Davie County native to work as engineer at Universal Studios


Photo by Roger Winstead, N.C. State University — Michelle Phillips, an Advance native and recent N.C. State graduate, will work on animatronics at Universal Studios in Florida. (ROGER W WINSTEAD/Journal)

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ORLANDO, Fla. — When Michelle Phillips starts work at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla., in July, it will be her responsibility to bring much-loved childhood characters to life, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Some call it magic. Phillips calls it animatronics.

“It’s all about turning machines into the characters from our childhood to recreate the stories we grew up with it,” said Phillips, from Advance.

No easy task, but one Phillips is ready to tackle.

When she was young, she dreamed of being an inventor — which is pretty close to what she’ll be doing as an associate engineer at Universal.

Animatronics creates machines that appear realistic instead of robotic, like those seen in such Disney World rides “It’s a Small World” or “Splash Mountain.”

“I had always thought being an amusement park engineer would be the coolest job ever,” Phillips, 22, said. “But if you told me as a freshman in college that I was going to end up as one, I would’ve thought you were crazy.”

After Phillips graduated from the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in 2010, she began her freshman year at N.C. State University planning to become a biomedical engineer — until she realized she didn’t actually like biology.

Although she realized that biomedicine wasn’t in the cards, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do until she saw Randy Pausch’s video from 2007 titled “The Last Lecture.” In the video, Pausch — a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who was dying of pancreatic cancer — encouraged people to work toward their childhood dreams.

Pausch also worked as an Imagineer at Disney, which ignited a spark in Phillips.

“I started thinking about what I wanted to do and what made me really happy when I was a kid,” she said. “Some of my best memories were at amusement parks, so I thought it would be cool to work for someone like Disney.”

Abandoning biomedicine, Phillips switched her major to mechanical engineering.

Not long after, Phillips entered the national Disney ImagiNations competition, in which students compete to develop potential new attractions for locations in the world where Disney has not expanded. Her idea for an interactive theme park in Rio de Janeiro based on Brazilian folklore made it to the semifinals and earned her attention from some of the best in the business.

She began a summer internship with Universal Studios following her junior year, where she helped create animatronic characters as a part of the $400 million expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

“As a kid at a theme park, I never knew how much hard work and dedication it takes to create everything you see in the park,” she said. “I’m excited to get to be a part of that.”

For Phillips, an admitted adrenaline junkie, amusement parks have always been at the top of her to-do list, right there with white-water rafting and rock climbing.

During her childhood, she frequently visited Carowinds and went to Disney World and Universal Studios a handful of times.

“Universal Studios is lucky to have her,” said Larry Silverberg, a mechanical engineering professor at N.C. State. “She’s an extremely driven and talented young lady, who can do just about whatever she puts her mind to.”

Including building a life-size animatronic wolf.

Last year, Phillips and fellow student Kevin Young created the “Timber-Wolf,” a wooden wolf that can wiggle its ears and appear to howl when prompted.

Phillips and Young modeled the wolf after a $3 plastic toy as part of their capstone project for the University Honors Program.

“If you were looking to hire and came across someone who built an animatronic wolf, you’d probably look twice, too,” said Silverberg, Phillips’ mentor for the project. “It’s her determination and out-of-the-box thinking that sets her apart.”

Silverberg said it is the balance between Phillips’ creativity, drive and talent that makes her an innovative force in the engineering field — one well suited for Universal Studios.

“She was a top student at N.C. State, and she’ll be golden in Orlando,” he said. “I expect great things from her.”

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