On his last business trip to Los Angeles, Nathan Evans looked up the address of Walt Disney Imagineering, drove over and parked outside the fence surrounding the campus. He walked along the sidewalk, peering inside, and snapped a photo of the building.
And on days when his dream of being on the other side of the fence seemed further out of reach, the picture reminded the former Northglenn resident of his goal.
“When I was discouraged, when I thought I was never getting out of the agency world, I would look at that picture,” Evans, 31, said. “I would remember this is a real place, where people are really there working. It kept the dream going.”
That was two years ago.
Last month, Evans and three other students from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia walked into that building as one of six finalist teams in the 2017 Walt Disney Imagineering Imaginations Design competition.
“It was,” Evans said, “a special moment.”
About the competition
The prestigious competition is geared to finding and nurturing the next generation of Imagineers, the behind-the-scenes people who create the magic at Disney’s theme parks and resorts. Since 1991, hundreds of students from universities across the country have participated. Some have gone on to become interns or full-time Imagineers.
This year, six teams where chosen from among 336 submissions. Besides the Savannah College of Art and Design, they came from University of California in San Diego, Howard University, Miami University, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Notre Dame and Iowa State University.
Their challenge: To develop a new outdoor space at their universities to provide a respite from daily stresses while addressing the diverse needs of their students and faculty.
“It’s not something that Disney would ever build,” Frank Reifsnyder, communications director at Walt Disney Imagineering, said of the students’ projects. “What we’re looking for…is the next generation of theme park designers.”
The competition evaluates how teams and individuals collaborate, their creativity, individual talents, presentation skills — “almost like a real-world Imagineering team,” Reifsnyder said.
The teams enjoyed an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles from Jan. 23-27, during which they worked with mentors to further develop their projects, toured Disneyland backstage and applied for internships. They presented their projects to a panel of Imagineering judges and also to the department in general.
The Savannah College project — “Hideaway Grove,” five open-air treehouses that combine technology and nature — didn’t place in the top three.
But for Evan, who left a successful eight-year advertising agency career to chase his dream, just being a finalist was a win.
“I learned a lot, built a good career,” he said, “but always had this feeling I wasn’t quite in the right place — that I was meant to do something else.”
Pursuing the dream
He comes from an ardent Disney-fan family. His parents, Michelle and John Evans, honeymooned at Disneyland 34 years ago. They brought Evans and his sister there almost every year. Evans was 9 months old on his first visit, and he figures he’s visited 20 to 30 times since.
“I was always craning my head up and backwards to look at what was happening behind me at the ride track, what was coming together to make this experience happen,” Evans remembered.
At Community Christian in Northglenn, he busied himself making short films. A favorite was a heist-gone-bad called “Twinkies” in which local businesses helped out with locations and props. A Ford dealership even loaned a van for the heist.
He graduated with marketing and finance degrees from University of Denver, started working in the advertising agency world, married. In 2014 — with the urging of his wife, Jenna — he started teaching himself how to draw and paint by hand and digitally, readying himself to apply to the themed entertainment design graduate program at Savannah College of Art and Design. He studied before and after work and in-between helping care for their new baby.
When he won a fellowship to the program, the couple sold their home last year and moved to Georgia. He started school in the fall and with his team reached the finals of the Imagineering competition soon after.
His parents, who now live in Thornton, aren’t surprised at their son’s journey.
From the time he was little, he craved learning and creating — whether it was about magic or the constellations or screenwriting.
“He’s never afraid to pick up and try a new adventure,” John said.
The design competition was “a culmination of years and years of creative pursuit and having a vision for always wanting to create things for people to enjoy,” Michelle said. “We’re just so delighted that he had this experience.”
Evans’ week at Imagineering has only reinforced the passion. He loved the culture, the people. He is hoping for an internship there this summer.
And, one day, maybe, a full-time job there will come his way.
“I would love to work at Disney — or another company within the field,” Evans said. But “Disney really is the dream, now that I’ve sort of had a taste. That is the real super dream.”