Ben Ziemann can still remember his childhood fascination with the technology Disney used to make things seem lifelike at its parks.
He enjoyed the connection between that aspect of technology and storytelling. “My favorite Disney movie would have to be ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ” he said.
The Eastview High School alumnus recently got the chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at Disney’s creative processes through participating in the Walt Disney Imaginations Design Competition with two other students from his school, the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.
Their team, composed of Ziemann, Miranda McMillen and Eric Miller, recently got third place in the competition and were able to interview for paid internships during an all-expense paid trip to Walt Disney Imagineering in California, Feb. 4-8.
“Overall it was a great experience. I got to know my teammates a lot better. I look forward to potentially doing it again,” Ziemann said.
Ziemann grew up in Apple Valley, graduating from Eastview High School in 2016. His family resided in Apple Valley for about 10 years before relocating to Tennessee a few months ago. He’s now a junior at Olin College of Engineering pursuing a robotics engineering degree.
Before graduating high school, he was involved with FIRST Robotics Competition Team 3042 “Cobalt Catalysts” for four years and mentored several FIRST Tech Challenge robotics teams.
“I’ve always known I wanted to go down the engineering path and FIRST gave me the skills,” he recalled. “Learning how to work on a team was the biggest takeaway. It did prepare me well of the career I’m pursuing now and working on project teams in college.”
Ziemann said he and McMillen are both longtime fans of Disney. They found the Disney competition when they were looking into jobs during their sophomore year. They decided to apply the next year after learning it was only open to juniors and seniors, and later asked Miller to join their team.
The competition asked participants to create an experience that explores a natural or ancient wonder of the world, with a focus on locations that are difficult to enjoy because of being remote, inhospitable or no longer existing. The projects could not include virtual reality, augmented reality or mixed reality and had to be free of Disney intellectual property, according to a news release.
The concept created by Ziemann, McMillen and Miller is the Kiiguyaruq Express, a five-day wintertime train journey beginning in Anchorage, Alaska, that extends north to some of the most inaccessible and secluded places in the world.
While they all helped to develop the story, the idea’s prompt came from a recent trip McMillen had taken to Alaska during the summer. McMillen was unable to see the Northern Lights because of the time of year, so they knew they wanted to focus on that.
“(We) wanted a more ecological integration with the local community. Alaska has a lot of railroads streamed throughout it, so it really fit in well,” he said.
Each day on the trip would be a “re-created memory,” and visitors would find themselves in a different time period of Alaskan history, according to Ziemann. Those include the 1977 Iditarod sled dog race, the gold rush in the 1890s and a native town.
Most of the team members’ individual contributions came in the forms of the presentation the team was asked to give. Ziemann said he helped with the computer-aided design and 3D-modeling. McMillen worked with Photoshop and digital painting while Miller used his prototyping to create a functioning compass.
The 15-minute presentation was given in front of 50 Disney Imagineers. “The thing we wanted to get across was a clear, concise story,” he said. He later added that they worked on their project from August to November 2018. They found out they were contest finalists in late December.
Ziemann said one of the most memorable parts of the trip was meeting other finalists from around the country and around the world. He also enjoyed getting the chance to interview for internships related to animatronics and show production.
“Throughout it I got to learn a lot about the internal structure, about what a job at Disney would be like and all the opportunities Disney provides,” he said.
After college, he wants to get a job in the industry and hopes he will land one at Disney.
“I did this project and spent most of my childhood thinking about and idolizing their engineering,” he said.
Patty Dexter can be reached at email@example.com.