Walt Disney Imagineer and UCLA Alumnus Craig Russell Headlines Undergraduate Commencement

Craig Russell

Craig Russell delivered his remarks to more than 1,000 members of the undergraduate Class of 2024.

Jun 18, 2024

UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Former Disney Imagineer and UCLA Samueli School of Engineering alumnus Craig Russell ’80 delivered the keynote remarks at the UCLA Samueli undergraduate commencement ceremony Saturday, June 15. 

“I recall that day — such mixed and intense emotions,” Russell said in his opening remarks, thinking back on his own graduation in Pauley Pavilion more than 40 years ago. “From a pretty intense sense of accomplishment — I knew this was one of the most important things that I would accomplish — to a sense of relief and utter liberation from Boelter Hall — I recall that vividly — to a lot of anticipation about the chapter ahead.”

A transfer student who graduated from UCLA with a degree in mechanical systems, Russell had a long career at Disney spanning more than four decades, culminating in his role as chief design and product-delivery executive. He retired in February 2024, but continues to serve as a senior advisor to Disney leadership and other entertainment and technology companies.

“This awesome university has perfectly prepared you to accomplish big, audacious things in this world,” said Craig Russell.

Russell began his journey with Disney shortly after graduation, moving to Japan to work on Tokyo Disneyland as a project coordinator. This decision led to a career filled with creativity and innovation. From his early days at WED Enterprises, Disney’s experimental arm, to his leadership roles in creating half of Disney’s global theme parks, Russell’s work has touched millions. 

“From that point forward, it became much more of a calling than a job,” he said, emphasizing the importance of finding a mission-driven, impactful career. His passion for Disney’s mission led him to spearhead many of Disney’s iconic projects, including Shanghai Disneyland and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Reflecting on his own journey, Russell encouraged graduates to embrace experimentation with different fields and subjects, and ultimately, find a career path that best fits one’s goals. “This awesome university has perfectly prepared you to accomplish big, audacious things in this world,” Russell said.

After completing his assignment with Tokyo Disneyland, Russell left Disney and worked for four other companies — one of which suffered a bankruptcy. He also worked on projects for Universal and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles before returning to Disney in 1986 for nearly 40 more years. These experiences, though challenging, were pivotal in shaping his leadership skills.

undergrad 2024

UCLA Samueli

At Disney, Russell is recognized by colleagues as a mentor and people-first leader, having spent more than half his career leading major projects to support Imagineering’s people and operations.

“Try to find mentors early on in your next chapter, or actually throughout your next chapter, who may be able to see in you things that you cannot see yourself, and can help teach you the mastery and the importance of the impact in the work that you do,” he said.

In 2020, Russell was honored as a Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Speaker at UCLA Samueli, where he shared his experience as an undergraduate student and how it helped launch his career. The webinar, which was part of an endowed speaker series featuring national and international leaders in technology and related fields, drew more than 600 engineering students, alumni, faculty and friends of the school.

As Russell transitions into the next phase of his career after his official retirement from Disney, he looks forward to pursuing diverse passions, including addressing the global shelter crisis and taking on advisory roles at Disney and with organizations such as Virgin Galactic and the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. 

Russell encouraged graduates to seek fulfillment in their work and make meaningful impacts on the world.

“I look forward to seeing and rooting for you as you accomplish big things,” he said. “I congratulate each one of you, and the friends and family members who‘ve joined you, who I’m sure have made the journey a lot more fun and interesting.” 

The recording of Russell’s full commencement remarks can be accessed via the school’s commencement website.


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