Anthony Nardone fell in love with Disney World during his first visit at age 4. He was fascinated with the Haunted Mansion, one of the park's classics.
"My mom said instead of being super scared, I was, like, struck. I was in awe the entire time," Nardone said.
Once he got a little older and found out about the extensive cast behind dreaming up, developing, and executing that ride and the rest of the theme park's attractions, he knew he wanted to be part of it.
This week, Nardone, a junior mechanical engineering major at the University of Pennsylvania – who says he's been to Disney World in Florida 17 times and Disneyland in California three times – will get his wish.
The 20-year-old Shavertown native is part of a four-member Penn team that has been selected from more than 270 entries as a finalist in the Walt Disney Imagineering Imaginations Design Competition.
A student team from Muhlenberg College in Allentown also is one of the six finalists, along with two teams from Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia and one each from Baylor University in Texas and Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.
Team members will travel this week to the headquarters of "Disney Imagineers" in Glendale, Calif., to pitch their projects to the employees who create the attractions at Disney theme parks, resort hotels, and cruise ships worldwide. They will also go on a backstage tour and, after signing a nondisclosure agreement, see some of the newest creations in Disney development.
For decades, Fortune 500 companies have mined colleges for bright young minds, hiring them as interns to get them in the pipeline. Programs such Disney's reflect a deeper mission: helping the company find budding talent in the more than 100 disciplines of Imagineers, including illustration, architecture, engineering, lighting design, show writing, and graphic design.
Since 1991, Disney has invited college students across the country to imagine new frontiers in fantasy. Each year, the prompt is different: Envision a new stress-free outdoor space on campus. Rethink a major city's transportation system as entertainment. Design a traveling theme park that could visit remote towns across America.
"We want to make sure we are tapping and grooming and preparing the next generation for all of them," said Mk Haley, creative project manager for Disney Imagineering in Florida, who has served as a competition judge and adviser.
The contest prompt comes out before the start of the fall semester — then the race is on.
In 2014, the winning team from Carnegie Mellon University imagined connecting two cities at opposite ends of the globe – Lima, Peru, and Bangkok, Thailand – for a cross-cultural festival, with "whispering trees" serving as portals between the cities.
Last year, the winning team from Iowa State University envisioned turning a building-sized hourglass on its side to symbolize stopping time; within it, they imagined underground geothermal pods with "nature map projection" and heated benches, allowing visitors to peacefully enjoy the beauty of the four seasons.
This year, Disney asked students to revitalize a ghost town. The Penn team zeroed in on space stations with a plan to create inter-orbital museums. The Muhlenberg students crafted an outdoor adventure experience at a remote Alaskan outpost, once home to a mining camp.
Local schools have done well in the contest. Penn and Drexel both have had finalists. A team from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia won in 2006, and in 2009, a team sponsored by Rowan University won for its design of a 28th-century indoor theme park called "Disney Spaceport."
There is an all-expense-paid trip for the winning team, and the team and its school each receive a $1,000 cash prize.
"This has been a lifelong dream," said Sunday-Lefkowitz, a theater and music major from Shavertown.
And it's a dream that has come true for many other former contestants.
The four students from three New Jersey universities who won as a team in 2009 now all work as Imagineers.
"It's weird to achieve your dream job when you're 20," said Vincent Logozio, 29, a Rutgers graduate and native of Fords, N.J. "You reach that mountain peak, and … you only just touched the surface of what this could be. Then an entire mountain range becomes visible to you."
Student proposals have never turned into theme park attractions, Disney officials said, and that's by design. They want students to dream big. Most finalists are offered paid internships, and many later land full-time jobs.
Logozio, who got his degree in mechanical engineering, initially was hired to help with the Radiator Springs Racers, a ride in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. He worked on the audio-animatronics figures of "Mater" and "Luigi."
In his eight years with the Imagineers, he's held four jobs and currently works as a production designer. His favorite project, he said, was bringing back the "Hatbox Ghost" to Haunted Mansion. The ghost was part of the original ride but was phased out once the special effect of having the head disappear didn't work anymore.
"We were able to figure out how to make it work in a satisfying way again," he said.
He's also helped with attractions for Disney locations in other countries, including Disneyland Paris and Shanghai Disney.
Other members of the Rowan team working as Imagineers include New Jersey natives Elissa Hogan Logozio (she married Vincent), a College of New Jersey graduate and an artist; and engineers David Lester, a Rowan graduate, and Raymond Scanlon, also a Rutgers graduate.
Vincent Logozio's desire to become an Imagineer stemmed from a visit to Epcot at age 6, he said, when he became enthralled with a virtual-reality ride featuring Aladdin.
In high school, he found out about the competition and asked Lester to enter it with him once they were eligible. To round out their team, they recruited Hogan and Scanlon. With six computers, a crafting table, a spray booth, and a green screen, they worked countless hours in Scanlon's grandparents' basement.
"Finding that competition was probably the best thing that could have happened to me," he said.
Student finalists typically must juggle a heavy school workload while finishing their Disney project, which Penn's Nardone says is the equivalent of a full-time course.
The Penn team went through 20 ideas for potential sites before deciding on the space station concept, said Liz Reckart, 20, a computer science major from Tucson, Ariz.
"We wanted to find all really significant abandoned (or possibly-to-be-abandoned) structures, any that we felt had value or historical importance," she said.
Rounding out the team are Jessica Peng, 20, a digital media design major from Pittsburgh, and Bennet Caraher, 20, a mechanical engineering major from Chapel Hill, N.C.
The two-member Muhlenberg team became intrigued with Kennecott in Alaska.
"We decided clearly this place has a story to tell, so we just started scrambling for every piece of data we could find," said Andrew Carey, 22, a theater major from Furlong, Bucks County, who graduated in May.