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My work at Disney


'Daddy, did God make that or did you make that?'
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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And so months later, they finally decided to go ahead and sign the contract and I moved down to Los Angeles and started at Disney, which was an incredibly fun place to be. And it turns out everybody remembered my visit, because I got there and I was very surprised: nobody was wearing coats and ties. It turns out they had all been told to put on coats and ties because... for my visit. They didn't normally do that. But I arrived at Disney and got to know the Imagineers and had a wonderful time designing theme park rides and got... we were just starting Animal Kingdom, trying to figure out what that would be. So I got... you know, from the very beginning of the brainstorming session of what park... what's the park going to be at all, all the way through the park opening. And during that whole time, my children were growing up and they were just the right age for Disney. So of course we got to go visit. And they were very keen eye for design, even then, even as young kids, and I remember mostly we went to the California park, which was the original Disneyland. And then once I took them to Florida, and Noah said... we went to the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Noah looked around and looked up at me and said, 'Dad, this is a fake Disneyland.' Which is funny, because the Imagineers kind of think of that as a fake Disneyland, too. So he had the discerning ability to see that it wasn't quite as detailed and quite as authentic as the original one.

But... so we had a wonderful time there, and I remember Animal Kingdom was one of the most fun projects, because I got that from start to finish while I was there. And when Animal Kingdom finally opened up, every park has a central icon like the ball at Epcot or the caste at Disneyland. And in Animal Kingdom, it's a giant tree that has animals in its bark and is probably five storeys tall or something like that. It actually has a theatre inside of it. It's an amazing, extraordinary object. And so we went to the park on opening day and we walk up to this tree with my little, probably five-year-old kids and Lisa looks up at the tree and looks at me and says, 'Daddy, did God make that or did you make that?' And I was, like, okay, this is like the peak of my fatherhood here.

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: Christopher Sykes George Dyson

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: Disneyland, Disney, theme park, Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, tree, design, parenthood

Duration: 3 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017