Like so many Florida kids, Eric Suarez visited Walt Disney World often as a youngster. “I’ve lived in Miami my whole life, and I’ve been to Disney a good 20, 30 times. I used to go every year with my cousins. And when we went on the rides, there was a part of me that kept wondering – ok, I know there’s an explanation of how they did this. I’d just stare at something on a ride and try to figure it out,” he recalls. Now that he’s an adult, the just-graduated computer engineering/computer science major enjoyed the opportunity to peer behind the curtain.
Suarez was one of a four-member team of University of Miami students who were chosen as one of only eleven teams of finalists from entries around the world, for Disney's ImagiNations Design Competition, in which contestants were charged with creating new theme parks.
Suarez said his computer engineering professor, Dr. Ali Habashi, made it all possible.
“Dr. Habashi had gone to Disney for a conference in December, but when he came back, he asked me, Michael (Jenkins) and Lesley (Wheatley) to do the competition. He explained what it was, gave us the details, and told us to find a fourth member,” says Suarez. That fourth member was Frank Stevens, a senior architecture major. His skills were crucial to the concept of computer engineers Suarez and Jenkins. Lesley Wheatley’s background in fine arts helped to flesh out their vision for Kingdom Earth, a new spin on an already-existing theatrical ride at Epcot Center.
“It was based on the Circle of Life theater from The Lion King. It was just a simple, sit-down theater and everything else at Epcot has been updated. The land itself needed something else. We wanted to make it a new landmark,” he explains. Their project was inspired by Kingdom Hearts, a popular action role-playing video game which combines characters and settings from Disney’s animated films with characters from the Final Fantasy video game series.
The UM Imagineer team also added characters from Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award winning animated film Spirited Away. Our local team didn’t win the contest, but Suarez says the experience of being taken under the wing of Disney’s most creative technical minds and seeing the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the most popular rides, was priceless. And the possibility still exists that their ride will someday stand proudly at Disney’s theme park. “All eleven ideas are technically Disney property right now, so I have no idea,” says Suarez. “The way we designed everything, we left it completely open-ended so the Imagineers can go in and fix it, adapt it, and create it.”
Suarez also interviewed for an internship with the Imagineers, and in the meantime he’s hitting the local job market. He says if Disney came knocking on the door tomorrow, he’d most likely be down to answer it. “Depends on what they want me to do,” he laughs. -- Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik