A look behind Jim Carstensen’s style of Fun+Engineering at Alcorn McBride
by Gabrielle Russon
For three decades, Jim Carstensen has been the mastermind running the engineering department at Alcorn McBride as the Orlando-based company builds the audio/video players and show controllers that so many theme parks have relied on for years. Behind Carstensen’s genius electrical engineering mind is not the personality you might expect from someone in such an analytical, technical field. His colleagues say Carstensen is a notorious prankster and comedian. “He’s always been that way. He’s got a playful personality. He’s a brilliant engineer,” said Mike Polder, who handles tech support.
The memorable Carstensen plays a leading role for Alcorn McBride and its success. Company CEO Steve Alcorn called Carstensen “the technologist of the company.” Loren Barrows, the company’s chief operating officer, added, “His character is woven into the fabric of our culture.”
As vice president of engineering at the company that employs 21 people, Carstensen has overseen the development of all Alcorn McBride’s products, including its flagship, the V16X show controller and the legendary Binloop line, with the BinloopX the newest version recently launched.
Reflecting over how the work has changed in 31 years, Carstensen said, “It’s all a lot more complicated now. It used to be that we could crank out six designs in a year back in the ‘90s. We’d make a couple of different audio players, maybe a video player and a lighting controller, boom, just like that. We can’t do that now because the technology is so advanced that it takes a lot longer, but we’re still able to do it in a relatively short amount of time.”
A big break at Disney
Growing up in the 1960s in the San Fernando Valley, young Carstensen found joy tinkering with electronics. He rigged the electronics for the backyard haunted houses he used to make with his buddies. The makeshift haunted houses were elaborate enough to have lighting special effects and other spooky gags tied to the control panel he built from scavenged industrial parts. Carstensen joked it was a miracle it didn’t catch on fire.
As a guy who loved visiting the theme parks, Carstensen dreamed of doing something related to parks for a living. In college, he studied engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo when his big break came. His dad, once an Army radio operator motivating the troops in Italy during World War II, was working for a production company with offices in the Disneyland Hotel. His father befriended staffers of Card Walker, who was then Walt Disney Company President and CEO, and this helped his son land a six-month internship at Walt Disney Imagineering. It was an exciting time to be at Disney. One of the world’s biggest entertainment companies was building an ambitious new theme park, Epcot, and Carstensen was pulled in to draw schematics and wiring diagrams for the Journey Into Imagination attraction.
When the internship was over, Carstensen went back to school, but Disney needed all hands on deck to finish Epcot, which would open in October 1982. Carstensen, who hadn’t earned his college degree yet, was back to work for Disney; this time as an associate engineer pulling 18-hour days at the Imagination Pavilion. “There was no Red Bull back then, but we were very young,” Carstensen said.
That experience in Florida changed Carstensen’s life forever in two ways. First, he met his wife of 36 years, Kathy, at a disco in Lake Buena Vista. The couple now has two grown children with their first grandchild on the way. Carstensen also met Steve Alcorn working at Epcot. Steve Alcorn had been working on the American Adventure Pavilion and assisted Carstensen’s group in finishing the Imagination ride.
After Epcot, Carstensen returned to California and finished the last class he needed to graduate with his bachelor’s degree. He joined the workforce, eventually landing a job at Lockheed Martin until his old friend Steve Alcorn invited him to work at his small start-up company. Carstensen took the job in 1992 and never left Alcorn McBride.
Encyclopedia of electricity
In the engineering world, there are plenty of great minds solving problems and innovating. Not everyone, though, is willing to take the time to be a teacher, which Carstensen’s colleagues say sets him apart. It can be as simple as the warehouse worker
who was curious to learn what electrical engineering is all about. Carstensen offered him a beginner’s course in the conference room every week. For others leading the charge at Alcorn McBride, Carstensen is the colleague they approach when they have a question or are stuck on a problem. “He is pretty much the encyclopedia of anything that has to do with electricity,” said software engineer Adam Rosenberg. Carstensen can do circuits in his sleep, they say.
“The thing he likes about his job is working with all of the other employees to develop this level of technology,” Steve Alcorn said. “So, most of the time, you’ll find him at his workbench and peering through a microscope or fiddling around with the hardware. He has taken on the task of actually designing and laying out these complicated circuit boards because it’s so integral to what we do now.”
Carstensen knows about analog electronics, PCB layouts, schematic designs – all the aspects of electrical engineering, said Hunter Olson, Alcorn McBride’s product development director. “He’s definitely a brilliant engineer,” Olson said. “It’s remarkable the kind of stuff he can do.”
Olson sees Carstensen as a mentor and a visionary, when it comes to troubleshooting. “Everything I know about electronics I’ve learned from Jim,” said Olson. “Part of his strength is the understanding from the very early stages when the product is just a drawing on a computer, what it needs to have, how it needs to be designed to do what it needs to do. There will be times a year into a project where I realize something that I didn’t consider. I go look at the schematic and see that, actually, Jim thought about this 12 months ago.”
Outside of Alcorn McBride, Carstensen is teaching the next generation of electrical engineers. Since 2007, Carstensen has taught at nearby Valencia College and holds the status of associate engineering professor.
Carstensen – who inherited his dad’s radio voice – is genuine in his joy for engineering and for helping his students grow, said Paul Wilder, the college’s dean of engineering, computer programming and technology. “What he brings is a real sense of care and mentorship for the students,” Wilder said. “That’s one of the things that I think makes him a great professor.”
Everybody has a story about Jim. That time he wrapped up the yellow phone book for the worst gift ever at the company holiday gift exchange. Or that time he saw a dead cockroach in the office and then staged his own miniature crime scene by making a little paper ambulance and tiny yellow tape to cordon off the bug corpse. He used an Alcorn McBride audio player to broadcast ambulance sounds.
To welcome Steve Alcorn back to the office from an absence, Carstensen used the company’s own products to animate Alcorn’s office so it looked like an amusement park. There was a teeter- totter moving, music playing and more. “The upside was that it was quite stunning and showed that I was missed,” Alcorn said. “The downside was they left me to clean it all up.”
A walk around Alcorn’s Orlando-based headquarters reveals plenty of signs that Carstensen has left his mark. You can’t miss the fake dog poo by his desk (hopefully no one blames it on the real office dog, Skeeter). “The little green army men everywhere, we suspect is Jim. For years, they’ve been showing up and moving from spot to spot,” Alcorn said. “Nobody’s ever caught him at it, but it seems like it must be a Jim thing.”
That’s part of the charm of Carstensen. It’s a playfulness that fits perfectly into Alcorn McBride’s culture and motto: “Have fun, make money.”
For the younger employees, Carstensen models a deeper lesson about work-life balance. He goes on a walk every day at 3 p.m. to get out of the office and chat in the Florida sunshine with his colleagues.
“Every quarterly meeting, I always ask him to share words of wisdom,” said Barrows. “He stands up and he tells a bad joke.” Then Carstensen turns serious and philosophical. “He reminds us to always put things in perspective,” Barrows said. “We get stressed out, but he’ll always tell us, ‘Stop and look around our building. How lucky we are to work in this industry, work with friends and do what we do?’”
Carstensen’s tools are versatile. In addition to his expertise with the technology, he has helped build years-long relationships with Alcorn McBride customers.
During the mid-1990s, Disneyland ran a Lion King parade with music and performers that was innovative for its time as the street music and float music synchronized using Alcorn’s classic Binloop player. Carstensen flew out to California and worked on the floats all night on Main Street, U.S.A. to help Disney fix some bugs when the parade launched. “He’s got a very laid-back personality that, even though it’s kind of high stress, he was just easy to deal with,” said David Froberg, who was a technician at the park at the time, recalling their early days working together.
Thirty-one years into the job, Carstensen, 64, says he doesn’t plan to retire soon. “If I wasn’t still having fun, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “Every day is fun.” • • •
Gabrielle Russon ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist who lives in Orlando. She previously covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel, earning several statewide and regional honors for her coverage on theme park injuries, the economic challenges facing theme park workers and the pandemic’s impact on the tourism industry. A Michigan native, she is a Michigan State University graduate and has worked at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Toledo Blade, the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Elkhart Truth during her newspaper career. In her spare time, she loves visiting Orlando’s theme parks and running marathons.