Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Student Internship Program with Walt Disney Imagineering

IAIA Students working on Pandora: The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World

Published January 22, 2019

SANTA FE   Over the past few years, a number of IAIA students have received internship opportunities with Walt Disney Imagineering. These opportunities came about due to the relationship between IAIA and Disney ImagineerZsolt Hormay. For most of the past 30 years Zsolt has worked for The Walt Disney Company. He is currently a Vice President of Creative for Walt Disney Imagineering, the division responsible for the design and development of Disney theme parks throughout the world.  The name “Imagineering” combines imagination with engineering. Building upon the legacy of Walt Disney, Imagineers bring art and science together to turn fantasy into reality and dreams into magic.  They possess a broad range of skills and talents, and thus over 140 different job talents fall under the banner of Imagineering, including illustrators, architects, engineers, lighting designers, show writers, graphic designers, and many more.  Most Imagineers work from the company’s headquarters in Glendale, California, but are often deployed to project sites, usually based at Disney’s theme parks, for long periods of time. Zsolt describes his particular area of expertise as “place making.” That is, whatever the guests see when they enter an attraction, project, ride, or park — his group’s focus is on creating and reinforcing the narrative of the story by designing, developing, and executing the “themed finishes.” Which means that when any kind of rock work, character façade, character paint, and “hardscape” is involved, his team takes the lead. Hormay works with a massive group that includes experts in every construction discipline. “All around the world, all the themed finishes teams are part of the studio I lead. My team is comprised of a passionate and diverse group of talented craftsmen and artisans from all over the world,” noted Hormay.

Disney Imagineer Zsolt Hormay

How did this relationship between IAIA and Disney come to be? Its roots go all the way to Hungary, Hormay’s birthplace. He left there at 23 to come to the United States to seek a better life than what was available to him there. With no construction background at all, he lucked into a job with a small company in Lansing, Michigan that was in the process of building a miniature golf course. This allowed him to learn a little bit of the skill set that he still utilizes to this day. After finishing that project and moving to Florida, he got connected with Disney and started working on the Typhoon Lagoon water park as his first Disney project.

As Hormay tells it, “Basically, it was a fortunate series of events that led to me getting employed to go to Disneyland Paris (after Typhoon Lagoon), to supervise the rock work for the park. I ran into some visa problems, so I ended up in Florida instead for eight months, and during that time I helped create Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure — which was a playground that was based on the movie. I did the character paint, art direction, and so on. That set me up to finally go to Paris and be responsible for all the rock work in that park. I lived there for over a year and a half, and that was a big deal. For the rest of my career, I just basically moved on to all the projects following that one including Mickey’s Toontown in Anaheim andTokyo. Following project work in Tokyo, I came back (to the US) to work on Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Tree of Life. Then I moved back to Tokyo and was responsible for all the rock work for an entire park called Tokyo DisneySea, which was a new addition at the time to Tokyo Disney Resort. When that was complete, I started my own company and had it for about 12 or 13 years, then I came back (to work for Disney) to create the mountain range in Cars Land in Disney California Adventure. In my role today, I also led all rock work and themed finishes for Pandora: The World of Avatar which we just opened (about) a year ago. Right now, I’m working on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (new lands opening at Disneyland Park and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2019).”
Hormay has made it his personal mission to include Native American students in this work, by creating an internship program where selected students travel to the parks and do real work on the attractions being built. His focus on Native Americans dates back to his youth in Hungary.
“I had the opportunity (through Disney) to build all of the mountains in the world that I could, so I figured that maybe I should focus on not just building mountains but generating a new generation, if you will,” observed Hormay. “When I was growing up in Hungary, I’d always been intrigued by Native American culture and Native American life and stories. These were a big part of my youth…the appreciation of Native Americans and their culture, art, and history…and that just stayed with me. When I came to the United States it was one of my goals at the time to somehow help provide opportunities for them. Every spare moment I could, I always went to search out reservations and historical sites, anything that had something to do with Native American culture.”

IAIA students with Disney Imagineer Zsolt Hormay, IAIA President Robert Martin, and IAIA Assistant Professor Matt Eaton

After returning to the Disney family, he became involved with an outreach program developed by Walt Disney Imagineering. Hormay was invited to join a presentation at IAIA along with other Imagineers. He continues: “The thought came to me ‘why don’t we start a program to create an opportunity for Native American students and teach them what I do?’ And hopefully that would lead to an internship program, and who knows, maybe a job (for them). So that’s how the whole thing started. I met (IAIA President) Dr. Robert Martin at the time and I pitched him the idea. I had previously started a program at Florida State University, and I just wanted to do the same thing here in New Mexico at IAIA. Dr. Martin was very supportive, and we came up with a syllabus – the basis of the program is that we expect the students to not just create a piece of art, but also learn all of the details associated with this skill set. Students were instructed to study their tribal culture and (the projects they were instructed to create were supposed to) somehow reflect the culture of where the students came from.”
The IAIA/Disney program began in 2015 with 4 students. To date, 13 IAIA students, including four who were in California during this past summer, have been through his training.
The most recent group of interns had the opportunity to work on the new Star Wars lands, which are under construction in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. That fact produced opportunities to involve the students in actual construction projects on both coasts.

IAIA students at work in the studio

Hormay gave a brief overview of the program: “The plan is that they have three months of internship at Walt Disney Imagineering, and (this way) I’m exposing the students to everything – not just one particular subject matter. Which means that they have to be able to design — create color boards, create models, go out in the field, put on the hard hat and the PPE (personal protection equipment), and they’re actually going to go and work like everybody else does. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, really, because we have this wonderful situation where we have work going on that can employ the students. Five years ago, we would not have had that chance because we didn’t have as many projects being built. So, this is a great time for us to be able to expose the students to the real work that happens once you get employed by a corporation (like Disney).”

Pandora: The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World

Pandora: The World of Avatar was another large project that a previous group of IAIA interns were able to participate in before it was even announced to the public; there were no photographs allowed, no talking about it – a complete black-out. But the students had the opportunity to work with the sculptors, the painters, and after that they got to do things like building artificial foliage. The interns learned how to create textures and artwork with epoxy, cement, and paint. Hormay attempted to expose them to all the steps in the process to create a theme park, which was a fantastic opportunity for that group. As the construction teams create the Star Wars lands, there’s another team that is already planning and designing the next attraction.
That’s one of the opportunities that the next group of IAIA students will be able to engage in. They’ll be creating 3-dimensional models — what Zsolt’s studio calls “dimensional designs.” They too will be exposed to attractions that have not yet been announced to the public.
Hormay summed it up: “The idea of the program is to create job opportunities. That’s the bottom line…for students to learn how we work at Disney and create a career for themselves. I mean how cool is that? We actually have a student who was here in last year’s class being hired by Disney. He’s doing great. He’s very focused and professional and hard working. I’m very proud of him. And then we have new interns working with us and if (the student has) to go back to school, they only have three months (with Disney). If they don’t have to go back to school then they have to qualify and be able to do what we’re expecting them to do, but if that works out then we have work for them.”

IAIA Students working on their class projects at IAIA

The students who have been through the program have come back and spoken very highly of it and the real-world skills that they’ve learned in the environment – very creative, very artistic, very unique. Because there is nothing else like Disney.
“They (the students) had the opportunity to work with the best theme park designers in the world. That’s quite an opportunity,” remarked Hormay.
Qualifying students are given the chance to apply for the internship, and Hormay selects the ones that would seem to be a good fit to continue working with the company.

(L to R) Zsolt Hormay, Luci Tapahonso (Diné),
IAIA President Robert Martin (Cherokee), and IAIA Academic Dean
Charlene Teters (Spokane) gearing-up for the work-site of a future attraction

Hormay was recently in Santa Fe to complete the students’ semester projects. “We’re starting to put the character paint on the projects that they had completed throughout the year. The current year’s class will be coming to California while last year’s students will go to Florida. California is where we have the model shop…we have all the disciplines all together on the campus there, so that’s the perfect opportunity for the students to come and learn a little bit of everything. But since last year’s class already went to California, I wanted them to go to Florida (this year) and actually just work on the construction of the Star Wars land there and learn whatever they can on the construction site. The students from this year’s class will go to Glendale (California) and learn a little bit about dimensional design, color design, color boards, samples, and so on and so forth, and then go to the field as well.”

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