How Disney Imagineer and Inventor Lanny Smoot Strives to Inspire Black Youth to Chase STEM Careers

PEOPLE chats with Disney Imagineer and inventor Lanny Smoot about his prolific career in honor of Black History Month and National Inventors' Day

Lanny Smoot
Lanny Smoot. Photo: Disney

Lanny Smoot is not your average inventor — in fact, he's helped create spectacles that Disney fans will instantly recognize.

Speaking with PEOPLE in honor of National Inventors' Day and Black History Month, Smoot — a 66-year-old Disney Research Fellow for Walt Disney Imagineering — is revealing some of the favorite contributions to Disney Parks over his 24-year tenure with the company.

Among the projects Smoot has tackled with colleagues are various effects used in the Haunted Mansion (such as the Madame Leota floating crystal-ball head in the Séance Room), Spaceship Earth's "Power City" at Project Tomorrow in EPCOT and many more.

"One of my favorite inventions now, just because it's current, [is] the very realistic lightsaber," he says.

Some guests might see it at the soon-to-be-opened Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser hotel experience at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, says the Glendale, California-based Smoot.

"It is the most realistic lightsaber ever made, and extends, retracts, is super bright and exactly mirrors what you see in the movies," says Smoot. "I also designed and patented the effect that will allow people to fight using lightsabers [via] training remote, just as Luke Skywalker does in the movie."

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It's a feat he accomplished thanks to years of experience and versatility. With over 100 patents from the United States Patent and Trademark Office — 74 of which came from his work with Disney — Smoot is considered a jack-of-all-trades inventor, electrical engineer, scientist, researcher and more.

He may have never taken that path had it not been for his "self-taught" father, who got Smoot's "bell ringing" in electrical engineering at a young age.

"It changed my life. And it's one of my earliest memories," he recalls. "I was probably, I don't know, 5, 6 years old or something. And it never left me: that urge to create new things, doing them myself, being able to see it purely for curiosity's sake."

Smoot came from a family that "didn't have a lot of money," but his passion and talent led him to secure a full scholarship to Columbia University. He went on to serve as an engineer for Bell Labs before starting at Disney in the late '90s.

Along the way, he's received recognition for his 40-plus-year career. Most recently he was named the inventor of the month at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. He's also featured in the Breaking Barriers Exhibit at the National Inventors Hall of Fame museum in Alexandria, Virginia, among his many other achievements.

Smoot has also worked on multiple technologies that aren't even in wide circulation (yet) — for example, the ability to take in three-dimensional imagery without 3D glasses and the "electronic panning camera," an invention he patented while at Bell years ago, which puts users "in control of the view that you see on television."

Lanny Smoot
Lanny Smoot. Disney

According to Smoot, the latter "might have been a little bit before its time," as "it required a lot of network bandwidth, which wasn't quite there because fiber-optic systems weren't as prevalent."

Through trial and error, he's learned that inventors need to be "brave and resolute" in their pursuits — and that includes knowing when to let go.

"You have to be realistic as to whether it will bear fruit — whether it will grow to be a successful idea," he explains. "I have ideas for things all the time. I need to filter myself to say, 'Okay, Lanny, of the things I could possibly be doing now, which ones have the greatest chance of success and changing the world?' And you make a seasoned judgment. You say, 'Okay, I've seen this type of thing before. It would appeal to this sort of audience. It would be able to service this many people at a time.' "

"That's what I'm going to put a little bit more effort into," Smoot adds.

Lanny Smoot
Lanny Smoot. Disney

Disney Parks, which is honoring Black cast members throughout the month of February, kicked off Black History Month with a blog post about Smoot and his legacy.

"We have Black heroes all over, and it's time to tell their stories — and to allow young kids, in particular, to see a future where they can contribute as people like them have," says Smoot, who won the Black Engineer of the Year Award in 1987. "Our stories are not as fully told as they need to be. And at least Black History Month gives us a chance to do some of that."

Though Smoot says he hasn't experienced "overt" racism in his career, he's noticed ways in which he's been treated differently because of the color of his skin.

"Sometimes racism doesn't come in the form of someone putting up a Confederate flag or anything. It is not shared," he says. "It is more, like in the educational world, maybe not going out of your way to share information, or to be an ally, as we call it nowadays — to be someone that says, 'I see you need help in this area. I'm going to extend help to you as I would to a person just like me.' "

"There will be times than your life where you'll be reminded that you are 'other,' " he continues. "And when you're in school with kids that are different from you, they would say things [like], 'How did you get to be so smart, and why are you so smart? You're Black. You're not supposed to be that smart.' "

"I think you grow a little bit of a thick skin, which I don't want future generations to have to have," Smoot adds.

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The father of three says his own kids don't work in technology the way he does, but he is "honored" to have inspired them "to do what they want to do" and "what makes them happy," as well as to have inspired other Black kids to go into STEM fields through mentoring and being a role model.

"I never saw a Black engineer until I was pretty much a Black engineer," Smoot tells PEOPLE. "I did not see role models of what I wanted to be. I knew internally what I wanted to do. I didn't even know the name of it."

"Young people need exposure to a lot of things to see what catches, some inspiration, seeing other people doing it and having some support, and then a chance to do those things," he adds.

His biggest advice? Research as much as possible using the resources available to you, and "learn more."

"I always say, if you love doing something, do it a lot," he adds. "You get better at it. Practice your trade. Do what you love to do, and it's an old phrase, but you'll never work a day in your life."

Lanny Smoot
Lanny Smoot. Disney

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As for how he keeps the Disney magic alive while knowing so many ins and outs of the behind-the-scenes tricks, Smoot says it "doesn't take away from the" illusions and experience.

"I still can enjoy the theme parks because you wrap magic in story," says Smoot. "The big difference between a Walt Disney theme park and other places is that you're completely surrounded by the magic — by the fact that you're embedded in a place that is as though you are in a movie, or you are actually living in the future. Or a Haunted Mansion with ghosts."

"So yeah, it never tires for me. And I never get tired," he adds. "I'm never tired of inventing and coming up with new ideas. Don't tell my bosses, but I would do it even if I wasn't paid."

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