Wichita native wins Disney design contest

07/05/2011 12:00 AM

07/05/2011 12:07 AM

As a girl, Molly Martens collected Disney films on VHS. She memorized the characters' lines, especially those of her favorite, Pocahontas.

Now, the Wichita native is watching her own fairy tale unfold after winning a contest sponsored by Walt Disney's creative team, Disney Imagineering.

Martens, 21, is one of three University of Southern California students on the winning team of this year's ImagiNations Design Competition. The competition challenges college-age students in fields like engineering and design to create an attraction for Disney theme parks and resorts using existing or original storylines.

Martens, a mechanical engineering student, won with her team's rollercoaster-style balloon ride called "Adventure is 'Up' There," based on Disney Pixar's 2009 computer animated movie "Up."

The winners were announced on June 17 at Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, Calif.

"We wanted to keep it in the Disney tradition of telling a really strong story... ," Martens said. "We wanted to figure out how to make this different from something that Disney's already done."

Martens said she and team members Jannae Fong and Joe Rothenberg spent nights armed with "Up" and a pot of macaroni and cheese, hashing out plans for their design.

The goal was to design one of Disney's largest, most thrilling attractions — called an e-ticket ride — while preserving the uplifting spirit.

It's not easy, said Imagineering spokesman Frank Reifsnyder.

In the movie, a 78-year-old widower ties thousands of helium-filled balloons to his house and flies to South America using nothing but the colorful bouquet, sails, and the wind. The floating house element doesn't lend itself to a theme park ride, Reifsnyder said.

"It's not your typical thing you'd think of when doing a ride," he said, adding that the team "brought all that together."

Martens' team used a balloon cart controlled by an industrial robotic arm attached to a rollercoaster track, giving riders a feeling of floating, Martens said.

A true-to-the-story adventure ensues through the jungles of South America to fabled Paradise Falls.

The team considered modeling their ride after Disney favorites, like "The Lion King" and "Aladdin," but settled on "Up" because "the whole movie itself is kind of a ride," Martens said.

"We wanted to choose a theme that we could center that whole idea of an adventure around," she said.

Martens and her team finalized plans before she left for a semester studying in Singapore.

The group completed the design and its presentations via e-mail and video chats using Skype. Working with a 16-hour time difference, the team turned in their project by the March deadline.

Martens said Imagineering called in April to say the team was one of six advancing to the finals. After a week of presentations, the group was awarded first place and a $3,000 prize.

Martens' parents, Steve and Vicki Martens, said they were thrilled when their daughter called with the news.

"Obviously, (we were) very, very excited," Steve Martens said.

"Molly's always been one that's been very inquisitive and interested in a variety of things."

The designs won't be made into real theme park attractions, though, Reifsnyder said.

For Disney Imagineering, the contest helps find the next generation of designers.

"It gives us a younger perspective on the immersive storytelling we do here at Imagineering," Reifsnyder said.

For students, the contest opens the doors for internships and future employment, he added.

Martens was already working as a production engineering intern at Occidental Petroleum Corp. in Houston when her team won, but she said she hopes Imagineering will offer her a position in the future.

"I hopeful that something will come out of it," Martens said.

"It seems like a really fun environment to work in."

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