An organization for themed entertainment academia
interview by Judith Rubin
The fourth annual Themed Experience and Attractions Academic Society (TEAAS) Academic Symposium will be held during the 2021 IAAPA Expo in Orlando. We spoke to three leading members and active educators in the field – Kathryn Woodcock (Professor, Ryerson University), Peter Weishar (Professor and Director of UCF Themed Experience Programs) and Lori Sipe (Associate Professor, San Diego State University) – to learn more about the organization and its activities.
Tell us about the TEAAS mission, leadership and accomplishments.
Kathryn Woodcock: TEAAS exists to bring together academic scholars from any discipline interested in any aspect of themed entertainment, experiences and attractions, including everything from the design and technology components to the operation and management of entire attractions, and facilitate their exposure to themed entertainment end users.
Peter Weishar: We formed the organization about five years ago. Our first meeting was at an IAAPA Expo in Orlando. We did not have a conference room or place to meet. Someone had a friend or associate at one of the show room floor booths that had a conference pod they let us use. We didn’t realize it was a demo unit built for two people without the air conditioning hooked up. In that humble beginning, we planned our first Symposium and laid out the groundwork for the Journal. We have since had a great deal of support from other institutions that have made our lofty goals a reality.
Structurally, the TEAAS has four committees: Symposium, Journal Editorial Board, Communications, and Steering Committee. The membership is divided into full members who are academics and Associate Members who are graduate candidates and industry professionals.
KW: The Society has held several Symposia to share members’ work and has established a Journal, the Journal of Themed Experience and Attractions Studies, for publication of peer- reviewed scholarly work.
Lori Sipe: Academia is traditionally a place where people get deep into their own areas of expertise, so associations with multiple disciplines are rare. In some ways, I think our vision is to mirror what the attractions industry does really well – synergize creative storytelling, production management, and operations. The first step, however, is to create a space and invite those researchers and teachers who want to bring a new perspective to customer engagement and immersive experiences.
How does TEAAS serve its members and share information?
PW: Academics need to disseminate and publish their work, learn about related work being done by others, and in many cases, connect with collaborators with shared interests and complementary expertise. Very few academics who are interested in themed experience and entertainment have colleagues in their institutions that share their interest. Some may even contend with universities that don’t have an understanding of the importance and cultural impact of the field. The TEAAS helps make vital connections for like-minded academics.
Exposure also helps to build relationships that can lead to research funding, interdisciplinary collaboration, student field trips, industry guest speakers, sponsored course projects, and student internship and entry-level opportunities, all of which benefit the academic’s teaching effectiveness and satisfaction.
KW: Industry exposure is more important than it seems. The first step of applied research is a literature search to establish a state of the art. Industry innovations in many cases would not show up in a conventional academic literature search. Industry invents and implements, but it is rare for someone in industry to publish a scholarly paper detailing their innovation. With the very nature of the industry, with illusion and artifice around every corner, it’s not so easy for an academic to easily know what is already being used or done without direct exposure behind the scenes. Accessing industry events and venues is critical. However, many academics cannot attend conferences unless they are presenting. Our Symposium held on the final day of IAAPA Expo makes it possible to attend the Expo as well as the academic Symposium, see the industry’s accomplishments, hear what is important to them, and meet manufacturers, suppliers, owners and operators.
For me, I’m most excited about the value of the Society for research collaboration and dissemination. For promotion and tenure, as well as securing and sustaining research grants, academics need to disseminate their work in a peer-reviewed scholarly medium. Industry presentations and press are not given the same credit.
The ultimate form that takes is our Journal. Conventional academic journals specialize in a specific field of scholarship, either in the abstract or with a wide range of industry applications. This makes it difficult for scholars in one field to find research from other fields and difficult for industry end users to locate potentially useful research that could be scattered across hundreds of different journals. In addition, many journals either charge authors to publish or charge high fees to each reader. Our journal is hosted on an open-access basis, with no fees for either author or reader.
I’ve had peer reviewers at journals press for me to include some particular background information about theme parks, irrelevant to the point of the paper. Other reviewers or editors just find this application domain “not a fit” for their journal.
That said, the Society also provides a platform to talk about teaching. Among our active projects is compiling readings by our members and others that could be used in courses and sharing learning experiences. Many members also mentor students in extracurricular projects and competitions, and we can share about those as well.
How does the Society serve the themed entertainment industry?
LS: The modern consumer is seeking compelling and meaningful commercial experiences. Designing and innovating those experiences and attractions requires a multi-disciplinary team of creators and implementors. Our membership is passionate about inspiring the future leaders in this space.
I would add that our involvement and collaboration is critical for students who dream of being in this industry. It’s also critical for us to get the word out to students who don’t know about the possibilities that exist in the experience economy. I hope our association can be a catalyst for showcasing degree programs that provide this undergraduate exposure.
PW: Some academics, notably hospitality and tourism management or themed experience and entertainment, teach in programs that have curriculum specific to industry. Others teach a relevant academic discipline with a curriculum that is not industry-specific, such as mechanical engineering or literature. Those scholars engage with themed entertainment through their scholarly research and creative activities like the TEAAS Journal and Symposium.
KW: Academics who can get strong industry connections to complement their scholarly expertise can contribute to training highly qualified personnel to meet the industry’s future needs. In some cases, this will be graduates from curricular programs; in other cases, this will be students who have had the opportunity to have industry-literate supervision of graduate thesis projects that can be of real value for future industry innovation.
Who should get involved?
PW: We are an all-volunteer organization, and we welcome more. Dozens of academics and graduate candidates donate their time and expertise to make the TEAAS a success. Naming everyone who has helped make the TEAAS what it is would fill pages of your magazine! There are only three of us in this discussion, but it is a larger group effort that makes it work.
KW: Any academic with a research or teaching involvement related to themed entertainment will find like-minded academics in TEAAS. Graduate students or senior undergraduates looking for a graduate supervisor could not find a better place to see who is doing what and explore where their own future may be.
LS: We are just beginning to tap into the power of inter- disciplinary approaches to research and teaching. As we evolve, I am excited about the potential for engineers, storytellers, designers, builders and managers in the experience economy to collaborate.
Are there resources, such as a directory of members or colleges?
PW: We have a website that we are very proud of (teaacademicsociety.org). The website contains a Member Directory with work emails and addresses of over 200 academics, researchers and graduate students in themed experience and entertainment as well as associate members from industry. In addition, we have a Directory of Programs with the most complete list of international academic programs in our field that we know of. The programs in the listing range from just a concentration of a handful of courses all the way to accredited graduate degrees. It is an excellent resource for potential students to find the right college or university for them. Of course, the website also has information on our Symposium, a link to the Journal, announcements, etc. Part of the core mission of TEAAS is to help make connections. The website serves the members of our community even if they can’t make it to the annual Symposium.
Tell us more about the annual symposium taking place at the IAAPA Expo.
LS: The symposium will take place in Orlando on November 19, 2021, the last day of IAAPA Expo. Hosting this symposium during IAAPA Expo enables participating academics to enhance their research, knowledge transfer, and exchange through access to over 1,000 exhibitors of products and services representing the state of the art of the attractions industry and opportunities for networking with some of the many thousands of industry operators, manufacturers and suppliers who attend IAAPA Expo. The schedule will also permit interested industry members to attend the TEAAS Academic Symposium program.
Friday’s full day program will begin with a keynote from Carolina Cruz-Neira [See “Taking UCF students to the cutting edge of VR,” InPark Magazine issue #85], a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, followed by research presentations, networking roundtables, and a poster-sharing session. This year we are proud to include academics from Fusion Studio for Entertainment and Engineering-Purdue University as part of our program.
KW: Since the Society is entirely volunteer-run, we have been able to defer implementing membership dues as a means to reach as many members as we can without cost barrier. The Journal is hosted by University of Central Florida and the Symposium venue is hosted by IAAPA. San Diego State University, UCF College of Arts and Humanities and Rosen College, and Purdue have contributed financial support for the 2021 Symposium and to underwrite the expenses of our website. • • •
Registration is still available by accessing teaas_symposium2021.eventbrite.com