Chemistry, engineering alumnus re-imagines ‘magic’
Imagineer learned to blur the lines between science and art
Walt Disney Imagineer Alfredo Ayala ’94 has worked on many park attractions since joining Disney in 1993. Among them are the “Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure,” “Mission Space,” and “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage,” which are all pictured above.
Q: What’s the next big thing? What you are working on that you are most excited about?
A: Autonomatronics. It’s about how we make our characters responsive and reactive. Imagine the type of interaction where the character is aware of you; where characters think, feel and try to connect with our guests.
A lot of people call it artificial intelligence, but I don’t call it that. It’s not about being artificial. It’s about being reactive and responsive. We are always trying to break that 4th wall of our characters, moving them from being 10 feet away from you and saying hi to being able to respond to you based on the color of your shirt, read facial cues, etc.
(Ayala has worked on other forms of Disney’s “Living Characters,” such as Otto, an autonomatronics robot that thinks and sees. Otto was unveiled last year at the D23 Expo for Disney fans. You can watch a related video here.)
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
A: My childhood. The folks around me, like my wife Julie. You can’t really explain it, but I always feel like it’s a challenge to make people laugh, smile, and cry. When I am creating, I always think about what I wanted to see as a child. How did I envision the world?
Q: What stood out to you first about Walt Disney Imagineering?
A: What I really liked from the offset was in the interview they said this is not the kind of place where you have to come in with a shirt and tie. I walked in and people were wearing Hawaiian shirts and shorts … a very similar atmosphere to working in Carlos Gutiérrez’s lab. It was a very free and creative atmosphere.
Q: How did you come to attend Cal State L.A.?
A: I came to Cal State L.A. through [Dr.] Gutiérrez’s program for young students interested in biomedical sciences. I applied to the program and in the interview, told him that I wanted to be a nuclear physicist because I like nuclear reactions… I was in 8th grade and really talking in detail about nuclear physics. [Dr.] Gutiérrez looked at me and knew it had to be one of two things: I was just lying through my teeth or I really loved science. And it happened to be that I really love science.
Q: What was your experience at Cal State L.A.?
A: I lived really close to campus, so it was a great place for me to go and be exposed to college. My mother was a college graduate, but my dad had just a third grade education. My mother would teach me math while my father, a great artisan (saddle maker), would teach me about art and he was my first art teacher, really.
He taught me how to work and think as a creative artisan, and my mother taught me about the importance of an education. Carlos Gutiérrez taught me to learn absolutely everything and anything. He would tell me: “Understand the fundamentals and you can do anything that you want.” He was and still is my educator and my mentor.
Q: When did you first fall in love with science?
A: As a kid. I saw Gutiérrez’s co-production of “Antimatter,” winner of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science 1973 award for animation, and that got me excited about chemistry. He is an organic chemist, but he is actually an artist too.
It was dark, damp and scary. That was Alfredo Ayala’s first memory of Disneyland.
Four-year-old Ayala clung to his mother, trying to hide from the scenes unfolding in the Pirates of the Caribbean boat ride, as tears rolled down his cheeks. He wanted to get as far away from the pirates and their loot-laden land as he could.
Today, Ayala ’94 says it’s a much different story. Walking amongst the characters, analyzing their features and capabilities and working daily to create new illusions and experiences for park visitors has helped him discover the “magic” that goes into creating such attractions.
Kids play the role of spies trying to save the planet in the “Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure.”
“I never thought I would be here,” said Ayala, who as a Walt Disney Imagineer is at the center of it all—enchanting children and adults alike with fanciful creations. “It’s an amazing job. Imagine—you don’t think about retiring—only about the next thing you want to create.”
Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative arm of the Walt Disney Company, endeavors to blur the line between reality and fantasy in the company’s theme parks and attractions. Over 16 years, Ayala has participated in many projects—many with the ultimate goal of bringing people closer to the Disney characters they love.
As the special effects lead for the “Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure” in Epcot at Walt Disney World, Ayala led a team of artists to create an interactive environment where gamers travel through countries in World Showcase, while trying to save the planet from a host of villains. As the lead optics designer for the “Mission: Space” attraction there he invented and developed an optical system that gives park visitors the experience of flying through space. And, as the principal developer of the technology that brought an animated Nemo underwater in the “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage”, he helped revive the submarine rides after nearly a decade of lying idle, and found a new way to bring characters closer to guests.
“This company has given me so many opportunities to do things that I never dreamed of,” Ayala said. “Sometimes you invent something as a solution, sometimes you come in as a team, sometimes it’s a new idea I had on my own.…
“My favorite thing is when you see one of your ideas passed on to the next person or team and see it nurtured and grow,” he added.
In his tenure with the company, Ayala, named the recipient of the 2007 Walt Disney Imagineering Spirit of Innovation award, has had many great ideas. He holds more than 10 patents and developed trade secrets in technology, design and art—some of which have helped Walt Disney teams win the prestigious Thea award given by the Themed Entertainment Association.
In fact, Ayala’s first trade secret was the product of a summer internship with the company in 1993. Ayala, then a student researcher in Chemistry Professor Carlos Gutiérrez’s organic synthesis chemistry lab, revamped the skin used on robotic characters throughout the theme parks—including the pirates—to make them more realistic.
“My goal that summer was to get a patent from Disney,” Ayala said, explaining that he had developed and presented three scientific solutions for updating the skin technology in his application for the internship. “And while I didn’t get my first patent, I did get a trade secret—and a job.”
An avid enthusiast of scientific experiments and reactions, technology, engineering, art and innovation, among other things, the Imagineering profession was essentially made for Ayala, Gutiérrez said.
“He always looked at the world differently than other folks. He has a twinkle of mischief in his eyes,” Gutiérrez said, adding that he couldn’t be more pleased to know that Ayala not only discovered what he wanted to do, but the perfect environment in which to do it.
“It’s been this great playground of stuff for him. Disney provided him with lots of outlets to pursue his creativity and he has had the science background to back it all up. … He is fearless.”
Ayala began working with Gutiérrez as a teenager, after acceptance into a biomedical sciences program created to engage high school and junior high students in science. Ever since, Ayala says, Gutiérrez has been a driving force and mentor in his educational and professional career.
“Dr. Gutiérrez always told me that you have to be able to explore different avenues, and he taught me to learn everything and anything I could,” he said.