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Chief ‘imagineer’ helping create Disney dreams
2015-01-23
By Liu Xiaolin

HIS business card describes Johnny Zhou as planning and design director at Shanghai Disney Resort. He prefers to be known simply as an “imagineer,” a term commonly associated with the Walt Disney Co to refer to people involved in new, imaginative concepts or technology.

Walt Disney created the Walt Disney Imagineering team in 1952. Disney now has a team at Walt Disney Imagineering Shanghai whose job is to design, create and build the Shanghai Disney Resort working with partners across the resort in Operations, Food & Beverage, Merchandise, etc.

Imagineering is mainly about “place-creation,” Zhou told Shanghai Daily in the Disney Shanghai office.

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He said it means creating a world out of nothing “with every possible means, either visually or aurally ­­— a world in which visitors become immersed.”

Having worked with Disney for 17 years, Zhou has been involved in conceptual and architectural designs related to amusement attractions, hotels, dining areas and other support facilities in all five existing Disney resorts. He is now the concept architect and co-architecture manager of one of the six themed lands in the Shanghai resort under construction.

“I am very excited by this first mainland project,” Zhou said. “According to the master planning, the design style will very much cater to the Chinese market.”

He said he is not yet able to disclose too many details, preferring to “protect the magic” until closer to the resort’s opening.

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But he was game to say that a number of attractions in Shanghai will be firsts in the Disneyland stable. For example, the castle in Shanghai will be the tallest, largest and most interactive. Treasure Cove will be the first pirate-themed land in any Disneyland.

The operations team was involved in the initial phase of concept design. The team gave input on matters such as waiting areas, dining rooms, touring routes for the physically disabled, safety distances between attractions and visitors, pre-sale ticketing facilities and the installation of fans and heaters.

The operational guidelines alone were 20 meters thick, he said.

“You have to be very discreet in every detail because that’s how we create a whole new world of imagination, fantasy and adventure for our guests,” Zhou said.

A graduate of Zhejiang University with a degree in architecture, Zhou studied urban design at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1993. He first worked as a consultant for Walt Disney, then joined the animation kingdom as a formal imagineer in 1998.

“It was a dream job, with many challenges,” he said.

Imagineers come from more than 140 different creative and technical disciplines, such as artists, writers, sculptors, researchers, architects, engineers and a whole lot more. Imagineers are required to follow a project from beginning to end to make sure the original designs are faithfully executed.

An ideal imagineer should be a dab hand at various skills, such as photography, fiction writing, storyboarding and painting. For a time, new imagineers are required to play a Disney character, say, Micky Mouse, at a Disney resort to give them experience interacting with children and other visitors. Imagineers are required to follow a project from beginning to end to make sure the original designs are faithfully executed.

Zhou was assigned to the Shanghai project about five years ago. He started working with architects from Shanghai Xian Dai Architectural Design Group in 2012. The biggest challenge was inspiring good teamwork. That alone can distinguish a Disneyland from other theme parks.

He still remembers the day he went to visit Tokyo DisneySea, a theme area of the Tokyo Disney Resort that officially opened in 2001. It was 2am and the whole park was ablaze with lights.

“Mechanics, cleaners and painters all swarmed in once the gates were shut,” he said. “It was a different kind of hustle and bustle from what you would see during the day.”

That was the moment he felt the power of teamwork, he said.

“Work methods and procedures are quite different in China,” he said. “It’s what we call ‘Shanghai speed.’ Disney places a top priority on high quality. It’s the best if the two are blended.”

He added, “The first is always the most challenging, just like raising children. The first is always the toughest. But we work as a whole, not only Disney staff as a team, but also as a Shanghai team of construction companies, contractors and suppliers.”

Work on the main structures is progressing well, he said. A landmark artificial mountain reached its peak in early December. Imagineers visited real mountains for inspiration on the design and development techniques.

The mountain is a major facet in the fantasy world that Zhou and his team have spent more than two years creating. It will be a world away from metropolitan Shanghai.

He said his team took a dozen field trips for the planning, the longest lasting for 10 days. They gathered first-hand information by talking to local experts, taking numerous photos and visiting local museums to view exhibits rarely showcased in public.

Zhou said all the information they collected on things such as architecture, greenery, clothing and cultural relics helped lay the foundation for a visual world.

“The architecture speaks for itself,” Zhou explained. “Visitors will find out the background and stories through the details inside the architecture. The architecture and its surroundings are a way of storytelling.”

He cites Indiana Jones, a signature attraction in the first Disneyland in Anaheim, California, as an example.

“In the Indiana Jones (attraction), visitors will first enter a jungle, then pass through to a shabby temple, with a corner of the roof collapsed. Following that is a secret tunnel, with strange encrypted characters adorning the walls. Each visitor will be given a booklet to decode the words. That’s when the adventure starts,” he added.

Disney designers watched the touring habits of Chinese visitors at Shanghai World Expo 2010, incorporating the lessons they learned into the design of the Shanghai resort. More shade will be provided inside the resort, especially in queue areas, and barrier-free access will be installed. The land in front of the castle will feature the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, all with Disney characteristics.

The Shanghai project won’t end with its opening.

“As Walt Disney once said that as long as there is imagination left in the world, Disneyland would never be completed,” Zhou said.

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