USC sends finalists to Disney Imagineering contest

Rachel Bennett (left) and Clara Ryu (right) were finalists in the Walt Disney Imagineering theme park design competition for “Atsanik,” a concept based on the natural phenomenon of the Northern Lights. (Photo courtesy of Gary Krueger/Disney Imagineering)

Designing a theme park is every child’s dream, and every year, Walt Disney Imagineering makes it a reality. Their annual competition challenges students from across the nation to design conceptual theme parks based on a  creative prompt. Out of hundreds of entries, only six teams are chosen and given a chance to work with Disney Imagineers to develop their projects and present them to the judges. This year, students were asked to develop a plan for an amusement park experience based on a natural or ancient wonder of the world.

Senior Triet Nguyen was part of a team of students who won second place.

“I couldn’t believe [my] ears,” Nguyen said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “It was so surreal, I don’t think any vocabulary can describe the feeling. I can’t thank my amazing teammates, Kyle, Brooke, and Katie enough. They are simply the most wonderful in what they do and everything they are. I’m so proud of their talent, passion, and creativity, and I’m so proud of what we have designed.”

Nguyen’s team comprised students from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, University of Florida and Savannah College of Art and Design. Another USC team, comprising alumni Rachel Bennett and Hyungee (Clara) Ryu, were also finalists in the competition. A separate team from the Savannah College of Art and Design took home the first-place prize.

Nguyen’s team decided to construct their project — a resort named “Port Pharos” —  based on the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the famous ancient Egyptian landmark said to have been built in 280 B.C.

“Because we [wanted] to design this attraction for families, we were [thinking], ‘What is the most fun thing we can do?’” Nguyen said. “And that’s sort of how we landed on the Lighthouse, because we thought that this space was really full of history, culture and a lot of activities we thought would be really great for families to do together.”

For Bennett and Ryu, the creative prompt was instrumental in their decision to submit to the competition.

“I had heard of the competition from a few of my friends who work at Disney,” Ryu said. “[Two years ago], Rachel and I were trying to organize a team together, and it didn’t work out. We decided to do it again this year because we both liked the prompt.”

The team decided to replicate a natural phenomenon through their amusement park.

“Clara and I came across the Northern Lights,” Bennett said. “We developed a theme park through the lens of Inuit folklore on the Northern Lights.”

Their park, which they called “Atsanik,” features an interactive museum and a restaurant inside an aurora cavern.

For both teams, however, the competition was not without its obstacles.

“Usually, the other teams would have everyone from the same school,” Nguyen said. “The challenge with our team was that we had to work through video-chatting platforms. So we’d just meet every single week to sort of brainstorm and critique our work, and then we’d branch off to do our own work.”

Bennett and Ryu, although in closer proximity to one another, still struggled to juggle school, work and the project.  

“It was a very work-intensive project, and right now I have work full-time,” Bennett said. “So it is a lot of sleepless nights where you’re working pretty hard … finding the right time to work on all of it, that became difficult at times.”

Despite their different backgrounds, the three Imagineering competition finalists agreed USC has helped them advance their career goals.

Nguyen said USC was the perfect place to develop his passion for amusement parks.

“I came from Vietnam, so obviously, the field of designing theme parks was a very rare thing there,” Nguyen said. “ So, it was definitely very exciting for me to go across the world to USC to pursue a career within the field … being and living in L.A. where all the amazing companies are, being able to network with all the amazing people … and having Disneyland just like right down the street, has been amazing, and I’m really thankful for all of that.”

Ryu, on the other hand, didn’t know she wanted to design theme parks. She came to USC wanting to be a production designer for film, but she was soon pushed to find new ways to implement her design passion.

“I came with a really vague idea of what the profession consisted of,” Ryu said. “I realized that … the art department personnel on films could also work in theater and advertising, performance arts and theme parks, and that’s how I got to start thinking about Disney as a career … I think the best part of USC is that it provides a lot of opportunities that you don’t realize exist.”

Nguyen, Bennett and  Ryu all hope their success in the Imagineering competition, combined with the lessons they have learned at USC, will successfully advance their careers in design.