Tufts University

Using their Imagi-Nations

Disney ImagineersSeniors Melissa Pickering and Lindsay Shanholt balanced engineering know-how and conceptual creativity to produce an award-winning restaurant design for Disney.

Just a year ago, Lindsay Shanholt and Melissa Pickering hadn’t even heard of Imagineers, let alone imagined being applauded by a room full of them. Nor had they ever expected to find themselves crying in excitement while accepting a check from Mickey Mouse. But that’s exactly the position in which the two Tufts seniors found themselves this summer as they accepted their award for first place in Imagi-Nations, a national design competition for college students sponsored by Walt Disney Imagineering.

"Finding out that we won was the coolest thing ever - it was really exciting," says Shanholt, an architectural engineer whose winning project with Pickering, a mechanical engineer, was a design plan for a colorful and innovative restaurant called Invention Kitchen.

The design was a long time coming. "I first heard about the competition at a Society of Women Engineers National Conference in Birmingham, Alabama, in October 2003," Pickering says. "I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Imagineers, but I saw the booth, and I thought, ‘That would be a really cool engineering job!’"

Shanholt thought so, too. When Montana native Pickering told her about the competition after returning from the conference, the two girls - good friends since meeting in their freshman year advising group - began brainstorming.

"We designed a restaurant and came up with this interactive idea: that you make your own food, Mongolian grill-style," says Shanholt, who grew up in Long Island. The duo envisioned a restaurant that seats 400 people an hour and contains four themed kitchens, each of which offers fare inspired by a Disney movie. (The Lion King kitchen, for example, is "a cave of exotic foods, crunchy bamboo shoots, tender hearts of palm, sweet pineapple wedges...")

In addition to its culinary creativity, the aptly named eatery brims with far-from-standard features that wouldn’t seem out of place in Disney’s famous TomorrowLand. Among them: a high-tech device dubbed a "Buzz-Buddy."

"It’s programmed with your name when you get it, but you don’t know that, and it interacts with the screens on the wall as you walk by," Shanholt said. "The character on the wall will greet you by name! That adds a more personal touch to the restaurant experience."

Once diners are seated, their Buzz-Buddies can also be used to summon waiters, who were also given a futuristic twist by the Tufts students.

"Our idea with the EleWaiters was to reduce traffic on the dining room floor," Shanholt said. "You make your own food and bring it to your table, so none of the food preparation really happens in the kitchen, but the waiter still brings you drinks and clears your plates. So there’s a kitchen down below where the waiters are, and when you call them, they step on this platform that rises up through the middle of the table."

For Shanholt, the captain of the Tufts women’s sailing team, and Pickering, who works to teach children engineering through the University’s Center for Engineering Education Outreach, designing Invention Kitchen was a chance to exercise creativity and technical mastery simultaneously. They also had to figure out how to condense their big ideas into a short but powerful pitch to Disney.

"You’re only allowed to send three boards, of a given size, and one page of writing - you’re not allowed to send the model," Shanholt said. "We definitely had a rough semester; we worked so much on it."

Disney Models

"I also got to work on really diverse projects. There’s a roller coaster that they’re building in the Animal Kingdom, and there’s a big animated figure, a Yeti, whose arm swoops down over the coaster. The software that they use to control that arm needed to be tested, so I had to build a test fixture for that, and they set it up." - Melissa Pickering

That hard work paid off. In April, Pickering and Shanholt were selected as one of three groups to advance to the June Imagi-Nations finals. Later that month, an Imagineer visited Tufts.

"The next day, the [Disney] HR person came and told us, ‘You made a name for Tufts in Imagineering,’" Pickering says. "They were telling the Dean of Engineering [Linda Abriola], ‘Lindsay and Melissa just made Tufts a target school for our recruiting. Now anything that comes, a resume or something, with Tufts on it [we will notice] because they kind of set the standard.’"

And Disney has seen the positive effects of Tufts’ broad engineering curriculum.

"They were really impressed with the engineering school and all the programs we have," Shanholt adds. "They see that the engineering school has a lot of creative and liberal arts stuff, combined."

Once Shanholt and Pickering found out they were finalists, they began putting together their final presentation. While the in-person pitch offered more room for creativity, the pair still needed to pack a powerful punch. "We only had ten minutes to describe our whole project," Shanholt says.

She and Pickering made the most of it, incorporating computer animations and puppets into their unique presentation. "We had our boards and our floor plan, and then we built a stage set of the dining room and the kitchen," Pickering says. "Then, we made marionettes of a three-person family. At the very end [of the presentation], we had a little puppet show - we did all the voices and stuff."

The 12 judges - all of whom were top-level Disney executives - were impressed, awarding the duo first prize in the national competition. "They loved it," Pickering says.

She and Shanholt felt the same way about the Imagineers program - both say they see themselves as potential Imagineers one day.

"Everyone there is really creative and really smart, and the work atmosphere is great," says Shanholt, who hopes to pursue an Imagineering internship after graduating this May. "It’s exactly the kind of job I’d like to go into, blending creativity and engineering."

She has already taken the first step.

"I actually switched majors [from civil to architectural engineering], because now I know that I don’t want to be a civil engineer, I want to be an architectural one," Shanholt adds. "Now, even if I don’t work exactly for Disney, I know that I’m interested in creative design. This totally directed me."

For Pickering, involvement in Imagi-Nations has already resulted in a Disney internship: she spent part of her summer working with the company’s Show/Rides division.

"My mentor was the liaison between the [creative and engineering] departments, and he was running a project that’s actually going to be a new ride," Pickering says. (She can’t give details - the ride is still in its "feasibility stage.") "I also got to work with him on really diverse projects. There’s a roller coaster that they’re building in the Animal Kingdom, and there’s a big animated figure, a Yeti, whose arm swoops down over the coaster. The software that they use to control that arm needed to be tested, so I had to build a test fixture for that, and they set it up."

"I would love to go back there, and they want me to come back for three weeks in January and see about the future," adds Pickering.

In the meantime, Pickering and Shanholt are doing their part to strengthen the Jumbo-Mickey connection.

"We definitely want to hold an info session about the Imagineers competition at Tufts. I hope that somebody from Tufts enters the competition again," says Pickering, who will be traveling to this year’s SWE conference, this time to promote the competition.

Shanholt is equally enthusiastic. "Everyone should do it!" she says. "It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it."

Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at this July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

Photots by Matt Edmundson, Tom Kates.

This story originally ran on Dec. 6, 2004