Electronic Engineer Linda Alcorn was the first female engineer hired by Walt Disney Imagineering (then known as WED Enterprises). In a 38 year career beginning with the company in 1979, she designed the show control systems for attractions at Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Disney/MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom, Euro Disney, and Expo ’86.
She had planned to work for Disney from an early age and applied to work at WED Enterprises when she graduated from UCLA in 1978 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering. By the time Epcot opened, she was responsible for show control in ten of the park’s opening day attractions.
Linda Alcorn’s Disney career
Speaking about the elements that set her on the path to her groundbreaking career, Linda Alcorn says:
“I can’t really claim I was passionate to be an engineer when I was really young. I always liked math and science. My father was a mechanical engineer; a very talented gentleman.
The truth is that actually when I was filling out my college applications on a manual typewriter (because I’m very old) I had a whole stack of them. When I got to the one for UCLA it asked, ‘What might you be interested in?’ It was almost like throwing a dart. I said, ‘Well, sure, engineering’ – I had no idea that was going to put me into the school of engineering. I had gone to a girls’ school where I got a very good education in many things; unfortunately, science wasn’t one of them.”
“The first few years at school were a little bit of a struggle, but that’s how I ended up with an engineering degree.”
It was, at this point, an unusual path for a woman to take:
“In college, when I went to classes I would notice if there was another woman in the room. It was the norm for me to be the only one.”
She is self-deprecating:
“I wasn’t a great student because I really hadn’t had the preparation that I needed for that kind of a curriculum. I did OK, but I certainly wasn’t on the honour roll.”
“The most wonderful thing you could possibly do”
Linda Alcorn had always loved Disneyland:
“My parents were very accommodating. We lived about 30, 40 miles from Disneyland, and three or four times a year we would have an expedition and go out there, Iwas quite enamoured of it.
“I thought it was perfect – the most wonderful thing on the planet. I remember I was devastated when Walt Disney died. Fast-forwarding again to college, there was a programme where Imagineers would come and speak once a year or so. I attended some of those lectures, and thought this was the most wonderful thing you could possibly do.”
She applied for a job after her studies finished:
“I had graduated from college two or three months before. Frankly, we were going broke, so I had to get a job. In those days, you saw ads in the newspaper. I saw an ad that they were starting to hire for Epcot and for Tokyo Disneyland. So, I sent an application in. I had no qualifications whatsoever, except I had a degree. I knew calculus and that was about it.
“But I didn’t hear anything. I called and I called, and I still didn’t hear anything. Finally, after about a month, they admitted they had moved the HR office, and told me they had lost my application, so I made another copy of the resume and I drove it over to the offices of WED, and left it with the receptionist. I didn’t have an appointment, but at that point, I think they felt guilty. I don’t think they really wanted me, but they agreed to interview me.”
Early days at Disney
Alcorn got through the interview and was hired.
“It was a fatherly type who was doing a lot of the interviewing. I was told after the fact that they took me on because they figured I wanted it so bad. They really didn’t know what to do with me, but I wasn’t being paid a whole lot of money, so it wasn’t a huge risk to bring me on board.”
They had never had anybody female in the office that wasn’t a support person before, certainly not in an engineering position. The rest is history
This was 1979. Alcorn was the first woman engineer hired by WED.
“I didn’t know what I was doing; they really didn’t know what to do with me,” she says. “They had never had anybody female in the office that wasn’t a support person before, certainly not in an engineering position. The rest is history.”
She had deliberately chosen not to learn to type:
“If I knew how to type, I was going to be put into a support position, not through malice, but because we were all finding our way.”
Working on Epcot
Linda Alcorn was initially hired as a wirelister:
“A wire list basically tells you how to string a wire from A to B in a cabinet. It takes a lot of wires, so there would be pages and pages and pages of these documents that would then be given to technicians, and they would build from them.
“This was so long ago that in the beginning, I had no computer on my desk. Nobody had a computer on their desk. You would take vellum that was printed out especially, and ink, and would hand-write all of these wire lists. They were then sent over to the studio in Burbank, where they had a whole bunch of ladies who would key it in on IBM cards, feed it through and then a week or so later you would get a printout to correct. It was very antiquated.”
Assigned to the Show Control section of the Electronic Engineering department, she began work on the Epcot project.
“There were major and minor pavilions if you will,” she explains. “A major one would be Spaceship Earth, for example. And a minor one would be a theatre show like Canada or China. At this point, they were literally doling these things out – one of each to everybody that was on the team. I ended up with World of Motion and Canada. It was a great learning experience. Most of us are straight out of college, and we learned together. It was sort of like a college experience.
“Fast forward a little bit: one guy left. He had come on to the project later, so had been assigned two minor attractions. I ended up with his stuff, China and France, as well as mine.”
Linda and Steve Alcorn
Her responsibilities broadened, and she then took on the UK, Germany, Japan, Italy, and parts of CommuniCore. At this point, in addition, Alcorn was working with her husband, Steve Alcorn, on a park-wide monitoring system that would report the status of equipment:
“If an amplifier or a power supply had gone out, or a projector was on the fritz, it would let us know. There were attractions that didn’t really have a show, but that did have some audio components that needed to be monitored. I picked those up as well.”
In 1978, Linda had married Steve Alcorn and was instrumental in introducing her husband to the attractions industry.
“He was more focused on the music industry,” she says. “The company that he was working for had some problems and had to close, and at about the same time Disney needed a small army in order to achieve what they were attempting to do in a relatively short period of time. They were hiring folks that would just work on an hourly basis to perform engineering functions. It was just good timing. He needed the job, there was a job there, and he already knew most of the people through me. It was a no-brainer.”
Show control, Alcorn contends, is fun:
“It’s work, but it’s fun. The good thing about show control engineering is that it’s always different. There are no two projects that are exactly the same. You approach each one, you figure out the control requirements, and then you select equipment accordingly. There are always nuances to consider – operator interfaces, and things like that.
“I worked on a lot of the larger attractions at Walt Disney World. Then, in my later years, I was working on replacing the show control systems that I put in when I was a kid, which is a very strange career arc.”
Linda Alcorn preferred the smaller attractions. She explains why:
“I worked on a lot of the big ones, and there’s always a real thrill when those open successfully. But what I enjoyed the most was the smaller ones. That’s because, for the multi-million-dollar attractions, there are literally hundreds of people working on them, in all sorts of different disciplines. Certainly, show control is important, and you have to do your part correctly and precisely. But there are many other people involved.
On the smaller ones – and I mean small by Disney standards – there really is no need to have an army. Especially when you’re working with people who have done it repeatedly. You can get by with a very small staff, and that means you get to wear a lot more hats.”
Speaking about a project she particularly enjoyed, Alcorn says:
“There was a building at the studio called Soundstage 4, which was repurposed every couple of years or so to promote a new film. It would go down for a few months, and I would design the system for it. I got to do AV control, lighting programming and show programming, which was a change. What I normally did was more focused on hardware design.
“In this case, I got to program when the lights came up, and all that good stuff. It was just fun, because it was literally the whole process, soup to nuts. It was my baby. The way it was presented was more a representation of me personally, as opposed to the collective vision.”
“One of these Soundstage 4 attractions was for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was a very simple concept; you would go into what was basically a small soundstage area, and there was were the wardrobe doors that were lit up. There would be a little promo, and then the doors would magically open, and there was Narnia on the other side.
“I came in one morning and they just started running. The first group of guests had just gone through, and I saw that the ops person had held back a family: a mom and a dad and a son who looked like he was 11 or so. It turned out that the child was blind, so the ops person had held them back. The doors were closed and the kid was feeling all of the woodwork, and getting to experience it in a way that was very special for him. Those are the little moments that make it all worthwhile.”
A prestigious career
Linda Alcorn was recognized as part of the opening team and was a recipient of the Thea Classic Award for her 1982 work on Epcot. During her career at Imagineering, she designed, redesigned, or supervised attractions at all of Walt Disney World’s parks.
She designed the show control system for It’s a Small World and supervised the installation of Pirates of the Caribbean show control systems at Disneyland Paris.
In the beginning, certainly, I think there was some prejudice. There were a few people who really didn’t like taking directions from a woman
As a Technical Director, she managed the show control team at Walt Disney Imagineering Florida.
In terms of challenges, she says:
“In the beginning, certainly, I think there was some prejudice. There were a few people who really didn’t like taking directions from a woman. You can’t go in with a chip on your shoulder. You can’t say, ‘Well, I’ve got a degree and you don’t’. The way you get around that is to keep your cool, and kill them with competence.”
Linda Alcorn is often credited with founding Alcorn McBride in 1986, a leader in audio, video, lighting, and show control products for the themed entertainment sector. She corrects this misapprehension:
“I did not found it. It is my husband’s company. When Epcot ended, most of the people that had been working on Epcot and TDL went out on their own and started their own companies. We wanted to come up with a name that had a little bit of a catch to it. ‘Alcorn Engineering’ doesn’t really stick with you, but Alcorn McBride (McBride is my maiden name) – is a little easier to remember. At that point in time, I didn’t know if I was going to go into the business. And we thought there was a possibility my father might become involved, too.
“As luck would have it, I stuck with Disney through the duration.”
Leaving things in good hands
After Epcot, she continued at Disney for nearly four decades, retiring in October 2016, having made a historical contribution to the industry.
In 2016, Linda and Steve Alcorn collaborated on a children’s book, Molly Builds a Theme Park.
“It’s not much of a book,” she says, with characteristic self-deprecation. “It was just a crazy idea that Steve and I came up with.
“I wrote the first draft of this children’s book in the space of three or four hours, and that was it, so I can’t really claim to be an author. Steve was the one that really did all the heavy lifting. He was the one that went and found somebody that was going to do the illustrations. It was much more his doing than mine.”
When she retired, Alcorn drew back from the industry, rather than following its evolution avidly:
“I miss the people terribly, but the work gets harder when you get older,” she says. “For a lot of this work, you have to go in at 10 o’clock in the evening when the park closes, work all night and then make sure whatever you’re working on is functioning in the morning. There’s no downtime. It’s great when you’re 25, but when you get to be 60, it’s a little more of an issue.
“So I just hung up my hat, so to speak. I gave it my all for almost 38 years. I had built up a team here in Florida with some very talented folks. When I retired, I knew that Walt Disney World was in good hands, and I just walked away.”
An industry veteran
However, Linda Alcorn’s love of theme parks remains:
“I think the wonderful thing about theme parks is you get the experience that you can’t on a computer screen. There’s just no way that you can duplicate the immersive 3D experience.”
In 2014 she was a member of the team that received the Thea Award for Enchanted Tales with Belle at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. She is also one of the engineers featured in the book Building A Better Mouse: The Story Of The Electronic Imagineers Who Designed Epcot.
As well as numerous performance and service awards from Walt Disney Imagineering, in 2020 She was recognized as a TEA Master by the Themed Entertainment Association.
“I was completely surprised,” she says. “It’s a wonderful group of people.
“I would say their primary emphasis is trying to mentor and work with younger folks. We do five or six Zoom sessions a year where we talk about the project experience and how projects are developed. It’s a half-hour presentation, and there are usually over a hundred people that attend. Then we break out into smaller groups. There are usually a couple of Masters from disparate disciplines with 10 or 12 people from all over the globe, and we just have a chat. It’s really kind of fun.”