Friday, December 1, 2023

UCF: Education front

Orlando’s industry leaders enrich Themed Experience curriculum

by Peter Weishar, Professor of Themed Experience; Program Director, Themed Experience MS Degree and MFA Track, University of Central Florida (UCF)

The UCF Themed Experience Graduate programs are fortunate to be in the international hub of the themed entertainment industry (Orlando). We have drawn on this local industry leadership resource to create an exceptional UCF Themed Experience Advisory Council. Here, several members of that Council share their thoughts on the future of themed experience and entertainment education. We are deeply appreciative of their contributions. – P.W.

Prof. Peter Weishar interviewed:

  • Steve Birket, VP Birket Engineering; TEA Past President
  • Mike West, President of Innovation West
  • Cecil Magpuri, CEO Falcon’s Beyond
  • Patrick Brennan, VP Walt Disney Imagineering (retired); President, CastleArts
  • Adora English, Director, Global Internal Communications at Universal Destinations & Experiences
  • Denise Hatcher, Managing Director, AOA
Focused Themed Experience and Attraction degrees and programs are becoming quite popular in higher education. How do you see that impacting the future of our industry? Why do you think the time is right for these kinds of programs?

Steve Birket: Not so long ago there was no lighted path into this industry. No one knew what themed experience was, or that it existed outside the berm of a small number of inaccessible places. Today, themed experience intersects many markets and will continue to be more distributed. The work of academia, industry partnerships, make this possible.

Mike West: Students and young professionals need to understand that the complexities and parameters that beset today’s global projects cannot be overstated. Good design is great, but good responsible design is a whole lot better…and more likely to get built!

Cecil Magpuri: The supply of knowledgeable workers must be there, and ready from the get-go. It’s more efficient for companies to hire talent from these targeted programs because their learning curve isn’t nearly as steep as someone with a degree in an unassociated discipline.

Patrick Brennan: The industry is evolving way beyond the traditional theme parks to a broader set of experiences. Escape rooms, Meow Wolf, Sleep No More are a few examples. The public is supporting this evolution and there’s a great need for cutting edge talent to support this growing industry.

Adora English: This is the perfect time for programs to be developed and to shift according to what the market needs both domestically and internationally. We have a lot of ground to make up as these programs did not exist so widely only a few years ago.

Tell us about interactions you have had with Themed Experience students at UCF that you have found to be particularly rewarding or impactful.

Birket: It is exciting to watch a student go through the curriculum, attend their portfolio reviews, networking events and thesis presentation, then get an email from them, and see their email came from their world-class themed experience developer address.

West: It’s always gratifying to review UCF student portfolios. While the work itself is quite impressive, it’s the unbridled enthusiasm the students convey about their future that speaks volumes about the program’s positive impact, not only on their own lives, but the lives of every guest who will interact with the wild, wacky, wonderful creations the students will design and build in the future.

Magpuri: I was fortunate to be an adjunct instructor for themed experience students. I was impressed by everyone’s passion and knowledge of the industry. It made it easy to talk deeply about our design process at Falcon’s because I felt the students would get it. Falcon’s even hired one of the students from the class, and she’s flourishing as a designer.

English: There is nothing more rewarding than watching the UCF Themed Experience students present their final projects in front of a panel of esteemed industry leaders. The years of experience and top tier attractions represented by the panel are quite intimidating – but the students don’t just rise to the occasion, they fly! For the panelists, they are reminded of the passion that brought them into themed entertainment in the first place, and walk away inspired by the students for weeks after.

Hatcher: The students at UCF have great passion for the industry. At AOA, we have hired many of these students as interns. We have offered many full-time positions or have helped them find positions through our connections in our industry.

What qualities, skills and knowledge do you look for in a recent graduate applying to your organization?

West: All graduates will hit the streets having developed certain skills to one degree or another. It’s how they intend to apply those skills that can make all the difference. Do they have the courage to fail? Do they see the mountain top and know they will have to work hard and climb to get there? Don’t just tell me “I’m very creative.” Give me the specifics on how you’re going to use all that creativity in a practical, tangible way to ensure the success of the team, the project, and ultimately, the overall guest experience.

Brennan: First and foremost, ability, secondly, someone who thrives on collaboration and finally someone who likes to work hard.

English: We look for candidates who love themed entertainment as much as we do. They are curious, have solid work ethics, and have a sense of what it might take to get the job done. Someone comfortable with sharing ideas, speaking up in a group, and has powerful listening skills.

Hatcher: Students should have communication skills, understand teamwork and how to collaborate with individuals outside their own discipline, and be problem solvers/critical thinkers. They also need to understand how to establish relationships by building trust over time and providing value and great service to clients.

Tell us about your particular contribution of time and unique expertise to help shape the Themed Experience program at UCF.

West: As part of the Themed Experience Advisory Council, I worked directly with Peter and the University to assist in the development of the program, as well as participate in annual student portfolio reviews, and guest lecture. I also arranged the initial meeting with the executive leadership at Universal Creative. That meeting laid the groundwork for the UCF/ Universal Creative Lab, a collaboration where students gain on-site, and classroom experience with top professionals from the company. I continue to work with Peter and Chris Oliver, V.P. of Engineering and Safety at Universal, on the develop of the program.

English: As the liaison between Universal Creative and UCF, it was my honor to help create student learning experiences with speakers who represent the best in the industry. A unique element of the UCF/Universal Creative Lab is the opportunity for students to learn on-location at Universal Orlando Resort. The sheer joy we witness by the students and speakers makes it one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have ever been part of.

Lastly, Universal Creative has hired many of the students either as interns or as full-time Team Members. Seeing them in the hallways, continuing to learn and excel is quite an incredible gift to all involved.

Hatcher: I help provide real world insights to help create and adapt the curriculum to the changing times. I also provided support for the development of the new Master of Science that was presented to the UCF Board of Trustees. We were successful and it provides further credibility to the great work done by UCF.

From the perspective of an industry professional and advisor to education, what would you like to see as next steps in the expansion and development of themed experience education?

Birket: Recently the UCF Themed Experience program added engineering disciplines as part of their study. I think there is room for industry business, marketing, and management discussions.

West: We need to make a more concentrated effort to expose themed experience education to younger people by introducing them to the wide variety of disciplines involved in creating guest experiences. This will not only help the young students; it will provide for a more diverse workforce in the future, one that will bring a whole new perspective to our industry.

Magpuri: The lines between hospitality and entertainment have become increasingly blurred. There’s now focused attention on blending these experiences, so at the postsecondary education level, the same thing can be happening. Cross- departmental programs between hospitality and media is one example. Another is themed experience design and architecture.

Brennan: I believe the program should continue to broaden its offerings, for example, Creative Producing. It should reach a broader pool of candidates both nationally and internationally. Possibly, it would be good to develop specialized undergraduate studies.

Hatcher: We need to do a better job as an industry to support universities and institutions to develop programs like UCF for the future. Immersive storytelling goes beyond theme parks now and more brands and developers need the expertise of the themed experience industry.

Any other thoughts to share?

Birket: I can’t say enough good things about the work that you [Peter Weishar] and UCF are doing to illuminate new paths and new creativity into our great industry.

West: I was blessed early in my career at Walt Disney Imagineering to have worked side-by-side with the incredibly talented and selfless men and woman who literally launched the themed entertainment industry. I have always tried to honor their memory and mentoring by passing along what they so humbly taught me.

Magpuri: Working with the UCF faculty and leaders has been an amazing experience. They are kind, thoughtful, hard- working visionaries. I can’t compliment them enough!

Brennan: Over the past 15 years, I’ve been working with you [Peter Weishar] as you have been developing this field of study. I have followed you from SCAD to Florida State and now here to UCF. My support for your work aligns perfectly with my own passion for the themed experience business. With 40-plus years professional experience, I see the benefits of UCF’s graduate program in the heart of this amazing industry.

English: Knowing that you can apply most any talent or passion in the themed entertainment industry is a fairly new concept. My message? If you are an artist, engineer, architect, talented in technology, finance, marketing, project management, design, or any number of career choices, chances are that you can apply those skills every day in themed entertainment. And when things get stressful? A roller-coaster ride is only a few steps away!

Peter Weishar
Peter Weishar
Peter Weishar ([email protected]) is a Professor of Themed Experience and Program Director of the Themed Experience Graduate track at the University of Central Florida ( degree/ theatre-mfa/themed-experience/). He also serves as an Associate Member of the TEA Eastern North America Division Board, and is chair of the steering committee of the Themed Experience and Attractions Academic Society. Previously, Weishar was Dean of Fine Arts at FSU and Director of the Themed Experience Institute. He also served as Dean of Entertainment Arts at SCAD where he founded the first MFA in Themed Entertainment Design. Weishar has authored three books, Digital Space: Designing Virtual Environments; Blue Sky:The Art of Computer Animation; and CGI:The Art of the Computer Generated Image.

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