Since childhood, Steve Dobbs, a Cal Poly Pomona professor in the Aerospace Engineering Department, has been enthralled by the construction of Disney’s theme parks. The intersection of engineering and art that comprises the parks inspired Dobbs to create Dobbsland, a miniature Disney-themed amusement park in his backyard for his grandchildren and their friends to enjoy, explore and learn.
Nearly the entire production is made from items that were meant to be thrown away like trash cans, old doors and puzzles. Every year during Christmas, the Dobbs family put together a puzzle and glues it to a piece of plywood, where eventually it was hauled into the garage. The family did this every year for over 10 years and instead of throwing them away, Dobbs reanimated the puzzles along with his wife’s old doll collection and motorized a tunnel for his grandchildren to ride through. The tunnel eventually evolved into Tiny World, named after Disneyland’s iconic It’s a Small World ride.
Dobbs is a firm believer that the value of theme parks lie in their imaginative storytelling abilities portrayed through animation and audience engagement.
“There’s not much theming or imagination in an amusement park that just throws you around until you throw up and then you go home,” Dobbs said. “But if you get to go through something like Space Mountain where you feel like you’re in outer space or Cars Land where you see things and interact, that is what is important.”
Along with Tiny World, there are numerous other interactive attractions in Dobbs’ backyard. These attractions include Main Street, comprised of a theater and several interactive games; Nemo’s Submarine ride where fish swim around along with a mermaid and other animations; a “Frozen”-themed castle with characters like Elsa transforming into the ice queen, while Anna and Sven are chased by wolves; a “Dumbo” ride made of a teeter-totter that spins and slides up and down; and a Millennium Falcon flying disk swing-set that boasts an elaborate light performance.
The extensive collection also includes a “Winnie the Pooh” ride that his family likes to call Winnie the Poof, where a recording of his son reading a poem by Dobbs is played throughout the ride.
It takes Dobbs around a day and a half to prepare the entire attraction for guests to enjoy, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic he hosted many large gatherings, including fundraisers and costume parties.
The newest addition to Dobbsland is an African safari-themed attraction that was conceptualized by his granddaughter. The ride was made in collaboration with his grandchildren who partook in the design process. Ruby’s Safari, named after this granddaughter, displays an introductory bamboo sign with lights, an interactive zone where a motorized snake attempts to take a strike, a crank that makes lions chase zebras and cable cars that move vertically.
“I hope to get these kids interested in math, engineering and science because there is a lot of engineering in designing a ride and building it,” Dobbs said. “I teach them how to use power drills, saws and tools. Now they have hands-on experience. It is a teaching aid with a fun result in the end.”
The backyard amusement park, however, is not only used to educate his grandchildren, but it has also extended opportunities for CPP engineering students.
Dobbs previously served as an adviser to a mechanical engineering student who designed a ride for Dobbs’ backyard to submit for the Kellogg Honors Capstone Project. The attraction is a Harry Potter-themed roller coaster that incorporates the magical Quidditch game. To complete the look, Dobbs’ next challenge is to build a castle around it and have guests fly through the different scenes of the movie.
According to Dobbs, safety is prioritized when designing many of his projects with students. During the previous years, students typically met with Dobbs once a week to review a stress analysis by examining the design and calculations to create a secure ride. After the students tested the ride at school, they dismantled and hauled it to Dobbs’ backyard where he ensured everything operated safely.
“It is more than just doing a project and then it’s over with. This project is continuous and gets long-lasting use,” Dobbs said.
Although Dobbs initially created Dobbsland as a place to spend quality time with his grandchildren while giving them a valuable learning experience, the recognition it has received over time has left him dumbfounded.
Publications from all over the world — including The Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, ABC7, Disneyland and Inside Edition — have recognized the professor’s creativity in building the miniature amusement park.
In the near future, Dobbs shared that Access Hollywood is expected to fly in from New York to film a piece on Dobbsland.
“I never expected it to get this far,” Dobbs said. “I had no desire. I didn’t know that it would grow to anything big at all, not that it’s that big but, it was purely for the grandkids, their friends and something for me to hobby with since I never was an Imagineer.”