Cheryl Platz and her younger brother Doug look on in rapt attention as the Solitaire cards bounce after a successful game on their Windows 3.1 PC.

On several occasions, I’ve been asked, “How did you get involved in IGNITE? What is your inspiration?” At the recent IxDA Women in Design event it came up – and then, while I was traveling through the Atlanta airport I encountered a reminder in the form of an ad featuring my former professor and mentor, who changed my life and many others. Maybe it’s time to share that story. But to understand what this story means to me, you need to understand a bit more about how I came to be.

When I was growing up, I was always a geek. I was lucky enough to live in a home where computer equipment was readily available, beginning with our beloved Commodore 64 (where I learned Basic, like many geeks in my generation) and continuing through our 286, 386, 486, etc. For a long time the computer was a platform for SimCity, shareware games and rudimentary desktop publishing for school… but when the modem showed up? It was a revelation. I spent countless hours chatting and playing with kindred spirits on text-based bulletin board systems. Got a 6-digit ICQ number (420653) and a Geocities homepage littered with Animaniacs and Muppet information. I was in love with technology.

But I was also deeply in love with creative pursuits. I loved creating art, loved dance class, loved singing and dancing. I never feel so alive as I do when I’m onstage, and the process of creating a piece of physical art is the closest I’ll ever get to meditation with my hyperactive mind. Over the course of my high school years I would frequently vacillate about whether I wanted to pursue computer science or fine art – even visited RISD and started preparing a portfolio at the same time that I was taking AP Computer Science. I used tools like Photoshop on the computer to try and combine art and technology – created free banners for other Geocities members to get practice, and eagerly read about the technology used for 3D special effects and animation. I remember standing with my father watching the animators at Disney World’s Art of Animation building, before the department was liquidated, inspired and curious about their line of work.

And there’s the third component – my inexplicably deep love of Disney World and Sesame Street. As my mother puts it, when I was 6 months old I “made it very clear that we would not be changing the channel when Big Bird was on.” How I did that I’ll never know. But I LOVED Sesame Street. And as it happened, I grew up just 10 minutes away from the only Sesame Street theme park in the country. My first 2 field trips were to Sesame Place, which only encouraged my obsession. My poor bedraggled Big Bird came with me everywhere.

Cheryl Platz, as a child, grandstands for her little brother Doug on a replica of the Sesame Street set at the Sesame Place theme park in Langhorne, PA – where she would eventually work as a performer for 3 years – in what can only be described as “foreshadowing.”

As for Disney World, it was an unofficial family tradition to go once a year, driving from Philadelphia to Orlando. The best memories from my childhood happened there. When I heard about Imagineering as a job, it blew my mind. “How awesome that would be!” I thought, “…but surely there’s no chance of that with so many other people probably wanting the same thing!” Still, I hungrily consumed every backstage story, marveled over new rides and new technologies – I still remember the opening of Pleasure Island on TV and the launch of Splash Mountain. I remember the opening of MGM Studios and my irrational emotional reaction when I realized they were closing the Horizons ride at Epcot. For me, Disney World was a shining beacon of awesome.

To be continued: Falling down the theme park rabbit hole.

Cheryl Platz as a teenager with her mother Joan, riding a Walt Disney World monorail at sunset.