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On the Job With: Isabel Caruncho, Disney Imagineer

By Localiiz 17 November 2021

Welcome to On the Job With, an interview series on Localiiz that chronicles the highs, lows, and unexpected quirks of various lesser-explored occupations around Hong Kong. From office security guards to street cleaners, every job has more to it than meets the eye. For our latest exploration into weird and wonderful jobs, we chat with Isabel Caruncho—a Disney Imagineer and creative designer—about what it’s like to work at the “happiest place on earth.”

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“I am a creative designer. I work for the Hong Kong Disneyland Imagineering team. As a creative designer, you are doing a lot of different things. I focus on hotel projects and sometimes, I’ll function as an art director. Most of the time, you are dabbling in different things. You might be designing a small kiosk, or a hotel room, or a poster.

“It really started with the Disney Imaginations competition. I have been a fan of Disney stories since I was young. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an animator, until I discovered that I was too lazy to be an animator, because there is so much work that goes into it. But it’s always been at the back of my mind. I was also interested in theatre and I feel like that’s a perfect marriage, because Disneyland itself is a theatrical experience that happens in real-time. When the Imaginations competition came up while I was in school studying interior design, I thought, ‘Let’s do this.’

“I had friends who were doing illustration, game design, and animation, so we pooled our resources together and formed a team. Our concept for the competition was inspired by Neverland from Peter Pan. We liked the idea of being able to step into a completely different world, the way the Darling children were able to visit Neverland through the help of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. At the same time, we were also thinking about how Tinkerbell as a character is someone who’s quite well-known in Hong Kong, but maybe not everybody understands the context of where she originated from. So we created a proposal that looked at ways to have interactive attractions, where you could join Peter and Tinkerbell throughout their adventures. We wanted to have places that you could also explore, such as the Pirate Cove or the Mermaid Lagoon and bring guests into Neverland. After that competition, where we won first place, we were able to do an internship here at Hong Kong Disneyland with the local Imagineering team.”

“I feel like it is probably Disney that inspired me to start drawing. I would say I was a very artistic creative kid when I was younger, but a lot of it was kind of recreating Disney characters. I remember when I was in, I think, the second grade, I would draw Disney characters for my classmates.

“When you tell people you are an Imagineer, it’s a little difficult to explain, because some people think you are an animator. But once they understand that these things in the park that you are experiencing [need to be designed], then it clicks and the light goes on. A lot of people admire the job because they feel like it is a fun and inspiring job, which it is. I think that the Imagineers really create the magic and the attractions that you find in Disneyland. So whether that’s something small in the little details all the way up to a full-blown, epic attraction—that’s us!

“My dad is indifferent [to what I do for work] because that’s what Asian fathers are like. But my mum loves it. Every time marketing photos come out of the different hotels, she would share them on her Facebook immediately.”

“My dream-come-true moment might be the [Adventurers Suite at the Disney Explorers Lodge]. It was the first project that I was fully able to art direct, so it’s kind of my baby. It was a huge challenge for me, because there were things that I was maybe not used to doing or decisions to make that I had maybe never made before. Being able to see this come to life and to walk into the space and think that this is what I imagined it to be, that’s pretty amazing.

“I think the entire backbone of the work that we do is collaborative. Even in a single space, you can see [that] interior design comes into play, but we’re also looking at lighting effects, special effects, different things we can put inside [the room] to make it more interesting. We’re looking at graphic design and photography—it’s very multidisciplinary. You see all these different disciplines working together to create an experience that you don’t get anywhere else.”

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“You start with your ‘blue sky’—your concept. A lot of research into the feeling that you want to evoke in the space. Afterwards, you start thinking about the details. We’ll do concept art, an illustration, a sketch, a 3D model... whatever visual thing that gets the idea down so everybody can start working from it. You need that unified idea. 

“Afterwards, we will start doing detailed design, like architectural or construction drawings. It’s the more technical stuff—all the fun brainstorming and aesthetic parts are over. Now you have to start looking at how to build it. You are also starting to source artwork and make production artwork that will eventually be turned into props in the room.

“Slowly, that’s when it comes together. Contractors come in and they start putting everything into place. If you are sourcing furniture, you bring it inside the room and arrange it. We also like to do something that we call ‘field art direction,’ because, for a space like [the Adventurers Lodge], we need it to feel organic like somebody has lived in it. Let’s tweak this a little bit. Let’s move that frame there. Let’s put a compass here. I am involved in this process every step of the way until it is transferred over to our operations partners.”

“Guests should have room to explore when they stay here. You find ways to infuse the space with a little more adventure and magic. I want this thing to be meaningful. I want that thing to be meaningful. I put in a lot of concept art from Disney and Pixar animated features to pay homage to where we are. We wanted to keep true to the storyline of the hotel, which is meant to celebrate the golden age of exploration in the 1920s and 1930s.

“Here are illustrations created in-house that are supposed to be by Minnie Mouse. In the story of this hotel, she’s a botanist who likes to study insects and flowers and paint them. Mickey and Minnie are represented in this hotel and in the lobby, there are giant luggage trunks that represent them, as if they are frequent guests at the Disney Explorers Lodge. It would be cool if this was their room. You are looking at these different props and artworks that were maybe gifted to Mickey and Minnie by friends they met on their adventures. At the same time, you are looking at things that call back to their stories as explorers. If Minnie is a botanist, then Mickey might be a navigator.”

“It’s not all rainbows and sunshine every day, but it’s close. What people do not realise is that being an Imagineer is a lot of problem-solving. People from a visual background who come into Imagineering might think that all you are going to do is draw. And sometimes, that’s true. Sometimes, there are people who specialise in concept art, but a lot of the time, everybody dives into whatever is necessary. I think it shocks some people. It’s not just animation. It’s not just going to be on a screen. You have to build it and you have to consider things like, is it safe for people? Will it keep standing after 15 years? A lot of people don’t realise that’s an entirely integral aspect of what Imagineers do.”

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“What I find really fun in the park is the transition of audio between lands. I don’t think that’s something that people notice, but there’s a smooth transition when you move from somewhere like Main Street to Adventure Land, and that ambient sound changes your experience of the space, but you don’t really notice it until you’re in there.

“I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard about this, but on Main Street, the buildings there are in forced perspective, so the second floor is actually shorter than the first floor. And so that gives the impression that it was really [designed] for children, because when you are a kid and you are walking into the space and you are met with a full-size building, it can be a little intimidating. To do that forced perspective and bring that height down, it makes it a little bit more comfortable, a little more whimsical. So there is a lot of [these kinds of] fun tricks like that [around Disneyland].

“VR and AR are unavoidable and they are already being explored in our other parks. Someday, we would like to have that opportunity [in Hong Kong Disneyland]. Regardless of their popularity, what we find very important is being able to physically immerse yourself in a space, because the layers of immersion that you get are vastly different. In the future, I think the best course would be to find a way to merge the two rather than rely heavily just on digital.”

“I think one of the most important qualities to have for this job is being able to understand and distil stories. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how detailed something is. If it does not kind of tell the story that you are trying to tell, then you are doing it wrong. For example, Main Street has a cohesive time period that it’s attached to. But the moment you put Star Wars in there is the moment that you have broken that story and the narrative and you are not being true to the experience that you are trying to build. Sometimes, people get a little too excited about different things that you can do, and sometimes, you need to pull back and ask, ‘But is this the story that I am trying to tell?’”

“It’s a balance of creativity and practicality. You can be as creative as you want, but you cannot sacrifice the practical side of things in the name of creativity, especially when what you are designing is for the enjoyment of the guests who come to visit. Maybe there was something that you really loved about the design that you made, but it turns out, it’s extremely unsafe and you cannot have it. How do you work around that? Don’t act like a brat and say like, ‘I want it anyway.’ You have to make sure that you are achieving all the goals and not just your own.

“You see [an attraction]—you don’t know how many revisions it went through before it became the thing that it is today. Sometimes, it’s not exactly what you envisioned, but you just have to work hard to make it the best that could possibly be. I mean, that’s the reason why it’s called Imagineering, right? It’s a mash-up of imagination and engineering. It’s that creative mindset, but also bringing things to life through practical, technical skills.

“I feel like there’s something about the stories that Disney tells—there’s that magic and escapism in a fantasy that’s really appealing to children and even to adults now. I know I work here and I see this thing almost every day, but I can still go down Main Street on a quiet morning before the crowds come in and think, ‘This is great.’”

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Disney Imaginations Hong Kong returns this year as an annual design competition for tertiary students to test their artistic, technical, and communication skills within a theme park setting. Winners will receive the rare opportunity to undertake an internship at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort and participate in the design projects of the park, as well as go behind the scenes of what it’s like to work with professional Disney Imagineers as mentors. 

For 2022, the competition theme will be “Space Travel.” Participants are encouraged to think about and develop an experience that explores the possibility of welcoming off-planet alien visitors and introducing them to the wonders of Earth. Click here to learn more—the enrolment deadline has been extended to 26 November 2021.

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