Monday, October 18, 2021

Getting in the Castle: making connections in the themed entertainment industry

article and illustration by Tim Higley

Ever since Disneyland opened in 1955, theme parks have been known for their castles. Although I long admired the spectacular abodes of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, another figurative castle interested me more – the themed entertainment industry itself. This industry is a veritable kingdom of companies designing theme parks and attractions, shows, exhibits and other experiences…and I wanted in!

To an outsider, that castle is a formidable and seemingly impenetrable structure, turrets and bulwarks on all sides. As a mere student and aspiring concept artist, how in the world could I get inside?

Any castle is easier to enter if you know someone within its walls, and I looked to networking as the solution. I was fortunate to meet a few of Disney’s Imagineers, with whom I enjoyed several conversations. Still, these chats were often limited to phone calls or email exchanges, and expanding my network beyond those two or three contacts was difficult. My career was advancing at a snail’s pace, and the castle still looked as formidable as ever.

Finally, several conversations pointed me towards the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), a group of professionals building themed attractions and experiences just liked I wanted to do. I signed up as a student member and was accepted that December of 2012. I was ecstatic! A few weeks later, I drove up to Burbank for an after-work mixer, my first industry event. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I was no stranger to networking, but prior to this I had scheduled meetings with people who were expecting me. Here I would be an unfamiliar face, and would have to meet people who didn’t know me. I did my best and struck up as many conversations as I could.

Fortunately, everyone I met was very gracious. I received many a warm handshake, learned of a few companies I hadn’t known about previously, and even exchanged a few business cards. Mingling about the room hadn’t been easy, just as I expected, but I knew I was laying groundwork for success at future events. Next time I would know five or six people instead of one or two, and I wouldn’t be an unfamiliar face. More importantly, I had met more people in one evening than I had the entire year prior. Little did I know my network would expand significantly just a few months later.

Networking at the 2013 TEA Summit
Next Gen session at the 2013 TEA Summit

The next April, I seized an opportunity to attend the TEA Summit and the Thea Awards Gala. Bringing together a multitude of themed entertainment professionals, the Summit allowed the creators of 2012’s hallmark experiences to speak on the success of their projects. The next evening, the Thea Awards would recognize those same projects at a black tie gala!

I arrived at the Summit nervous again, but was soon relieved to find I was not the only newcomer. I was with a group of other students, and we were publicly welcomed as the event began. Together, we enjoyed the passion of others as they presented their work, and the following evening we shared in their celebration at the Theas. The entire event fostered terrific networking for us – we had each other to fall back on, and introduced one another to professionals we had already met.

That weekend proved to be hugely successful for me, and I came home with a big stack of business cards. The event did a great job connecting me with students and professionals alike, and now it was up to me to make those connections matter. The next day, I used those business cards to connect with as many people as I could. Some of them I approached with requests for further conversation to learn more about the industry. Not everyone responded, of course, but a few did, and those who replied have been wonderfully helpful. One of them is currently trying to get me hired. Another led to the writing of this article (Thanks, Martin!). And two others would expand my network significantly.

One of those is a creative director who invited me to his workplace for the conversation I requested. While there, he gathered a few others to view my portfolio. Before I knew it, I was invited to join the firm’s artists for their drawing sessions outside of work. (What’s that, I can draw and network at the same time? Yes, please!) I continue to attend to this day, and I’ve become a better artist and expanded my network as a result.

The second contact is part of Disneyland’s entertainment department, and we’ve spoken regularly after the Summit. One day we were spending a morning at Disneyland when a fellow in a paisley shirt ran by, exchanged a bit of banter, then darted off. “That’s one of our art directors,” my friend explained. “He works on a lot of projects for park entertainment.”

What? An art director? My ears perked up. I inquired about getting in touch with him, and several weeks later that paisley-clad artist and I were chatting away. He, in turn, pointed me to others, and suddenly a single contact had turned into five. All of them are still part of my network.

It’s been nearly a year since my first mixer last January. I’m not an artist within the themed experience kingdom yet, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the castle courtyard and I’m better off for it. The Themed Entertainment Association has put me in touch with some incredible creatives, and additional mixers and events have allowed me to easily stay in touch with them. Two or three connections have turned into a network of directors, artists, designers, and many others. All have been incredibly helpful in answering questions and sharing knowledge about the industry, and I’m immensely grateful to each and every one of them. I’ve received a warm welcome inside the castle, and I’m well on my way to building a career there.

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, CNN.com and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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