The Sugar Distinguished Speaker Series: Disney Imagineering Executive Shares Career Arc
On July 29, the summer edition of the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Speaker Series hosted a webinar with Russell ’80, a project integration executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, as he shared his journey from being a UCLA engineering transfer student to becoming a global leader.
Jayathi Murthy, the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Dean of Engineering, interviewed Russell over Zoom. A record audience of nearly 600 tuned in, including alumni, current and incoming students, faculty, staff and friends of the school. Fascinated by Russell’s experience, many in the audience were eager to hear him address their questions.
For more than three decades, Russell has worked at Walt Disney Imagineering — starting his career as a project coordinator for Tokyo Disneyland, Disney’s first international theme park, to leading the completion of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort as seen in “The Imagineering Story” on Disney+. He has led the design of some of Imagineering’s biggest, most complex, and highly successful projects, transforming creative ideas and concepts into 3D- immersive experiences.
Russell works on projects from their initial conception through completion, rather than contributing to a specific stage or element of the projects — a somewhat atypical approach for an engineering job. He has worked on the design of Disney rides and attractions, of course, but also the facilities, lighting, graphics, set design, landscape architecture among other features.
With the exception of Disney theme parks and resorts in Los Angeles and Hong Kong which remain closed due to COVID-19, others have slowly reopened since July with safety still being the top priority for thousands of their guests and casts. At Imagineering, according to Russell, there is a different set of challenges with some of the projects remain closed while others, such as those in Tokyo, are full steam ahead with little or no delay. Working to support billions of dollars of work on the other side of the world, the Imagineers are keeping busy, despite being unable to go into the office, travel abroad or even produce animated figures at the moment.
Growing up, Russell thought he wanted to be a physicist or mathematician, but he realized before coming to UCLA that he was more interested in application than teaching, which led him down the path of engineering. Russell said one thing that has helped him with a job requiring so many different skills is the generalist nature of his courses at UCLA.
Russell came to UCLA as a transfer student, after spending two years at a community college in Lancaster, Calif., where his father worked. He always knew he wanted to go to UCLA – and when it came time to transfer, he only sent out two college applications: one to UCLA, and one to UC Irvine as a backup. As luck would have it, he picked UCLA.
“I started in an engineering coordination role, so I certainly had to be somewhat comfortable with quite a few disciplines in engineering,” Russell said. “[UCLA] has been immensely valuable to me because I happen to have followed a path that was much more of a generalist and ultimately a leadership role, and I think UCLA extraordinarily well prepared me for that.”
One thing Russell pointed out is that the resources available to transfer students today, such as the Transfer Bridge Program, are much better than what was offered in the late 1970s when he transferred to UCLA.
“Very little of that second year of community college transferred, and I wish that I had known more about that going in, and the resources just really weren’t there at the time to understand that fully,” Russell said. “The upside was that that second year really prepared me a lot. It made the academic part of the first year at UCLA much more straightforward, which allowed me to kind of dive into what you do at the first year of UCLA. I was in the dorms, and social life was amazing, and kind of a better balance before I went and locked myself in Boelter Hall.”
Russell first started working at Disney in 1980, after graduating from UCLA with a bachelor’s in mechanical systems. Torn between pursuing a master’s in engineering or an MBA after being accepted to both programs at UCLA, he followed a whim and opted instead to taking the job as a project coordinator for Tokyo Disneyland – eventually spending six years living in Tokyo to help see the park through its 1983 opening and initial operation. He enjoyed the experience so much that he had forgotten about going back to get his master’s degree.
Following Tokyo Disneyland, Russell left Disney for three years to try out different projects at Universal Studios, Six Flags and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The time away actually helped confirm that Disney was the place for him, he said. But as a mentor, he often advises people to try different things.
“Imagineering — it’s a group act; it’s a large team sport. The three years I spent outside of Disney were wildly valuable because they allowed me to work in a smaller, leaner, meaner [environment],” Russell said. “I [was] not part of a large team. I came running back to Disney so fast, because it convinced me that I actually don’t want to be my own boss [and] make all the decisions.”
Russell has been working at Disney since then, coming up on four decades since he was first hired.
More recently, Russell helped create the new Star Wars attractions which debuted last year at Disneyland, in Anaheim, and Walt Disney World, in Florida. These new attractions have taken advantage of video and projection technologies and techniques which Russell said are the future of the work Disney does – including a technique to cause people’s eyes to merge the virtual and physical environments into one.
“These may seem like small things, but they end up being pretty large things,” Russell said. “Video and projection technologies have allowed us to do things in entertaining guests by taking them through environments that still ‘wow’ me to look at. They really have deeply enhanced our ability to tell stories.”
Established in 2016, the Sugar Distinguished Speaker Series brings national and international leaders in technology and related fields to an audience primarily composed of UCLA engineering students.
This story is contributed by Omar Said