Engineering Magic: Keeping the Rides Running

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“Coming to Disneyland when I was a kid was magical,” says Morrison, who is a program planning manager for integrated systems planning. “It still is.”

What's it like to work at the happiest place on earth? For Mike Morrison (MechEngr '96), it has sometimes been dark, wet and claustrophobic, but always magical.

Since 2004, Morrison has worked at Disneyland where he ensures the rides and attractions are safe while providing the exhilarating experience expected by the 50,000 daily visitors to the amusement park in Anaheim, California.

Little did Morrison know when he was studying to be a mechanical engineer that he would get to work in the exciting - and rarely seen - underbelly of the amusement park.

"I wanted to be a part of putting on the magic using my engineering knowledge and my lighting and sound production skills. I always felt like I belonged here."

In 2007, when Disney was designing World of Color, a nighttime extravaganza of water fountains, lights and laser projections, Morrison volunteered to lead a special team of engineers and electricians to work on the struc­ture - rather, underneath it and underwater. World of Color was mounted on a platform the size of a football field that was submerged in a lagoon during the day, to rise into the air after dark. Morrison and his team had to learn how to scuba dive in order to work on the structure's electrical and mechanical components.

Working below the huge structure in 15 feet of water with extremely poor visibility is equivalent to diving inside a shipwreck. So not only did he have to learn to scuba dive, Morrison also had to earn special diving certifica­tions. The dive team actually practiced diving into shipwrecks off the California coast to prepare for working on World of Color.

"Aside from skydiving," says Morrison, "it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had."

Morrison has the principal role in long­-range maintenance and sustainment proposals for the attractions and infrastructure. He recently compiled a list of 200 job proposals for multimillion dollar capital expense funding for FY2015.

"Disneyland is coming up on its 60th anniversary in 2015," he says. "Safety of course is our number one concern, but we also ensure that everything is refreshed and refurbished and rehabilitated when it needs to be."

After graduating in 1996, Morrison applied to Disneyland, but was turned down due to a lack of engineering experience. He worked as an engineer at Ball Corporation's metal container division and then as an engineering manager for a manufacturing plant in Los Angeles. A second attempt landed him a coveted position with Disney California Adventure as a third­-shift engineering manager overseeing a maintenance crew of electricians, engineers and technicians.

Late at night after all park guests are gone, crews come out to work on the rides and the special attractions. Every day, for instance, 96 man­-hours are spent inspecting and maintaining all the roller coaster vehicles and the track of the California Screamin' roller coaster.

After he had certified that required maintenance had been completed and the attractions were safe, Morrison would hop on the roller coaster and ride by himself in the quiet, darkened park. He listened to how the wheels sounded and how the tracks felt, and made sure the lighting and sound were operating in readiness for the next day.

"That was one of the most fun parts of working third shift," says Morrison. "I rode the roller-coasters at night when no one else was around, even in the rain."

In 2007, Morrison was promoted to second shift engineering services manager. His responsibilities shifted to emergency maintenance and support for operations during the day. As a management member of an incident team, Morrison helped coordinate the response to emergent situations that could range from earthquakes and fires in trash cans to a guest having a medical emergency.

He was promoted to his current position in the design and engineering division in 2011.

Morrison may have started his career in manufacturing, but the same basic engineering skills and knowledge apply to his work today, whether it's for roller coasters or complex water features.

"One of the best things CU did to prepare me for this job," says Morrison, "was the mechanical capstone project. I was better at hands-­on, practical skills than academics. I had to take calculus three times before I passed the class, but I really wanted to be a mechanical engineer so I kept at it."

During college, he was a Buff Bus driver. His capstone project was to retrofit an automatic door opener on one of the old buses that had a manual door opener. The resulting door opener became a production model for all campus buses, but just as importantly, the project was a breakthrough for Morrison.

"The capstone project showed me how to take knowledge and apply it," he says. "I went from being really poor academically to being on the dean's list. That's what I do every day at Disney - take the skill, knowledge and academics I learned at CU and apply it toward a practical result."

Maintaining the magic is a family affair for Morrison, whose six­-year-­old son likes to imitate his dad by doing his own inspections at the park, such as checking to see that light poles are lit and the rides are running.

"When I was a kid, it was about having that magical experience with my family," says Morrison. "Now it's about watching my son experience that magic and passing it along to our guests. Work doesn't get much better than that."

 

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