Steve Birket’s reflections on WaterWorld: A Live Sea War Spectacular
by Rick West
Unique throughout the theme park world for its impressive scope and scale, and its masterful integration of live stunts with special effects, WaterWorld: A Live Sea War Spectacular opened at Universal Studios Hollywood in 1995, coinciding with the release of the eponymous movie. This year, the ambitious and enduring stunt spectacular is being honored by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) with the prestigious Thea Classic Award.
ABOVE: WaterWorld combines live action stunts, pyrotechnics, and a giant sea plane flying straight towards the audience. Courtesy Universal Studios.
The first WaterWorld was such a success that it was also produced for Universal Studios Japan in 2001, and Universal Studios Singapore in 2010. For more than 20 years, it has entertained tens of millions of guests from all corners of the globe. Steve Birket and his colleagues at Birket Engineering played a major role behind the scenes on the technical aspects of this large-scale attraction. InPark contributor Rick West caught up with Steve for a unique, personal perspective. WaterWorld was an important step in Steve’s life, not only as a professional; it’s where he met his wife, Wendy.
Younger generations of fans may not even necessarily be aware that the genesis of WaterWorld was a feature film – a rare occurrence that shares similarities with Disney’s Splash Mountain attraction, which is wildly popular at theme parks around the world despite the fact that most fans have never even seen Song of the South, the IP on which the attraction is based. Whether or not the film Waterworld was deemed successful at the box office is beside the point.
That the theme park incarnation of it has been so well received by so many visitors for such a long duration
of time is testament to the men and women who took on the challenge of creating the stunt spectacular using the film’s storyline as a creative blueprint, delivering arguably the greatest permanent stunt show attraction this industry has yet seen.
In the event you’re not that familiar with WaterWorld, here’s a crash course:
The story of WaterWorld: A Live Sea War Spectacular takes place after the events of the film. As the show begins, the show’s heroine, Helen, arrives back at the floating atoll with dry dirt and the announcement that she has found land. Shortly after her arrival, the atoll comes under attack by a group of “Smokers,” as well as the Deacon, the show’s leading villain. Helen’s love interest and hero of the story, the Mariner, also arrives at the atoll and both sides clash in an epic battle full of world-class stunts and explosive pyrotechnic effects.
• 1994: In the fall, Universal Studios Hollywood executives begin discussing how to replace the Miami Vice Action Spectacular, which had been in operation at the park since 1989. By the end of the year, Waterworld has been selected as the IP basis of an all-new, water-based stunt spectacular.
• Early 1995: Construction begins on WaterWorld: A Live Sea War Spectacular. Fall 1995 is the target date for the new show’s debut.
• Summer 1995: Intense rehearsals are underway as final details are put into place within the show arena and back-of-house space.
• Mid-October 1995: WaterWorld stunt show debuts to rave reviews, following the summer theatrical release of the film.
• 1996: WaterWorld at Universal Studios Hollywood receives one of the very first Thea Awards for Outstanding Achievement.
• March 2001: WaterWorld opens at Universal Studios Japan, where it continues to thrill crowds.
• March 2010: The third iteration of WaterWorld, nearly identical to its predecessors, opens at Universal Studios Singapore, where it remains highly successful.
• April 22, 2017: WaterWorld will receive the Thea Classic Award from the Themed Entertainment Association.
The beginnings of Birket Engineering
As is the case with all great attractions, the story of the people behind them is where we find the true magic. One such individual is Steve Birket, a long-time leader in the themed entertainment industry.
Many professionals in the business kind of stumble into this line of work. But for Steve Birket, the seed was planted at a very early age and took root, growing into a truly impressive career.
“When I was a child, my uncle was the buyer for the magic shop at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom,” said Steve. “He would give me his samples and practice magic tricks with me. He often would take me with him and let me run around the park while he was at work. When I was in junior high, my brother Glenn was a Cast Member; he drove submarines at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea while I continued running around the park! In junior high and high school, I was in band and found myself marching down Main Street during those years. Three months after my 16th birthday, I was hired into Magic Kingdom Entertainment and have worked there seasonally ever since. I got to know Goofy and his friends very well. What a pleasure to work with them; it paid for my college education and gave me a lifetime of memories and friendships.”
Young Steve was on his way. Once he completed college, he began to set his sights on a professional career path. “I come from a family of engineers,” he said. “I graduated during a beautiful May in Florida with a Bachelor’s in electrical engineering. I was having a pretty good time working at Disney at that point, and wasn’t really in a big hurry to do otherwise. I had waterskied, traveled, and done some filmings, and later would unicycle, stiltwalk, and juggle in the parades, all as part of Magic Kingdom Entertainment. By then, Epcot had opened and my brother Glenn, who was lead electrical engineer at WED responsible for The American Adventure, had left Disney and started his own company. One of his early freelance projects was bigger than his one-man shop could handle, and so he called on me to join him. In a blink, I went from being on stage at Cinderella Castle in a tri-cornered hat on the 4th of July, to working in California on July 6th helping to design the ride control system for Epcot’s upcoming Maelstrom attraction for its Norway pavilion at World Showcase.”
In hindsight, considering his own personal combination of athletic ability and engineering acumen, Steve was shaping up well to be a savvy contributor to WaterWorld one day!
The way to WaterWorld
Meanwhile, the company that Steve’s older brother formed evolved to become Birket Engineering, which today has more than 80 employees with offices in Orlando, Shanghai, and Hong Kong; Glenn Birket remains Founder and Owner. The equipment that the company produces can be found in every Disney and Universal theme park around the globe.
During those early days, one big job led to another. “The Norway ride system was successful, and led to ride and show system projects for the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! and The Superstar Television Theater at the Disney-MGM Studios,” Steve recalls. “We also did Jaws: The Ride and Earthquake: The Big One at Universal Studios Florida, all opening in our backyard. We grew quickly to support these projects, and were rapidly entrenched within the themed entertainment vendor and owner community, coming out of those projects with solid experience and a respectable contact base. Those projects led to Universal’s Backdraft, The Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show, and the E.T. Adventure. Beyond Universal, we secured projects in Las Vegas, and linear induction motor-launched roller coaster systems for several regional parks. In 1995, we got the request to work on WaterWorld for Universal Studios Hollywood.”
As Birket got to work on WaterWorld, the entire company gave it their all, including several folks Steve named specifically. “Hardware Engineer Marcial Godoy and Software Engineer Dan Birket [another of the Birket brothers] were key to making WaterWorld USH happen. Both are practical, no-nonsense guys you want designing your life-safety show control system. Both are still with the company, as is our Office Manager, Jan Martin. We are a family as much as we are an organization.”
Steve also acknowledged other groups that became regular collaborators and part of Birket Engineering’s industry family, as they found themselves on project team after project team. “The Attraction Services Company provided many of the special effects and show action equipment on WaterWorld in Osaka and Singapore. Attraction Services principal, Melissa Townsend, is currently on the TEA Executive Committee. Alcorn McBride has also been a constant force throughout the years. We have benefited from great industry relationships, beginning with Glenn’s earliest Epcot days, and those made by our own Glenn McNair, Brian Kuhar and others along the way. Even the pre-professional career contacts made in Walt Disney World Operations and Entertainment will still resurface on various projects. I am convinced there are only ‘five people’ in the themed entertainment business, because you see the same faces over and over again!”
When Steve met Wendy
Steve has certainly worked with a host of professionals over the years, forming lifelong friendships. One bond in particular however, stands out above the rest.
“In the days when Birket Engineering was performing the WaterWorld USH show control scope, I was a direct employee of Universal Creative for the development of Islands of Adventure. A woman by the name of Wendy Kendall was also on the IOA project team. She had relocated from San Diego to Orlando; the opposite of what I’d done – Orlando to Los Angeles. Neither of us knew many people in Los Angeles, so we ended up spending time together, becoming friends. After work, we would walk up the hill to the WaterWorld site where the Birket team was installing the show; it was the only place everyone I knew was to be found. One night, Marcial was testing the wireless pyro system on the seaplane. He invited me up on the wing to take a look, but I declined because I didn’t want to interfere with the testing – and I didn’t want to leave Wendy waiting. Without hesitation, Wendy hopped up onto the wing and started checking it out. I thought, ‘Wow! This isn’t your average girl!’ We’ve been married for 16 years now, and have three children.”
TEA and more
All three iterations of WaterWorld are very much alike. Steve said, “There is of course, an experience base that we gained from the first. No two attractions are ever exactly the same, however. The design rigor and safety requirements remain, with changes for updated standards and technologies.”
While WaterWorld remains one of Birket’s very memorable projects, there have been many others, including such world-class attractions as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Mission: Space, Revenge of the Mummy, Fear Factor Live, Crane Dance, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, World of Color and Shanghai Disneyland. All those projects are Thea Award recipients.
Steve went on to play a leadership role within the industry at large. He has just completed two years as International President of TEA, and remains closely involved with the association. Besides his role as Immediate Past President, he instigated formation of a New Business Committee. “The TEA was forming in the early 1990s just about the time Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios Florida were coming out of the ground,” he recalled. “In those early days, the Orlando TEA presence was a small group of individuals. I joined the Eastern North America Division Board, missed one monthly Board call, and the following month, was told I was the East Secretary! I started helping to organize Orlando events, and would later become Division President. From there, I joined the International Board. Because of the work of TEA’s fabulous committees, boards and staff, it now has a phenomenal worldwide presence. It’s been an amazing thing to witness over the years. The TEA is fulfilling the intent of Monty Lunde and its founding visionaries, to serve the members of our great industry. Today, the TEA benefits from the leadership of President David Willrich, and COO Jennie Nevin, with the organization seeing unbelievable growth, new programs, events, and industry relationships. A simple mixer in Orlando will have more than 300 attendees, and we now have over 80 events annually around the world. I am very excited about the possibilities we see in Asia now as well.”
It is fitting that WaterWorld is set to receive the Thea Classic Award. In this day and age of ever-changing theme park landscapes, the fact that this particular show has not only remained – but thrived – at Universal parks for decades is an industry anomaly. “I think we can say that WaterWorld is the best stunt show in the world,” said Steve. “It is notable that the show is better-known than the movie from which it spawned. The show is epic. I have seen its influence in recent stunt shows on the other side of the globe.” • • •