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Imagineer Molly Rinke on Creating Immersive Experiences at Walt Disney Imagineering

September 11, 2013
Disney 23 Expo Pavilion

Disney 23 Expo Pavilion

In the likely event that you’ve visited a Disney theme park, stepped on to a Disney attraction, sailed away on a Disney cruise ship, or enjoyed Disney’s unique brand of immersive entertainment in other ways, you’ve experienced the end result of a Walt Disney Imagineering project. Walt Disney Imagineering was founded in 1952 as WED Enterprises to oversee the creation of the original Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California, and is the creative and development arm of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. The word “Imagineer” (a portmanteau of the words “imagination” and “engineering”) has become synonymous with the team of artists, technicians, engineers, and scientists that work on location around the world to bring Disney-branded stories to life.

As part of OneDublin.org’s Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Series of interviews, I recently had the privilege of speaking with Imagineer Molly Rinke about her experiences creating Disney attractions, and what it means to be an Imagineer at the Walt Disney Company. Mrs. Rinke is a Class of 2004 graduate of the University of Southern California (USC) where she earned a bachelors and masters degree in computer science, focusing on intelligent robotics.

James Morehead: Describe your role at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Disney Imagineer Molly Rinke

Disney Imagineer Molly Rinke ©Disney

Molly Rinke: “I’ve been here for almost nine years now, and my official title is Ride Controls Systems Engineer. We are the group within Ride Engineering that is responsible for the hardware and software in all of our attractions through the entire lifecycle: design, build, install, and test.”

Morehead: How did your college education at USC help prepare you for Imagineering?

Rinke: “College teaches you how to think. USC helped me figure out what I like and what I dislike doing. I entered college really enjoying computer science, and minored in neuroscience because I was also intrigued by artificial intelligence, and while in school I discovered robotics which led to my masters degree focus. I also discovered at the same time that I really liked technical writing.

“My interest in robotics applies to Imagineering in many ways, and combined with technical writing I was an attractive candidate because I do a lot of technical writing and design documentation as part of my role.”

Morehead: What was your path to joining Imagineering?

Rinke: “I had internships with another company prior to becoming an Imagineer, but my only full-time job since graduating has been with Disney Imagineering. I think the story of how I joined Imagineering is unique, and I’ve found a lot of Imagineers have a unique story about how they got here. In my case, I was very familiar with the Disney parks having gone to them growing up, but wasn’t familiar with Imagineering.

“I was in school pursuing things I was interested in and it was a new concept that I could apply what I was learning towards a career in entertainment, and doing something that my friends and family could enjoy and experience.

“I was attending an end of year banquet on campus at USC where companies were invited to attend and I had to choose a table for the evening. I already had a pretty strong connection with another company that was going to be there, but I saw that Disney was going to be there too and thought it would be fun to sit at their table; maybe Mickey Mouse would show up! I ended up sitting next to the gentleman who ultimately became my boss, and we talked about robotics. During the event, and without much warning, the graduating seniors were asked to get up and give a little speech. A lot of the students who spoke were very tearful, but when I got up I gave a short speech, thanked a couple of people and told a few stories. When I sat back down the gentleman from Imagineering said I was very well-spoken and asked for my resume.

“A couple of days later I had an interview for an internship at Imagineering, and I was madly searching the Internet to learn more about Imagineering, because I really hadn’t had a lot of exposure to it before then.”

Morehead: How do you define what an Imagineer does, and describe a typical day at Walt Disney Imagineering, if that’s possible.

Molly with an Autopia vehicle

Molly with an Autopia vehicle ©Disney

Rinke: “We say that Imagineers are ‘dreamers and doers’ and I really think that’s what it is. We spend a lot of time dreaming. One of the most enjoyable things I get to do is work with people from very different backgrounds and brainstorm new ideas. We don’t just brainstorm about new attractions, but also about new ways to improve a process or even just about some bigger issue going on in the world.

“There is no typical day as an Imagineer, and it depends of the phase on the project. In my role, I spend almost all of my day at a computer. But what’s interesting is that my computer and I can be in many different places.

“During one phase of the project I’ll be sitting at my desk, working on my computer. Later in a project I might be sitting in an Autopia vehicle with my laptop doing some testing out in the field in Hong Kong, or I might be sitting with my computer with gloves on because I’m in Paris and it’s 10 degrees outside and I’m trying to get some problem solved late at night, and so on. No two days are ever alike and you never know where you are going to be next, or what you are going to be doing.”

Morehead: How do you push through creative challenges you face as a Disney Imagineer and get to the other side?

Rinke: “One of the things that we talk about here is that everyone in Imagineering is creative. I think a lot of people have the opinion that if you are an engineer or a scientist that you don’t get to be creative, and I don’t think that’s true. I think problem-solving is a really creative activity, and I think what’s great here is that I’m surrounded by excellent problem solvers. We’re in an environment where creativity and appropriate risk-taking is encouraged. We really get an opportunity to explore new technologies, to build a prototype and drive it around in a parking lot and see if it works.”

Morehead: What has been the most satisfying project or ride that you’ve worked on?

Molly in Toy Story Playland

Molly in Toy Story Playland ©Disney

Rinke: “My very first experience, which was the Hong Kong Disneyland Autopia attraction, was the most challenging, in part because it was the first attraction I worked on and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting myself into. I had to move to Hong Kong for six months where we all worked very hard to get that attraction open. Watching the very first guests go on the attraction and ride it, and watching them get off with smiles on their faces, hooked me immediately. Working on that attraction was one of the most challenging experiences, but also one of the most rewarding, and it made me want to come back and do more.

“A different type of challenge came later when I worked on a project at Disneyland Paris. We opened three attractions in Toy Story Playland and for that project I was the Lead Controls Engineer. While my background is in computer science, in that role I was responsible for both the hardware and the software, so it was both a challenge and a rewarding learning experience. I had to take on, with the help of other people, a supervisory role over all the electronics that were being designed, which challenged me in a good way.”

Morehead: How has travelling the world with Walt Disney Imagineering helped you overcome creative challenges?

Rinke: “During the lifecycle of creating an attraction I find one of the most rewarding phases is the installation and testing in the field. I find it really rewarding to go into the parks during breaks, get dinner, and experience guests enjoying what we’ve created. We talk about ‘pixie dust’, and I find watching guests enjoying our product refills my pixie dust.

“Working in international locations and with local teams has exposed me to different ways of doing things, even the differences of daily life, like going to a grocery store in Paris. I didn’t realize while I was in college that Imagineering could provide me with experiences from around the world.”

Morehead: What advice do you have for students who aspire to become an Imagineer?

Rinke: “When I talk to students that are eager to work for Walt Disney Imagineering the number one piece of advice I give is to pursue your passion.

“I love that many people want to work at Walt Disney Imagineering, but I think you will be the best Imagineer and the best contributor to our environment if you are pursuing something you are passionate about. You shouldn’t pick mechanical engineering just so that you can build a roller coaster, because when you come here you may find out you don’t enjoy what you are doing every day, and you may realize it’s because you don’t actually like mechanical engineering.

“The people here are diverse and have a lot of interests. I’ve found each person here has different aspects of who they are. In my case I enjoy and was really involved in theatre growing up, and there are a number of Imagineers in my department who are passionate about and have experience in theatre.

“Exploring creative avenues is important, so look outside your major for opportunities to learn something new. That continues after you graduate – we have opportunities on the Imagineering campus to take an art class or pursue other artistic avenues. I wouldn’t advise a student to just stick their nose in a book and become a really great computer science person. We love great computer science people who are passionate about other things too, like storytelling.”

Morehead: If you had to choose one or two attractions from the Disney parks what are your favorites?

Molly in Toy Story Mania!

Molly in Toy Story Mania! ©Disney

Rinke: ” My favorite project that I’ve ever worked on is Toy Story Midway Mania! which is in Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida and in Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, California. My favorite attraction to ride as a guest, which is also the most recent attraction I helped open, is Radiator Springs Racers in Disney California Adventure Park. The area it is in, Cars Land, is such an immersive environment, and the attraction uses my favorite ride system, which is also used for Test Track at Epcot. Test Track was my favorite attraction, but now that we have combined the great ride experience of Test Track with amazing, immersive storytelling in Radiator Springs Racers, I have a new favorite.”

Walt Disney Imagineering holds an annual team-based design competition for college students, “Disney Imaginations.” Finalist teams receive an all-expenses paid trip to Walt Disney Imagineering and consideration for an internship at Imagineering. Additionally, top-placed teams receive cash prizes with the first place team receiving an award of $3,000. This year’s design challenge is to “select a large and densely populated urban area, and design an experience that temporarily or permanently transforms the city for the enjoyment of its citizens and visitors.” The application period opens September 16, 2013 with more details on the competition available here. The purpose of the competition is not to create new ideas for Imagineers to build, but so that Imagineers can look at the creativity and teamwork of the participants for possible future recruitment.

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10 Comments
  1. April 28, 2015 10:02 am

    Hi! I’d like to contact Molly Rinke. Is it possible for you to provide me her e-mail address? Thank you so much!

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