Manni Wong: Serious Fun
Wong designs electronics and control systems for rides and attractions at Disney parks worldwide
When you climb aboard Soarin’ Over California, a virtual reality flight simulator at Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif., you buckle yourself in and prepare for “takeoff.” Soon, you start to move upward and forward until you’re suspended in midair, completely surrounded by a domed, 24-meter screen. As breathtaking scenes of California rush by and a thundering soundtrack swells in the background, your seat continues to sway and rock, dip and lift, while a light breeze blows across your face, and it feels, really feels, like you’re flying.
Designing such a ride requires a good amount of technical expertise, but visitors don’t need to know that, says Manni Wong, a ride engineer for Walt Disney Imagineering, in Glendale, Calif., the creative force behind Disney’s parks and resorts. “It should all be seamless to the audience,” she says. The ultimate goal is to create a fun experience that is unique for the visitor, then replicate that unique experience every 5 minutes, 365 days a year, for millions of other visitors.
That’s hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun—not every electrical engineer has a picture of Mickey Mouse imprinted on her business card. “I think we’re all a little nutty here,” says Wong. Being creative in the name of entertainment is part of her job description.
Soarin’ Over California’s engine room, tucked behind the visitors’ area, looks like any industrial engine room, with a long bank of large 373-kilowatt (500-horsepower) motors. These were off-the-shelf machines that might have been used to propel a factory’s assembly line, but Disney engineers customized them. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” Wong says. “Why design a motor from scratch, if one’s available to buy?”
In an assembly plant, such motors might run all day at one speed, Wong explains. “We use it a little differently—it operates at different speeds, it starts and stops every few minutes, it goes forward and backward. Often when we tell vendors what we want, they’ll say, ‘We never do that.’ And we say, ‘Well, you will now.’”
From concept to completion, Soarin’ took more than three years. Wong’s job was to supervise the electrical and control systems, but Imagineers often wade into areas far beyond their expertise. She recalls one meeting where the team was discussing artificial scents that would be blown in through fans—an orange scent as visitors swoop over fruit groves, a pine scent during a forest scene. “But what does an ocean smell like?” Wong asks. “Suntan lotion? Rotting sea weed?” The free exchange of ideas and the feeling that a person’s creativity isn’t limited to what was studied in college are part of what makes the job fun. “Some of our meetings get really crazy,” she says, laughing.
The job’s downside, Wong admits, is that “we tend to be really passionate about what we do, sometimes to the exclusion of our personal goals, our health, sleep.” One summer, after wrapping up an especially consuming project, she enrolled her daughter in summer camp. “I was so concerned, because this was her first time away from home,” Wong recalls. “Then my daughter said, ‘Mom, I went to camp last year.’ I had no recollection, I’d been so busy.”
Though she’s been with Disney for 18 years, Wong says she first applied for the job on a whim. In 1981, after earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, she chose a more traditional career path, going to work for Bechtel Power Corp., in Norwalk, Calif., on power generation plants. “I took that job because they were going to start a wind farm in Hawaii—that sounded great! But then the funding got cut, so I never got to work on the wind farm.” While working full-time, she completed her MSEE, also at USC.
On maternity leave after her first daughter was born, in 1987, she happened to spot a help-wanted ad: Disney Imagineering was hiring. She’d visited Disney as a kid and had always wondered how the rides worked. Now that she was a bona fide engineer, Wong told IEEE Spectrum, “I thought, I can do this!”
The work has remained interesting, Wong says, in part because it keeps changing. Every project brings new responsibilities and sometimes even a new locale: she lived in Paris for a year while working on rides at Disneyland Paris, and last August she returned from an 18-month stint in Hong Kong, where Disney recently opened a new park.
Living in Hong Kong, she says, was particularly good for her two daughters, Elizabeth, 18, and Sarah, 14. The three traveled throughout Asia, and Wong was glad to see her kids getting exposed to different points of view. “They really think from a more global perspective, and they’re developing opinions of their own,” says the single mother. “I don’t always agree with them, but I’m glad they have them.”
During her workdays in Hong Kong, Wong oversaw the creation of Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, a ridecumvideo game based on characters in Pixar films. The experience raised unexpected challenges. “Some visitors had never been to a theme park before, so we had to educate them on how to get on and off a ride,” she says.
Anticipating the unexpected is a good career strategy, Wong has found. “There are jobs and careers that we can’t even dream about at this point,” she says. “So the best you can do is have as many skills and be as open to ideas as you can.” She advises aspiring engineers not to get too locked into their studies. “Go hiking in Yosemite! Take that dance class! When I interview people, I’m not solely concerned with what school they went to or what classes they took. It’s more their attitude and their enthusiasm.”
Manni Wong (M)
What she does: Designs electronics and control systems for rides and attractions at Disney parks worldwide.
For whom: Walt Disney Imagineering
Where she does it: Glendale, Calif.
Fun factors: Has worked and lived in Paris and Hong Kong while building attractions for Disney theme parks; gets to ride Space Mountain with the lights on.