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WE19 Keynote Rachel Hutter Engineers Magic at Disney

Fantasy, thrills, and the promise of sheer escape draw millions of people to theme parks and resorts each year. Incredible “worlds” inspired by movies — and the occasional ride that inspires a movie franchise — are the result of inspired collaboration between artists, designers, writers, performers, technicians, and engineers with a creative goal: an immersive experience that gives people joy.
We19 Keynote Rachel Hutter Engineers Magic At Disney

In this article from our 2018 SWE Magazine Conference Issue, Rachel Hutter discusses her unique background of engineering and theater, her career at Disney, and the magical projects she’s helped bring to life. Rachel will be the Friday Morning Keynote at WE19 in Anaheim, California. Listen to our podcast with Rachel here.

We19 Keynote Rachel Hutter Engineers Magic At Disney
Rachel Hutter, P.E., senior vice president of international facilities and operations services, worldwide safety and health, and engineering for The Walt Disney Company.

In my opinion, the intersection of engineering and the arts is innovation. That’s the combination that gives us iPhones and Disney theme parks — and a Tesla in space.”

Rachel Hutter, P.E., senior vice president of international facilities and operations services, worldwide safety and health, and engineering for The Walt Disney Company, is charged with responsibility for the health and safety of guests and cast members, worldwide. In her 21 years at Disney, she has held 10 different positions, beginning as a controls engineer at Disney’s Animal Kingdom® in 1997, becoming director of engineering services at Walt Disney World®, then moving steadily upward to her current position.

Hutter’s interest in both the arts and engineering has been with her from childhood, and she earned her degree in electrical engineering with a minor in theater from Michigan State University in 1993. “I’ve always had a great passion for theater,” Hutter said. “And frankly, I’d always wanted to work for Disney. When I finally got the job, my mom handed me an entire box of papers, from kindergarten on, saying how I wanted to be a Disney engineer when I grew up. Here, creative sensibilities are identified as a core leadership competency, and creativity is encouraged and celebrated. I feel like my theater background allows me to speak the language of our designers and show producers. It’s super-collaborative, so knowing the building blocks and technical aspects of their roles has been really important.”

A Mystical River Ride

Hutter described one such collaboration during the creation of “Pandora – The World of Avatar,” a themed area in Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, near Orlando, Florida. Hutter and her team worked with Academy Award-winning producer of “Avatar” and “Titanic,” Jon Landau, to create the N’avi River Journey, a nighttime ride through Pandora’s mysterious rainforest.

"Pandora — The World of Avatar” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom river scene
The Na’vi River Journey, part of “Pandora – The World of Avatar” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Guests sail in reed boats down a mysterious, sacred river in a “bioluminescent” rainforest filled with exotic, glowing plants and amazing creatures. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is one of four theme parks at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

“One of the areas we had concern about was that the night’s experience was intended to be lit just by bioluminescence,” Hutter said. “Which is easy if you actually live on Pandora, but on Earth, you’ve got moms with strollers and everything else. We had to find the right creative touch while making sure people could see, and that there weren’t trip hazards and anxiety for parents. We had a lot of nights of adjusting light levels with Jon Landau. We wouldn’t have been able to get to common ground if it weren’t as important to me that he achieved his artistic vision as it was that it was safe for our guests. We can’t say it’s all one and not the other. That’s what allowed us to get to a success point.”

The Na’vi River Journey is just one part of the world of Pandora, and the immersion experience of a movie brought to life is the work of structural, mechanical, electrical, software, and robotics engineers, collaborating with artists, landscape architects, and sound and lighting designers to realize the vision. Mountains float in the air. Plants move in exquisitely synchronized patterns of energy and light that evoke a single, breathing organism — a central theme of the “Avatar” story. Forty-eight guests at a time can “fly” a banshee across Pandora in a 3D theater. Even Pandora’s walkways glow with a bioluminescent effect, from lighting charged by solar energy and reinforced with black light.

“Pandora – The World of Avatar” floating mountains scene
The floating mountains of “Pandora – The World of Avatar” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

It’s real-time, interactive storytelling through technology, and being a Disney engineer involved in such “world building” is a tremendously creative experience. “Disney is really open to allowing people a diversity of experiences,” Hutter said. “That’s been phenomenal for me. I’m a lifelong learner, and having the latitude to expand my horizons has been such a gift. I started in our design and engineering group as a controls engineer on loan to Imagineering® to build Disney’s Animal Kingdom. There could not have been a more perfect spot on earth for me. I’m a big environmentalist and that’s a way at Disney to help children and families understand the importance of wild places, preserving nature and animals. It really speaks to my core mission of what I want to do as a human, and as an engineer.”

Storytelling That Crosses Cultures

Hutter recalled giving a keynote at a recent engineering colloquium at her alma mater, Michigan State. “Students asked me about my international experiences, and I shared with them a very distinct memory,” Hutter said. “It was over 10 years ago when I had my first international business trip. I remember arriving at Hong Kong Disneyland and going up to the Kingdom Club to have a cup of tea. The fireworks were starting over the theme park, and there’s this little balcony where you can sit and watch. At the time, my son was maybe a year old. And there was this mom with her son on her lap, and she was singing Disney songs in Cantonese as the fireworks were going off above the castle. I thought ‘I am literally on the other side of the earth, and this mom is just like me, having the same experience with her child that I love to have with mine.’ It was an amazing, affirming moment.”

Another type of international “story” can be found in Hutter’s ability to find inspiration in her current work in health and safety. “Exercise and healthy eating are so core to all of our wellness programs,” she said. “Wellness can mean myriad things, so we try to focus on the things that help people have long and healthy lives. So we did an amazing thing this year on International Yoga Day. We did yoga around the world, in front of each Disney castle. It was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever had at Disney, seeing the sunrise coming up behind the castle while all of us were doing yoga, and there were over a thousand cast members who literally came running down Main Street, they were so excited to have this experience. And at the same time we were doing it on our cruise ships, and all the pictures came in from around the world.”

Bonding Through Stories, Old and New

Disney is introducing new theme park experiences with virtual and “mixed reality,” most recently with a collaboration between Industrial Light & Magic and The VOID for a new “Star Wars” experience, and the announcement of plans to open an immersive, Star Wars-themed hotel and resort where guests will be able to live out unique storylines.

Millenium Falcon — concept art for Disney’s planned “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge”
Inside the Millenium Falcon — concept art for Disney’s planned “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” coming to both Disneyland and Disney World.

Still, Hutter believes the Disney experience will continue to be a communal experience of storytelling. “I think what people love most about their Disney experiences is the sense of community they get from being in an immersive world they’ve always dreamed about,” she explained. “We really see that with Pandora, and I think it will be of untold proportions with ‘Star Wars.’ The passion of the fan base is so strong.”

Hutter recently walked the “Star Wars” site with a construction manager at Disneyland. “He was orienting me because there were just the frames of the walls,” Hutter said. “We went to one part and he said, ‘This is the place where grown men will cry.’ It was going to be a reenactment that fans have always wanted to be in since childhood. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where it’s all going to be people with a VR set strapped to their head. What makes Disney special is having an experience with others and acknowledging how special it is. I remember when we opened the ‘Frozen’ singalong. By the end of the experience, I knew the names of the people next to me and where they were from, because we all knew the words, we all had our kids sitting on our laps, and it bonded us. I hope that’s always the center point of what we do at Disney.”

Widening a Circle of Support

Though well aware of low percentages of women in engineering worldwide, Hutter is pleased with the representation of women at Disney in the U.S. and overseas, and grateful for the extensive mentorship she’s received from others. “We’ve been fortunate to have really talented female executives,” she said. “So for me, helping the next generation is an obligation and something I love to do. About 15 years ago, I was talking with my team over how retention of engineers in the profession is really problematic. What could we do to give people exposure to how amazing the job is once you’re in it?”

In response, Hutter and her team created Disney’s Ultimate EnginEARing Exploration, an annual event for college students interested in STEM. “When we started, it was a struggle to get the word out,” she said. “Now people have to apply to get in because there’s such huge interest in it. We do a really interesting ‘behind the scenes,’ showing how the attractions work and the engineering involved. We even give them a test so they understand they should think about engineering broadly, because it’s not just narrowly their discipline; they really need a wide understanding of controls and mechanics and structure.”

In groups, students design an entire “land” for Disney’s Epcot Theme Park, and pitch their ideas to a Disney team representing the finance and engineering divisions, who test their ideas. “These events are completely run by engineers in our group, not by executives,” Hutter explained. “The woman who runs the event now started with us as an intern. It’s a way we identify talented people to become professional interns, who then become engineers and come back to run this event to help the next generation. I really think mentoring is most successful when you continue to spread the wealth throughout the organization. You help the people who are a level below you hierarchically, and it cascades down to folks who are at the very beginning of their careers.”

We19 Keynote Rachel Hutter Engineers Magic At Disney

This article was originally published in our 2018 SWE Magazine Conference Issue.