By Peter Weishar
ABOVE: Peter Weishar at Jurassic World Live tour in Orlando with students and UCF Interim President Thad Seymour, January 2020
When I tell people I’m a Professor of Themed Experience, the response is often something like “Wow, that’s cool. I wish I could have studied that.” The comment is usually followed by the typical questions of, “So… like rollercoasters and stuff? (Answer: “Among other things.”) “Do you get to go to theme parks for free?” (Answer: “When I’m working.”) Then, the important question: “What do you teach?” That is a solid question with a longer answer – and the subject of this article.
We started the Themed Experience graduate program at University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando about a year ago. When starting a new academic program, it is important (and actually required by the accrediting bodies) to consult with industry professionals as well as with other academics to determine best practices and discern the unique skillsets and knowledge required by the profession. Academics often refer to programmatic criteria as, “What students should know, say and do.” To achieve these goals, we map out a sequence of courses that comprise the curriculum.
Peter Weishar at the 2019 TEA Summit with Juliette Feld-Grossman of Feld Entertainment, who sits on the UCF Themed Experience Advisory Council.
Note: During these difficult times of social distancing the University of Central Florida, like almost all educational institutions, has moved classes online and closed the campus to students. In the themed experience industry, we understand the impact and effectiveness of placemaking and the shared experience of learning and interacting with an environment. The same is true for education. I’ve always thought of a classroom as a bubble. Students can see and take in the external world but are safe to experiment and explore new creative avenues. A classroom, like a themed environment is a place where magic can happen, and it is difficult to recreate online. Nevertheless, the curriculum and goals are the same regardless of delivery. As educators we can’t lose sight of these goals.
We asked some colleagues in teaching and in the field for advice on the question of what to teach. The word “collaboration” came up often. Steve Grant, Program Director and Professor of Practice-Themed Environments Integration at the University of Florida states: “To have a successful career in the themed entertainment industry, students need to know how to collaborate within interdisciplinary teams, by knowing what other team members do, and having empathy for other viewpoints and perspectives.”
However, while collaboration is essential, it is not unique to the discipline of themed experience. In 2005, the New York Times ran an article that caused quite a stir – “Is a Cinema Studies Degree the New MBA?” – pointing out the transferability of skills such as collaboration, organization and communication. Other disciplines – ranging from Engineering to Theatre to Business Administration – all teach collaboration and group management.
In themed experience education, what are we collaborating to do?
Mike West, Steven Grant and Kathryn Woodcock
Skills, scope, communication and research
According to Mike West, Senior Director/Executive Producer at Universal Creative, students “need to be informed and molded to understand the seemingly endless complexities and parameters that beset today’s ever evolving, ever-more-expensive, global projects. It’s one thing to have an over-the-top, evolutionary design; it’s another to have a design that can actually be built within a budget and on schedule, which can then be maintained for years after it opens, and continue to satisfy the full complement of safety, maintenance and operational requirements. Then, and only then, is a project truly successful. Good design is good. Good, responsible design is great!” So, we need to teach practical skills such as context, budget, maintenance, operations, scheduling along with the creative. Graduates should understand the scope of industry along with current trends and acceptable practices.
From Mk Haley, Walt Disney Imagineering Academic Outreach: “Some of the critical skillsets for success in the themed entertainment industry are less connected with the discipline itself, and more related to process and collaboration. Students should all have an experience working on a team collaboratively… truly working as a team across disciplines on a project and understanding the entire thing well. Students should also be able to present their work cleanly and concisely and have work product to show that they can do original research. We need to see original and interesting questions asked, and then an in-depth investigation to inform the solution. Collaboration, Communication, and Research are all necessary to thrive.”
Soft skills, communication and understanding the guest
Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is one of the founders of the Themed Experience and Attractions Academic Society and Director of THRILL Lab at Ryerson University. She stated, “Soft skills are essential – students must appreciate how many different and complementary professional backgrounds are needed in projects of the magnitude of themed attractions, from determining what should be designed, to designing its form, to translating it to technologies, and sustaining it in operation. Students need to be able to communicate their professional work to other professions and understand and respect the work of others.
“All professions need to understand that the person who completes the project is the guest. The guest’s response is what determines what experience has been had. An inadequate design cannot be redeemed by accusing the guest of ’not enjoying it right.’ Designers must anticipate the variety of guests, from size, shape, strength, agility, and acuity differences, to a wide spectrum of cultural understanding and knowledge.”
Range, curiosity and experience
Phil Hettema, founder and CEO of The Hettema Group concisely wrote: “Be good at one thing and curious to learn about everything else. Themed entertainment design and production is, by definition, multi-disciplinary,, which is precisely why it is exciting and challenging. The field encompasses an incredibly broad and diverse range of career paths and skills – so broad that no one enters the field having a comprehensive knowledge or capability across all aspects.
“A master’s student would be well advised to enter the field with a set of well-developed skills in one specific area that would be of value to a project team, accompanied by an overall awareness and understanding of other aspects – and curiosity about how those many facets relate to each other. That overview should include basic principles of operations and the economics of the industry in addition to the creative, design and production disciplines.
“The opportunity to watch the ‘big picture’ in both success and failure through the lens of participation is vital. Areas of specialty might include: Concept Design and Experiential Storytelling, Theme Park Project Management and Production Coordination, Show Scenic Design, Master Planning, Show Technical (Production Audio and Media) and an Internship at an Experiential Design and Production Studio.”
A sequence of study emerges
From this advice and insight, we begin to form a sequence of study based upon four tenets.
#1 – Context.
Students should understand the history of the discipline. They should know who the innovators and leaders of the field have been and are now. A graduate should be able to trace the path from London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition through the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair to current day EPCOT; and from Vauxhall Gardens London through Coney Island’s Luna Park to Super Nintendo World. Themed Experience has a rich history worthy of study. Context also entails understanding the breadth of the industry – exploring IAAPA, TEA and the many other trade associations to gain a sense of the true scope of the industry, its opportunities, culture and subcultures. Know the mainstream but also the disrupters.
The 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
#2 – Skills, aesthetics and creativity.
Should we teach specific skillsets necessary for entry-level positions or should we focus on creativity and “creating new knowledge”? The answer is both; the difficulty is balance. Even the most accomplished and creative student needs to have the technical and production skills necessary to get that first job, the stepping stone into the industry. Conversely, hyper-emphasis on skills and production technique turns a graduate into a “pair of hands” for someone else’s vision and reduces the student’s ability to advance organically to higher-level creative and management positions. No matter how advanced the degree, that first job will be near the bottom of the ladder.
New York World’s Fair 1939 aerial view. Source: image, republished under CC BY-SA 2.0
#3 – Collaboration.
As noted above, this is a key component in preparing students to enter the industry. Students must learn to work in a group and respect one another’s contributions. The quality, depth, length and nature of that collaboration is crucial for making it a meaningful educational experience. At the UCF graduate program, we accept a diverse cohort of applicants from a mix of writers, designers, artists and producers. Those students move through a multi-year master’s program where they collaborate on dozens of projects. They work with each other, industry professionals, faculty, and students from other disciplines.
#4 – The industry.
A well-rounded program is a must. Students should understand the role of engineering, producing, maintenance, operations, hospitality, and the myriad of expertise necessary to design something that operates seven days a week all year long and is practical, safe and enjoyable. In short, they need to learn from experts in the collaborative disciplines and understand the big picture. A university environment with expertise across many related fields of study has the capacity to provide a curriculum with the necessary depth and diversity. At UCF, for example, Themed Experience students have the opportunity to take courses at The UCF Rosen College of Hospitality Management and the UCF College of Engineering and Computer Science (and the latter has very strong AR/VR and simulation expertise).
Every year I am amazed by the new and exciting innovations and new technology in this field. Every year the skillsets my graduates need to have changes with trends and advancements in industry; however, the core values and skills of collaboration, creativity, communication and knowledge of the profession stay constant. These form the heart of the curriculum and the focus of what they need to know, say and do.
Peter Weishar (email@example.com) is a Professor of Themed Experience and Program Director of the Themed Experience Graduate track at the University of Central Florida (https://www.ucf.edu/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.