If you’re in college and hoping to get a job in the themed-attractions industry, this week’s IAAPA Expo had to be a heartening sight, based on the event’s size and attendance.
The annual trade show, hosted by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, showcases the latest technology, games and business ideas for the $24 billion global attractions industry.
When it kicked off Monday at the Orange County Convention Center, the IAAPA Attractions Expo attracted 25,000 participants from more than 100 nations worldwide, organizers said. On Tuesday, the trade-show floor opened to participants, who got to stroll more than 490,000 square feet of space dedicated to the latest in themed-attraction fun.
But the expo demonstrated more than just the latest in 3-D glasses and 3 g-force roller coasters. For college students who might want to enter the industry, the expo offered a glimpse of the diversity of fields into which they can one day apply their talents. With so many different companies offering so many themed-attraction services — and with the global demand for theme parks rising — one U.S. art college even has created the first fine arts master’s program to meet the hiring needs of the industry and the aspirations of its students.
This fall, the Savannah College of Art and Design began offering the nation’s first master in fine arts degree in themed entertainment design. The private school — which has campuses in Savannah, Ga., Atlanta, Hong Kong and Lacoste, France — often has used Central Florida theme parks as an off-campus teaching environment for its students, and this year’s IAAPA expo served the same role.
While many other colleges in the nation also offer their own postgraduate programs designed to help students pursue a career in the themed-attractions industry, SCAD’s MFA focuses on the diverse skill set of artistic talents used to bring attraction features to life. The program covers fields ranging from interior design and animation, to set and exhibition design, among other visual and design arts.
Arguably, the school’s choice in what it teaches in the program is equaled by who is teaching the subjects. The professors leading the program have backgrounds as former Imagineers for Walt Disney parks and resorts here in Orlando, California and worldwide, as well as experience with Universal parks and resorts here and abroad, too.
Peter Weishar, dean of entertainment arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, said the school’s new MFA program is one that easily plays off the school’s strengths — art, design and storytelling — but also is essential because of the demands of the growing industry.
“There are thousands and thousands of students in art and design who would love to get into theme-park design,” Weishar says. “But it’s difficult to know how to connect the dots in order to be an Imagineer.”
With the global attendance at themed attractions rising, particularly in Asia and South America, and with general turnover in the industry as designers and artists retire — a need for new talent is ever-present, Weishar says, even though many young artists might not always see a clear path from college to that first job in the industry.
“The more I learned about the particular fields and the jobs that needed to be filled” in themed attractions, Weishar said, “the more I got interested in developing the program.”
This week, Weishar and other professors from SCAD have been doing the same thing they have done in years past in using off-campus visits to Orlando’s themed attractions and IAAPA events to give their students an up-close look at the real-world workings of some Orlando’s most-famous make-believe worlds.
“When we send a student to their first IAAPA, we ask them to walk the entire floor to start to get an idea of the depth and diversity of the themed entertainment and attractions industries,” Weishar says. “Most students are, frankly, overwhelmed by the opportunities and different avenues available to them.”
Not just theme parks
These days, those avenues aren’t necessarily only in theme parks either. Zoos and museums long have turned to themed concepts to both inform and entertain. And even restaurants (say, for example, Darden’s Bahama Breeze) and resorts (Ron Jon Cape Caribe Resort in Cocoa Beach, Nickelodeon Suites Resorts here in Orlando, or the Atlantis resorts in the Bahamas or Dubai) increasingly are using themed concepts in an effort to stand apart from their competitors and attract guests. It’s not uncommon to find shopping malls and car dealerships using some form of theming these days, as well.
The importance of themed entertainment as an economic force has been emerging for some time and was the subject of an work titled “The Experience Economy” in the late ’90s. The authors suggested an economic phase of “experience” would follow the most-recent “service economy” phase of the world we now know.
According to the ideas presented by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, businesses in the so-called “experience economy” could capitalize on presenting experiences alongside their products and promoting the “transformations” experienced by consumers. The concept initially began in the business arena but is now discussed in other areas, from tourism, of course, to urban planning.
The authors discuss “how our economy and most major Western economies have shifted from service to experience,” Weishar says. “That’s a very important tenet of [the] work and very important to what we’re doing.”
Globally, themed entertainment design is a “hot market” in Asia, according to Gene Jeffers, executive director of the Themed Entertainment Association, a Burbank, Calif.-based non-profit organization that promotes the industry and tracks its trends. One of TEA’s 2011 reports even suggested that Asia theme-park attendance could surpass that found in the United States within a decade.
“SCAD is stepping up to deliver a curriculum that will meet the needs of the industry,” Jeffers said, adding that other “industries are turning to the techniques and approaches developed in theme parks of linking story/narrative with entertainment or educational experiences. It is that need that is growing and that the themed-entertainment industry is seeking to fill.”
And if the importance of themed entertainment is evident to Savannah College of Art and Design, it also is understood by some of those already working in the industry, too.
Arielle Rassel, who graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in June and now is an interior design intern at Walt Disney World, said her off-campus visits to Orlando were “eye-opening experiences” for her.
Saying that “it was always the big dream to end up at Disney after graduation,” Rassel credits SCAD’s Orlando outreach efforts for helping her achieve what she’s doing today. Yet she also says it taught her about other themed-attraction opportunities, too.
“Disney is considered the gold standard, but there are so many other companies out there other than Disney,” she says, noting that the Orlando resort, like most others here, subcontract many artistic projects with smaller companies, too. And those companies’ need for artistic talent can be just as prevailing as that of the larger parks here.
SCAD’s program vs. others
Certainly, Savannah College of Art and Design’s MFA program isn’t the only themed attraction program being offered by colleges today. The University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management is routinely ranked among the top in the nation for its programs in hospitality management, restaurant and food-service management, and event management.
While those areas are crucial for any themed attraction that wants to succeed, SCAD’s MFA is the first that will address the aesthetics, storytelling and creative forces needed to make attractions come alive with wonder.
Consider that almost anyone can set up an attraction, add some colorful lights and flashy roadside signage, and attract a crowd. Just drive down I-Drive on a Saturday night or stroll the Daytona Beach Boardwalk some summer to see how this works.
But for the attraction companies that dream big — really big, such as transporting their guests to a magical Fantasyland replete with princes and princesses, or a wizarding world of Harry Potter and Voldemort, or perhaps even the watery domain of 10,000-pound orcas — then only creative, artistic storytelling and presentation will ensure the parks attract guests from around the world year after year.
And, aside from the technical skills needed to accomplish this, a big part of what SCAD does in both its undergraduate and MFA programs, Weishar says, is stress the importance of collaborative creation.
George Head, a professor of production design at the college and one of the principal professors in the MFA program, echoed his belief in the importance of this aspect of what will help students succeed in the real world of themed entertainment.
“We are trying to take this diverse group and help them all understand where they fit into the process,” Head says. “Themed entertainment is the most collaborative of all the arts. It takes a lot to make this happen.”
He should know. As a former Disney Imagineer, he was a set designer at Epcot and a show producer for Disney’s MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios) and reported to the famed Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar, the man who helped bring to life such famous Disney attractions as the “Enchanted Tiki Room” and the “It’s a Small World” ride. Sklar also famously guided the development of Epcot, among his many other creative projects with the Walt Disney Co. for more than half a century.
“I see [this program] as being like an inspirational event,” Head says. “You get to lift the curtain and see the guy pulling the levers ... you get to see if there’s a chance [for you] to work in this industry.”
Michael Devine, another professor of production design at SCAD who is part of the MFA program there, also sees collaborative skills as a behavioral trait equally as important for the students as their artistic talents might be, and it’s something he stresses often in his classroom.
And, he says, SCAD is particularly well-suited to serving its students who want to pursue a career in themed entertainment.
“Other schools offer multiple majors in the creative arts, but none are structured to encourage a multifaceted creative approach to a single discipline — namely, a holistic, integrated approach to design for the themed entertainment world.”
Devine, who was part of Walt Disney Imagineering projects for Tokyo Disney Seas and the former MGM Studios and who worked as a creative director at Universal here in Orlando for several years, said Central Florida’s many attractions, particularly Disney, have helped reinforce SCAD’s mission for its students by demonstrating how collaborative, themed efforts can work so well.
That’s something that Weishar agrees is important and is on display throughout Orlando and beyond.
“All of the theme parks in Orlando are doing incredible work,” he says, citing Disney, SeaWorld, Universal and even Legoland Florida in Winter Haven. “You guys have a vast richness of experiences there.”Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times