Dinos and Minions are all in a day’s work for this guy

Jon Corfino, senior director and executive producer at Universal Creative
Jon Corfino, senior director and executive producer at Universal Creative, takes part in the Raptor Encounter at Universal Studios Hollywood on Tuesday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Jon Corfino, 60, has been senior director and executive producer for Universal Creative since 2013 and has overseen the creation of several attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood, including the themed area known as Springfield, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and, most recently, Jurassic World — the Ride. He started at the park while in college, working a summer job on the famous Studio Tour.

Bringing a Mosasaurus to life

The most recent challenge for Corfino and the crew at Universal Creative was to overhaul the 23-year-old Jurassic Park ride. The 11-month revamp was completed in July and unveiled as Jurassic World — the Ride. The most engaging feature of the renewed ride is when passengers on a boat drift past what resembles a giant aquarium that holds a 60-foot-long Mosasaurus, a carnivorous creature that looks like a cross between a shark and an alligator. Corfino and his team dreamed up the encounter on a white board and built it on a tight deadline. “We came up with that idea, and then it was literally drawing it and building a physical, miniature scale model of it and then getting on a chair with wheels and going through the [viewpoints of the passengers] to see how everything would work,” he said.

Shunning show business

Corfino grew up in Sherman Oaks, the son of the head of casting and talent at MGM Studios. While most kids his age saw movies at matinees, he watched them at screening events. Exposure to the movie industry taught him the basics about moviemaking, such as the difference between sound effects and sound design. But he wasn’t interested in following in his father’s footsteps.

Tennis love

A competitive tennis player, Corfino was good enough to spend a year after high school playing against the best in Europe and North Africa. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do that for a living,’” he said. But a shoulder injury ended that dream. He played tennis as a student at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and then attended UCLA, where he studied international relations.


Back in show biz

Despite his promise to stay out of the entertainment business, Corfino landed a summer job during college at Universal Studios Hollywood, working at the Screen Test Theater, an element of the Studio Tour. The feature, which was closed a few decades ago, allowed park visitors to act briefly on a movie set. Corfino worked as a stage manager, a camera operator and the show host. During that stint, a co-worker asked Corfino to fill in to help with a pitch that Universal Studios was making to potential partners and corporate sponsors for plans to develop the theme park in Florida that would eventually become Universal Studios Orlando. That led him to join the planning and development team at Universal Studios, working on projects in Hollywood and Florida. “I didn’t really realize I was going to be working on developing attractions at the time, but I was involved at the very start of that whole partnership process,” he said.

The Despicable Me Minion Mayhem attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.
(Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times)

Theme park attractions

After 13 years at Universal Studios, he left to work for a small company that created attractions for theme parks and casinos and eventually started his own business, developing 3-D productions, virtual reality features and other items for theme parks. In 2013, Universal Creative, the arm that develops attractions for Universal Parks and Resorts, called Corfino to ask him to help with the creation of Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, an interactive attraction that puts park visitors in a theater with seats that can rise, fall and tilt. Wearing 3-D glasses, the audience watches images on a screen and is spritzed with water to bring the show to life. He has overseen the development of attractions at the Southern California park ever since.

“Every day you are figuring out something that has not been done.”

— Jon Corfino

Best part of the job

Corfino loves the challenge of turning an idea for an attraction into reality. “Every day you are figuring out something that has not been done,” he said. “It’s a lot of creative challenges, working with the most creative people on the planet, trying to innovate and raise the bar on new attractions.”

Universal Studios Hollywood rushes to open its Jurassic World ride, which uses the latest technology.

The future of theme parks

Theme park attractions now rely on sophisticated technology, such as mechanics that can bring a dinosaur to life. But Corfino believes such gadgetry works only if it can tell a story or draw emotion from parkgoers. “The future is exciting because you have a bunch of fun technologies, whether it’s interactivity or augmented reality or other things but it’s not about technology,” he said. “It’s how we relate with that and where we want to go with that. That’s going to be our challenge going forward.”

Universal Studios Hollywood celebrates the grand opening of DreamWorks Theatre featuring Kung Fu Panda: the Emperor's Quest.
Kung Fu Panda: the Emperor’s Quest opened at Universal Studios Hollywood in June 2018.
(Paul Archuleta / Getty Images)

Kung Fu example

One example Corfino cites is Kung Fu Panda: The Emperor’s Quest, which opened at Universal Studios Hollywood in June 2018. The attraction uses projection mapping, which relies on powerful computers to project moving images onto uneven surfaces. The technology has been used in theme parks for years, Corfino said, but the way it was deployed helped bring to life the “Kung Fu Panda” story. When characters in the attraction shoot flaming arrows, projection mapping makes it appear that they are streaking across the theater, embedding into the walls and the columns. “It’s great to come up with the technology, but you have to come up with the right application for where it really works,” he said.

How to gauge success

Corfino doesn’t judge a ride by the length of its queue. During his lunch breaks at the park, he gets into the rides and attractions to gauge the visitor reactions. “The real joy of it is being in the [ride vehicle] and seeing kids scream and react and laugh,” he said.

Universal Studios Hollywood Jurassic World — The Ride
The Mosasaurus is featured in Jurassic World — The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood.
(Universal Studios Hollywood)

Feeling competitive

The world of attraction developers is small enough that Corfino knows most of the men and women who build rides for competitors such as Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm. “Yes, we look at each other’s work, and we look at what works, and we measure what doesn’t work,” he said. “But there is also a certain level of collegiality, like saying, ‘Great job on this, but I think I would have done it differently.’”

Dad’s fish restaurant

After his father retired from MGM, he opened a fish-and-chips restaurant in Encino, where Corfino worked as a teenager. He remembers an important lesson he learned from the restaurant. “People can have a good meal 20 times and come back, but if they have a bad meal on the 21st time they’ll never come back,” he said. “So it taught me about customer service, kind of the beginning of how to value the guest experience.”