Naperville native realizes his Disney dream in design competition

Anyone can enjoy theme parks because they're fun.

But a Naperville native who recently placed third in a Disney contest for aspiring designers is a fan for deeper reasons.

"Theme parks can dissolve time and create these family bonds," said John Manos, a 2016 Naperville Central High School graduate now in his senior year at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

He has powerful memories of seeing his father and aunt become like kids again enjoying experiences together at the Disney theme parks with his twin sister, Calli.

"That's a powerful nostalgia," Manos said, "how much they can impact the family and create moments for decades."

Manos, 21, said he has loved Disney Imagineering - the team that designs all Disney theme parks, cruise ships and resorts - since he was in junior high, so he was excited to join the 29th annual Imaginations Design Competition. The competition challenged student participants this year to "create an iconic installation at the contestants' own campus or city that serves as an inspiration, honors the past and is a vision of the future."

Manos and three of his classmates - Nayelin Delgadillo, Chris Feliciano and Oki Honda - placed third for their concept installation "Urban Jewel." The design created a pedestrian bridge over a highway to revive the site where a public square used to be and turn it once again into a gathering space for students, locals and tourists, Manos said.

"We decided to reestablish that square and restore the square as a new, modern, interactive take," he said.

Manos and his teammates went as far as creating renderings and ideas for the bridge based on actual conditions and presenting those plans to Walt Disney Imagineering judges the week of Jan. 13, but not as far as building the structure in real life.

"It's fun to work in concept," he said.

Their work on "Urban Jewel" came up short to two other design concepts, one called "Starboard Port" by students at the U.S. Naval Academy, and another called "Here," designed as a gathering place for current, former and future students of Texas A&M University.

But the third-place finish felt like a "cherry on top" of an already great experience for Manos, who is majoring in production design with an emphasis in theme parks and attractions and said he dreams of working for Disney Imagineering.

When he and his peers were named a finalist in the national contest - earning a five-day trip to network with Imagineers themselves, in their California work environment - he felt like he already had won.

"It really felt like we were being welcomed into this creative family," Manos said.

Manos hopes to score an Imagineering internship after his graduation, as have some other participants in the Imaginations Design Competition in the past. After that, he said he hopes to spend a career harnessing the power of entertainment "in creating an impactful moment that can also be very cultural and relevant and timeless."

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