By Published: Dec. 1, 2014

Mike Morrison in Disneyland pirate scene

There's more to Disneyland than meets the eye. Mike Morrison sees it all. Sometimes in a wetsuit.

Mike Morrison’s (MechEngr’96) work sometimes takes him into dark, wet, claustrophobic places. For him, it’s always magical.

Morrison works at Disneyland, where he’s responsible for ensuring the rides and attractions are safe for the iconic amusement park’s 50,000 daily visitors.

As a freshman at CU-Boulder in the early 1990s, he imagined a career in aerospace. Little did he know he’d find his calling in the rarely seen underbelly of the “happiest place on earth.”

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

As he learned more about engineering, he perceived the vast and various possibilities before him — including, maybe, a life in entertainment. He’d grown up in Orange County, Calif., and often visited Disneyland in Anaheim with his friends. An idea took shape: Perhaps there was a place for him there, as a light and sound engineer. Or even as a ride engineer.

“I wanted to be a part of putting on the magic using my engineering knowledge and my lighting and sound production skills,” says Morrison, who ultimately majored in mechanical engineering. “I always felt like I belonged here.”

It’s been just the adventure he sought.

Mike Morrison in scuba gear in lake at Disneyland

Nothing at Disney goes uninspected by Mike Morrison, even if it’s under water.

In 2008, when Disney was designing World of Color, a nighttime extravaganza of water fountains, lights and laser projections, Morrison volunteered to lead a team of engineers and electricians to work on the structure — underneath it, that is, and underwater. Mounted on a platform the size of a football field, World of Color is submerged in a lagoon during the day and elevated above the surface after dark. To work on its electrical and mechanical components, Morrison and his team had to learn to scuba dive.

Working in 15 feet of water with poor visibility was like diving inside a shipwreck. So not only did Morrison need to learn to dive, he had to earn certifications for diving inside wrecks and at night. He practiced on real shipwrecks off the California coast.

“Aside from skydiving,” says Morrison, “it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had.”

Today, as Disney’s program planning manager, Morrison has the principal role in long­-range maintenance proposals for all of Disneyland’s attractions and infrastructure. There’s a lot to do: He recently compiled a list of 200 projects 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.”

Morrison’s path to Disney wasn’t straight.

After graduating in 1996, he applied to Disneyland, but was turned down because of a lack of experience. He joined Ball Corporation’s metal packaging division in Westminster, Colo., then returned to California, where he worked at a Los Angeles manufacturing plant that also made food and beverage containers. A second attempt at Disney in 2004 landed him a position as a graveyard-­shift engineering manager at Disney California Adventure Park, where he oversaw a crew of electricians, engineers and technicians.

“It was way cool,” he says. “I never knew there were hundreds of cast members there working in the middle of the night.”

Late at night, after all the guests are gone, crews come out to work on the rides. Every day, for instance, 96 man­-hours are spent inspecting and maintaining all the roller coaster vehicles and the track of California Screamin’, a marquee attraction designed to look like an old-time wooden roller coaster but made of steel.

After certifying that all the maintenance was properly done 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 systems were all ready for the next day.

“That was one of the most fun parts of working third shift,” he says. “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. He also helped coordinate responses to a variety of potential emergencies — fires in trash cans, earthquakes, medical problems, you name it. He assumed his current position in 2011.

Morrison may have started his career in manufacturing, but the same basic engineering skills and knowledge apply to his work today, he says.

“One of the best things CU did to prepare me for this job was the mechanical capstone project,” he says. “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.”

At CU, he was a Buff Bus driver. His capstone project involved retrofitting an automatic door opener for an old bus that had a manual door. The resulting opener became a production model for all campus buses. For Morrison, it was a breakthrough.

“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.”

Sometimes Morrison’s six-year-­old son pitches in by doing his own Disneyland inspections.

“When I was a kid, it was about having that magical experience with my family,” Morrison says. “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.”

Photography by David Zaitz (at the wheel); Mike Morrison (Disneyland)