In 1997, my parents took 9-year-old me to Disneyland for the very first time. As a wide-eyed, country girl from Australia, meeting Ariel was a must-do, but crossing over into The Twilight Zone courtesy of the Tower of Terror was the highlight, and it would remain one of my favorite rides and greatest memories of all time.
A mere 22 years and umpteen rides later, I had the opportunity to thank the man behind that magic.
With more than 40 fantastical years working for Disney under his creative belt, and an extensive track record of delighting Disney park guests with truly unforgettable experiences, Imagineer Kevin Rafferty has a story or two. In celebration of his many achievements and the recent release of his book, Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career, I had the honor of (virtually) chatting with Kevin about Disney, dishwashing, designing and dreams.
1. Kevin! It is such a delight to chat to you. Thanks for joining us at The Disney Blog.
Thank you, Jess! I’m a big fan of The Disney Blog and I’m truly honored to join you.
2. Joy jumps off the pages of your new book, Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career. How did you come up with the title?
The book title was a no brainer. When I look back at my over 40 years of Imagineering careering, having the rare, and yes, joyful opportunity to help continue Walt Disney’s legacy of creating dimensional, immersive storytelling in Disney parks truly was a magic journey! Having a job that makes people happy makes me happy!
3. Speaking of Magic Journey, magic release day was just this week on Tuesday, September 10! How do you feel about officially sending your book out into the world?
The release of this book is literally a dream come true and being able to share these stories with the world is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. When I became an Imagineer there were two Disney parks in existence. As a second-generation Imagineer I have seen, and have been part of, tremendous growth. Having such a rare career in such a rare place for such a long time naturally comes with a lot of unusual but true stories. You just can’t make this stuff up!
4. What prompted you to write Magic Journey? Is there a special reason for publishing it now?
I can’t quite put my finger on it but something inside of me told me it was time to write the book. I’m extremely busy now creatively leading our upcoming attraction Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway so I really didn’t have time, but I jumped into it anyway because I was just bursting with stories that had to get out! Over the years I’ve had hundreds of cast members, interns and professionals contact me to ask if I would meet with them so I could tell them my story about how I became an Imagineer and to share with them some inside insight. Since there appeared to be so much interest in that, writing it all down seemed like the right thing to do.
And in addition to that, I was prompted by many friends and colleagues who kept after me saying, “Hey, Kev, when are you gonna write your book?” So this new book – not your typical Disney book by the way – is really for them.
5. We are certainly glad you decided to share your stories! How long did it take you to write?
Once I got started writing it all flowed right out and in-between my “day job” I was anxious to get back to it because it was so much fun, not only to write, but to remember all of the people and events that made my journey so magical. I didn’t actually set out to write a book as much as I simply wanted to tell stories about all of the fun and unbelievable things that happened, things I hope will entertain, surprise and inspire those who might be interested in the crazy and most unusual life of a busy Imagineer. I wrote all of these stories on planes, trains and in the middle of the night during non-regular work hours for a period of about seven or eight months.
6. Sounds like you didn’t miss an opportunity to record your adventures! I finished reading it last week. Your writing style charms the reader such that they feel like they’re your pal: celebrating your victories, relishing the clever puns and practical jokes, and toe-tapping along to those playful lyrics. I don’t recall ever having so much fun while reading a book.
Thank you for saying so! You made me extremely happy because that was my intent. Strange though it may sound, I didn’t write the book for readers as much as simply wanting to tell stories to friends as if they were right there with me. As an Imagineer it is my passion to create fun and compelling experiences and so it brings me great joy that you had fun reading the book! Mission accomplished!
7. I must admit though, when I first received my copy, I didn’t have a clue what an “Imagineer” really was. For our readers who are yet to snag your book, how do you personally define being an “Imagineer”?
Imagineers are those incredibly fortunate few who get to create all of the fun immersive, theatrical and experiential storytelling experiences for Disney Parks, Resorts and cruise ships. Is that a dream job or what? And now Imagineers also create games, toys, clothing, books and more! There are a lot of careers in the world, and there are a lot of people who share the same job description. But in the grand scheme of things, there are very few Imagineers. They’re but a drop of water in the ocean of jobs out there. It’s a rare and remarkable thing to do and be. As an Imagineer I get to create fun and that makes people happy. How amazing is it to have a job that is all about making people happy?
8. What were your favorite Disney rides as a kid and why?
My all-time favorites rides as a kid were Peter Pan’s Flight and Flight to the Moon. The true art of creating a Disney park experience is to instantly and physically immerse guests into a story, make it believable and hold them in the spell of it from beginning to end. As a kid I totally believed I was flying in a sailing ship over the nighttime city of London and I totally believed I was in a rocket ship flying through space on the way to the moon. I could feel the force of the launch in my seat for crying out loud! These experiences stuck with me and served me well when years later I would have the rare opportunity to create attractions for Disney parks!
9. I love the from rags to… rags… to riches aspect of your story. Boy, did you climb that curly Disney career ladder! Disneyland dishwasher to entry-level position to, eventually, acclaimed Imagineer. Were you always so driven to do more at Disney?
I was always driven to do more and be more at Disney because I never wanted to work anywhere else. And I maintained a strong and constant desire to be a contributor, to make things happen and to make a difference. Fortunately I’ve always had gobs of energy, which helped me to work hard and pay a lot of dues along the way. I became a student of what worked, what didn’t and why, and became an expert on every subject, place or theme on every project I ever worked on. Combine that with the love of Disney parks and the joy they bring to people of all ages along with the love of being an Imagineer, and that was always the fire and motivator that kept me going and growing. It helps to have artistic, musical and theatrical chops, of course, but you have to have that drive, that fire in your gut. Nothing gets done by doing nothing!
10. One blurb for the book states that you’re “an admitted nervous wreck.” How did you manage the pressure of meeting the intense deadlines (and datelines – you traveled a lot!) you mention in the book?
Ha! I was a nervous wreck because, early on, I was insecure about my ability to help carry on Walt Disney’s legacy of creating fun experiences in Disney Parks. Talk about daunting! My colleagues at Imagineering were the best in the business and some of them helped to create the business! How could I measure up to that? Could I ever be as good and productive as they were? I was able to manage that pressure because my excitement for having the opportunity to help create new experiences for the Disney parks far outweighed the nervousness and pressure. Plus, there was something compelling and challenging about things being really hard to do and proving you could do them anyway. Obstacles are those things that get in your way when you take your eyes off the goal!
11. How do you stay invested in each of your ideas and attractions when not only are there so many moving parts to each attraction, but there are also multiple attractions – at multiple locations – in the works at one time?
I was born with an enormous amount of energy and a great positive spirit so those helped me to keep all of those project plates spinning. Plus, I was always excited about my many projects. That’s the trick. When you love what you do you want more of it to do! In most cases when I had various things happening at the same time, they were usually in different phases of design and development so I was able to hop around and make sure all the deadlines were met and the work got done. Some were in early blue sky development while others near completion. When I look back on that now it’s hard to believe all that work got done!
12. You mention encountering a lot of learning curves for many of the attractions you have worked on. What were some of the greatest challenges, and in turn, the greatest lessons you have learned?
Every new show or attraction concept comes with its own new challenges and even impossibilities. But I believe in what Walt Disney once said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” In my world as an Imagineer I believe that if something is easy to do it’s not worth doing. I have always told my project teams, “It’s never easy but it’s always worth it! My old boss Marty Sklar used to say, “Don’t tell me you can’t because…tell me you can if.”
Some of the greatest challenges I’ve experienced include how does Mr. Potato Head actually pull off his ear? How does Mater drive forward and backwards every 10.4 seconds every day, every week, for years? How are we going to invite guests to literally step into the cartoon world of Mickey and Minnie and hop on a cartoon train? It’s really hard to do what we do as Imagineers.
My greatest lesson learned is never to give up, always stay positive, ask for help when needed, always tell the truth, believe in the vision of your project, believe in the power of your dreams and believe in the power of your teams. Imagineering dreams come true because Imagineering teams come through! Like any good story, the more difficult the gauntlet that is ultimately overcome by sheer determination and sacrifice, the sweeter the happy ending! Boy, it sure would have helped 40 years ago to know what I know now!
13. Speaking of challenges, how do you tackle changes in technology? How do you ensure that your ride or attraction won’t quickly become outdated?
From my perspective it’s not about the technology. It’s about the story and attraction vision. That’s where you start! The technology is only the invisible thing that helps us immerse our guests into the story. When the attraction story is working the technology goes away. In my experience I’ve never ever let any new or existing technology be the instigator or driver of a new attraction idea. I’ve always started with the story and then comes the question: How are we gonna pull this off? Then comes the technology to use as a tool to help tell your story. If the idea is good enough and the story, place-making and experience is strong enough, it will be timeless no matter what technology may be hidden under it all. Haunted Mansion isn’t dead yet! It’s 50 years old!
14. Given that every idea for an attraction you have is different from the previous one, do you ever start to feel like you really know if an idea will be given the green light or not? Or is it always a shot in the dark?
Pitching any new attraction idea is always a shot in the dark. Not every idea gets a green light. At Imagineering we have drawers filled with thousands of ideas that were great but never realized for various reasons. So much of it depends on the needs of the parks, if the concept is doable and buildable, if the idea has a certain timelessness to it, if corporate management even likes it, the list goes on and on. When a new attraction or land appears in a Disney park, it is one that like cream, has risen to the top! There have been times before I’ve actually pitched an idea to Bob Iger that I can feel in my overly excited gut he’s going to love it and it’s going to go. Three great examples are Toy Story Midway Mania!, Cars Land and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway.
15. You mention different phases of a project, including design and production. Do you have a favorite phase?
I do not have a favorite phase of a project. I love every bit of a project’s design, development and delivery. I like to call it “From spark to the park.” There is great joy and and excitement in early ideation, development, pitching, design packages, production, installation, programming, test and adjust, and finally opening. All phases come with their own challenges and rewards and I truly love every step of the way. But if I were to have to chose a favorite phase, it would be the final phase, opening day. Nothing gives an Imagineer more joy than to watch guests happily experience something new and exciting for the very first time on opening day!
16. You note that a theatrical venue is delivered more quickly than a ride-through venue. Do you have a venue preference?
Although I love developing both shows and attractions, my preference is creating attractions. It’s the harder of the two to do. I contend that in the entertainment industry, the kind of entertainment Imagineering produces is the hardest thing there is to do. You have to get it right the first time, every time. Ours is a brick and mortar theatrical venue. Once things start getting built there’s no going back. If a stage show, for example, is not working, you can change dialogue or scenes and try something different the next night. If a TV show is not popular it gets pulled off the air. But an Imagineering-created attraction is there for the long haul, sometimes entertaining guests for over 50 years! Creating a ride takes a lot of thought because you have to consider things that only we would consider like guest flow, guest capacity and dispatch intervals, operational requirements, maintenance and safety issues, durability, and so much more. It’s really hard to design and deliver an attraction, more difficult than most people realize. But Imagineers wouldn’t have it any other way!
17. From ride pitch to entire land pitch, how did it feel to create a whole new world with Carland (now, Cars Land)?
Being the one to get Cars Land on the road to reality was one of the greatest joys of my career. When I first began thinking about a cars-themed land inspired by California car culture during the time period between 1955 and 1965, I didn’t even know Pixar was working on a movie with the same theme! My original concept had a Main Street called Cruise Street, complete with shops and themed restaurants, and attractions such as Junkyard Jamboree (before I knew there was a Mater), a musical ride-through attraction in which car parts in a junkyard came to life and sang, and Road Trip USA, inspired by the roadside attractions my family used to visit while on road trips. The finale scene of that Midget Autopia-scaled attraction was a drive through Carsbad Caverns, inspired by Nature’s Wonderland.
While trying to come up with an anchor attraction, someone told me that Pixar was working on a movie about cars called Cars. This was 2004, two years before the release of the movie. I grabbed my colleague Rob’t Coltrin, who was my co-creator on Toy Story Midway Mania!, to fly up with me to Pixar to learn more about their upcoming movie with the hope there might be something they were doing that might inspire an idea for an anchor attraction for Carland. After we found out about the characters and town of Radiator Springs, Rob’t and I had fully flushed out the idea for Radiator Springs Racers, which I’m proud to say we had on the storyboard in 2004, two years before the move came out, and the concept was about 95% what you see and experience in the land today. In 2007 following the success of the movie Cars, we turned Carland into Cars Land. The land is epic, I love it so much, and every time I’m there I still can’t believe it’s there!
Kevin on the Cars Land construction site
18. I must say, the cherry on top for me in Magic Journey is that you listened to my favorite song, “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts, I quote, “ten million times” while doing research on Route 66 for Cars Land. Surely no other research project has topped that one?
I have to agree, considering my love for cars and road trips no other research project can top getting our kicks on Route 66. Although there once was a time when I was at the Presidential Library at the Smithsonian and actually held George Washington’s hand written diary from the Revolutionary War in my trembling hands. Who does this stuff?
19. Disney has fans across the globe of all ages, cultures, hopes and dreams. How do you cater to such a diverse audience?
Disney has spread across the globe in many ways, including Disney Parks now in several different countries. The sun never sets on a Disney Park! The whole world is our audience and the experiences we create must be enjoyable for all people of all ages. We work closely with culture and diversity experts and become experts about all world cultures to ensure we are respectful and provide the best possible entertainment for all. It is a small world after all!
20. In the clip “The Imagineer” by Drea Cooper filmed approximately eight years ago, you stated that “each guest is a camera,” so you need to make sure the action is happening all around them. How do you achieve that?
The worlds and experiences Imagineers create are really dimensional, experiential theater. But not necessarily the kind of theater that has a stage and proscenium. Our attractions are theater-in-the-round because, as our audiences ride through, they have the ability and freedom, much like a camera, to look up and down and all around! We have to design to accommodate every possible view and therefore we consider every square inch that can be seen. Good showmanship is key and as “directors” of the show we use audio, visual and staging cues to tell our camera, or in this case, our guests, where to look.
21. You have worked some of the most memorable rides and attractions ever. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, MuppetVision 3D, Toy Story Midway Mania!it’s tough to be a bug!… the list goes on. What has been your favorite project to work on and why?
I love every project I’ve ever had the honor and privilege to help create and deliver to a Disney park. Of course, I’m very partial to Cars Land and Radiator Springs Racers, but so far my favorite is one that isn’t even open yet! The project I’m leading now is very special and it has a very special place in my heart for many reasons.
For many years I promised my boss Marty Sklar (and myself) that I would come up with a major attraction idea that has an original, exclusive-to-the-attraction story and original, exclusive-to-the attraction theme song. Certainly our guests love to experience the places and characters from their favorite movies like Cars and Frozen, for example, but they also love the timeless original attraction stories and songs that can be enjoyed at attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion.
I think starting with a blank sheet of paper to create something entirely new yet timeless for all ages to enjoy together is the most difficult thing for an Imagineer to do. We are checking all of those boxes with Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. I can’t think of a better attraction to put a cherry on top of the magical career I never expected. I am working with the best Imagineering team in world and we are putting a lot of love into this new attraction. I can feel it in every scene and I know our guests are going to feel it too. Besides the fact that this is Mickey and Minnie’s first ride through attraction ever (I know!) there are so many special things about it such as the impeccable timing, the singable music, the stunning theater, and we are using the actual tri-tone whistle that was used for the whistle sound in Steamboat Willie for engineer Goofy’s locomotive whistle. I mean, with Goofy as your engineer, what could possibly go wrong?
22. From Roy Disney to Cindy Crawford, you have certainly met some interesting people! Of the stories included in Magic Journey, what is your favorite encounter to tell at dinner parties and why?
As a long-time lover of Disney music and the distinct sound that was established by Disney Studio music legends such as Buddy Baker, George Bruns and the Sherman Brothers, my geek moment was meeting my musical heroes, Richard and Robert Sherman. I’ve known Richard for many years now and we have become good friends. He is such a sweetheart of a guy and he loves what Imagineers do. Can you imagine what it was like for me to go to the Sherman Brothers’ studio in Hollywood and sit on the piano bench right beside Richard to work on lyrics for Rocket Rods?
I also love to tell the story about how, when we were recording the orchestra for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh attraction in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, I sat with Richard with the orchestra while Buddy Baker conducted. That was truly a pinch me moment by the way. Richard interrupted the Heffalumps and Woozles cue because he said it was missing kazoos. He promised he would bring two kazoos to the session the following day and he and Buddy would play them. I asked why two kazoos? With that famous sparkle in his eyes, Richard turned to me and said, “Because two kazoos are funnier than one!”
23. You have also worked alongside other Disney giants: Marty Sklar, John Hench, Jimmy Macdonald, Randy Bright, Marc Davis, X Atencio, Alan Menken, John Lasseter… just to name a few. Were you ever star struck by colleagues such as these in the early days?
At first I was star struck because they were all the legendary game-changers in our industry. But after working with them for a while I realized they were all very nice, genuine, super talented people who, like me, just wanted to create entertainment that would make people happy. While standing on the shoulders of these giants, who ultimately became my friends, I was educated, influenced and especially inspired to become a better, stronger Imagineer.
24. Similarly, you mention many special friendships in Magic Journey and include some great photos and mementos in the book. How did you manage to keep track of all these treasures over the years?
The funny thing about trying to find photos for the book was that there weren’t many because cameras were never allowed at WED Enterprises, later Walt Disney Imagineering. I managed to take a few pictures here and there, and there were a few that I used that were authorized. But I really wanted to show and share things that Disney fans have never before seen in a book. Actually, my office is filled with every memento and treasure I’ve collected for four decades including personal notes, lots of Marty notes, concept sketches, caricatures, project team stuff, models, a zillion nametags and I still have all of those original Epcot pavilion buttons from its opening day.
25. From mementos to Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, it really has been quite a ride! What does the future hold for Kevin Rafferty?
I’ve been so busy doing so much stuff for so many years I haven’t had a minute to stop and think about what the future holds for me – other than I hope I’m in it!
26. What advice do you have for dreamers like young 1970s Kevin looking to work for Disney and climb their very own curly n’ creative career ladder?
For those who aspire to become an Imagineer, pay attention to your interests and hobbies. When I was a kid I loved animation, music (listening and writing), model building, oil painting, TV, movies, movie making and Disneyland. All of those loves built a strong foundation upon which I was able to build a career as an Imagineer. If, for example, your interest and college major is mechanical engineering, get some practical experience in that field and then bring it to the Imagineering table.
We have over 140 different disciplines at Imagineering, including graphic design, interior design, audio production, project management, architecture, art, model building, you name it. We’re all Imagineers but we each have a particular interest, expertise and/or experience in our field of interest. Discover and/or pay attention to what you love because that could help you land a job that you love! Work hard at whatever that is because hard work really does pay off. Nothing is going to get handed to you. You have to prove you have what it takes. Even if you are fortunate enough to land an internship, which these days is a great way to get your foot in the door, be prepared to work! As my dear old dad used to say, “Son, the only time you’re going to find success before work is in the dictionary.”
27. What do you ultimately hope readers get out of Magic Journey?
First and foremost the showman in me hopes that readers will be entertained. I hope they get some insight, some laughs, some knowledge about things they never knew, but most of all I hope it inspires readers, especially those that aspire to become Imagineers. When I started out more than 40 years ago things were different. I didn’t know a single person when I started at WED Enterprises, taking the worst job but at the best place. I want readers to know that hard work pays off and that there are great careers in the arts. But most of all I want them to “sit by my side” and go along for the ride as I take them on a magic journey that proves dreams really do come true.
Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career is now available for purchase on Amazon. Your purchase via this link helps support The Disney Blog. Thank you.