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January 09, 2015

Drexel students are finalists in Disney design competition

Urban Planning Design
Drexel University Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Drexel University

Disney tends to be in the business of making dreams come true. For four Drexel engineering students -- who are part of the school's Theme Park Engineering and Design Group -- that couldn't be closer to the truth. 

"This is a lifelong dream," Jonathan VanZelst, one of the Drexel finalists for the Disney Imaginations competition, told "This is something that's been on our radar for a long time."

The group (which the students created) is one of six finalists in a Disney competition that tests the engineering and design skills of students across the country. For the contest, the group was tasked with creating a public transportation system for a metropolitan area that represents the spirit of Disney in both operation and aesthetics. Their project, at a glance, is a Sydney-based transit system with a working title of "Woollahra," or "meeting ground" -- the inspiration stemming from how strangers tend to travel together, but never speak a word to one another. (Sounds like just another day on SEPTA, huh?)

"Our design focuses on the idea of storytelling at a campfire," VanZelst said. "Throughout the whole experience, guests are invited to create true stories [using technological tools] about what inspires them, and once they reach their location, they can share those stories in this big, integrated social experience. It brings together everything that's impersonal [about transit] and makes it connected and welcoming."

"Everyone today is on their phone or computer now when traveling," Bader Al Moulah, another student working on the project, told "We wanted social interaction with people to be a priority, even if they're on their phone."

If that all sounds a little vague or confusing, that's because they're intentionally being quiet about the project's specifics. Though it will be judged in just a few weeks, from Jan. 26-30 in Glendale, Calif., the project is still in the works. Any details put out could be viewed as a tip-off to the competition, which includes Texas Tech University, San Jose State University, the Art Center College of Design, Ringling College of Art + Design and the University of Nevada, Reno. 

The winner will take home a $3,000 prize. Regardless, as part of making it to the finals, the four are already eligible for an internship with Walt Disney Imagineering. 

... But obviously, they're hoping to win.

"We put a lot of time into this, so we're really hoping for the best," VanZelst said. "All of us are seniors, so this is our last shot, and we'll all probably end up in different directions. We're putting our best foot forward."

For clarity, the winning project won't actually be constructed -- though it is a possibility. Disney retains all rights to the winning project, meaning we could -- technically -- see a Disney-themed public transit bloom in Sydney sometime in the future. Maybe.

VanZelst said the team -- also consisting of Justin Petronglo and Ahmad Jamal -- will know the results of the competition in February. See projects from past years here.