Engineering Disney magic

Jan 31, 2011

Kettering student Victoria Sprague landed her dream co-op job engineering the magic of Disney World.

Victoria Sprague couldn’t get enough of her co-op job last term, even spending non-working hours on site. Of course, the site was Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and her job was working as an engineer in the Audio Animatronics lab.

Sprague landed what she considers a “dream job,” and that’s saying a lot considering her last co-op position was working in the Robotics Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where she worked on the Centaur 2 project, Chariot B project and the Robonaut 2 project. Robonaut 2 is currently loaded on the space shuttle waiting to be sent to the International Space Station on the next scheduled launch in February 2011.

After some confusion about the continuation of her position at NASA, Sprague took a chance and applied for a position at Disney. “I had always dreamed of working at Disney one day,” she said. 

“I put my resume up on the Disney data base in November 2009 and sent an updated resume to Disney in March 2010.  During week 10 (the second-to-the-last week of the spring term), I was starting to worry that I might not find a job for the Summer term when I received an email from Disney asking if I wanted to have an interview for a possible internship in the Audio Animatronics Lab.  That Thursday, I had an interview. The following Monday night, I received a call from Disney saying that I had been offered the position,” said Sprague.

 And so began six months of working on everything from an animatronic macaw bird in the Tikki Tikki Tikki Room to removing and replacing a hydraulic pump. “That was a fun and messy job,” enthused Sprague about the pump. About much of her other work for Disney she’s relatively mum due to confidentiality issues.  She was willing to say that her work with the macaw enables Disney to replicate the character more easily.

“He had never been three-dimensionally modeled,” she explained, “what I did enabled them to make the bird faster when it wears out and needs to be replaced or when a new character needs to be placed into show.  I learned a greater appreciation for all the animation at Disney after that experience,” she said.

Her co-op work term was doubled because Disney only offers six-month internships. To compensate she is currently doing back-to-back school terms and will return to Disney for another six-month work rotation in July, this time working on mathematical modeling for rides and rollercoasters. Kettering’s curriculum requires students to rotate three-month academic terms with three-month co-op terms beginning in the freshman year.

Sprague is one of three Kettering co-operative education employees working at Disney. They, and about 60 other college-age engineering interns from across the U.S., work at Disney World in engineering, with other interns in the business and hospitality fields. The students can live nearby on the Disney campus during their internships.

In addition to her assignment with the macaw, Sprague was able to work on re-building some characters in the Mickey Mouse Review, specifically the three caballeros. “I took a pile of parts and rebuilt them mechanically. Hopefully they’ll be used in a show eventually,” she said.

She also worked in the training center updating training material, conducting behind-the-scenes tours of specific places on the Disney campus and helping with an animation show review on third shift to make sure audio animatronics were in good working order for the next day.

That assignment meant a very late night, but she didn’t mind. “It’s magical to be in the park after hours,” she said.

Her most exciting after hours experience was as a “Rockin’ Rollercoaster” test dummy. “An engineering intern friend of mine was working on some improvements to the ride and needed a test rider,” she said, although admitting that after a number of rides in a row (without stopping) the “thrill” settled in her stomach.

Sprague said that even though her work at Disney was fun, it also helped her to grow as an engineer. “I learned more about hydraulics and pneumatics and simple machines, such as bell cracks, levers and pulleys than I did before,” she said.

“I also had a chance to talk with a lot of maintenance workers about what their challenges are,” she added. “I was able to go behind the scenes in the field and see what maintenance people have to face.”

Because of that experience Sprague said if she has an opportunity to do design work she will have a more practical understanding of how machines actually work.

She also learned from her experiences at Disney that “you can have fun and be working. “Most mornings I got up excited to go to work because I knew I was going to get to do something interesting,” she said.

“The atmosphere is wonderful,” she said of working at Disney World. “It was educational to see how a big company functions, and see the ins and outs of a large corporate entity.”

But most of all, she said “I grew up loving Disney, and working there made all the attractions more magical. Knowing the magic behind the magic was incredible.”

It took her a little longer than a moment to choose Kettering for college however. While she was in high school her father, Kevin Sprague, started taking her to visit colleges and universities. “I had no idea where I wanted to go at first,” she said.  “After getting to tour a couple schools, I sat down and came up with a list of what I wanted in a school.  Believe it or not, snow was at the top of my list!”

Also in the top three attributes she was looking for was a co-op program. “I wanted to make sure that the school of my choice offered as many of the things I had on my list as possible.  Snow, being close to family (currently in Texas), and a mandatory co-op program narrowed down my choices,” said Sprague.

She originally heard about co-op programs during high school when she had an opportunity to job shadow a NASA co-op student. “I really liked the idea of getting work experience during school and still getting out of school in a reasonable amount of time,” Sprague said.

An online search for schools with co-op programs turned up Kettering University, among others.  What Sprague found was that with many schools, students are responsible for securing co-op positions on their own.

“I liked the idea of a mandatory co-op program like Kettering’s because I did not feel like I had to do everything on my own. Plus the rest of the student body would be in the same boat as me,” she said.

Sprague almost missed her chance to find out more about Kettering during the FIRST robotics Championships because she was too busy as team captain and a member of her team’s pit crew to talk to students at the Kettering booth during the competition.  “Thankfully, my father was able to make it to the booth and sign me up to be on Kettering’s mailing list,” Sprague said.

After being accepted to all six colleges she applied to, Sprague had to make a choice. “I had visited every school by this point except Kettering.  “I did not have the chance to make it to Kettering until ‘Prep for Success’ (Kettering’s on-campus introductory program for accepted students).  That day, while walking on campus, I felt like I could see myself here as a student,” said Sprague.

Using a comparison chart, she compared Kettering to the other two finalist colleges and “Kettering ended up scoring the highest out of the three, confirming my feelings that Kettering was the school for me,” she said.

So the girl who required her college offer a climate with snow now spends half her year in sunny Florida working at her dream job. As for snow’s chance in influencing future decisions, Sprague said of Disney World “I would definitely consider working there permanently.” So much for snow.

Contact: Dawn Hibbard