The Happiest Intern on Earth

Meet Kristine Sanders, the alum who "majored in Disney."
By Kristine Sanders, as told to Brooke Kottmann

My earliest memory of Disneyland was going on Splash Mountain when I was 3. It was upsetting and wonderful all at the same time.

The theory behind Disneyland is what drew people by the millions year-round to experience something, and it was that something I really wanted to get to know psycho­logi­cally, architecturally.

Disney was a major feature of my childhood; sometimes my mom would take me four or five times a week—and she wasn’t even a theme park person. We’d do kind of a mom and daughter day at the park. After that, I tried to make every school project I could a Disney project.

I knew I wanted to be an Imagineer, but I didn’t know what Imagineering was until I was a freshman in high school. Blue Sky Cellar in California Adventure was modeling the World of Color attraction. It was like, here’s what Imagineers are up to. And I was like, “Oh my goodness! This is it. That’s what I’m going for.”

When I was in my first year at UC Berkeley, lost as to what my major would be, I took an introductory class in architecture and fell in love with it. I went to talk to an advisor in the College of Environmental Design and jokingly asked, “Can I major in Disney?” She said actually, you can make your own major and suggested I talk to Chip Sullivan, a professor in the CED and fellow Disney fan, about my idea.

Chip’s a cartoonist who teaches a lot of unusual courses like Fantasy, Form, and Energy in the Landscape. He would talk about the landscape being the body and tattoos being landscape architecture. He was a huge support not only as my faculty advisor but also as my professor in a lot of classes.

The more I got to know my major, the more I got to know Disney and how the space captures people like it captured me. Mickey and Minnie are wonderful and cute, but the theory behind Disneyland is what drew people by the millions year-round to experience something, and it was that something I really wanted to get to know psychologically, architecturally.

In all honesty, I try not to advertise that I majored in Disney because a lot of people assume it’s silly. In college when I explained what I was actually studying, which is the phenomenology of theme-park architecture in modern design, they were like, “That sounds smart.”

Just weeks before graduation, one of my friends from the rowing team, who was on staff at the Daily Cal, told me she had a friend who desperately needed to fill a column in the newspaper. Could she talk to me? The article went viral and a guy from Disney Imagineering saw it and reached out and gave me some advice on how to apply to their internship program and who to talk to.

When I started my Imagineering internship it was 115 degrees. It was the best day of my life—and don’t tell my fiancé I said that. [laughs] I got my cast-member badge and I cried. Some people say “Never meet your heroes,” but you should meet your heroes.

I got to work on the new Guardians of the Galaxy attraction. I got to ride it with people soon after working on it. It’s so fun being on the attraction with guests because you’re right there in the mix of it. You get to feel what they’re feeling, and the energy is buzzing.

I’ve always loved magic and knowing how magic tricks work. All these pieces coming together to make this amazing thing happen, that’s the magic.

There’s more than 140 Imagineering disciplines, including lighting design, art design, and animatronics. As I was getting to help out all these designers, I came to understand each role. Now I do show set design for a company that works with Disney, Universal, and other smaller companies.

I work at a desk, but I also do a lot of physical mock-ups of “scenes,” which is how Disney and Universal both think about attractions—as films. The team will say, “What does this actually look like? What does it feel like?” And so we’ll get eight-foot tall sheets of foam, cut it, carve it, glue it, and turn it into whatever we’re trying to model.

I’ve always loved magic and knowing how magic tricks work, how this little maneuver or distraction made this possible. All these pieces coming together to make this amazing thing happen, that’s the magic.

It breaks my heart when people say that going backstage ruins the magic for them. The knowing part for me always made it better. It still makes it better. Figuring out how it works is the best part.

From the Spring 2020 issue of California.
Filed under: Perspectives
Image source: Cal's first Disney Imagineering grad Kristine Sanders '16 says the first day of her Imagineering internship was the "best day of her life." Shh, don't tell her fiancé. // Illustration by Cindy Salans Rosenheim
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