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Becoming a Disney Fellow

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My 'tour' of Imagineering at Disney
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I actually went to visit Disney long before I went to work for Disney. I had grown up watching Walt Disney talk about the construction of Disneyworld and the Imagineers and I'd always kind of imagined being an Imagineer. And then it turns out that one of the investors in Thinking Machines was very close to the Bass brothers, who'd made a big investment in Disney. So when that happened, I asked if I could get an inside tour of Disney and go to see Imagineering. So they arranged for it and I... this was just when they had hired Michael Eisner and they were mostly paying attention to the movie side of Disney, hadn't really paid much attention to the theme parks. So I went to Burbank to this address to show up to get my tour of Imagineering and I arrived and went to the desk and said, 'I'm here', and: 'Oh, they've been waiting for you.' I'm like, 'They?' Like, oh yes, sort of. And I walked in and everybody is in suits and ties, lined up, all the vice presidents. And it turns out I'm like the first representative of the Bass brothers that has come to visit Imagineering, so they're quite sure I'm like the guy that's going to decide if they're all going to get fired, so I realised that there's been some real misunderstanding. So I asked to talk to the president of Imagineering and sort of pulled him off to the side and said, 'Look, I think there's been some misunderstanding. I'm not going to, like, report back, I'm not, you know, I'm just doing this as a... for fun.' And I don't think he quite believes me. He says, 'Well look, we've got... everybody's ready for this, so let's just go ahead and do it like we've planned it.' And so I was, like, 'Okay, I've been honest, I guess I'll just enjoy it.'

So I sat down and they said, 'Well, what would you like to see?', and I'd like, well, 'First of all I'd like to see all your secret projects and particularly the ones that you've decided not to do, you know, that were too radical. And I want to talk to the guy that designs the animatronics, and I'd like to see all your budgets, and I'd like to...', you know, I just went... 'I'd like to see your planning process and I...', you know, 'Do you have manuals of how you do things? I'd like copies of all those manuals, what your processes are.' I just... I went crazy. And I went around and I had the most amazing tour of the place and met all these people and was shown everything and given copies of all the secret plans and it was so exciting and so fun and I went back and really enjoyed the whole experience. But that was just while Thinking Machines was still going on, so it was just a lark.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Michael Eisner

Duration: 3 minutes, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017