Campus alum shares his path to dream job at Disney with current students

By: Josh McAuliffe

Jim Cesari’s job title sounds like something out of a Disney movie.


It makes perfect sense once you learn Cesari recently realized his longtime dream of going to work for the Walt Disney Co.

Two months ago, the campus alumnus and 2007 Penn State graduate started his new job as a software developer at Disney’s Imagineering Research & Development, Inc., facility in Glendale, California. Specifically, he works on the software for the animatronic attractions at Disney’s theme parks.

“I’m one of the in-house magic makers,” he said. “My job is to make people happy.”

Cesari recently returned to Penn State Scranton as the featured speaker at this year’s Richard M. and Jean McNichols Walsh Endowed Lecture. Established by the Walsh family of Scranton, the talk brings top-tier professionals in the business and information sciences and technology (IST) fields to the campus.

In front of a large crowd gathered in the Sherbine Lounge, Cesari discussed his multifaceted career path and offered some sage advice to students.

“I would tell you if you don’t know what you want to do, try everything you can. Don’t be afraid to take chances,” said Cesari, whose parents, Rick and Julie Cesari, and grandmother, Helen Thomashefsky, were among those in the audience.

A Dickson City native and Mid-Valley Secondary Center graduate, Cesari nurtured a love for Disney from a very young age, as well as a facility for gadgetry and computers. He still has fond memories of fiddling with an old Tandy 1000.

Penn State was Cesari’s one and only college choice, and he initially enrolled in University Park’s renowned meteorology program.

“I don’t know why. I guess I was trying to figure how to do it in a way in which I could somehow work for Disney. … It was a bad idea all around,” he said with a laugh.

From there, he transferred to the Scranton campus to study economics. He especially liked a business software course he took within the program, which led to the realization that IST was actually the better fit.

“That was fun from beginning to end. I learned a ton,” said Cesari, noting the quality instruction and mentorship he received from IST faculty members Debra Smarkusky, Ph.D., Alan Peslak, Ph.D., and Fred Aebli, who arranged for Cesari to come to campus for the talk.

“It's always an honor to have IST graduates who are highly successful in their careers share experiences with the campus community,” said Smarkusky, associate professor of IST and program co-coordinator. “Jim's career path is just one example of how knowledge learned in the IST degree program provides the technical foundation for a variety of career opportunities.”

Cesari then returned to University Park to complete his coursework. While there, he was accepted into the Disney College Program in Orlando, where he made great contacts and even got to serve as “Mickey Mouse’s bodyguard” at an event.

After graduation, Cesari applied for a job at Disney, but didn’t get it. Disappointed yet undeterred, he ended up landing a position building databases for Huntsville, Alabama-based Jacobs Engineering, a contractor for NASA. Among his more offbeat assignments was working on the urine processor for the International Space Station.

By the time Cesari married his wife, Brandie, at Disney World in 2011, he had found professional and personal fulfillment. However, everything came crashing down in July 2015, when his wife passed away due to a lifelong medical condition.

“That was the day my life stopped,” Cesari said.

Devastated, he left Huntsville to start a new chapter in Orlando. There, he took a position not with Disney, but with government defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The job was satisfying, yet stressful, requiring Cesari to regularly put in 60-hour-plus work weeks.

Finally, in October 2018, Cesari got the call he always wanted. Disney wanted him to come out west, and early this year the dream officially became a reality.

“This means more to me than anything in my career,” said Cesari as he displayed a photo of his Mickey Mouse-adorned Disney nametag.

He’s still learning the ins and outs of the job, but is already highly impressed with the work being done by his department.

“Since I’m new, I haven’t gotten to work on anything yet, but some folks I work with just completed Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy, which has, to me, one of the coolest animatronics in the parks,” he said. “But really, I love everything from the older Pirates (of the Caribbean) animatronics to this new one.”

Cesari likes Disney’s overall company culture, too.

“I feel like it’s way more of an environment where you’re allowed to experiment. We’re held back only by what we can’t do because it’s physically impossible,” he said. “And it’s way more laid back than I thought it would be. But, everyone gets their job done more efficiently than at any other place I’ve worked. The people are happy there. … It’s been a lot of fun so far.”

Smarkusky and Aebli both said they feel tremendous pride seeing alumni like Cesari find great success in their post-Penn State lives.

“Seeing Jim’s journey is an inspiring story,” said Aebli, lecturer in IST and program co-coordinator. “I hope our students embrace and realize careers are filled with ups and downs. At the end, though, you can achieve your goal.  For me, as Jim’s teacher and friend, I am incredibly proud and will continue to stay in touch. He is one fellow I know I admire greatly!”