Zeke Waters and his team of college friends were declared as first place winners after competing against teams from across the country during the 2019 Walt Disney Imaginations Design Competition, which took place last week.

Waters, a 2015 graduate of Sonoraville High School, is currently a senior at Savannah College of Art and Design, where he’s been able to explore his passion for scene entertainment and creative designing. And during his studies, he’s come across the Walt Disney Imaginations Design Competition multiple times.

And after watching some of his older friends enter the competition when he was an underclassman, he and a few of his SCAD friends decided to form a team together and enter into the 2019 competition.

The Imaginations Design Competition was started in 1991 by Imagineering Executive Marty Sklar with the purpose of seeking out and nurturing the next generation of diverse Imagineers, according to a press release from Walt Disney Imagineering. The competition is open to college students across the country, and offers an opportunity for them to design an experience that could potentially be incorporated in future Disney theme parks.

Waters’ team was on the list of the six finalists, which resulted in his entire team receiving an all-expenses paid trip to Walt Disney Imagineering in California, where they presented their projects to Imagineering executives and competed for awards during the week of Feb. 4-8. The top six teams also had the opportunity to meet Disney Imagineers and interview for internships during their trip.

During the initial stages of their project, Waters and his team — which consists of fellow SCAD students Carolyn Teves, Nicholas Hammond and Remi Jeffrey-Coker — decided to choose a focus location through the theme of the hanging gardens of Babylon, which they historically placed in Iraq.

“The Rose of Babylon,” the title of their project, is a botanical experience for people of all ages and a modern re-imagining of ancient Babylon, and it’s meant to inspire a rebuilding of Iraq. This interactive exhibit allows guests to experience ancient Middle East and contribute to the spread of resources and new life, according to the Disney press release.

Waters’ team created an experience that was “punctuated by the miraculous Hanging Gardens where guests can bask in the glory of agriculture from around the world and actively contribute to spread of resources and the growth of new life,” according to a news release from Walt Disney Imagineering.

“It was a challenge but we wanted to convey a feeling of neighborhood and community through our experience,” Waters said. “We wanted to convey coming together regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender so all people could come together to work for a goal that would benefit Iraq and would spread out to the Middle East.”

 The projects were judged on mastery of skills and talents, guest experience, uniqueness and team collaboration. The judges were looking for the ability to recognize the cultural nuances of the selected location, expanding the boundaries of what currently exists, and an evaluation of its business implications and impact on the community.

On Friday — the last day of the competition — the results were announced and Waters and his team were placed as first out of the six finalist teams. They will be awarded a cash prize of $1,000, and an additional $1,000 grant will also be awarded to SCAD, since it was the sponsoring university.

According to Waters, the SCAD team wasn’t even expecting to win.

“Personally, I never thought we could win, not because I didn’t have faith in our project,” Waters said. “But seeing everybody else’s and how good their projects were, we wondered if ours held up.”

Waters said when his team arrived at the competition in California last week, the idea that the event was actually a “competition” quickly left the minds of each of the teams. He said everyone they met who were competitors were “super caring, super talented and well-versed in their area of expertise,” and the six finalist teams became a sort of family over the course of five days.

But at the awards ceremony, when the “Rose of Babylon” was called as the first place project, Waters and his team were blown away.

“I can’t really tell you how I was feeling then, I still don’t really know,” Waters said. “We genuinely weren’t expecting for them to call our team name, and when they did, we had nothing but uttermost joy on our faces.”

Waters said it was such an honor having their project chosen by Disney executives and seeing that their hard work had paid off. He said that the competition was a life-changing experience and that he learned a lot through the process of working with his team, developing their project and presenting it in California.

And having a week at Walt Disney Imagineering opened his eyes to the endless possibilities in the job field that he’s interested in. Everywhere he turned there was something new to learn, Waters said, and he learned about jobs and opportunities he’d never heard of before.

“I was inspired to come back to school to work harder and get that full-time position at Disney if that’s where I end up,” the Calhounite said. “I’m reinvigorated to working harder and I’m looking forward to the future. Hard work does pay off.”

Waters hopes to work in the scene entertainment industry as a show set designer or production designer after he graduates from SCAD. He wants to create environments or experiences that affect people on multiple levels, and without a doubt believes participating in this competition has helped propel him along that journey.

Though still in school, Waters has already begun his career and has worked with Universal Creative, where he designed for the upcoming Universal Beijing theme park, and HBO, where he designed an event for the Season 2 premiere of HBO’s Westworld.

Waters said he was encouraged to realize that just because he’s from a small town doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to work at a big company like Disney and do something that he loves.

“If you continue to search out what you want to do, you can actually achieve your dreams.”