When Peggie Fariss showed up for work at Disneyland in the fall of 1965, she thought she’d be there for just a few months, or a year or two at most. Spending weekends guiding guests through the mouth of Monstro the Whale in Storybook Land seemed like a fun but temporary job.

What Fariss got instead was the start of a 50-year career with Disney, 40 of those as an "Imagineer" surrounded by the architects, designers, engineers and creators who make Disney theme parks tick. By the time she retired in 2016, Fariss was the head of the Imagineering design and show quality team at Disneyland Paris, having helped to blaze a trail for more female designers, managers, directors and producers at the company.

“I was thrilled to be leading an international team of very talented, extremely knowledgeable, remarkably kind individuals,” Fariss said.

As an English major at Cal State Fullerton, Fariss studied everything from Indian literature to Celtic mythology to Native American art. Those interests served as a rich background for one of her first tasks as an Imagineer, conducting historical research for Spaceship Earth, an attraction at Disney’s EPCOT theme park that guides visitors through 40,000 years of human communication history. To add authenticity to the show, Fariss imbued scenes with details and artifacts, including a reproduction of a page from the Gutenberg Bible, music played on instruments from the Renaissance and a letter from an ancient Egyptian pharaoh (which she can still cite from memory).

While the scope of the work was rewarding, Fariss said, it could also be challenging. To be relevant and productive on the proudly interdisciplinary Imagineering team, she needed to understand a wide variety of subjects and areas of expertise. Sometimes, that meant rushing to get up to speed.

“After EPCOT opened, I was in a meeting when the topic turned to IRR and NPV – internal rate of return and net present value – and I had absolutely no idea what those terms meant," Fariss said with a laugh. "So, I sent away for the UCLA Extension catalog."

After that meeting, Fariss enrolled in a series of finance courses at UCLA Extension – and over the next 20 years, went on to take several dozen more classes, including business management, organizational development, economics, marketing, real estate investment analysis and other courses that helped her tackle increasingly complex assignments at Disney.

“I was learning something on a Wednesday night and applying it on a Thursday morning," Fariss said. "It was so gratifying."

Being part of the team that helped open EPCOT, where guests are invited to imagine the future of human endeavor from agriculture to transportation to space travel, brought added pressure to stay up-to-date. One of Fariss’ early responsibilities at Disney Imagineering was the organization of a series of EPCOT conferences and advisory boards that featured interventions from towering figures such as Sylvia Earle, Robert Ballard and Carl Hodges.

“Our EPCOT advisers were stellar individuals who were so generous with their expertise and time," Fariss said. “Since this was all about the future, we had to continually ensure that the content was truly cutting-edge.”

Even as she took on new roles at Disney, Fariss continued to enroll in UCLA Extension courses. Some, such as a mathematics course she took while working as show producer for The Disney Gallery in Anaheim, were useful in unexpected ways.

“Part of my responsibility was to provide Disneyland with a budget for what it would cost to frame the next exhibit, but we hadn't chosen the exhibit yet," Fariss said. "Luckily for me, matrix math, which I had literally learned about the night before, was a perfect tool to come up with a price range.”

Group of people posing with Peggie Fariss, with text "Merci Peggie & Joyeuses Tutures Aventures!"
Fariss with her team at Disneyland Paris

By the time she arrived at Disneyland Paris in 2010, Fariss had taken some 40 courses at UCLA Extension. Her first task in the European capital was to increase the size of her team and create a new organizational framework that promoted training and skills enhancement as a path to individual advancement, something she said UCLA Extension had prepared her for.

“I drew on all the things I learned in the Extension courses," Fariss said. "Having picked up all those tools, and then having lived through several decades of being part of an organization, I found myself thinking, ‘I actually know what we should do.”

Now retired, Fariss continues to learn. She especially likes painting, partly because it lets her see the world from the point of view of the artists she worked with for so many years. She has also co-authored a book, "Women of Walt Disney Imagineering: 12 Women Reflect on their Trailblazing Theme Park Careers," and she recently joined the board of Ryman Arts, a nonprofit that offers free studio arts instruction to young students from underserved communities.

When she’s not in the classroom or the boardroom, Fariss likes to spend time with her nieces and grandnieces. She also likes to travel, and even takes the occasional cruise – with Disney, of course.