So, you want to be a theme park designer, do you?  I get hundreds of emails every year from people who want to design rides and other theme park attractions for a living. In this article, I hope to answer a lot of the commonly asked questions so that you too will have a better idea about how to get started in the themed entertainment industry.

If you remember all guidelines I’ve laid down for you and follow them, your chances for success will be greatly increased.

Guideline #1:  The average job in the themed entertainment lasts about 18 months

The average job in this industry only lasts about 18 months. This industry is volatile and almost all work is done on a project basis.  When the project ends – you lose your job.  It is not a bad thing. Usually it mean that you simply go onto the next job, wherever that may be. Successful designers are networked so well that they can move around from job-to-job without much difficulty. But it is not for the faint of heart. And while for a young kid starting out without any job it’s easy to remain short sighted about this and say it doesn’t matter.  Down the road when you are trying to support a family this lifestyle becomes something more difficult to sustain. To be successful, you must be willing to accept change as the only constant.

Guideline #2: Learn how to draw even if you don’t think you can.Walk around with a sketch pad wherever you go and draw everything you see.  Everyone should learn how to express their ideas visually, especially if you want to be in the themed entertainment industry. Everyone can learn to draw well given enough practice.

I fondly recall asking two Disney animators about their figure drawing skills a couple years ago. At that, they both confided in me: “I’m scared to death of drawing people.”   I was shocked. I said, “Wait a minute, you just finished animating Mulan and Hercules.  How can you be afraid of drawing people?”

I concluded that most sane people have an apprehension about sketching.  If these Disney animators don’t think they can draw, yet somehow manage to produce masterpieces. . . then why can you not draw very well too?  I believe you can.

If you still think you need help learning to sketch, get the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain , by Betty Edwards.   It will help you draw in the best way a text book can.

Guideline #3:  Get the right reading material and start learning.

Read a biography of Walt Disney.  Themed entertainment was revolutionized by this man, so you will do well to learn about him. A very good book on both Walt Disney’s life and Disney philosophy is Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney and the American Way of Life . By Watts. Subscribe to the industry magazines as well. They will help you think like a theme park designer.

Guideline #4: Get a good education.

Your chances of a successful career are reduced dramatically without a college degree.  The bottom line: You cannot chase your dreams without a good education. It is highly unlikely that you will have much success developing skills to make companies want to hire you without a degree.  I therefore encourage you to work as hard as you can while you are in school.  Learn good study habits by doing all your homework assignments and stay in school until you get a degree.

I recommend the following schools of higher education:

  • Art Center; Pasadena, California
  • California Institute for the Arts; (CalArts), Valencia, California
  • Ringling School of Design; Sarasota, Florida
  • University of Cincinnati; Cincinnati Ohio
  • Most schools in Southern California like Cal State Fullerton, USC, UCLA, UC Irvine are good choices as they are close to where the themed entertainment industry is located.  Be sure that these schools have a major appropriate to your interests.

Guideline #5:  Choose the right college major:

You might wonder what your college major should be in order to become a theme park designer. The answer to that question is simple and complex. There are many hundreds of career fields involved in theme park design because it takes many disciplines in order to produce one.  The real key is just finding something that you love to do.  Life is too short to spend it doing a job you don’t like.  Here are some theme park design careers and how to get involved in them.

  • Illustrator/Concept artist:  Illustrators are the people who actually draw out what they think an idea will look like. They draw every picture that architects and engineers will eventually design from. Very often illustrators will have an art director looking over their shoulder guiding them. In terms of the original concepts, illustrators play a huge role in the design, and it is often their inspiration that determines a final look of an attraction. Illustration can be learned at a public or private art school, or on your own.
  • Engineering: On the opposite side of the spectrum from illustration is engineering. Engineers have no say as to what the concept looks like or does, but engineers figure out how to make it work. Whether it be sizing the structural columns, calculating shear forces on a roller coaster, or developing new electronics to make an animatronic figure function; engineers do the math and programming to make it work. Engineering schools are found at major colleges and universities. Structural, electrical, computer science and mechanical engineering are the most common majors.
  • Architects create atmosphere with the space that they design. They use drawings from illustrators and engineers to create buildings and spaces. Their focus ranges from the “big picture” of building layout all the way down to the smallest detail of accounting for the code requirements of a space.
  • Interior designers focus on the interior of the space. They are generally concerned about furniture, paint colors and material choices. They also design the layout of spaces and focus on ergonomics… the human factor. Interior designers can play a very conventional role in a normal interior space, but they also design highly specialized themed spaces as well. Some specialize in selecting the very unique themed finishes in an attraction while others help to select the movie-like props that will go into an attraction.  Interior designers have illustration skills, space planning skills, materials selection skills, and computer skills. They learn their trade at design schools.
  • Industrial designers are very similar to interior designers and architects in many ways. Industrial designers design products like the shape of car, a shampoo bottle or of the look of props or sets in an attraction.  In the themed entertainment industry, many of them become show designers because of their varied skills.  They sometimes are used to design exhibits and exhibit elements, commonly used in theme parks.  Industrial designers learn industrial design at art schools.
  • Film people are a very important to the success of themed attractions. Motion control simulator rides like Back to the Future at Universal Studios or Star Tours at Disney are technologies that opened up an entirely new area of expertise in themed entertainment field. Video and film production specialists are needed to produce the ride films for those attractions. Frequently, film people are also used in many other applications, from attraction pre-shows to commercial advertising in television.
  • Set designers create many different aspects of a theme park, both interior and exterior.  Set designers in themed entertainment are a hybrid of theatrical set designers and cinematic set designers.   Because a theme park can be thought of as a “three dimensional show that one can walk through and experience,” set designers are a very necessary part of the equation. In fact many interior attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney are little more than a series of overlapping sets that a ride passes through. Set design can be learned at an art school or at a theatrical school.
  • Graphic designers create all of the signage and some other architectural facade details at a theme park. Their trade is learned at art schools.
  • Show writer:  In theme park design show writers are invaluable. The show writer is one of the most key people in conceptualizing new themed attraction ideas.  Like in a film in the movie industry,  every themed attraction is based on a story.  Some are subtle, and some are overt.  It is the show writers’ job to create the compelling story that we will all experience.  Further, it is then his job to collaborate with the other designers to make sure that the story is effectively communicated through the design.  Jobless writers, fear not.  Show writing is an exciting possibility for you.
  • Landscape architect / planner:  Do not let the name fool you.  Landscape architects aren’t gardeners.  These are the people who lay out the overall footprint of the theme park, resort or other project.  They create outdoor atmospheres through land planning and environmental design.
  • Props / Set Decorator- The last “layer” for any themed attraction is the prop and set decorator. These people specialize in finding the right props and artifacts to make a themed environment seem real.

This was just a sample of the types of people needed to produce a theme park. Indeed literally hundreds of trades are needed: lighting designers, carpenters, model builders, contractors, landscapers, lawyers, financial managers, sculptors, painters, actors, dancers, and vendors. The list is endless. So to be involved in this industry, you simply find a career that you like, and go out and pursue it.

Guideline #6:  Become an expert in one skill and a generalist in many skills. 

A few years ago I asked Tony Baxter, Vice President of Creative Services at Walt Disney Imagineering what a person needed to do to get started as a theme park designer. He told me that the most important thing someone needed to do to become an Imagineer is to become “Very good at just one thing.” I asked the same question to Bob Rogers, President and founder of BRC Imagination Arts, an attraction design company located in Burbank, California. Mr. Rogers told me that he always looks to hire generalists — people who can do a lot of things very well. The bottom line?  Become an expert in one thing, but be able to do many tasks well.  A single skill makes you employable. A lot of skills makes you attractive.

Guideline #7:  Be nice to everybody.

The themed entertainment industry is a very small group of people.  Everyone knows everyone.  If you start making enemies you will soon be out of friends.   Never burn a bridge!  Repeat after me:   I will never, never, ever, burn a bridge! Patrick McGarry, the area manager of Disneyland Engineering told me,  “We know that there are lots of people who can do the job here, but what we really look for is people who can interact and communicate and get along with others.” For Mr. McGarry it is the interpersonal skills that make the difference. And that makes sense. If you are going to spend all day with someone, you want to be around those dynamic people who can solve problems while maintaining a good sense of humor.  People who throw temper tantrums or get stressed out during those normal storms of life are never much fun to be around!

Guideline #8:   No one owes you a job.

Market yourself with the correct mindset: In the real world there is no affirmative action to help you succeed.  No one owes you any sort of job, and no one is going to do it for you. Everything is up to you.  No one will ever come looking for you unless you make the phone calls and write the letters and go meet people. When you are turned down for a job, you are never “out” like you would be in baseball.  Instead, keep talking to your contact every month or two, letting them know that you are still interested. After a while, you will know lots of the right type of people and that good job will eventually come around to you. After all, it’s not what you know; it’s “who you know.” If you were to fail in 50 straight interviews, but on the 51st interview you got your dream job then it would all have been worth it. So look at interviews as OPPORTUNITY, and never give up.

Guideline #9:  Begin networking right here on Themedattraction.com.

  • Pay attention to the message boards.  You have a unique opportunity to talk on a first hand basis with industry insiders.  Use this opportunity to your advantage.
  • Utilize our career page .  We have assembled some of the best online job resources for the themed entertainment industry.  Some jobs are temporary, some are permanent. But any job will help you to get valuable experience in this industry.

Guideline #10   Join Professional Organizations

Join professional organizations like the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions , (IAAPA) and the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and go to their meetings and conventions. It’s a good place to get to know the right people. You can go and talk to dozens of company executives at the convention. They are always happy to talk to you too, because every smart executive is always looking for good people. As Bob Rogers says: “Companies are ALWAYS hiring, no matter what they say.” If the right person comes along, they will create an opening for that person. There are no rules in the business world and anyone can be hired at any time

Guideline #11:  Get your foot in the door any way you can.

It is often a good idea to take a part time hourly position at a theme park because once you are inside the company, it is much easier to get hired into a more desired salary positions.  Hourly work at a theme park provides invaluable experience that I highly recommend for everyone, but most design jobs are not at theme parks.  It’s a good idea to get in on the ground floor with any company that offers promising opportunity.

Guideline #12: Move to where the industry is located.

The themed entertainment industry is spread out widely throughout the United States and the world.  However, the most concentrated areas are in three locations: a). Los Angeles, California; b). Orlando, Florida;  and c). Cincinnati, Ohio.  Other smaller areas of concentration are spread across the country and the world.  Because of the thousands of resumes each company receives each year, it is doubtful that anyone will get serious consideration for a job if they live out of state. If you were a staffing professional looking to fill a job, where would you look first, in Bristol, Connecticut, or in your own city?  Of course there are always exceptions, but in general, LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION are three very key words to know.  This holds true for any company.If you’d like to work for the Disney Company or Universal Studios in a professional capacity (or any theme park for that matter) it is a wise decision to move to where they are located (Southern California or Central Florida).

Guideline #13:  Don’t put Disney on a pedestal.

Don’t hold the Disney company as the end-all and be-all of themed entertainment.  Up until 1990, Disney set the standard for themed entertainment,  but there is a world of opportunity out there, so don’t limit yourself to just one company. Too many people sacrifice good jobs at good companies for not-so-good jobs at Disney.  Disney is a fine company, but please keep everything in perspective and realize that there are many great opportunities out there for you.

by Nate Naversen