March 07, 2024
Architecture major Luke Neely has dreams of designing themed experiences as a profession. (Catholic University/Patrick G. Ryan)

As Walt Disney conceptualized his Disneyland park in Southern California, he famously remarked that it was fun to try and to do the impossible. To accomplish that dream, Disney famously created Imagineering, a hub for designers, engineers, and storytellers who pitched and created his park’s signature rides and attractions.

An entire industry of themed designers has since sprouted up, with shopping centers, movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, and other amusement parks all featuring storytelling at their core.

The Catholic University of America junior Luke Neely, an architecture major, is on that career trajectory and has worked or interned for the Walt Disney Company and American Scenic Design, a creative design studio leader, during the last two years. 

The seed for this path was planted when he received a gift from his parents - a book on Imagineering found at a yard sale. 

“I just kind of knew from middle school, this is what I wanted to do,” Neely said. “And, of course, just the influence of growing up in this area in DC with so many museums and zoos. I wasn't aware at the time that they kind of fall within industry bounds. But it all ended up largely contributing to that love for this kind of immersive experience-making.”

Neely grew up in nearby Derwood, Maryland, and attended the Avalon School, a small all-boys Catholic school. One of his teachers, Kevin Oriani, was a 2014 graduate of Catholic with a bachelor’s degree in Classics. 

His near-term goal is to become a show designer, the person who works on the exterior facade planning of a ride or attraction. He also loves the potential of designing ride experiences for people of all ages.

“There's something really fun about designing that centerpiece thing,” he said. “And there's just so much cool stuff and ride design from the ride system, from understanding how it works to how that's going to affect your design. It is a very unique learned skill.”

On campus, Neely has created a student organization that gathers others interested in themed design. More than 20 participate in the activities, which include speakers, conversations, and sharing of personal collections. Neely, of course, has amassed a treasure trove of memorabilia, including a map of the 1964 World’s Fair where “It’s A Small World” debuted.

As a first-year student, he found immediate success and was able to channel his theme park fascination into real-world honors- as he was awarded Best Undergraduate Oral Presentation at the 2022 University Research Day. His topic: theme park crowd management.

“It was especially fun being that I already had so much backlog of weird theme park knowledge,” Neely said. “A lot of it was just I finally have a use for these mountains of obscure logic and stuff I've built up.”

He credits Research Day and Career Day fairs with helping propel his burgeoning career track. There, he learned the power of networking and he’s met legendary attraction designers and leaders in recent years as a result. He’s also consulted with some of the popular YouTube creators behind the channel Defuntland on projects.

During the summer of 2022, Neely’s work for the Disney College Program focused less on design and more on guest experience. He worked on ferry boats that led people to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom park.

“I feel like if you're going to work in a theme park industry, you have to spend some amount of time, just like I did, working on the front lines,” Neely said. “There’s a super special thing about working on these boats because we're the first person with you as you see the castle in the distance and we're the last person you see as you walk out of the park, incredibly tired, to get back to your car.”

During his off days, Neely would sit inside the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World in Orlando and sketch new facade elements he envisioned. As he had conversations with company workers and researched more, he saw people like him that came from architecture training.

“I assumed most people with the Imagineering team had an engineering background,” Neely said. “And the reality of it is that the majority are probably more from an architecture design background. There are definitely quite a few engineers, but a lot of people with engineering backgrounds are actually working for different contractor companies who develop a lot of the technology that goes into the back end.”

At Catholic University, he has found the knowledge base in the architecture program applicable to his professional dreams. While Catholic might not be close to Florida like other architecture and design programs, Neely also marvels at the accessibility of the centuries of American history embedded in the D.C. churches and government buildings.

“There's something just about to be said about the approach to classical architecture, which is really emphasized at CUA’s architecture school,” Neely said. “They can't go to the Capitol, and look at the storytelling of the country through architecture. They don't have that opportunity. So it's just leverage the opportunities you have for sure.”