Millikin’s Designing Disney Immersion Program Sheds Light on Secrets of Disney World’s Entertainment

The class visited from January 15-20 and connected with several Millikin alums employed at Disney.

Designing Disney

DECATUR, Ill. – As visitors enter the main entrance to Walt Disney World, located just outside of Orlando, Florida, they pass under a large sign with the park’s slogan, “The Most Magical Place on Earth.” 

On the grounds of the resort, guests enjoy that magic in four theme parks – Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), and Hollywood Studios – with entertainment opportunities around every corner. 

How Disney and its Imagineers – the engineers and designers who create the Disney attractions – use illusions and groundbreaking methods to keep fans returning is the subject of a Millikin University immersion program each January. Sixteen students spent a week in class learning the techniques Imagineers use and then a second week at Disney World, seeing things firsthand and connecting with Millikin alums working in professional careers at Disney. 

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Millikin Designing Disney students backstage at Indiana Jones EPIC Stunt Spectacular with Disney Legend Kevin Brassard, the original Indy stunt man.

The immersion program is led by Professor and Coordinator of Design & Production for the School of Theatre & Dance Jana Henry Funderburk, and the students are often an eclectic group, including Disney superfans and those curious about a first visit to the resort. 

“We have both ends of the spectrum. We have people who are annual pass holders, and their families go to Disney four or five times a year, and we have people who have never been. But even those hardcore fans will say, ‘I’ve never seen that before,’ and ‘I’ve never noticed that.’ The immersion changes how they think and look at Disney,” Henry Funderburk said. “In the classroom, we talked about changing how we look at things. You can see what the Imagineers are doing, the illusions being created, and the design principles used. Then we move into the parks, and they can see those principles in action.”

Since the Disney immersion began, more than 20 Millikin alums have gone on to work at Disney, either in full-time roles or as a part of the Disney College Program. The group connects with those alums during an itinerary that typical visitors to the resort could never experience. 

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Designing Disney students with Millikin alum Samson Callear, Costume Entertainment Costuming Lead for Magic Kingdom (back row middle). 

“It was a great example of the generosity that alums will do for our current students. We get to meet Imagineers and designers, have VIP seating for events and shows, as well as backstage tours,” Henry Funderburk said. “Some of these things that we do, you cannot pay to get those experiences.”

Millikin alum and Disney World’s Live Entertainment Production Manager Jamie Kern ’03 helped develop the initial plan for the group's activities during the program’s first year, and now alum Samson Callear ’19 meets with the group as an Entertainment Costuming Lead in the Magic Kingdom. 

“Samson talked to our students, and what's so cool about it is that he took this class and then went down there for the College Program. We also have a student who graduated in May – Mira Burens ’23 – who is now in the College Program and working on Samson's team,” Henry Funderburk said. “We're seeing these generations of connections with Millikin.” 

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Millikin student Isabelle Porter (left) and other Designing Disney students got a behind the scenes look at Disney World.

Sophomore Design and Production major Isabelle Porter was among this year’s cohort of students, and she appreciated seeing the variety of careers that Disney had to offer. 

Porter is busy with many projects on campus this spring semester, including serving as the Assistant Crafts Artisan on the production of “The Learned Ladies,” Wardrobe Supervisor for “Circus Olympus,” and prepping costume designs for an upcoming fall semester production. Each of those projects touch on opportunities at Disney.

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The Millikin University Designing Disney immersion program takes place each January during winter break. 

“It was really inspiring to me because there were so many jobs and so many ways you could go that I hadn’t even thought of. I love costumes but could also see myself doing many other things. Disney would be a perfect place for me because you can do so many things while you're there,” Porter said. “I'm glad I went because I have a whole new perspective about what I can do with my degree. My mind was blown, and my world has just opened.”

Before going to Disney World, junior Stage Management major Mayah Jaimes had a plan following their graduation but is considering a different career path after the trip.  

“I planned to go to school, get a stage manager degree, move to Chicago, and stage manage. Then we went to Disney, and that plan doesn't exist anymore. My plan is now to apply for the Disney College Program.” Jaimes said. “Talking with the alums, they love to do what they do. They get to see people's reactions to that and see what they get from what you do. That's already a thing that I love about theatre. Seeing people's reactions once we are done and hearing what they say about what we just did. That is a huge part of Disney, going there to feel these feelings.”