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The Circle Of Life: How Disney & Penn State Are Connected By An Imagineer

There are two places that can be “the Happiest Place on Earth.” One is Disneyland. The other? Penn State.

Very few can claim they know both by heart. Bob Holland, a Disney Imagineer, is lucky enough to say he does.

Holland grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and knew from childhood he wanted to go to Penn State. His father was a mechanical engineering teacher, and he focused on technical drawing. This gave Holland early exposure to a key pillar in the world of architecture.

When he got to Penn State, he admitted he didn’t know much about what the architecture program would be like.

“At some point in my first year, like many other architecture students, I thought to myself, ‘Why am I doing this?'” Holland said. “But I ended up liking it, and one of the best moments I had in the program was studying abroad.”

Being able to travel was one of the reasons Holland decided to go into architecture in the first place. He traveled to Italy for a year and that influenced what he wanted to do for a career.

After graduating from Penn State, Holland used his university connections to land a job in Washington, D.C. to work for the federal government.

“I ended up working for the Veteran’s Administration in Washington,” Holland said. “I worked there for a couple of years designing health care facilities. But I always dreamed of living in California, and there was an opening in Palo Alto, California, and I was lucky enough to get it.”

For three years, Holland worked for the federal government out in California. But the work started to dry up, and he went out to find a new opportunity.

“I really didn’t think Disney was a possibility,” Holland said. “I, like a lot of kids in my generation, grew up with Walt Disney. I wouldn’t say I was a ‘Disney freak,’ but there were a lot of Disney products that I grew up with and was aware of.”

It turns out, Disney was a possibility. In the newspaper, there was a job ad for W.E.D. Enterprises, otherwise known as the home of the Imagineers. Imagineers are Disney’s own engineers/architects/design team that helps to create the park rides, hotels, and attractions you know and love.

“I stumbled across this ad for a company called W.E.D. Enterprises and I had no clue who they were,” Holland said. “They were advertising for structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers, and I was none of those. It said Disney nowhere.”

So the ad was advertising for specialties Holland did not have for a job that required him to leave his dream home in California to go all the way to Florida. And yet, he still applied for it.

“I wrote them a letter and basically said I am not what you are advertising, but here is what I am, here’s what I can do for you,” Holland said. “And much to my surprise, they called me down for an interview. They offered me the job.”

The project that Holland got the job for turned out to be EPCOT, and he would play a key role in the park opening. After the park opened, he suspected that he may be let go, as there were no plans for another park in the near future. Yet, he stayed.

In his 27-year career at Disney, Holland had a hand in developing a lot of what still remains in parks across the world. He helped design hotels in Disney World. He worked on Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, and even helped out with Disneyland Tokyo. But the crown jewel of his Disney experience was working on the first two Disney cruise ships.

“Never ever in my life did I imagine I would design a cruise ship. I had no background in doing cruise ships,” Holland said. “I spent almost a year in Italy working on the two ships, and delivered the first ship to the Cape Canaveral.”

For Holland, it was the hardest challenge he had ever worked on, but that also made it the most rewarding. He would end up being the lead Imagineer on the crossing from Italy to Florida, which was an experience he would not forget.

All good things must come to an end, however, and Holland took an early retirement at Disney. He couldn’t sit around and do nothing all day, so he returned to the place it all started: Penn State.

Holland became a professor in both the architecture department and the architectural engineering department. Both focus on completely different skills but are trades he’d sharpened due to his experience at Disney.

He taught at Penn State for seven years and was one of the leading people behind a studio that combined six disciplines across the architecture and architectural engineering departments.

“The most valuable thing I did at Penn State was, with a couple other professors, developing a six discipline design studio,” Holland said. “It was all about integration, collaboration, and learning that if you’re going to do architecture, you have to understand a little bit about what each discipline does.”

For Holland, that is what he hopes his legacy is for his time at Penn State. In terms of Disney, attractions, rides, and hotels are all things that will eventually come down. But the fact that he can say he worked on it is good enough for him.

Penn State made Holland fall in love with architecture, and that led him to Disney. He then found himself right back where he started, teaching at the same school he graduated from. One could certainly call that the “Circle of Life.”

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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