Building Shanghai Disneyland
Whether creating classic Mickey Mouse cartoons or building Disneyland’s reputation as the happiest place on earth, the Walt Disney Company has spent decades making people’s dreams come true. But for three BYU alumni—Sam Hawkins (BS ’02), Ben Morgan (BS ’00), and Peyton Buhler (BS ’07)—Disney has remained significant well into adulthood. As employees involved in the creation of Disney’s newest destination, Shanghai Disney Resort, Hawkins, Morgan, and Buhler have devoted their skills to sharing Disney’s magic with the world.
Shanghai Disney Resort is Disney’s first resort in mainland China. Upon opening day on June 16, the resort will host a Magic Kingdom-style theme park, two resort hotels, a retail, dining and entertainment district and a large public recreational park. Shanghai Disneyland is a theme park designed to be both “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese,” according to Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger. The park features six themed lands, including some freshly reinterpreted for a Chinese audience and some that are firsts-of-their kind in all the world, like Treasure Cove, Disney’s first pirate-themed land, and Mickey Avenue, an all-new look at Disney’s main entrance area.
As the senior manager of finance, Hawkins handles financial forecasting and budgeting for Shanghai Disney Resort. “I like to think that my team’s job is to help ensure Shanghai Disney Resort can continue to surprise and delight our guests for many years to come,” he says.
Buhler and Morgan, two of the ‘Imagineers’ responsible for the TRON Lightcycle Power Run located in Shanghai Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, have spent the past four years developing an immersive experience that allows guests to race Lightcycles through the world of TRON. Although the two met when they joined the TRON team, it wasn’t until a business trip a few weeks into the project that they discovered their BYU connection during a dinner with the team
Morgan and Buhler have appreciated the bond forged because of their BYU background—particularly considering the long hours they have spent working at desks ten feet apart. “I think I spend more time with Ben than with my wife,” Buhler jokes.
Just before they relocated to Shanghai, a mutual friend put Morgan and Hawkins in touch. Hawkins and Morgan met over lunch, and Morgan later introduced Hawkins to Buhler. Although Hawkins sits at a desk in the distant finance department, he still benefits from knowing two Imagineers.
“We are now able to share a lot of useful information with each other,” Hawkins explains. “At Disney, mutual success is so important—so it’s great to have relationships with people across the organization.” Hawkins and Buhler also volunteer together with the Disney Traditions program, an orientation for newly hired employees, or ‘cast members,’ at Shanghai Disney Resort.
Working for Disney has certainly been magical for these BYU alumni, but it has not always been easy. “As Imagineers, we achieve the impossible on a daily basis,” Buhler says. “Transforming our imagination into reality is one of the challenges that we face.”
According to Morgan, ‘Imagineering’ requires not only technical expertise, but involvement in the creative evolution of a project as well—a balance that sometimes challenges his practical engineering mindset. “An Imagineer needs to explore all ideas first,” Morgan explains. “When confronted with a seemingly impossible requirement, we are trained to not immediately say “no” and instead say “Yes, if…”
Imagineering begins with the ‘Blue Sky’ phase, which Buhler defines as “imagining what is possible and sometimes even what is impossible.” From digital representations to small-scale foam models of ride vehicles, Imagineers are then tasked with translating seemingly impossible ideas into reality during a project’s concept and design phases. After a design is approved, the full-sized attraction undergoes construction and installation—and Imagineers spend their days (and for Buhler, some nights) on-site. “When we get to the field, most of our time is spent making sure that everything is installed and working correctly to meet all of the requirements,” Morgan explains. Once the attraction is up and running, it undergoes testing and commissioning before finally opening to eager park guests.
Although responsible for a very different side of the park’s magic, Hawkins has enjoyed working for Disney just the same.
“I love the characters, the focus on high-quality family entertainment, the immersive storytelling, and the commitment to safety and innovation,” Hawkins explains. “Every time I tell people I work for Disney, their faces light up. It makes me proud to be part of a company that brings happiness to people.”
Hawkins points out that working for Disney is still ‘work’ in the traditional sense of the word, but has some differences as well. “When you have a challenging day, you can walk into the park, go on a ride, watch the parade, and just observe the smiling faces of our guests,” he explains. “That helps give you a refreshed perspective and energy to go back to work.”
While working at Shanghai Disney Resort has been a dream come true for all three alumni, Buhler has harbored a desire to work for Disney since he was a child. “I was a Disney fan growing up and I still have my park admission ticket from when I was 10 years old,” he explains.
One childhood trip to Disneyland stands out for Buhler. Recalling his visit on the opening day of the Indiana Jones Adventure ride, Buhler says, “I was amazed at how I felt transported into another time and place. The experience left such an impression on me that I wanted to one day create these experiences for others.”
Buhler pursued that goal while attending BYU, working at Walt Disney World as part of the Disney College Program and completing two internships with Disney’s engineering department. Immediately after graduating, Buhler was hired as an Imagineer.
Hawkins fondly remembers visiting Disneyland as a child. After meeting Disney recruiters while pursuing an MBA, the company re-captured his attention. Now, after having children of his own and working at the company for more than seven years, Hawkins continues to retain his Disney enthusiasm.
“One of my favorite things is going to the park with my kids and seeing the magic of a Disney park through their eyes,” Hawkins says.
After graduating from BYU, Morgan worked in the defense and automotive industries for a number of years before pursuing a career in the theme park industry. Although he had not planned on a Disney career as a student, Morgan does credit his education with preparing him to become an Imagineer—particularly the BYU capstone program, which provided valuable experience working on an engineering team. Buhler also benefitted from his time at BYU, from cultivating creativity as a member of Divine Comedy to modeling a roller coaster vehicle in a computer-aided design class.
For Hawkins, Morgan, and Buhler, seeing the happiness Disney brings to people around the world makes their work rewarding. As Morgan explains, “A theme park is a magical place that’s designed to take guests into another world, but it takes a lot of hard work by many people behind the scenes to make that a reality.”
—Melissa Barber Garrison (’16)
Sam Hawkins Instagram: samghawkins