Not all kids who visit Disneyland come away wanting to stand in the spotlight someday. Those with a mind wired to notice the details dream of becoming an Imagineer. Meet Adam Flemming and discover his three tips for making your own dream come true. (Spoiler Alert: The tips work even if you’re dreaming of a different career path than one of an Imagineer! Read on.)

Imagineer Adam Flemming at 10 years oldOn his first visit to Disneyland, Adam Flemming wasn’t sure who was responsible for all the details that made his experience magical, but he knew he wanted to do it.  He didn’t know it in this picture but one day he would be an Imagineer!

How to be an Imagineer

If I had to distill the most successful arts careers down to one word it would be: curiosity. This is the defining characteristic of every successful designer and craftsperson I know. See the world as something to be discovered and you’ll never be bored. There’s value in everything, even in the seemingly obscure tasks because you never know where any task might lead. Discovering the opportunity IS the fun! 

I got involved in everything I could during high school. When tasked with doing a skit for a German class, I was oddly a bit shy although I’d been in show choir and performed in a dozen plays. Instead of doing the skit live, our team borrowed a VHS camera then filmed and edited our skit as a short movie. That stunt got the attention of an English teacher. He wanted to spruce up the morning announcements. The next semester we banded together and created video commercials for school events. Student council reps served as anchors. We figured it all out and taught ourselves the process on the fly. What began as one thing promoted a whole different path of discovery.

Discovered by Accident

Theater found me again by accident in undergrad. During biology my doodling creation caught someone’s eye. They recommended I meet with their mentor, the head of the tech theater program. When asked what my major was, they looked at my drawings and said, “You’re a set designer now.” And that was pretty much it.

Finding Your Flock

Backstage I found a group of people who were as excited as I was about design. Theater communities find fresh new ways to see things and tell stories. They find ways to immerse audiences in place and emotion.

By the time I finished grad school I was a human Swiss Army Knife; a sort of design ninja. One week I’d wear a set designer hat, the next I’d be a painter, the next I’d be alternating between a p.a. on a film shoot and making models as an assistant. (Adam was a trendsetter as a multi-hyphenate artist!)

It took me two decades after that first park visit to get a job at Disney. It was a combination of chance, an old school connection, and a skillset I never expected to leverage which led me to a professional career. If you’re eyeing a future in the company, Disney’s College Program is a great way to get an introduction while you’re still in school.

3 Tips for Success from an Imagineer

  1. Remember: Story, story, always story. All the detail and the coolest technical wizardry are nothing without a solid reason for being. Technology is a great asset, but don’t get lost in it.
  2. Explore what interests you. Your hobbies can be valuable tools in your kit just like technical talents. Since I was young, I’ve listened to film scores. Film scores deeply engraved a sense of pacing and manipulation when designing projections. To me, image flows like sound. Your influences make you unique.
  3. Objectivity is the toughest skill to master. Being able to step back, process, and let critique sink in. Doesn’t mean you have to take everyone’s advice and certainly not that you must agree. Just try to see we all come at things from diverse perspectives. That diversity is what makes a team strong.

The best part of this industry is the total awe I have for those around me. I work with designers, producers, and crafts folk who’ve created and built the rides and experiences I’ve treasured since I was a kid. Plus, they have careers outside of Disney I equally admire. I now call them colleagues. It’s surreal. Just remember, always keep your curiosity. You’ll never lose your spark. 

Adam Flemming is a Visual Effects Designer with Walt Disney Imagineering and a freelance theatrical projection designer. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Northern Colorado and his graduate degree at California Institute of the Arts. He’s based in Los Angeles and clearly remembers when the Imagineer bug bit him.

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