trains, to the main station was the campfire theme, encouraging riders to interact and share their stories.
“One of our main points of emphasis is current transportation is very disconnected and impersonal,” Petronglo said. “’Explore, create and share’ are our main ideas. We don’t want people to just sit there and play on their phones the whole time.”
The Imagineers judging the competition liked the idea so much they awarded the Drexel students third place and a $500 prize. First place went to students from Ringling College of Art and Design, in Sarasota, Florida, for the concept of a double-rail train system in New Orleans, and second went to the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California, for a Zurich transportation system highlighting traditional Swiss craftwork.
The Drexel team with Mickey Mouse after winning third place. Photo by Gary Krueger, copyright Disney.
“The Drexel team displayed an impressive, diverse set of skills for four engineers,” said Soledad Boyle, the internship program manager for Walt Disney Imagineering. “Imagineers were impressed with their technical skills but what really blew them away was an animated feature at the end of their presentation.”
Taking third place is almost an afterthought for Petronglo and his team. Getting their work validated by a team doing his fantasy job is a huge boost, he says.
“This is really an industry that all of our teammates have really been looking to get into,” Petronglo said. “It was really kind of assuring to see that they liked what we did.”
“By doing this competition and making it as far as we did, we’re that much closer to making this our future,” VanZelst said.
Al Moulah agreed.
“We got to live out our dreams,” he said. “We aimed high, set goals, did the work and saw it through to the end. And it was worth every second.”
Jiminy Cricket would be proud.