Kelly Johnson ’94 / Disney magic comes true for engineer
Many children dream of working at an amusement park when they grow up. Kelly Johnson ’94 actually does it. And though it may sound exciting, riding roller coasters isn’t part of the job description.
“Working at Disneyland doesn’t mean I get to go out and ride the rides every day,” he said. A lifelong lover of coasters, however, he still does enjoy the thrill when he can find time for it.
Once a boy who loved rides, he’s now busy creating them for the enjoyment of others. Johnson is a senior engineer in the Ride and Show Sustaining Engineering Group at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim and assigned to work with Walt Disney Imagineering on an expansion at Disney’s California Adventure Park.
It’s a career that fulfills his childhood dream. As early as middle school, Johnson had the goal of working in a theme park. He and his family visited King’s Island outside Cincinnati every year when he was growing up, and he was fascinated with the rides even before he was big enough to ride them.
“I rode the kiddie rides over and over,” he said, “and then moved on to the roller coasters. When I was in high school and college, my plan for summer vacation would be to ride as many roller coasters as I could.”
With the intention of one day working in the theme park industry, Johnson entered the 3:2 engineering program at Transylvania, which allows students to earn a B.A. in physics or liberal studies from Transy in three years and a B.S. in engineering from the University of Kentucky or Vanderbilt University in two.
It was a background that prepared him for what he’s doing now. “When I was at Transy, I talked to my professors about theme parks and how physics applies to that industry,” he said. “I don’t do calculus and differential equations on a daily basis, but the point is that you get the tools and the fundamentals at the undergraduate level.”
Johnson completed his engineering degree at UK and earned a master’s degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Unable to find the theme park job he wanted after graduation, he took a position in Atlanta as a product engineer for Lucent Technologies, a telecommunications fiber optic cable manufacturer.
“I was with Lucent for five-and-a-half years, and worked with good people,” he said, “but it just wasn’t the industry I was interested in.” He continued to pursue opportunities at theme parks like Universal Studios, Six Flags, and Cedar Point.
“I interviewed with Universal and Six Flags around the same time,” he said, “and they both came back to me and said, ‘You finished second,’ so I asked, ‘What is the difference between me and the person you hired?’”
The answer was theme park experience.
Johnson realized the path he was on wasn’t going to lead him to the destination he desired, so he changed directions and took a position as a ride mechanic at Six Flags New Orleans. There, he worked for a year-and-a-half, gaining first-hand experience with the rides, learning how the equipment works, and how the mechanics and electricians work with it.
“I had a master’s in engineering and all these certifications and five-plus years as an engineer,” he said, “and I was out there turning wrenches and pulling bearings. I was in the field, clearly overqualified for what I was doing, but it was a very good learning experience.”
That experience paid off when a position became available at Disneyland, and Johnson landed the job. He moved to Anaheim in 2004 for a role in sustaining engineering for California Adventure, one of Disney’s two parks in California, the other being the original Disneyland. In that position, Johnson supported the existing rides and attractions from a technical side.
“It was trouble shooting, upgrading equipment, making the rides safer and more reliable,” he said, “as well as working with vendors.”
When the Disney Company announced an expansion about a year-and-a-half ago, Johnson transferred to his current position. The expansion is expected to take four years to complete and will be open to the public in 2012.
Johnson’s free time is limited, as he got married last summer and recently returned to school to pursue his MBA at the University of California Irvine. He expects to graduate in June and believes the degree is good preparation for where he sees his career going next.
“I want to move into a project engineering or management role,” he said, “not immediately, but sometime in the next few years. I look at putting the engineering and the MBA together as a good mix of technical and management training.”
It’s a decision that Johnson sees as an extension of his earlier education. At Transylvania, he took full advantage of the liberal arts model and completed a minor in music.
“I was very involved in the band program at Transy,” Johnson said. “I went the technical route, but because I started out with a liberal arts background, I’m well-rounded and diverse in my training. I see getting my MBA as an expansion of the liberal arts grounding that I had.”