Student ideas a hit with Disney

If Mickey Mouse and Snow White seem to know you by name someday when you visit Disneyland, it might just be thanks to two students at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham.

Lara Clark and Yrinee Michaelidis took second place (and $1,500 each) combining their creativity and engineering skills in this year's ImagiNation's competition sponsored by Disney Imagineering.

Imagineers are people who dream up the fantastic and bring them to life (the term combines the words imagination and engineering ). The Disney competition was launched to encourage students to pursue careers in creative and technical fields such as digital arts, engineering, and architecture — while also putting out feelers for prospective Disney employees.

Of course, the folks at Disney are no fools: All those competing sign away the rights to their submitted ideas. Whether Disney will pounce on those of the Olin duo remains to be seen.

Entrants were asked to design a theme park attraction, restaurant, hotel, or amenity (from vending stands to public toilets). A team of Imagineers in both California and Florida evaluated the submitted work.

“Our idea was to create a video capture system throughout the park," said Michaelidis, who grew up in Hyde Park. “To take still-frame shots — like photos of visitors with Mickey Mouse — and video footage of guests on various rides and turn it into a DVD of your day at Disney."

The team also developed the technology to make it work. Visitors to the parks would wear a Radio Frequency Identification wristband — a bracelet that emits a radio signal recognized by receivers all over the park. The receivers would be located in anything from statues to street lamps, so Mickey would know not only who you are but where you are.

The 21-year-old mechanical engineering students also designed reception rooms where guests would be greeted by name, interact with Disney characters on a big screen, and view footage of themselves on rides.

Coming up with the idea and technology was only part of the battle. Next, they had to pitch it. And a Power Point presentation — the tradition tool of engineers — just wouldn't do for Disney.

“They wanted us to tell a story and tug at the heart," to promote something that every family would want, said Michaelidis.

The team dreamed up a scenario in which three friends in their 30s reminisce while watching a DVD made of a childhood trip to Disneyland.

To make the DVD, the students created their own Disneyland with the help of Photoshop and scenes shot around campus and at a local Disney store. For instance, they turned a freight elevator at the college into a Tower of Terror.

They packaged their presentation in a leatherbound storybook — as though it were a fairy tale. Along with technical behind-the-scenes background, they included ticket stubs, the mock Radio Frequency ID wristbands, a photo album, and the DVD “Your Story."

The pair collaborated on the final stages while thousands of miles apart: Michaelidis in Greece, where her father lives, and Clark in Australia. They talked via Internet, taking turns staying up late to bridge the nine-hour time difference.

“We've never loved working so hard," said Michaelidis.

After graduation, Clark and Michaelidis plan to apply for an internship at Disney. Perhaps some day, statues in the western suburbs will be speaking to us by name.


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