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Unlocking the Secrets Behind Disney's Enchantment

Through case competitions and internships, IEMS students learn what it takes to make Disney parks run


There is so much that goes into making the Disney theme parks an enjoyable experience for their guests. Basically the size of small cities welcoming guests from around the globe, the facilities require thousands of employees to handle countless tasks ranging from grounds maintenance to ride upkeep and security.

Managing that apparatus is especially crucial. In 2023, Northwestern Engineering students had the opportunity to learn what it takes firsthand.

Case competition win

Last fall, Catherine London (’25) and Max Rothfeder (’25) won a Disney virtual case study competition, which challenged teams to devise solutions to common questions faced by Disney’s Planning and Industrial Engineering team. As part of the winning prize, Rothfeder and London had a private Zoom call with full-time Disney industrial engineers to explore their ideas. 

Catherine London, Max Rothfeder

Both students in the McCormick School of Engineering’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences relished the chance to share their ideas and mingle with professionals in the field.

“Getting to apply industrial engineering principles in the real world is very valuable. Receiving feedback from people who do this work was incredibly beneficial,” said Rothfeder, whose dream job is to work with Disney and has an internship lined up for this fall. “Catherine and I were fortunate to win with so many other teams competing, and that’s a reflection of the principles, techniques, and problem-solving skills we’re learning at Northwestern.”

For London, the competition represented a temporary change of direction. Unlike Rothfeder, London’s interests lie in supply chains and manufacturing logistics, which led her to a branch operations internship last summer with Victaulic, a developer and manufacturer of mechanical pipe joining systems. Though her background was not in theme parks, Rothfeder recruited London to his team for the case study.

Clearly, it was a good decision. It also benefited London, who used her expertise to work with Rothfeder and saw how her knowledge is universally applicable.

“I’ve had distribution internships and applied similar concepts of thinking about the best and most efficient ways to run operations,” London said. “The case study was more about the efficiency of running a theme park, and how to do that the best way. When you have an industrial engineering mindset, you’re always thinking about the best way to complete objectives.”

Engineering internships at the parks

Rothfeder and London were alerted to the contest by IEMS classmate Ashley Burwell (’25), who interned last year at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Burwell’s tasks included engineering services at the Epcot Center and Hollywood Studios. She also consulted on the sustainability of the attractions and ensured that the guests had as smooth an experience as possible.

Burwell said it was a “phenomenal” experience for her, allowing her to build confidence in her skills as an industrial engineer.

Ashley Burwell, Natalie Norquist

“A lot of my time was spent on behind-the-scenes work. I consulted with the cast members who are working on the rides, while also getting to see the attractions. ,” Burwell said. “Working on the project on-site and interacting with the client was an invaluable experience. It really helps to build those client relationships and have the confidence to fully understand the project you’re working on.”

Burwell wasn’t the only IEMS student who worked with Disney last year.

Natalie Norquist (’24) worked from June to December as a planning and industrial intern in Orlando, supporting the Disney Cruise Line and the Walt Disney World Resort. The role not only affirmed her career path, but informed Norquist on where she can bolster her skills to further position herself for success after graduation.

“The benefit of working with Disney in an industrial engineering capacity was the opportunity to work as a consultant with a heavily analytical background,” Norquist said. “I took skills such as client relationships, the ability to build and deliver a compelling presentation, and the ability to unpack a problem to provide beneficial recommendations.” 

Maintaining connection from campus

Burwell, Norquist, and Rothfeder have another outlet while they’re in Evanston to interact with theme parks. The trio are members of Northwestern’s Theme Park Engineering and Design Group, which introduces students to the industry and sets members up with competitions, and keeps them current with developments in the field.

“Being away from a place such as Orlando that has so many theme parks, it's nice to have that connection to make sure that I'm staying updated in my interest,” Burwell said. “I'm still talking with individuals who like to think about parks as much as I do, and potentially even more, and maintaining that love for the industry.”