Interviews by Judith Rubin
Colleges and universities now recognize “themed experience” as an academic field, and today some 20+ institutions are listed on the website of the Themed Experience and Attractions Academic Society (TEAAS), benefiting students and the industry with tailor-made programs that produce highly trained and educated candidates. As an international hub of the industry, it is fitting that Orlando has its own vibrant and diverse cluster, a unique themed entertainment education ecosystem with options to study themed experience design and production, project management, and hospitality management at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
One of the pioneers of this realm is Peter Weishar of the University of Central Florida. For this roundtable, Prof. Weishar brought together colleagues from several Orlando-area institutions to share details of their programs. “We are all passionate about the industry and training the next generation of themed experience designers and managers to benefit its future,” says Weishar. “We collaborate with one another, from guest speaking in each other’s classes to sharing books and curriculum concepts. We come together annually at the Themed Experience and Attractions Academic Symposium, held the last day of the Orlando IAAPA Expo.”
On the undergraduate side, the Ringling College of Art and Design offers an Entertainment Design degree and the University of Central Florida (UCF) Rosen College of Hospitality Management offers a Theme Park and Attraction Management degree track or certificate. For graduate degrees, UCF offers a Master of Science (MS) in Themed Experience as well as a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) track in Themed Experience. The University of Florida (UF) has an MS in Architectural Studies with a concentration in Themed Environments Integration in their CityLab-Orlando. UCF Rosen College also has an MS in Hospitality & Tourism Management.
In addition to Prof. Weishar, we heard from Jamie DeRuyter (Ringling College), Dr. Ady Milman and Dr. Carissa Baker (UCF Rosen College), and Steven Grant and Stephen Bender (UF).
Tell us about your background and credentials.
Jamie DeRuyter: My background is in animation and visual effects. When I got the chance to intern at a small media company in Orlando working on theme park attractions, my mind was blown. Pixar and the movie industry was my original goal, but this industry really captured my attention and imagination. I am a faculty member in several disciplines at Ringling College.
Ady Milman: My background includes teaching, research, and publications in the fields of theme park and attraction management, marketing, strategic management, and hospitality and tourism. I have been affiliated with several international universities and developed the Theme Park and Attraction Management curriculum at UCF. I was a Disney Sabbatic Professor and a two-time winner of the Fulbright Scholar Award in addition to other awards. I am a Professor in the Tourism, Events & Attractions Department.
Carissa Baker: My experience includes operations roles at Disney and Universal in California and Florida in addition to design consulting. I have taught in China and been a visiting scholar at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. My interdisciplinary scholarship is focused on various aspects of themed entertainment but especially narrative. I love teaching and research but also connecting with the industry; I am involved with IAAPA, Slice Creative Network, the Themed Entertainment Association, and the TEAAS. I am an Assistant Professor of Theme Park and Attraction Management.
Peter Weishar: I worked as a game designer and digital artist before entering academia. I started my academic career in the NYU Interactive Telecommunications graduate program. From there, I went on to Dean of Film, Digital Media and Performing Arts at SCAD, where I started the Themed Entertainment Design graduate program. About four years ago, Dean Jeffrey Moore recruited me to start the Themed Experience Graduate programs at UCF – I jumped at the chance and am now Director of Themed Experience at UCF.
Steve Grant: I have been a registered architect for 40 years, practicing in Chicago and New York before moving to Los Angeles in 1991 to be an Architect and Design Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering, where I spent 28 years design managing theme park projects at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, before retiring in 2019 to be the founding program director of the TEI program at UF’s CityLab in Orlando.
Stephen Bender: I am an architect and educator. I am the Director of CityLab-Orlando. The future of our profession relies on us redrawing boundaries, sharing territory, extending invitations, and welcoming new people. Based on this, I lead development of the MSAS Concentration in Themed Environments Integration (TEI) at the University of Florida’s CityLab-Orlando.
Please share some basics of your program.
DeRuyter (RCAD): A few years ago, Ringling College offered a BFA in Entertainment Design with an emphasis in Themed Environments. We’re wrapping up our third year in the program and are so excited to have our first senior class this fall.
Milman & Baker (UCF Rosen): The Theme Park and Attraction Management track of the Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management began in 2001. It is a management-focused degree that gives students a background in core topics, including guest experience, employee engagement, product development, risk management, and operations. Our program is a traditional 120-credit bachelor’s degree where students take general education requirements, hospitality core courses, electives from several areas, and theme park track classes. We also offer a 15-credit certificate in Theme Park and Attraction Management for students in non-Hospitality Management UCF degrees.
Weishar (UCF): We have two graduate programs. The Themed Experience MFA Track in Theatre is a six-semester, 61-credit degree program. It includes a thesis and extensive opportunities for internships. The MS in Themed Experience is a standalone degree program that is only 33 credits. The MS can be completed in four semesters of mostly night classes. Both programs focus on design and production. The students graduate with a portfolio of creative work. Many of our graduates have aspirations of becoming Creative Directors for themed entertainment companies.
Grant (UF): The Themed Environments Integration (TEI) program includes two paths of study: the Graduate Certificate (21 credit hours), and the MS in Architectural Studies Concentration in Themed Environments Integration (36 credit hours). The Graduate Certificate is intended for individuals not wanting to undertake a master’s degree but want the basic education to expand existing credentials (set designers, architects, and engineers, for example) or to advance in the industry. The MS is a research degree and requires the production of a Thesis or Master Research Project. The TEI program is within the College of Architecture but includes multiple disciplines.
Bender (UF): My collaboration with industry professionals and UF peers resulted in an outline curriculum, approved by the graduate school and further developed by Steven Grant. I currently teach the research component of the curriculum. Students begin this program challenged to collaborate and create new knowledge together. We learn by engaging novel problems of practice and life through serious methodical and theoretical reflection. This culminates in a Thesis or Master Research Project.
What are the advantages of being located in Central Florida?
DeRuyter: I have been able to maintain a professional practice in the industry while teaching full time. This has been a tremendous opportunity to keep the college and our students connected to the epicenter of the Entertainment Design world. We’ve taken lots of fun field trips, visited many studios, attended great TEA events, IAAPA, the parks, Kennedy Space Center…on and on. This really is THE place to be if you want to get started in the industry!
Milman & Baker: Central Florida is a living lab for the themed entertainment industry, and our students benefit from the local theme parks and attractions to complete their required internships and gain experience. Rosen College is only minutes away from Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando, Walt Disney World, the IAAPA World Headquarters, the annual IAAPA Expo at the Orange County Convention Center, and many other popular local attractions. The theme park and attraction track is also supported by an active Advisory Board that helps to guide curriculum, classroom engagement, and provide employment opportunities to our students.
Weishar: There are hundreds of opportunities for creative internships and full-time work in the field while students are attending school. We are also able to hire amazing adjunct instructors, leaders in the field based in Orlando. Of course, Orlando offers the opportunity for students to see and engage with world-class themed experiences as well. Frankly, this is the best place in the world to study what we do.
Grant & Bender: Access to the companies and their staff that design, develop, and manage Themed Environments around the world. This access has provided the TEI students with internships, jobs, knowledge, and guidance.
What kind of applicants do you seek for your program?
DeRuyter: We place heavy emphasis on the portfolio, particularly the TYPE of work. We want to see that the student is already thinking of experiences. There needs to be a good fit with the student’s interests and the curriculum. Most of our majors at Ringling College help students develop skills that are applicable to this industry, so we like to see them practicing the skills they love.
Milman & Baker: Students in our program should have leadership potential, strong oral and written communication skills, an interest in the industry, enjoy working with people, and go beyond to the “spirit of hospitality,” or a drive to serve and assist our guests. Rosen College’s core values are Professionalism, Leadership, and Service. The most successful students are engaged in course content but also immerse in the industry through work experience, student organizations like the Future Theme Park Leaders Association (FTPLA), industry networking events and educational visits to attractions.
Weishar: Our programs at UCF are looking for applicants with the talent and ability to design and produce themed experiences. We weigh the portfolio rather heavily in the application. We have a core of visual arts-based studio classes, but also require writing, engineering, and hospitality management.
Grant & Bender: We look for a diversity of interests and studies. If, for example, we had a choice between a student with an Interior Design degree with a theater minor vs. one that does not, we would choose the applicant with the theater minor. That is just an example. You do not have to study theater – but do not stay within a silo in college. Expand into art, philosophy, literature, etc.
Where do you see your graduates being placed in the industry?
DeRuyter: With a focus on the built environment, we hope to see our grads taking on scenic design roles, props, model making, sets and lighting. As a 4-year BFA, they will also come loaded with art history, liberal arts, and possibly minors in areas such as business, sculpture, visual development, and graphic design. This broad foundation helps set them up for success.
Milman & Baker: Our program is well established, so we have alumni who work in various capacities throughout the world ranging from global companies with local ties (e.g., Universal and Disney) to out-of-state locations in organizations like Herschend Family Entertainment, Six Flags Entertainment Corporation, and Palace Entertainment. Students have diverse careers in operations management, executive management, marketing, consulting, research, and creative experiential design jobs.
Weishar: We have seen an impressive rebound in the themed entertainment industry and increased demand for our graduates. Since our students are working on the creative side, many are working on future projects, but some are painting scenery, making props, and working on current installations. With Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) moving to Lake Nona, there will be an even greater demand for creative talent in the next few years and we are expanding our programs to accommodate that need.
Grant & Bender: The intent of the program is to provide a broad overview of the Themed Environments Industry. Our objective is not to teach a mechanical engineer to be an art director but to make that engineer a more knowledgeable collaborative team member. The TEI student body is made up of students with undergraduate degrees across many different disciplines. The diversity of knowledge and perspectives they bring to the program supports engaging conversations and sharing of knowledge, resulting in interdisciplinary collaboration and problem solving. Our graduates fit into any environment where collaborative design and program solving are needed.
Tell us about your collaboration with the themed entertainment industry in Central Florida.
DeRuyter: To help develop our program, we’ve been so fortunate to be able to work with incredible artists and designers from great places like Bungalow Scenic Studios, ITEC, Feld Entertainment, Falcon’s Creative Group, Nassal, Hotopp Creative Studio, Creative Arts, Wacky World, Universal Creative, Disney and more.
Milman & Baker: Our Advisory Board is continually collaborating with industry leaders who make suggestions for the educational program’s development and improvement. Dozens of professionals speak every year in our classes, internship preparation courses, professional portfolio workshops, leadership seminars, and student organizations. We also engage in organization-specific recruitment days (e.g., Disney Day, Universal Day, Busch Gardens Williamsburg on-site interview day) as well as a Career Fair every semester. Industry professionals teach in our program on a part-time basis, and some of our full-time faculty conduct research with and for the industry on a range of current issues. Organizations including the IAAPA Foundation and the Florida Attractions Association have been generous with student scholarships. Operators have likewise been kind to our FTPLA student organization, with a highlight being an annual trip to California for management shadowing at the Southern California theme parks.
Weishar: We are only three years old, but we have already held collaborative classes with Falcon’s Beyond and Christie Digital, and look forward to an ongoing relationship with both. UCF Themed Experience has an active Advisory Council with leading executives from Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Creative, Birket Engineering, Feld Entertainment, Herschend Family Entertainment, AOA, Falcon’s Creative Group, and the Orlando Magic.
Grant & Bender: The focus and content of the TEI program curriculum was determined by UF in collaboration with leading individuals in the Orlando themed environments industry, which has supported the program by providing guest speakers and student advisers. Since the first cohort began in fall 2019, the program has hosted 98 guest speakers and advisers representing 40 different companies. The industry also identified themed environment research as a need. Stephen Bender and Frank Bosworth, Ph.D. lead the development of the student thesis. In their first semester, students are taught research methods and immediately begin self-directed research pursuits, culminating in a thesis that contributes valuable new knowledge to the industry. This focus on research is part of what makes this master’s degree unique.
Contact: [email protected]
UCF Themed Experience
Website (MFA): https://www.ucf.edu/degree/theatre-mfa/themed-experience/
Website (MS): https://www.ucf.edu/degree/themed-experience-ms/
Contact: [email protected]