Hover-bike races, virtual-reality missions, and comic robots helped four New Jersey college students win the prestigious Walt Disney ImagiNations design competition yesterday in California.

The Rowan University-sponsored team took best-in-show for its concept of a 28th-century indoor theme park, "Disney Spaceport," beating out a motion-simulator 3D thrill ride by North Carolina State University and an action-adventure dragon quest by California State University, Fullerton.

There were 137 entries in the 18th annual competition, which challenges college students to build on the Disney legacy by pioneering "new forms of entertainment through technical innovation and creativity," the company said.

"This project embodied anything we ever wanted to do," said David Lester, a Rowan computer and electrical engineering major, whose group worked hundreds of hours in the last year. "This was the rest of our lives."

Lester and team member Vincent Logozio, a mechanical engineering major at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, won coveted internships for the remainder of the summer at Disney's Imagineering studios in Glendale, Calif.

Logozio also received the Marty Sklar award for creativity, innovation, and leadership. Sklar was one of the founders of Imagineering.

It was Rowan's first time in the contest final, a level often inhabited by technology powerhouses such as Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and art-and-design schools such as Pratt Institute in New York.

"Our reputation is growing. This can only help," said the faculty adviser, Linda Head, an electrical and computer engineering professor.

The school's College of Engineering, which has an enrollment of 500, graduated its first class in 2000. U.S. News & World Report ranks it 12th among engineering schools without a doctoral program.

Lester built the team by recruiting Middlesex County school friends Logozio and Raymond Scanlon, an electrical and computer engineering major, also at Rutgers in New Brunswick. Scanlon brought on artist Elissa Hogan from the College of New Jersey. All four just completed their junior year.

Contest entrants were judged on their creative, technical, artistic, and business skills in designing a ride, attraction, hotel, or "land" within an existing Disney resort. Or they could create an entire theme park, resort, restaurant, or something unique, as Rowan did.

"The attractions and rides we had in mind wouldn't be feasible for inclusion in an existing theme park," said Logozio, 20, of the Fords section of Woodbridge, N.J.

The students applied their outer-space theme to a new park filled with rides for all ages. Despite its interactive technology, the key to the park was a story and characters who would draw visitors into the experience, team members said.

"We built the park around common themes - hope and the courage to move forward," Logozio said. "By sticking to those ideals, we felt we would fit the Disney brand."

"This competition demonstrates how engineering impacts lives through fun and fantasy," Rowan engineering dean Dianne Dorland said.

It also exemplifies the multidisciplinary team approach Rowan emphasizes, she said. Each semester, juniors and seniors are offered about 65 hands-on clinics in topics such as green pharmaceuticals and agricultural tools for developing countries. Many are endowed by government agencies and industry.

To explain its Spaceport, Rowan's team created animatronic robot heads, a model, a video, a Powerpoint presentation, and storyboards. Members enlisted friends and family to act, design costumes, and compose music.

"The majority of us are from engineering backgrounds, but everyone had a hand in every part," said Lester, 20, of Monroe. "Elissa taught us how to paint."

The work began last summer in Scanlon's grandparents' basement in Monroe and continued on weekends. Sessions went round the clock.

When the team learned April 17 that it had made the final, construction moved to Lester's parents' garage, also in Monroe.

"We decided to give my grandparents a break," joked Scanlon, 21, a fellow Monroe resident.

Professors at the students' schools kindly overlooked a few homework assignments, said Hogan, 20, of Summit.

"Even though we were pulling long hours, it never really felt like work," Logozio said.

The team traveled to California on June 2 to study with the technical and creative wizards from Disney attractions in California, Florida, Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.

The most important lesson? Honing their communication skills, members agreed.

"We've condensed our presentation dramatically since meeting our mentor here," Logozio said. "We know how to make a pitch."

Engineers need to learn to market their ideas, Head said. Some graduates go into business for themselves and need to attract venture capital. Others will seek grants.

"The bottom line is that you have to stand up and tell people how you're going to make good use of their money," she said.

Although Disney takes ownership of all contest entries, no ImagiNations project or idea has ever been incorporated into a theme park, said Allie Braswell, a Disney spokesman.

The contest is solely to recruit engineers, illustrators, and architects, he said.

"One of the first-ever winners is still employed here, 17 years later," he said.

On the eve of its trip to Disneyland last week, the Rowan contingent gave the program enthusiastic reviews.

"I don't think anything is going to be hard after this," Logozio said. "This project has shown us that if you want to do something, you can do it."

Contact staff writer Cynthia Henry at 856-779-3970 or chenry@phillynews.com.