Disney is more than just movies and theme park rides. From Imagineers to fans, the Disney universe is made up of people. They’re all a part of the story, and they all have their own tale to tell. So with that in mind, I’m talking to people in the Disney community to learn more about their role in this magical world.
Here’s how this works: as the title suggests, I’ll ask folks ten questions. The first five, the Meet & Greet, are long answer queries and they’ll relate specifically to that person. The next five–the Fastpasses, of course–are designed for quick responses, and everyone will get asked those same questions.
My guest on this ‘episode’ of Ten Questions is former Imagineer Brian Collins.
As a Disney Cast Member and Imagineer, Brian helped create the magic for some of the most beloved attractions throughout the Walt Disney World Resort, including show concepts for such attractions as The Great Movie Ride and the Jungle Cruise. After leaving Disney, he continued to earn his stripes in a variety of creative positions within corporate America and also as an educator, having served on the faculty of several colleges and universities.
In founding WDWithMe, Brian comes full circle in his career and now leverages his background and experience as a former Imagineer to share his creativity, knowledge and insight with others. One way is by offering his signature personalized tours of the theme parks for groups and individuals “through the eyes of a former Imagineer.” Another is by coaching professionals and entrepreneurs on how to “Think Like an Imagineer.” He is also available for presentations on cruise ships, seminars, conferences, or any other venue, as requested.
Brian’s web site, WDWithMe.com, is fully integrated with social media. He would welcome having you follow, like, or otherwise connect with him through any or all of these, and may also be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Meet & Greet
When did you become an Imagineer? How did it come about? Were you a big Disney fan before?
I became an Imagineer the first time I visited Walt Disney World in 1972. Okay, it wasn’t until around 1990 that the company officially recognized me as one… but I was hooked 20 years before.
In 1989 I moved to Orlando and hoped to start working for Disney in a professional capacity right away. That didn’t happen… I wound up behind the front desk, checking guests into the Contemporary Resort. However, my timing was right, as it was just as the Disney-MGM Studios was getting ready to open. Within a few months, I began working in a variety of marketing and communications roles within the company, and also as a production assistant at the Studios. That eventually led me to WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering), where I was asked to write some show scripts for The Magic of Disney Animation and also the Walking and Shuttle Tours. After a year or so of bouncing around like that, WDI was able to get a full time Show Writer’s position approved and I was offered the job!
I’ve always been a fan of Disney, still am, and feel very lucky and blessed to have had the chance to work as an Imagineer, even if only for a few years.
What are some of the projects you worked on as an Imagineer? Is there one you’re especially proud of?
My first “official” job after being hired on full time was to write some “family friendly” graffiti for the New York Street on the Studio’s backlot. That was interesting… I wrote a lot of show scripts and operational spiels for several of the attractions at the Studios, Magic Kingdom and Epcot—much of which was used, and much that wasn’t.
A lot of the smaller jobs I did were actually very fun in and of themselves. For example, when Splash Mountain was being built, they could not run the train around the Magic Kingdom, so when it got to the Frontierland Station, they actually ran it backwards to return to the Main Street Train Station. In order to explain why this was happening, I wrote a series of “Burma Shave” style signs—these were a series of 5 separate little signs that formed a rhyming message; something like:
We’re Building a New Ride
Splash Mountain Is Its Name.
It’s So Big
We Had To
Re-Route This Train.
Collaborating on the radio show that broadcasts in the Jungle Cruise queue was a lot of fun, as was working on the blocking and show design for the Bandit and Gangster characters inside the Great Movie Ride. Those are two I can still show my kids and say “Look—your old man did that!”
What are some of the challenges you faced as an Imagineer? Was there a particularly challenging project?
Actually, I don’t really remember any that were particularly challenging. Writing and creativity are two things that come very easily and naturally to me. Combine that with the nature of the work you do as an Imagineer, and every day was really just a good time. So in terms of challenging, as in “difficult”, I can’t really remember anything like that.
Challenging on a more intellectual level, as in how to figure out the creative execution of project, is a little different though. For example, I was asked to help one of our Show Set Designers create a series of metal cutouts of the different Disney characters which were going to be mounted to an exterior wall of the Animation building. Once the character shapes were cut to size out of sheet metal, they had to be painted. This project provided two interesting challenges.
First, we had to figure out the correct scale of each character to each other: how large Tinkerbell was compared to Ariel or Baloo. It’s rare to have such a diverse number of characters displayed side-by-side like the project called for, so getting that scale correct was a really interesting challenge. Second, since the characters were going to be painted, we had to make sure that the PMS colors (used for defining paints) matched up as close as possible to the ink colors the animators used when they colored the cels. Again—two different mediums—paint vs. ink. Matching those colors to get them just right was essential. In the end, we wound up with a beautiful mural. I’d love to know what ever happened to those pieces.
What lessons have you taken away from WDI that have helped you since, in life or other careers?
Probably the biggest lesson I took from my time at Disney was to not be scared, to be bold and fearless when developing creative ideas. Don’t worry about being judged or what others will think—trust in your talent. However, it’s also important that you realize you can’t just be creative for creativity’s sake. You need to do your homework to understand how your work fits into the big picture. WDI (and Disney in general) is all about creating a “story” for our guests. Much of this may never even be apparent to our guests, but it’s there, and it helps keep our compass pointed North.
Legendary Imagineers, such as John Hench, developed color palettes for the theme parks. Mark Davis created visual concepts. Xavier “X” Atencio and Rolly Crump wrote compelling storylines and provided artistic direction. This is going back to the 1950’s and 60’s. There was a very deliberate reason why they did what they did, and their work was the basis for much of what I did, and is still used by the Imagineers of today. Creating that framework and understanding the big picture is critical.
What have you done since leaving WDI, and what are you up to now?
I moved on from WDI shortly after EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris) opened and continued to have an interesting career, mostly in marketing and communications. I subsequently went on to earn my Master’s degree in Marketing and in addition to working in the corporate world, fell into teaching college courses as well. At one point, I actually taught a course for the University of Central Florida called “Product Development for Theme Parks.” I also worked as an Innovation Specialist for the Florida Virtual School, exploring ways to use new, cutting edge technologies for education. Through it all, I have always maintained a “dotted-line” relationship with Disney.
Currently, in addition to serving as an Adjunct Professor for a local university, I recently founded a company called WDWithMe. Through WDWithMe, I offer tours of the Disney Parks through the eyes of a former Imagineer and also have a variety of seminars for the corporate market on “how to think like an Imagineer.” None of this is officially affiliated with the company, but it has been a lot of fun. To learn more about that, please feel free to visit my web site at WDWithMe.com. I have blogs, podcasts, and links to my Twitter account (follow me at: @wdwithmebrian), Facebook page (like me at: officialwdwithme), Pinterest and a YouTube channel.
What’s your favorite attraction (past or present)?
I be likin’ Pirates of the Caribbean, matey. But why’d they have to mess with the original “classic” version and add that Jack Sparrow rogue? Argh! Plus, I got to meet the master Swashbuckler himself, me shipmate, Marc Davis!
Who is your favorite Disney character?
Aside from Sorcerer Mickey for obvious reasons, Jessica Rabbit and I have always shared a thing. She can’t help it though, she’s drawn that way.
What’s your favorite Disney movie?
Animated: Pocahontas. I really like the beautiful native American message of respecting the Earth that weaves into the story, even if there isn’t much historical accuracy left in the tale of Pocahontas.
Live Action: The Princess Diaries. Probably tossing in my man-card with this one, but I used to watch this movie with my kids when they were young and I have great memories of sitting on the couch with my daughter watching that movie. Plus Julie Andrews is an all time favorite and Anne Hathaway did a fine job as well. The original Tron is up there on my list too.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I always thought invisibility would be cool. Or being able to turn things to gold. Okay—turning things to gold while being invisible.
What would your pirate name be?
Lafayette the Feared? Bob? I have no idea.
I want to extend a very special thanks to Brian for agreeing to be a part of this (though I have to disagree on one point: personally I like the Jack Sparrow addition in Pirates of the Caribbean), and encourage readers to check out these links.
Links to Brian Collins: