SAVANNAH, GA. - Remember Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in “Vacation” as the family heads off to visit their beloved Wally World? Going to theme parks such as Wally World, or the real-life Disney World, is a part of the modern American zeitgeist. Kids love it; parents love it. Families spend months planning vacations to such destinations to create lifelong memories.
But as you walk through these parks, marveling at the myriad displays and attractions, did it ever cross your mind that someone had to think this stuff up, design it and build it?
Not many do, but Kristen Nicolais, a graduate of the Mahopac Class of 2010, did. As a child, her family made two trips to Disney World in Orlando and it left an indelible impression on her. While she enjoyed going on the rides and soaking in the magical attractions, she decided this is what she wanted to do with her life.
“It is something I always wanted to do,” she said with a laugh. “We went [to Disney World] twice. It was really special. I knew I wanted to create things that were fun, and that other people could enjoy and make them happy.”
Nicolais is now a second-year grad student at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia where she will graduate in March with a master’s degree in themed entertainment design. She also has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in interior design.
This month Nicolais and her college teammates were named one of six finalists for Disney’s 2020 Imaginations Design Competition.
Walt Disney Imagineering—which dreams up and designs all Disney theme parks, resorts, cruise ships, and other family entertainment experiences—selected the teams of finalists to compete in the contest.
For nearly three decades, Imaginations has served as a design competition with the purpose of discovering the next generation of Disney Imagineers. Founded in 1991, the program has grown to include separate local versions sponsored by Hong Kong Disneyland Resort and Shanghai Disney Resort.
For this year’s competition, teams were challenged to create an iconic installation at the contestants’ own campus or city that served as an inspiration, honored the past, and provided a vision of the future. It could be architectural, ornamental, static or active—whatever the team felt was the best way to represent their unique chosen location.
The designs had to be appropriate for the location selected. In telling the unique story of the chosen spot, the display had to respect and integrate local traditions and geography. The installation also had to be a place where people could gather and celebrate, as well as reflect and educate the community—a concept that would be symbolic of the team’s campus or city.
Nicolais and her team decided to create their interactive display at one of Savannah’s village greens. Based on a Girl Scout theme (the organization was founded in Savannah in 1912), the installation was dubbed “Savannah Chora.”
The Girl Scouts were established with the ideal that troops would work together to learn new skills and use those skills to give back to the community — ideals that are integral to the makeup of Savannah itself. “Savannah Chora” would be hosted by the Girl Scouts and provide an opportunity for residents to try new things and connect with the neighborhood. The focal point of the installation was the “Tree for the Future,” where people could participate in campfire performances by local artists, as well as accept challenges that encourage community involvement.
“It took a while for us to land on the Girls Scouts,” Nicolais said of her team’s decision-making process. “Savannah is the oldest city in Georgia, so there was a lot to draw from.
“When the city was founded it had six square green spaces,” she continued. “We took one near the founder’s house and revitalized it and made it a place where people could gather and hang out and interact together.”
The focal point—the Tree for the Future—is located at the center of the square and has a stage at its base were musicians and storytellers can perform. The tree has a touch screen that lets visitors send LED lights up into the branches. An “acorn” then lowers from the tree and opens to reveal a digital screen that contains challenges created by the Girl Scouts and other local organizations.
“It gives you an adventure you can go on in Savannah as a fun way to spend the day,” Nicolais said.
The designers in the competition had to consider how guests could have a communal and family-friendly experience as a group as well as how traditional methodologies and advanced technology solutions would allow the experiences to be shared. They also had to be mindful to honor the environment, history, codes and local ordinances.
The teams consisted of two to four college students and recent graduates who come from various majors comparable to the more than 100 disciplines at Walt Disney Imagineering. They were encouraged to tap into the expertise of everyone on their cross-disciplinary team in supporting this idea
“They had entries from all over the country,” Nicolais said. “More than 100.”
The finals were held in Glendale, Calif., at Disney’s Imagineering headquarters, and though Nicolais’ team didn’t take first place, getting that far was a victory in and of itself. As Disney officials pointed out, like “American Idol,” sometimes the runners-up can become even more successful than the winner.
“I was a little nervous, but we presented on the first day so that helped,” she said.
Nicolais said her parents have been cheering her on since she decided to take this unique career path.
“They’ve been really supportive and helped me along the way,” she said. “They’ve been great.”
After she graduates in March, as a contestant in the competition Nicolais will have an opportunity to interview for an internship with Walt Disney Imagineering.
“I am hoping that will lead to something,” Nicolais said of her future career path.
If it does, a job at Disney will make her one of the Happiest People on Earth.