Dani Bellar Pilukas: Principal Show Programmer For Walt Disney Imagineering
By Anna Robb
Dani, tell us what your current job is, what your responsibilities are and describe a day in the life of your work?
I work for Walt Disney Imagineering and I am a Principal Show Programmer – we are the ones who program the sequence of an attraction. For instance, when you ride an attraction in one of our Disney parks, there are cues that go out to various systems to run the attraction in order. My day to day schedule can take many forms – sometimes I am in meetings all day talking about creative ideas and timing or discussing future technology advancements. Other days I’m on location with a laptop focused on getting the sequencing in a scene to work, or the automation to move smoothly. As we get to the field, I ride an attraction over and over (and over) again while fine tuning the programming and integrating notes from various teams.
How did you end up in this job? What was the path that led you to this role?
I was hired by Walt Disney Imagineering to program Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure in Shanghai Disneyland. The company was using software that I had been working with on a high level for a few years. At the time, I was working at Disneyland running automation for different attractions and doing some programming when called upon.
My path to get here was interesting — I graduated with a theatre degree and worked for many different theatres in many different roles: Company Manager, Props Mistress, Actor/Tech, General Manager, Operations Manager, Stage Manager and Flight Operator. Eventually, I ended up working as a Stage and Production Manager for Royal Caribbean International. I suddenly found myself responsible for a kit with 6 Spiral lifts, 12 linesets and a flight system. I learned very quickly.
In the middle of the ocean, there is no one else to get it working and there are many technical challenges. Cruise ships are a fantastic spot to really learn how automation works.
I am proud that I was hired off of ships to be the first female Head of Automation for Cirque du Soleil. I worked on Quidam for the New Zealand and Australia tour. On cruise ships I had handled Stage Management and Automation and I realized I missed the Stage Management side. My next job was as a Stage Manager at Mystere in Vegas, followed by a job on tour as a Stage Manager for Delirium in Europe. When Delirium closed I returned back to more of the automation side and spent a few years working for FTSI (now Tait Towers) doing programming for various clients all over the world. I made really big motors fly people really fast, and it was a ton of fun. I also had a chance to start working with Disney on some projects and realized the amazing things they were working on. When my husband and I moved to California I started working with Disney full time, although I do continue to occasionally take a side gig doing stunt work for films with some fast winches.
My current job brought all of my experience and skills together. I use my knowledge of programming and motion to help build and design an attraction and then sequence cues together in order to “call” the show in a permanent way.
As a Principal, I also lead a small team of other programmers that perform similar functions. It feels like the perfect nexus of all the things I have done…and want to keep doing.
What do you see as the most important skills you have needed for your job?
Communication! I have a great deal of technical knowledge and background in the software we use, but I think my ability to communicate with different groups has been THE skill that helps me be successful. Our team frequently acts as a bridge between the creative and technical disciplines.
What are the best parts of your job? What are the worst parts?
The best part of my job is best summed up in a story. The week we opened Shanghai Disneyland to guests, I had the opportunity to ride in the back of a boat full of local schoolchildren. They were about 8-10 years old…and I am not sure they had ever seen anything like that before (and many people haven’t). They were so excited, turning around and exclaiming and pointing out what they were seeing. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it now. It’s seeing the reactions to what we do … what we create … that makes our jobs so special. It’s why we do what we do — and I am so very, very lucky to get the chance to work with the best teams in the world to do it.
I think the most challenging part of my role is the amount of travel that I do. The work we do is exciting and challenging, however, it does require time away from family and that is always hard.
I often look forward to getting back home and just watching TV with my husband and my dog.
What is your advice for people looking to get into the automation world? Where can they start? What training can they get?
I had a great experience entering the Cruise ship industry. There are more and more schools building rigs, but the time it takes to secure funding and build ages the rigs quickly. I was fortunate to be able to learn on the job while seeing the world. We had to be creative problem solvers who could figure out ways to make it work. Learning the various automation and programming systems, tools and platforms is smart. I have learned four or five different automation systems, mostly with on the job training, it gets easier to learn new systems the more you know because you are able to find more similarities.
Of the projects that you have worked on, have you had a favourite? please tell us why.
I have had the opportunity to work on some pretty amazing projects, but my favorite is usually the one I’m currently working on. Right now, my work is in a galaxy far, far away — and I really think guests are going to be blown away when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens at both Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2019.
Do you have a mentor? Who is it and why are they important to you?
In the world of automation it can be tough to find mentors, especially for my generation, the technology is new and ever evolving and sometimes the best ideas are in the current generation. I am lucky to have a diverse group of friends/peers who are smart, creative and dedicated to bringing amazing experiences to the world. Some of those folks have been friends for years and others are brand new — regardless, we are a pretty small, close knit group, and I have found connecting with those peers to be a crucial part of my professional development.
Is there creativity involved in your role despite it being very technical? Please explain how so.
My current role is influenced strongly by creative. A large part of our role is to help bring Imagineering’s ambitious visions to life. Our team brings together all the threads from various disciplines, whether technical or creative, and we weave them together in the tapestry of an attraction. We have to be true to all the artisans before us, and we take that charge pretty seriously.
Do you get much downtime? What do you do in your downtime? What do you do for fun?
What is downtime? Oh, time we aren’t working? We try to make very active use of that time and fit in everything we can. When we were in China we took one day off and went to see the Terracotta soldiers, which involved a three hour flight in each direction. I strongly believe that you have to look for the chance to do something different. I also think what we do is a great deal of fun…so sometimes just taking a moment to appreciate where you are, and the opportunities available to you in this unique industry, can be a bonus.
Where do you want to be in 10 years? What would you like to do next?
Can I say retired and traveling full time with my husband? Well, not quite yet. I am really passionate about using digital tools for programming and visualization in many different forms. I want to do more with that. If we can find better tools to communicate what is possible, or may soon be possible, it will improve our ability to create amazing experiences around the world for our guests to love.