Mark Andersen (BSEE ’87) is manager of the Show Systems Design team in the Scientific Systems division at Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, providing design, development, fabrication, installation, and ongoing systems support for Walt Disney Creative Entertainment, Disney Cruise Line, and Walt Disney Imagineering.
From Officer Friendly to Mickey Mouse—Mark Andersen’s engineering career has always been about character.
“The summer in between my junior and senior years [at Illinois], my family and I took a vacation to Walt Disney World. While we were [there] we went on a ride at Epcot, and on the wall at the exit was a quote from Walt Disney, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ I read that quote and told my parents it was always my dream to come work for Disney, and one day that’s what I was going to do,“ he said.
He was right about that dream. And for the last 27 years, Andersen has been helping to make other people’s Disney dreams come true.
From an early age he knew engineering was in his future. “When I was in high school I remember my dad bringing home an HP computer over Christmas break,” he said. “The tutorial was ‘hosted’ by a character called ‘Officer Friendly.’ I spent most of my break going through it. I always did well in math and science, so when I graduated, engineering seemed like the natural choice for college.”
After two years of community college, Andersen enrolled in Engineering at Illinois. His primary focus was digital design, and many of his electives were programming classes.
Anderson said about Illinois, “I’m very grateful. I look back at my time fondly, and I’m proud to say that I’m a graduate from one of the top ranked engineering colleges in the country. I definitely feel that my education prepared me to excel in my career, and I have very fond memories of all of the friends I made and the extracurricular activities I was involved with.”
It was also while at Illinois that Andersen began his lifelong career at Disney. During that same family vacation, he got a behind-the-scenes look at the central computer room control- ling all of Epcot. “The light bulb turned on,” he said. “They need engineers to design and program these systems!” Amazingly, he landed an interview while on vacation, leading to a co-op position in Disney’s Engineering division the following summer.
“I still remember my first day on the job. My office was located at Epcot and we got a call that Universe of Energy was having problems. As I stepped through the door [of the attraction] I was suddenly surrounded by animatronic dinosaurs – I had been transported instantly into prehistoric times. My summer was filled with adventures like that.”
After returning to Illinois for his final semester, Andersen was offered a position with another company – but Disney’s magic intervened again. “Before I had a chance to reply to the offer,” he said, “my dorm phone rang and it was Disney calling to offer me a full-time job. I accepted, and began my full-time career as an electrical engineer.”
‘Full time’ hardly describes the extent of Andersen’s experience and achievement over the course of the next 27 years. In his time at Disney he has played numerous roles, from trouble- shooting to design, development, installation, support, system controls, and animatronics for parks and systems around the world. He was lead show controls software engineer for many attractions, lead software engineer during the installation of
the Walt Disney World Mark VI monorails, and part of the project management team that installed a huge outdoor LED video display on board Disney Cruise Line. As a program engineer, his portfolio includes Disney’s Hollywood Studios, water parks, Downtown Disney, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, textile services, and Walt Disney Transportation – and he currently manages a multidisciplinary team of mechanical, electrical, and software and control systems engineers.
In addition to his management position, Andersen is the Design & Engineering spokesperson for Disney’s Professional Intern program. “Being able to teach and mentor is one of my passions. There were engineers and leaders that invested in me and helped me throughout my career. I want to be able to do the same.“
When asked how he feels about the relationship between his famous workplace and his chosen profession, he spoke with passion:
“Am I an engineer that works at Disney or a Disney Engineer? Without question, I am a Disney Engineer.”
There are many reasons behind Anderson’s loyalty and sense of identity as a Disney Engineer, one of which is the variety of work environments he has been able to experience.
“I have had giraffes looking over my shoulder while programming a control box in the middle of a savannah. I have been inside an Asian tiger habitat troubleshooting a system that separated hungry tigers from getting to their food. I have stood underneath a cruise ship while it was in dry dock. I have programmed aliens and a giant yeti and systems that teach dolphins to communicate with humans. Every day is something different. It is that variety and uniqueness that makes this job so much fun.”
What would he do if he wasn’t working for Disney? Anderson can’t imagine any other job providing the fulfillment he receives by being a part of the Walt Disney Company.
“What we do is in no way a typical job. I absolutely love what I do. I love the people I work with,” he said. “And, if I ever start feeling differently all I have to do is take a walk out into the park and watch the look on the faces of our guests to remind myself that I and my team had a part in making them smile and creating that magical experience for them. We engineer systems that play a part in bringing a creative vision to life, telling stories and creating magical moments that people from around the world come and experience. I can honestly say that in my 27 plus years with Disney, I have never looked for another job. I am truly blessed.”
And if that isn’t proof that dreams really do come true—we don’t know what is.