Solana Beach native thrilled to be a finalist in Disney design competition

By Kelley Carlson

Last week was an emotional roller coaster ride for Solana Beach native Laura Cuccaro, filled with thrills and excitement.

The 21-year-old was in Glendale to present a project with her team to Walt Disney Imagineering — the minds behind the theme parks, resorts, rides and attractions, cruise ships and real estate developments — for the 2012 ImagiNations Design Competition.

“It’s been so amazing, really surreal; it’s been a childhood dream of mine (to meet) Imagineers ... to pick their brains and mingle with them,” Cuccaro said.

The competition encourages university students from across the country to consider careers in creative and technical fields such as engineering, architecture and digital arts. This year, participants were asked: “Imagine it’s the year 3011. Disney has entertainment experiences all over the world, many which don’t even exist today. The human race is finally living on the moon and Walt Disney Imagineering wants to be the first one to provide entertainment and/or recreation to the new citizens there. What would you imagine that this new Disney experience could be?”

Representing UC Berkeley, Cuccaro and fellow team members Louise Hussey and Elaine Soohoo proposed the idea of the first Disney Interactive Resort and Entertainment Center in space, the Artem Sustainable Eatery and Entertainment Disk, or A-SEED.

Their project summary: “Framed by lunar mountains and celestial vistas, the Artem Sustainable Eatery and Entertainment Disk (A-SEED), the first Disney hotel and resort on the moon, welcomes guests to explore and enjoy the beauty and wonders of space, while relaxing in the all-inclusive vacation experience. Disney’s A-SEED provides a historical perspective of the journey to human colonization of the moon, combining it with the luxury and amenities of the year 3011, and providing an insightful and interactive look forward to the future of the moon and its inhabitants. The SEED is the first of its kind resort, built to yield a minimal impact on the host satellite, while maintaining the attention to detail that Disney is famous for. The Artem SEED provides an experience that is full of ‘Exploration, Education and Relaxation!’ and showcases the legendary imagination, innovation and magic of Disney like it has never been before!”

Before the competition, Cuccaro’s previous experiences with Disney had been a little more down to Earth. She first visited Disneyland at 1-and-a-half-months old, and went an average of twice a year while growing up.

While Cuccaro enjoyed getting photographed with the theme park’s characters, she was apprehensive about some of the rides during her younger years.

As a way to calm her down, her dad, Chuck Cuccaro, explained the physics of roller coasters and emphasized that they weren’t going to fly off the track.

So after analyzing Gadget’s Go Coaster in Toontown around age 4 or 5, Laura Cuccaro’s interest in engineering began to take root.

She first learned about the ImagiNations Design Competition while a student at Canyon Crest Academy, but at the time was too young to enter, since entries are limited to college juniors, seniors, full-time graduate students or those who are within one year after graduation.

After becoming a member of Canyon Crest’s first graduating class, in 2008, Cuccaro headed to UC Berkeley, and began her pursuit of a bachelor of science degree in environmental engineering science.

The ImagiNations competition stayed in the background of Cuccaro’s mind and, in fall 2011, the college senior finally had the opportunity to participate with two friends from her sorority.

Cuccaro said that much planning and coordination of the project was involved; she and Hussey are full-time students at UC Berkeley, and Soohoo has been working since her graduation in August. In addition, Cuccaro is a member of the UC Marching Band, as a mellophone and trumpet player.

The three-member team had a different ImagiNations project idea in the beginning, but there were various concepts they wanted to make sure to include, including environmental education.

“It evolved into an all-inclusive resort (on the moon),” Cuccaro said.

They submitted an application for the design competition in October; a month later, they were asked to provide a PowerPoint presentation consisting of eight slides to describe their project as best they could.

Toward the end of December, six team finalists — out of 130 entries — were invited to Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 to present their projects.

“I feel so privileged to be here,” Cuccaro said during the final day of the competition. “Out of all the applicants, they saw something special in (us), our submission. It’s great to experience things others don’t experience; this is truly life-changing work.”

Highlights of the week for Cuccaro included the team’s presentation of the A-SEED project to a number of high-level Imagineers; visiting different departments; and seeing behind-the-scenes work of some of her favorite Disneyland attractions. She noted that she enjoyed meeting John Gritz, principal concept designer of the Indiana Jones Adventure ride.

Winners of the Walt Disney Imagineering ImagiNations Design Competition were announced Feb. 3. The first place and “Best in Show” awards went to a team from North Carolina State University.

“I feel such an accomplishment just to get to the finals,” Cuccaro said, when interviewed before the awards ceremony. “I feel like I’ve won an amazing prize.”

Meanwhile, Cuccaro will graduate from UC Berkeley in May. She hopes to find a job that focuses on water resources and work toward improving water quality in the U.S. and abroad.

And if one day she becomes an Imagineer, it will be a dream come true, she said.