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Corpuz ’89: The Science Behind the Magic

Man standing in front of Millennium Falcon amusement park ride, smiling.

Jose Corpuz ’89 designs rides and shows for Disney. His latest project, the highly-anticipated Smugglers Run ride, opened last spring in California’s Disneyland and in the fall at Disney World. Corpuz came to VMI courtesy the Harry A. deButts ’916 Merit Scholarship. In 1981, the Southern Railway System began a scholarship in honor of deButts. To date, 68 people have received aid from this scholarship. Photos by Amy Goetz, Alumni Agencies chief communications officer.

Making magic is what Jose Corpuz ’89 does. A systems engineer at Disney, he begins with sky-is-the-limit ideas designed by creative teams and figures out the behind-the-scenes practical applications. His end products are the rides and shows enjoyed by countless Disney park visitors worldwide.

His cadetship was not nearly as snazzy as his current job. Corpuz was a serious, quiet student who – minus his participation in band activities – spent his time in barracks concentrating on academics.

“My roommates remember me as the guy who sat in his room studying,” he recalled. “I had no life. I was pretty happy being able to get into a book and trying to work problems out.”

Part of Corpuz’s attitude toward education stemmed from his mother’s influence. The youngest of four children, he was born in the Philippines. His mother, sponsored by her sister, immigrated to the U.S. when Corpuz was very young. While he was growing up, she placed a heavy emphasis on the value and necessity of education.

“My mother had very high expectations of us,” he said, noting that most parents of teenagers begin conversations about the future by talking about choices following high school. “My mother would start our conversations with, ‘Let’s talk about what graduate school you’re going to – and how you’re going to pay for it.’”

Corpuz had looked at the service academies, including the U.S. Military Academy, but was temporarily ineligible for West Point after knee surgery in high school. That’s when VMI came calling with a full-ride Institute Scholarship in hand. Corpuz came to VMI courtesy of the Harry A. deButts ’916 Merit Scholarship. His mother was almost “dancing” when she heard about VMI’s scholarship offer, he remembered. “She loved it, because it allowed her to concentrate on the other kids.”

At VMI, he learned that he “loved being an engineer” and decided to go into the private sector. VMI was “an incredible experience,” he said, noting that he still uses the fundamental tools he learned – and earned – at the Institute. Included among those skills is a way of doing things, of getting the job done, of seeing a need and meeting it – whether it falls under the job description or not.

“I kept my word. I got there on time. I keep a set of core values that still provide me advantages,” Corpuz said, explaining the effect of a solid reputation built over time. “Every time you do something, you keep your word, you show character, you show poise, you show leadership – it’s a deposit in your ‘bank of reputation.’”

Following his VMI graduation, Corpuz moved back to Illinois, where he was raised, to attend graduate school. There, he found a part time job at a small virtual reality simulator manufacturer and operator called Virtual World Entertainment. It didn’t pay much, but for broke graduate-student Corpuz, unlimited free games after closing more than made up for the paycheck. Though he was hired as a ride operator, he soon found himself helping out in an engineering capacity, often maintaining the rides. “Most of the staff there knew I was an engineer,” he said.

“One of the things we like to do when we open a ride is to stand at the exit. We try to be at the attraction when the first people come in, to see the excitement [and] the anticipation. Then you savor their enjoyment when they get off.”

Jose Corpuz ’89 Disney Imagineer

Things started to get interesting when one staff member came by to check on the facility. “One day I was underneath a cockpit, head down, on my back and somebody kicked me in the leg,” Corpuz related, noting that his uniform identified him as a ride operator, not a technician. The man asked Corpuz why in the world he was working on the ride, and Corpuz explained that there were some issues with the design and added, “If I was in charge of the design, I would do it another way.”

After a little verbal back-and-forth, Corpuz was able to explain that aside from being a ride operator, he was a graduate mechanical engineering student at the University of Illinois. The man gave Corpuz a funny look, and asked, “What are you doing Monday?”

The man was the company’s CEO, and he had a position open. “The next thing I knew, I had a job offer to work as a field engineer. I eventually rose to be the chief field engineer for Virtual World Entertainment, and it morphed into a software engineer position,” Corpuz said. “From there I got hooked up with Disney. I had a director of technology at VWE who was an ex-Imagineer and he pointed me toward Disney.”

For the past 15 years, Corpuz has worked with and been one of Disney’s famed Imagineers – the threefold teams of creative folks, hard-science engineers and programmers, and numbers-crunching accountants and project managers who put their heads together to – from a story idea to programming and mechanical reality – make the magic happen for millions of Disney guests.

Due to an internal organizational change, Corpuz’s title is no longer Imagineer, although he still performs the same job. Job titles aside, Corpuz continues to make the practical magical. The latest launch from his team was the dream-come-true – for both Corpuz and every Star Wars fan on the planet – Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ride, which opened in California’s Disneyland last spring and opened in Walt Disney World this fall.

Developing the ride – commonly referred to as the Millennium Falcon ride – involved several years of high-level secrecy, combined with the pressure to live up to expectations of both Star Wars and Disney fans.

“We had to keep it under wraps. We couldn’t say anything,” Corpuz said, noting that the team wanted to live up to the reputations of both Disney and Star Wars. “You don’t want to disappoint people. It was a relief to say, ‘OK, we’ve done it. Let’s go.’”

When the ride opened, Corpuz was on hand to see reactions. “One of the things we like to do when we open a ride is to stand at the exit. We try to be at the attraction when the first people come in, to see the excitement [and] the anticipation. Then you savor their enjoyment when they get off.”

Pulling off rides like Smugglers Run and the whole Disney experience doesn’t actually happen magically. Similar to VMI’s culture in many aspects, Disney maintains and expects very high standards. Both places require a uniform of sorts, have grooming standards and use regimented systems. “I like to say Disney is a lot like VMI except you have to smile more,” Corpuz said.

Corpuz in front of Cinderella Castle at Disney World.

Back in his less-smiley days, one of his few escapes from his cadet “troubles and challenges” was the VMI band. Col. John Brodie (Hon.) took over as band director when Corpuz was a 1st Class cadet, and the two remain friends to this day. Corpuz calls the work Brodie did and does with the band “amazing,” and directs his VMI financial contributions to the band.

“I wanted to share that experience and pass it on. It’s an incredible program,” he said. “They are one of the most visible and effective representatives of the school.”

Continuing in the vein of financial contributions, Corpuz said “financial considerations” are a simple reality when considering colleges. He pointed out that many talented alumni – himself included – would not be VMI alumni without scholarships. “Scholarships help identify raw talent and encourage the student.”

Scholarships and support for VMI are important, he said, because of the type of graduate VMI produces. Explaining, he said, “We need leaders of character. We need people who will take the hard way … They won’t take the easy way out. They will do what’s right.”

Corpuz’s values, which stand in stark contrast to the notoriously law-breaking Millennium Falcon pilots brought to life in his latest project, have had a ripple effect. Illustrating this, Corpuz said a young woman who worked with him once remarked, “I had a Jose moment.”

Baffled, Corpuz asked her what she meant. While writing code, she explained, she noticed that something in the existing code base that was not correct. She could have figured out a work-around, but what was really necessary was to rewrite the large section of code – not an easy, nor quick, task. She told Corpuz, “I heard you in the back of my head, saying, ‘Do what’s right. Don’t be afraid of doing the hard thing.’”

The character and values that VMI alumni carry with them when they leave barracks are hard to overstate. VMI men and women bring these straightforward qualities wherever they go, intangibly raising the quality of any organization and holding everyone around them to a higher standard.

And that, folks, is called a happy ending.

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  • Molly Rolon

    Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist