Two Miami students won third place in Walt Disney Imagineering’s 26th Imaginations Design Competition. Juniors Erin Socha and Casey Liptak from the department of architecture and design were named finalists in the competition in December and traveled to Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, Calif., from Jan. 23 to 27 for the final stage.

Each team was given the challenge to apply the same design principles used in creating Disney’s famous theme parks. To develop new outdoor spaces within their own college or university that could address the diverse needs of students, faculty and visitors while also providing a respite from the stresses of everyday life.

“When we heard we came in third, I was absolutely shocked,” Liptak said.

Socha, an architecture major with an anthropology minor, and Liptak, an interior design major with graphic design minor, worked alongside Liptak’s childhood friend, Sarah Miholer of Carnegie Mellon University, on their architecture concept “Niihka: A New Tradition,” a communal space inspired by the culture of the Myaamia tribe.

“I really love design that tells stories, that has an idea behind it,” Socha said.

The design was largely hand-drawn by Socha and Liptak with Miholer skyping in multiple times a week to coordinate and discuss. The trio also spent a significant amount of time researching the Miami tribe.

The women received favorable feedback from the judges on their design’s emphasis on culture. They spoke with friends who are members of the Miami Tribe and George Ironstrack, assistant director of the Myaamia Center and director of the Education and Outreach Office, in order to best represent its culture and special connection to Miami University.  

“It’s always exciting when students from the university get involved with the Miami Tribe, and this is especially exciting because it reached such national recognition,” said Bobbe Burke, coordinator of Miami Tribe relations for the Myaamia Center.

Though Socha and Liptak are somewhat tight-lipped about what they saw behind the scenes at Imagineering headquarters due to a bevy of non-disclosure agreements they signed, they both expressed that they were quite impressed.

“It was really exciting to get to see how [Disney] make[s] the parks work, Socha said.

Glendale plays host to Disney’s Grand Central Creative Campus and Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development, Inc., the research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company, responsible for the creation, design and construction of Disney theme parks and attractions worldwide.

Six teams of finalists were invited there on an all-expenses-paid trip to tour the campus and meet with Imagineers. Each team presented their designs before a panel of judges early in the week. Then, they were given the opportunity to tour behind the scenes and interview for paid internships.

The panel of judges applied the same criteria to the entries as they would to their own work, including the team’s ability to collaborate across different disciplines and backgrounds, the mastery of their individual skills, whether the project provides an engaging guest experience, the ability to tell a compelling and engaging story and knowledge and passion for the Disney brand and Walt Disney Imagineering.

“[It was] such a great experience, one of the best weeks of my life,” Socha said.

At the end of the week, after mingling with the Imagineers and other finalists, everyone gathered for the awards ceremony. Each team’s designs were put on display so anyone who had missed the presentations could see them and talk with the creators about them. On a stage in the back of the room, heads of the department gave speeches and presented the awards.

Socha recalled bursting out in tears when she heard that they had come in third place out of 336 teams. Liptak reluctantly admitted she may have shed a tear or two as well.

“When it came to the actual awards ceremony, in my mind we were not going to place because I thought all the other projects were so well done,” Liptak said. “So when it was announced we came in third, I just looked at my teammates and laughed for a second because I was so in disbelief.”

Both Socha and Liptak expressed gratitude for all the help and support provided by Miami University students and staff.

“It was amazing having so much support [from our professors] for something that was just a side project, wasn’t even for their classes,” Socha said. “We’re very grateful for that.”

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