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Four UC Alums Help Drive Disney’s Cars Land Attraction to the Finish Line

A new 12-acre Cars Land will open this June at Disney California Adventure Park, and four UC alumni had key roles in designing and developing the project which will ultimately consist of rides, a mountain range, and stores and restaurants that look like Radiator Springs, the fictional town in the “Cars” movies.

Date: 5/12/2012 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Paul Hiffmeyer, Disney Enterprises, Inc.

UC ingot   Four alumni from the University of Cincinnati’s nationally ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) have helped steer a major design and development project set to finish in June – Cars Land at Disney California Adventure Park, part of the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif. 

All of them began their successful careers at Walt Disney Imagineering as UC cooperative education (co-op) students.

They are
  • David Van Wyk, architecture class of 1982, who serves as vice president of project management for Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative, master planning and project-implementation group that develops resorts and attractions worldwide for The Walt Disney Company.
  • Michael Browne, architecture class of 1992, who serves as principal project architect for Cars Land.
  • Cathy Ritenour, architecture class of 1995, who serves as production designer for Cars Land.
  • Emily O’Brien, interior design class of 1998, who serves as principal interior designer for Cars Land.
    UC alums who contributed to Disney's Cars Land
    Four UC alums had leading roles in designing and developing an internationally prominent attraction, Cars Land, opening June 15. Standing, from left, are UC alums Cathy Ritenour, Emily O'Brien and Michael Browne. Seated in front is UC alum David Van Wyk.

In many ways, that project – the five-year expansion of the Disneyland Resort – is more challenging than most typical design and construction projects because even while massive amounts of material and equipment, not to mention workers, are required to do the job, everything must be accomplished as “under the radar” as possible so as not to diminish from ongoing guest experiences within the in-use resort.

That’s according to David Van Wyk, who along with the other team members, has worked several years on the expansion of Disney California Adventure Park at the Disneyland Resort, which encompasses the completed World of Color night-time entertainment spectacular and Little Mermaid attraction – and the soon-to-be-completed Buena Vista Street and Cars Land, set to open June 15.

Van Wyk, who is heading a team of about 200 people to design and develop the project, said, “It’s more than just designing and building a themed environment. It rivals the complexity of building in any city. We do so while thinking of how to move materials and workers into place without impacting guest flows or guest experiences in the portions of the park that are already in use.”

Not to mention that this particular project has challenges unlike any other, such as the creation of unique rockwork that will result in a man-made “mountain range” of steel, plaster and metal lathe that closely resembles the appearance of a range from the “Cars” movie.

That aspect of the construction project recalls the “Cars” movies’ setting in Ornament Valley and the films’ automobile-related rock formations.
Overall, it’s Ritenour’s role to ensure that the content and integrity of the concept is maintained throughout the design, production and installation of the attraction. “In this case,” she said, “It was important to be faithful to the Disney/Pixar film and the town of Radiator Springs.”

“The best and most challenging part of the job is taking a digital world and converting it to reality. After all, in the digital world, there is no gravity, so you don’t have to worry about structure. Here, however, it’s a challenge to incorporate all the building systems into the program while still remaining true to the image of the movie,” added Browne, whose career at Disney has also allowed him to live abroad while working on major projects overseas and who is currently at work completing the 12 buildings that comprise Radiator Springs’ downtown.

Within the 12-acre Cars Land, patrons will be seated six to a car on Radiator Springs Racers and will go out into Ornament Valley in pairs as part of a two-car race. When the cars enter Radiator Springs, they will meet characters from the films. In one "scene," patrons will have their tires “changed” or cars “painted.” They will then shoot out from the building as part of that race.

High energy is how all of the UC alums describe the project and the ultimate results.

For instance, Ritenour opined that the intricate team work needed to bring the ultimate project together “creates an energy that can’t be matched.” 

And in describing Radiator Springs Racers, Van Wyk stated, “It’s a high-energy ride, matched with great story telling in a highly immersive environment.”
And all the alums describe their education at UC with the same terms: high energy. That was due to the way the university combines academics with real-world experience via cooperative education. It was what drew them to UC to begin with.
Originally from Hackensack, N.J., Van Wyk came to UC on the advice of a family friend who was an architect: “He had not gone to UC, but he told me that if he had to do it all over again, he would choose UC because of the great co-op program. He said that he couldn’t think of any better training, and that was enough for me. I came to UC. To this day, I carry my UC experience with great pride. I had a fantastic experience.”

 Ritenour, originally from Macedonia, Ohio, and Browne, originally from Dayton, Ohio, said much the same. In fact, Ritenour said UC was the only place she applied to when seeking a college education: “I came to UC because of the architecture program had a great reputation, and I was interested in the co-op program. A family friend raved about the architecture program, so it was the only place I applied.”

Of that UC experience, Van Wyk said, “At the time I was in DAAP, I didn’t appreciate fully what I had, which was all the design disciplines under one roof and the chance to work on large, group projects. At the time, I really didn’t like the group projects. It’s ironic because both those things – working with an array of design disciplines and big, group projects demanding collective effort and collaboration are integral to my work now, and I love it.”

And Browne added that he uses his UC education every day since it was in the architecture program that he learned to “look at each problem from multiple vantage points and develop a range of solutions. I also learned to develop a story and convey it through a design and presentation. This has translated very well to the storytelling we strive to capture in our designs at Disney.”

It’s a story, begun at UC, that each plans to continue as they now head toward future projects.