Grad students design restaurant for ‘Nemo’

Three Penn graduate students are finalists in Disney Imagineering’s design contest

· June 2, 2011, 4:09 am   ·  Updated June 2, 2011, 12:00 am

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The newest Disney theme park attraction may be the brainchild of three Penn students.

Second-year graduate students Sarah Elger, Melanie Silver and John Johnston from the Penn School of Design are among 20 students of six colleges nationwide chosen to compete in Walt Disney Imagineering’s 20th ImagiNations design competition.

As part of six finalist teams, the three have been awarded an all-expense paid trip to Walt Disney Imagineering — the creative juggernaut behind Disney’s theme parks and resorts worldwide — in Glendale, Calif., where they will be given the opportunity to present their design projects to a panel of judges, interview for paid internships and compete for prizes.

The team’s design concept is inspired by the aquatic adventure film Finding Nemo.

The idea is a “restaurant inside a jellyfish,” Silver explained. She and her teammates call their restaurant Bloom, a name for a group of jellyfish, like the one characters Dory and Marlin encountered in the movie.

“Basically people come in to sit inside the jellyfish,” Elger elaborated. “There are jellyfish pods of different sizes for the different tables. The tables move up and down through the use of hydraulics and the skin of the jellyfish pulses to life through an air pressured system.”

Bloom is meant to be a dynamic restaurant that offers diners the fantasy of being immersed underwater by using state-of-the art technology to capture the “fluid motion of the jellyfish” and the “beautiful lighting of aquariums,” Silver said.

By using Disney’s imaging technology, the team would be able to incorporate a tale starring Nemo and friends to accompany the dining experience.

Although technology and story-telling are two important elements to incorporate into the projects, Disney Manager for Diversity and Inclusion Soledad Boyle — who is involved in organizing the competition — said that the most successful participants also consider relevancy.

“This is the 20th year of this competition and business has changed over the past 20 years,” she said. “How people access entertainment today has changed so staying relevant to how people access entertainment is important.”

However, she said she is impressed that “more and more technology, as well as new uses of technology,” are being incorporated by the finalists into their projects this year.

Elger, a self-proclaimed Disney fan who has visited Disneyland 10 times with her father, said she is ecstatic about her team’s accomplishment. “We are excited about it,” she said. “It’s pretty much a dream come true.”

Silver, who has been doing theme park design competitions since high school, also expressed her excitement but felt “kind of surprised” because the chances of being chosen as finalists from a pool of nearly 120 teams were so slim.

Johnston, a native of Philadelphia and whose great uncle Myron “Grim” Natwick was the lead animator for Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, said he was not surprised the team was selected as finalists. “We had come up with and nearly fully developed a stellar idea, and the artwork and technical specifications we submitted were of equivalent or better quality than what was posted,” he wrote. “I had been telling my teammates that we would be selected as finalists all along.”

Among the competing designs this year are a hot air balloon ride inspired by the movie UP, an interactive concert hall that takes guests on a musical journey to the world of Fantasia and a ride called “Operations Discover E”, modeled after Wall-E.

Johnston and his teammates will be in California on June 13 to present their idea in the weeklong competition. The first place team will be awarded $3,000 and an additional $1,000 grant to be equally divided among its sponsoring universities and organizations.

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