Stories of Whitworth Alumni Who Have Worked for Disney
by Madison Garner, '16
Walt Disney once said, "You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality."
Among those people are Whitworth alumni. They are happy to give you a free day pass to join them on a walk through a Disney park. You begin your visit by strolling down Main Street, U.S.A. Listen carefully, and you can hear audio stories playing in the windows down the street.
These audio stories are one of many sound projects that Whitworth alumnus and theatre major Drew Dalzell, '96, helped create for Disney. Dalzell said he approaches his projects not from a music background, but from his theatrical-sound-design background. Such projects include designing background music, which is mastered in a specific way, Dalzell said.
"You are trying to make it so it is never so quiet that you stop hearing it but never so loud that you realize it stood out in any way," Dalzell said. "It takes roughly an hour [of work] for every minute of music."
Dalzell began working for Disney as an associate media designer when he was hired directly out of graduate school, where he got a degree in sound design. He worked for Imagineering, the division of Disney that designs and creates for a range of projects, from parks to live entertainment. In his two years working directly for Disney, Dalzell saw two projects make it to completion. The rest he joined after they started, and they continued after he left.
"The scale on them is just insane," Dalzell said. "For a ground-up project they average five years and it's not unusual for it to be seven to 10 years."
Theme parks are the top of the industry and Disney creates at a level beyond what other places would dream of tackling, Dalzell said.
"The attention to detail that you get to do when working on a Disney project is really rewarding," Dalzell said. "There isn't another client that I work for that would spend two weeks of editing time to produce an hour and a half of background music."
You decide to make Peter Pan's Flight your first ride, so you head over to Fantasyland.
This ride is one of nine where Whitworth alumna Stephanie Holman, '13, works as an attractions hostess. Each ride uses specific phrases and interactions to get the immersion to the ride started, such as saying "enjoy your flight" or encouraging children to sprinkle pixie dust.
Parents are treated in the same ways as the children, using the same phrasing and excitement. Disneyland is for everybody, Holman said.
"When kids see Mickey Mouse and the girls see the princesses, their faces light up and they are so excited," Holman said. "What's great is watching the parents watch their kids. They see their kids and feel the magic."
By now you start to get tired, so you take a spin on the King Arthur Carousel.
Holman also works this ride, which is called the heart of Disneyland because a carousel is how Walt Disney came up with the idea for the park. He was sitting on a park bench while his daughters rode a carousel.
"He was sitting there eating peanuts while his daughters were having fun," Holman said. "He noticed all these parents and he wanted to create a place where everyone could go and everyone can have fun together."
Holman said she always wanted to work at Disneyland after visiting the park for the first time as a third grader.
"You get to create happiness," Holman said. "That's the whole point of working for Disney. There can't be a more rewarding career for me than creating happiness every single day."
Your fast pass for Space Mountain is now ready to use, so you head over to Tomorrowland.
Dalzell worked as a sound designer for the 50th-anniversary rehab of Disneyland's Space Mountain, creating "a new version of the classic show."
Everything, including the rides, starts from a script telling a complete story from beginning to end. The sound designers start a project by examining this script, Dalzell said.
The project involved recording dialogue, mixing the music, creating sound effects, and programming the Disney system to play audio at the correct time.
To make the sounds, Dalzell used his library of sound effects and Disney's archives, or recorded new sounds.
"For Space Mountain we went back to some of the original recording sessions from 1976 when they were getting ready for the ride and pulled some key elements so that we could fold those into the 2005 version of the show," Dalzell said.
In the final queue area before people get on the ride, the sounds of the spaceship engine include elements from the original design dating back to 1977. The raw elements of the tracks were remixed to create a new sound based on the same thing, Dalzell said.
You realize you have time to catch a show before the end of the night fireworks and head inside the auditorium.
Whitworth alumna and theatre major Jennifer (Bacon) Sudbury, '06, performed in a variety of parades, meet and greets, and shows in her time for Disney. Theatre and dance classes at Whitworth, such as improvisation, helped prepare her.
In one performance, two actors did not return from the intermission on time and the remaining actors had to improvise without them in the scene, she said.
"You have to keep going with it no matter what and make it work," Sudbury said.
Sudbury went on from performing in the park to touring the United States and South America with Disney Live for two years, living out of a suitcase.
The show used characters from the Disney Junior television series "Little Einsteins" and focused on preschoolers who travel. Classic characters, such as Mickey Mouse, can be found in the show as well.
The kids really get into the show, Sudbury said. "They make a kiddie mosh pit and are so excited to see Mickey Mouse," Sudbury said.
The show performed in a variety of stops, including Spokane, where some of Sudbury's professors came to watch, she said.
The variety of locations meant the tracked character dialogue needed to play in different languages, requiring the actors to lip sync to those languages.
As the castle lights up and the fireworks show begins, you reflect on the magic of the trip.
After working for Disney, Dalzell said the magic is still there for him.
"It's unbelievable art and unbelievable work," Dalzell said. "If you ever question that, all you have to do is stand at the gate and watch a kid walk into Disneyland for the first time -- and you know that you are creating something important and you know it's the most important thing in the world to that person right there." He continued, "that magic has been there and will continue to be there, even for someone as jaded as me. I can ride Space Mountain to this day and still love it. I have been on that well over 300 times, because doing the audio we rode it again and again and again, and it's still a great ride and a great experience. They know how to do it like no other."
"Working in the park, you see the Disney magic from another angle," Holman said. "You try to create and help maintain the magic. You're trying to help guests get that immersion into the magic of Disney."
"Even when you have worked there so long, you can walk through the park and still get excited seeing the castle light up," Sudbury said. "It's fun being a part of the magic."
After you leave the park, you keep moving forward while keeping in touch with Disney in your own way.
After working for Disney, Dalzell freelanced for two years. He then formed a company that does a variety of work all over the world, including projects for Nickelodeon cruise ships and the city of Los Angeles.
Dalzell still is involved with theatre, designing a dozen shows a year and working as managing artistic director for his theatre company, The Echo Theater Company, based in Los Angeles.
He also teaches at University of California, Los Angeles, the California Institute of the Arts, and Santa Monica College, and has taught masters classes at universities such as Yale and Cornish College of the Arts.
Along the way, Dalzell has been a lighting designer, stage manager, actor, and sound designer. Sound design is where he ended up specializing, Dalzell said.
Dalzell continues to do projects for Disney. "Disney has been a fun and fascinating part of my career," Dalzell said.
Holman currently works for Disney and hopes to continue doing so. She said she would love to work in Disneyland's City Hall, which provides customer service, to help guests solve problems and give tours or work her way up to the management or corporate level of Disney.
Sudbury is now a mental-health counselor for teenagers. She has a toddler named Elijah, who gave Mickey Mouse a big hug when he met him. Elijah loves Mickey and once danced on stage with him, Sudbury said.
Whether reminiscing over old shows or taking her child to the Disney parks, Sudbury said she will stay connected to Disney.
"Disney will always be a part of my life," Sudbury said.