Imagineer Jason Surrell

by MouseStation Crew, staff writer

MouseStation 200 - Imagineer Jason Surrell

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We celebrated their 200th show with a balloon drop on the MouseStation (you'll have to take our word for it, we forgot to take pictures). We realized that there's probably over a solid week's worth of audio between all of the shows that we've recorded, and we've actually spent months worth of time working on the podcast.

Featured Topic - Imagineer Jason Surrell

In this week's feature, Mark interviews Jason Surrell, Imagineer and author of a number of books about Disney attractions. Jason is the author of The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (soon to be updated), Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kindom to the Movies, The Disney Mountains: Imagineering At Its Peak and Screenplay by Disney, and has contributed to The Imagineering Way and The Imagineering Workout.

Jason first wanted to be an Imagineer when he was very young, but he didn't realize that he could be because he wasn't an artist, architect or engineer. In his early 20s, he realized that writers could contribute as much as anyone, and once he joined Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), he found out that there were 140 different disciplines represented.

He actually started in live entertainment, as Jungle Cruise skipper on the Walt Disney World College Program. The next summer, he auditioned for entertainment, and discovered that he belonged in a creative field. He started pitching live shows featuring characters, and over time realized that same skills were applicable to Imagineering. In 1999, he was able to make his dreams come true.

Jason's first project for WDI was redesigning a marquee for the Backstage Studio Tour, which talked about the backlot tram tour and the water tank show in the style of a movie poster.

Jason has a lot of stuff on his plate, from writing books to making guest appearances on television shows and beyond, yet still manages to juggle that with his day-to-day Imagineering work. He noted that anything is possible when you're that passionate about it and it means that much to you, then you just find the time. He doesn't consider it work; all of the extracurriculars are just more of the same. Jason's getting paid to do what he's already done for most of his life. He wrote the books because he wanted to read them; that drives most of what he does.

His first book, about the Haunted Mansion, was written because he wanted to read it. He asked how to get a book done, and WDI head Marty Sklar told him to write a proposal (Jason had never written one before). He approached the way that he would if it was a treatment for a WDI project. Next he had to write a query letter to Disney Editions in New York City (again, he had never written one). He sent the letter to Marty, who forwarded it to NYC. Marty then told him to send a proposal to Disney Editions. Jason found out in October that they needed the book completed by January in order to have enough lead time to meet the film release date. So that was how he spent his Christmas vacation in 2002.

These days, he generally pitches his ideas to Disney Editions and if they like it then they do the book. The only assignment that he got was Screenplay by Disney: Tips & Techniques to Bring Magic to Your Moviemaking, which was suggested by his editor.

Jason can't talk about his next book until all of the paperwork is signed. He has a laundry list of potential titles, but there are a lot of interesting books that will be coming in the future.

Jason has also participated in upgrades to some classic attractions, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. The biggest challenge on these upgrades are that they want to enhance the attraction, not to take anything away from it. Jason thinks that the teams working on the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean really did great jobs on the attractions without taking away anything. The "endless staircase" in Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion was inspired by a piece of Ken Anderson artwork from the 1950s.

Mark mentioned the fact that the hands of the first Jack Sparrow in Pirates is grabbing the bustles of the mannequins next to him. Jason noted that "Walt is in the details," and the one of the reasons that the attractions hold up after all of these years is the abundance of details, and that there's always something new to see.

Jason can't talk about most of what he's working on now, but he is co-directing this year's edition of Star Wars Weekends in partnership with Walt Disney Entertainment. He's hoping that there will be more cool announcements later in the year.

New this year for Star Wars Weekends is Behind the Force: Experience the Clone Wars.

What did you think of the interview? Have you read Jason's books? What do you think? Let us know by sending us an email or calling our toll-free feedback line (1-866-939-2278) and let us know what you think!

Wrapping up

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Special thanks to Marilyn Waters, Frank Reifsnyder and Diego Parras of Walt Disney Imagineering for helping to set up the interview, and to Jason Surrell for his time

Thanks to our audio engineer and sound editor Steven Ng.

Thank you for listening!

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