Doris Hardoon

When Doris Hardoon arrived in 1979 for an interview at WED Enterprises—as Walt Disney Imagineering was then called—three future Disney Legends sat in judgment of this recent graduate from San Francisco’s California College of the Arts: Marty Sklar, John Hench, and Rolly Crump. Her creativity and design experience at a small animal-themed park in Northern California after college impressed the trio, and “I was hired basically on the spot.” 

She was soon at work on EPCOT Center’s The Land pavilion under Rolly’s direction. In the forty years that followed (including a nine-year hiatus), Doris had creative input into countless Imagineering projects, culminating in a leadership role during the six-year journey that was the creation of the Shanghai Disney Resort.

It was a full-circle project for Doris, whose parents had met and married in Shanghai. They moved to Hong Kong not long before Doris was born, and she grew up in that cosmopolitan city under British rule but steeped in Chinese culture. She was artistic from an early age, pursuing singing, modeling, and even dancing for a time. Finally she landed on graphic design as a pursuit both creative and practical and enrolled at the California College of the Arts.

At Walt Disney Imagineering, Doris quickly graduated from graphics to show design, the discipline now called creative studio. “I was launched into that whole world of designing for the parks,” she says, “then also for all the galleries at EPCOT World Showcase.” Her work on the many exhibitions at EPCOT also taught her production skills, making her one of the few Imagineers entrusted to do both conceptual and producing work, which she calls “a great, fortunate thing.” Inside Disney, she went on to work on Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, among other projects. “I actually have worked on every single Magic Kingdom in the world in some form,” she notes. WDI also loaned her out to lead design work on the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles and the Port Discovery Baltimore Children’s Museum, as well as to design an exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

In the late 1990s, Doris was on the team that brainstormed design ideas and scouted sites for Hong Kong Disneyland, but she took a break from WDI in the early 2000s, moving with her family to Vermont, where she and her ex-husband ran their own design firm. In 2010, she accepted an invitation to return to Imagineering to start work on the most all- encompassing project of her career, Shanghai Disney Resort.

The mandate, she recalls, was “the biggest, the widest,” the most amazing theme park ever built. It was to be “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese,” as then-CEO Bob Iger phrased it. “I embraced it and it’s me,” she says. “I’m both East and West in my blood, so this assignment connected with me.” Doris was onsite in Shanghai from when all there was to see was construction equipment and mud until well past Opening Day. Among other responsibilities, she was the design lead on a new land at the park’s hub, the Gardens of Imagination, and the original design lead on the park’s Enchanted Storybook Castle. From beginning to end, the Shanghai project was a prime example of the kind of collaboration that has always been the hallmark of Walt Disney Imagineering. “The team is what I’m all about,” she says. “It is about the people. If we don’t have the people, we have nothing.”

Doris’ final project with Imagineering took her back to Hong Kong to transform its centerpiece icon into the grand Castle of Magical Dreams. “That project meant a lot to me, because it had personal meaning,” she says. The reimagined structure symbolizes “hope, and the future of dreams. It was an amazing ending of that phase of my career.”

She’s far from finished, however. “All the people that have come and gone in my life that have made me who I am and have helped me,” she recalls, “I never had the chance to pay forward. Now I have the time to do so, and I’m mentoring a lot of people. It’s a gift that I hope to continue to give—and they give back to me as well, which is cool. I haven’t stopped yet!”