Hampton Univ. students and Disney bring magic to the world

By Kalesha Kennedy

Black circular mouse ears, big yellow shoes and red shorts are iconic images that all Americans, young and old recognize and love.  As Disney’s chief character, Mickey Mouse is known worldwide for entertaining children and adults for centuries. 

Surprisingly Disney, including its many legendary characters, is directly related to Hampton University. Imagineers, the team of people whose task it is to develop new, almost magical attractions, includes three Hampton alumni.

How were these former Hampton students able to land positions with one of the most legendary companies in the world? They all participated and were finalists in Disney’s ImagiNations competition. Now, a group of architecture majors are preparing to enter the competition and hope to have the same success that their former classmates had.

The competition hosted by Disney calls for creative and talented students across multiple academic focuses including architecture and digital art. The students submit their ideas for new Disney attractions; which can be anything from rides to restaurants. They are able to utilize several methods of presenting their idea including: storyboards, models, computer graphics, video and building designs to name a few. 

All finalists win a trip to Disney Imagineering in California to present their ideas in front of the judges. Several qualified students will also win internships with the Imagineers. 

The competition has been in existence since 1981 when Hampton alumnus Dexter Tanksley participated and became a finalist. Tanksley, class of 1993, described his excitement while sitting in Hampton University’s Bemis Laboratories in October 1981, as Imagineers presented the newly created contest. 

According to Tanksley, he could not resist the chance to join this elite team, and with two other students in the architecture program, developed an indoor ski slope. While he admitted the brainstorming and developing process required a great deal of work, he believed it was well worth the outcome. Just two weeks after graduating from Hampton, Tanksley landed a full-time position as an imagineer.  Now, after 18 years with Disney, he serves as principal facility designer.

Tanksley got the opportunity to return to Hampton in September to invite students to participate in this year’s competition in a presentation similar to the one he witnessed 18 years ago. This year’s session was even held in Bemis Laboratories, just as it was 18 years ago when Tanksley attended. 

Jheric Speiginer, a junior from Orange County, Calif., decided to attend this information session after seeing a poster advertising the contest and found it so interesting that he decided to participate in this year’s competition.

Although Speiginer is one of few, if not only, computer science majors participating, he claims that in a team of architects he does not feel left out because he said, “we all have our own strengths.” 

In fact, he added, “the competition was more for architecture majors before but now they’re trying to get other majors involved.” 

Trish Doolin, an architecture major from Kansas City, understands how important it is to have a diverse team since she participated in the 2007 competition.  She described putting the presentation together as “putting together a million comments from everyone, all condensed into one final product.”  However, she added that she greatly valued any critiques she was given by other classmates. 

In fact, peer critiques are so helpful during the process that Shannon Chance, associate professor of architecture, invites students to come critique the projects presented by different teams each Friday. 

While Speignier’s group was yet to present to the group, he has attended other groups’ presentations and feels it will be very beneficial to his group. 

While Doolin said that the competition requires a lot of work, she also said she was happy to have participated.  Although Speignier’s journey through the competition only began a few weeks ago, he has already put in a lot of work and knows that it will be a time-consuming project.  Doolin offered wisdom to Speiginer and other competitors to “stay focused, stay big and execute.” 

The best is yet to come, said Doolin. Finally showing her work was the best part of the contest. 

Finalists will be notified by April 16, and students have their fingers crossed that their hard work will pay off.

The writer is a senior at Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications


History of Hampton University students and Disney 

  • For his project in 1981, Tanksley’s group submitted a 5- foot by 5-foot by 3-foot- high model, a drawing package of floor plans, elevations, and sections, a video, a comic book, and a promotional brochure.
  • Nikkolas Smith and Justin Harris, who both graduated from Hampton University in 2008, were finalists in the 2007 competition. They both work as Imagineers.