Online Theme Park Engineering Class Peeks Behind the Scenes

ORLANDO, FL — Have you ever gone to a theme park and wondered, “How did they do that?” Now you can find out, in Theme Park Engineering. This fun new online class surveys everything about the design of theme park attractions.

The course is taught by Steve Alcorn, president of Alcorn McBride Inc., a company that engineers equipment for theme parks all over the world. “For over twenty years I’ve been having great fun bringing hundreds – perhaps thousands – of attractions to life all over the world,” says Mr. Alcorn. “Now it’s my students’ turn to do the designing.”

The class is offered through 1400 colleges and universities worldwide, via online learning provider Education To Go. It’s a “survey” class, so no special knowledge of math, chemistry or computer programming is needed. It’s a class about engineering – not an engineering class.

As armchair theme park engineers, students learn about architecture, ride control, show control, audio, video, acoustics, lighting, mechanics, hydraulics, figure animation, art direction, set design and more. They use that knowledge to design their own park and its attractions, and to determine what it would take to build that park.

The resources that accompany each lesson point them towards companies that do Theme Park Engineering, industry trade organizations, plus interesting sites about roller coasters, haunted houses and other attractions.

Every step of the way students post their ideas in lesson discussion areas, where their fellow classmates and Mr. Alcorn comment on them and make suggestions. The classroom is always open, day or night. In fact, it’s a lot like real theme park engineering – with enough Twinkies and coffee they can work 24 hours a day.

“Fortunately it doesn’t take anything like that to get the most out of this course,” says Mr. Alcorn. “But they may find it’s so much fun they’ll want to stock up on Twinkies anyway.”

This except from Lesson 3 looks at the early stages of design, from Blue Sky through initial story creation, then the process of fitting the story to our intended audience.

Blue Sky

The design of every theme park attraction begins with a blue-sky phase. This is where the Creative Team sits around a large table and brainstorms new ideas for the attraction. It usually goes something like this:

“Wait, wait, I know! We can have these lily pads floating above the surface of the lake – there’ll be a railing around the edge of them of course. People will stand on the lily pads and aim lasers, trying to knock each other into the water.”

“Won’t that be dangerous?”

“No, the engineers will figure out a way to make the lasers safe.”

“How will the lily pads float?”

“Oh, the engineers will come up with something.”

You get the idea. Most attractions start out with a completely impossible idea, either because it can’t be done or can’t be done at a reasonable cost. So the design of attractions ends up being a negotiation process between the Creative Team, the Engineers, and the Estimators who are caught in the middle.

Eventually they will all agree on a design that is achievable at a price within the budget. At least, they think they have agreed. Then the engineers go off and design something that is nothing like the Creative Teams imagined. At the same time the Creative Team starts trying to slip back in all the impossible stuff that they previously agreed to take out. And the estimators keep telling both groups not to spend any more money.

It’s an iterative process.

Eventually time, money, patience or all three runs out and the attraction opens to the public. Then the Creative Team studies the public’s reaction to their creation and come up with a whole bunch of new ideas for improvements. The engineers now change to the graveyard shift, and try to figure out how to shoehorn in all this new stuff, without exceeding the original budget and without impacting the next day’s operation of the attraction.

As you can see, the blue-sky process never really stops.

Walt Disney once said that as long as there was imagination in the hearts of men, Disneyland would never be finished. I’m not sure whether the irony was intended.

Creating the Story

What was wrong with the attraction I invented in the last Lesson?

It had no story. If story is king, then even at the beginning of Blue Sky there must be story.

Let’s take an example. A roller coaster careens through a darkened room over a faintly illuminated cityscape. Enthralling? Not really, there’s no story.

Take two. A rock band is late for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. They invite you to hop in their limo and go careening through the Hollywood Hills and all around the L.A. freeway system to make it on time. That’s the story behind Disney MGM’s Rock ’n Roller coaster, and it works.

Here are two more real ones, one that doesn’t work, one that does:

A boat glides through a dark tunnel. It passes a volcano, people at a bazaar trying to sell things, Mayan ruins, dancing dolls with colorful costumes, and fiber-optic fireworks.

A boat glides through a dark tunnel. It passes a ship full of pirates and a fort. A battle is underway. Cannon balls whiz overhead, and explosions dot the water. Farther along the pirates have seized the village and are auctioning off the women, stealing treasures, and setting fire to the buildings. As we barely escape from the burning timbers we see prisoners still trapped in the jail, trying to lure a dog into bringing them the keys to their cell.

Which ride has a story, the Mexico pavilion at Epcot or Pirates of the Caribbean?

It’s not that hard from the outset to make sure that a ride has a story, which makes it surprising that so many rides don’t have one. But a lot of them don’t. I’m not talking about rides in amusement parks. I’m talking about rides in theme parks. In amusement parks when we see an iron roller coaster we expect to be tossed around a little; we don’t expect a story. That’s why it’s called an amusement park, not a theme park. But at a theme park our expectations are higher. Do the Batman or Superman roller coasters at Six Flags theme parks tell a story, or are there simply themed façades accompanying an unthemed ride?

Sometimes there might be a story there, but it isn’t intelligibly conveyed to the riders. At the Journey to Atlantis flume ride at SeaWorld Orlando, preshow monitors show news broadcasts and interviews related to the reappearance of the lost continent of Atlantis. A Greek fishermen is involved, and a statue of the sea horse. The audio is usually intelligible, but the set up doesn’t ever give us a mission. Once on the ride the audio becomes unintelligible, and animated figures and props – presumably there to convey a story – pass by so quickly that they can’t be perceived. There’s some kind of woman or witch in a very bad mood, and a reappearance of the sea horse. Then we go down a really nice drop, get soaking wet, creep back an upramp, and get one final surprise before unloading. It’s not a bad ride, but it’s incomprehensible.

Sometimes the story is just too complicated for the ride. The Lord of the Rings makes a great book and movie trilogy, but would it make a good ride? Of course not. Rides with more complicated storylines are often best implemented using simulators. Here it is customary to have a narrator – often the driver – who can summarize the adventure as it proceeds. And since simulator rides can be as long as ten minutes, there’s more opportunity to convey the story.

Conversely, short rides need simple plots. You step into a basket, are hauled to the top of a tower, and dropped. Or… you go to a creepy old hotel where guests mysteriously vanished in an elevator years before… as you enter the darkened elevator shaft you suddenly feel yourself falling. Knott’s Berry Farm’s Parachute Drop or Disney MGM’s Tower of Terror: which is the better ride? Tower of Terror. Of course, it cost 50 times more.

The year after Tower of Terror opened, it was updated and re-advertised as Tower of Terror 2. The new version dropped guests twice.

The next year they added even more drops, and then more. So now that Tower of Terror drops you four or five times for no particular reason, is it a better ride? That’s a tough call. It’s more exciting, however the story suffers. But it does allow the marketing folks to advertise the new ride profile each year.

A particularly effective mechanism for storytelling is the old-fashioned dark ride. Here a simple vehicle moves along a track – sometimes level sometimes with elevation changes – traveling from scene to scene and telling a linear story. The dark interior allows ultraviolet lighting to focus your guests’ attention on the elements most important to the story. Still, one needs to be careful not to try to tell too complex a story. We all know the story of Alice in Wonderland. Without that background the ride at Disneyland would be nearly incomprehensible. But because of that shared background, the audience can relive the book or Disney movie without confusion. This foreknowledge of your guests’ background is essential to a successful ride.

Fitting Story to Audience

My grandmother never rode a roller coaster. And punk rockers don’t hang out in butterfly conservatories.

It’s essential to know your audience when designing an attraction. This process of evaluating the audience begins almost from the first moment of blue-sky and doesn’t end until the concept moves from Art Direction to Engineering. Even then the mechanical or ergonomic design of the attraction may be influenced by its anticipated guests. For example, in Europe it’s okay to make guests climb stairs or jump off of slowly moving vehicles. In America it’s not. Let’s look at how the designers of some other attractions targeted their audiences in order to see how we should proceed.

When the Las Vegas Hilton decided to install the Star Trek Experience, they made a calculated decision to recreate the Starship Enterprise from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. They didn’t use starships from the classic series of the late ’60s or from more recent sequels, such as Star Trek Voyager. Why did they make this calculated decision?

It’s because they knew their audience. The majority of people likely to visit the Star Trek Experience (and then spend time at the slot machines in the adjacent casino) are from an age group that would’ve watched Next Generation on television, but perhaps not the classic television show (except maybe in reruns).

When Legoland built their theme park in Carlsbad California they wanted an attraction where kids would be able to drive cars. There are lots of motorized go-cart racing places around the country, but they appeal more to teenagers than to Lego’s target audience of preteens. Also, Lego didn’t want anything so environmentally unfriendly and noisy. They wanted something more in keeping with the theme of their park: the Lego brand. So they decided to use electric cars.

The problem with electric cars is that they don’t accelerate very quickly or go very fast. In a world where every third television show ends with a car chase, electric cars are about as exciting as watching fingerpaint dry. Lego had to figure out how to make electric cars interesting to kids. The solution is in the story. Lego created a kid-size grid of streets, laid out like the intersections in a real city, complete with stop signs and traffic lights. The idea was for kids to drive around the miniature city, following the same traffic laws that their parents have to follow. Clearly this was something that would appeal to the imagination of an 8-year-old if – and it’s a big if – you can get him to do it.

To accomplish this they had to figure out a way to complete the story. The solution was to start the experience off with an instructional video that would teach kids how to observe the rules of the road: obey the signs and lights, use hand signals when turning, and be courteous to other drivers.

Another problem was getting kids to leave the vehicles once their time was up. They found the perfect solution in the completion of the story. At the exit of the attraction the kids are awarded Lego driving licenses.

The result: a simple ride becomes a complete experience though the use of story. A story designed specifically to appeal to the target audience: preteens.

Lets try using this awareness of our audience. In this week’s assignment we’re each going to put on our creative hat (the one with the bells and the moose antlers on it) and begin the design of our own themed attraction. It’s a great way to really understand the blue sky-process.

Since an example is always worth a thousand words, I’ll go first.

The best attractions reflect their creator’s passion. I love history, so my attraction will be about history. There are so many regions and periods to choose from, it’s hard to decide which to pick. I’m going to choose the Middle Ages – sometimes called the Dark Ages – because I think they have a lot of potential for entertainment and many people don’t know much about them. The Middle Ages offer castles, knights, pageantry, eating with your fingers, the Black Plague and a total lack of sanitation. Some of these might not be the best ingredients for a themed attraction, but we can work around them.

My attraction needs a story. But where to start? The logical places to try to explain to my guests why they’re in the Middle Ages. Better yet, perhaps we can make their getting to the Middle Ages a part of the attractions experience. Time travel. I like it. It mixes high-tech sci-fi with the history. There’s potential here.

What if we created a way to convince guests that they were being transported into the past, and we made it so convincing that they couldn’t figure out how we did it? Then, once we get them to the past, we give them an environment to play and: food, drink, entertainment, and something more. Let’s make part of our story their quest to find a way back to the present.

Now let’s consider our audience:

Families? Definitely.

Retired couples? Possibly.

International vacationers? If we put it someplace they visit.

Businessmen? Nope. Even if we’re in a major convention city they’re probably going to find something more… um, stimulating to do with their time.

Teens on a date? Not likely.

OK, so we’ve got a tame crowd that may have trouble with physically demanding tasks or terrain, and that isn’t in a hurry. So I’m picturing a medieval village with shops selling wooden toys, silk pennants, kites, lutes and fake swords. There are tents on a lawn where you can buy a turkey leg or a meat pie. We’ll serve ale and soft drinks in pewter tankards. Street performers including jugglers or jesters will accost the guests, and generally try to liven things up.

You enter this land by some magical means that will transport you there instantly, and you’ll have to discover the way back yourself.

That’s enough to get started. The engineers will figure out the rest later. Let’s do lunch.

In this week’s discussion area you’ll begin the design of your own attraction. Keep in mind the topics we’ve discussed so far, and we’ll build upon them as we proceed further into the world of Theme Park Engineering.

A new session of Steve Alcorn’s Online Theme Park Engineering Class begins every month.

For more information and to enroll, visit


“Earning My Ears”: How I got my first job with the Disney company

20 Apr 2012 Career Advice

by Nate Naversen

This is a story of how I got my first job with the Walt Disney company.  It’s a story of perseverance and how I managed to turn failure into success in my job search.  Now just for clarification’s sake I don’t consider myself any better or any more qualified than anyone else just because I was successful in getting hired by Disney.  Indeed, there are many more qualified candidates than I.  But I was probably more persistent than most, and that was what made the difference for me in this case.  It was a good lesson to learn, and I hope to pass on my experience to you.  Please do not take this advice as a way to get the Disney company to hire you.  Too many people put Disney on a pedestal and sacrifice good jobs at other companies for not-so-good jobs at Disney.  My hope is that this article will help put you in a good frame of mind to be successful in any future job search.  In this great country of opportunity, no goal is too high for those of you who dream big.

Let me just say first of all that I remember visiting Disneyland as a 10 year old thinking, “Wow!  Wouldn’t it be great to work here some day!”   Later I shrugged away any such ideas as a kids’ fantasy.   Well, it was later the following during my second year in college that I got a call from my good friend, Will, who was then attending Washington State.  He told me he had just been accepted into the Disneyland College Program, and that he would be spending his summer down in Anaheim working at Disneyland. “Such fun,” I thought.  I already had a job that summer as a competitive swim coach which I truly enjoyed, but the seed had been planted. This was the first time that it dawned on me that people actually do have amazing jobs. . . that it is truly possible to have a career that you are excited about.  After all, I was very excited about Disney, as so many are, so why couldn’t I go work there? Truly, there was nothing stopping me short of going out and getting it.

The following January I attempted to get into the Disneyland college program.  Right off the bat I ran into a slight problem, though.  You see, I went to the University of Colorado, but Disneyland only recruited in the Pacific states. It took a little doing, but soon I was able to convince my parents to help me to purchase a plane ticket from Colorado to Pullman, Washington where Disney recruited (and my friend Will could house me for the weekend.)

Will warned me that the odds of being accepted into the Disneyland College Program were very slim, as only 10% of the applicants were accepted into the program.  “Hmmm,” I thought, “Maybe I was better off going for that Air Force fighter pilot slot?”   Nonetheless, I had made up my mind about what I wanted to do: get Disney to hire me. I knew the competition would be stiff, but I had a great chance, right?   After all, I was a clean-cut, good-old-fashioned, red-blooded, All-American boy-next-door type. I was the type of kid Walt was looking for.   How could they not hire me?

Well, when I went into Disney’s recruitment presentation, and it was like my worst nightmare come-true. There I sat in a room full of 200 other college students who looked exactly like me !  The Disneyland College program only accepted about 150 students each summer, and this was one of only 30 universities they recruited from!   Surely, the odds would be slim for me.  Steadfast in my determination, I watched the presentation and signed up for an interview, but with a lot less confidence than I had at first.

Now the interview the next morning was truly what I would consider a stress interview.  Because of the number of people who were applying for the job and the amount of time the recruiters had, interviews were conducted four at a time. There was a small room, where four potential Disney cast members went in and were asked questions by one interviewer.  Also, because of the time constraints, the entire interview was conducted in only twenty minutes. One wrong comment could earn you a hidden “X” next to your name, spelling certain disaster for anyone hoping to be hired that summer.  Will told me that the recruiter would either pick one of the four candidates for the job, or choose not to choose any of the four.  Now those are some great odds to defy!

Well, I went to my interview that morning on the Washington State campus, having gone to great lengths to make my appearance perfect for the recruiter.  I think I even clipped a nose hair that morning in preparation.  I was either extremely meticulous or extremely worried. . . I’m not sure which.

When I arrived, it was just as I had been told.  There were four of us: two boys, and two girls. The first girl was definitely dressed for success with a nice green dress on and a little binder clip board.  The second girl, who I later met again down at Disneyland was even more well dressed than the first girl.  She wore a funky designer dress and had her hair done up in a business-style crop. The young man impressed me less than the others because he wore old pants and muddy work boots.  He surely could not impress an interviewer dressed like that?  His lack of good interview appearance wasn’t comforting to me at all though:  first of all, he seemed very nice;  and second of all, I knew I had to beat all three of them to win the job. What a task!

During the interview the first girl made a critical mistake. When asked why she wanted to work at Disneyland, she said,  “Well, it’s either Disneyland or an Alaskan fish cannery, and I really don’t want to clean fish all summer.”  It was a terrible answer in my opinion, and I judged from frowning expression on the interviewer’s face that he probably was going to put an “X” by her name with that comment. The young man in the interview turned out to be a nice fellow, but he was a little less refined than the rest of us, so I assumed we would probably beat him out too.

But the last girl,  Shannon, had the perfect girl-next-door smile and nailed every question.  I knew it was probably down to the two of us. . . although I really couldn’t tell you how well I answered the interview questions.  I was too nervous.  The one thing I do recall was the interviewer asking me what job I would like to do at the Magic Kingdom.  I told him that I just wanted to work there that summer. . . that I would take any job.   “Give me the job as the custodial sweeper,”  I exclaimed.  “I’ll take anything!”

Well, there was nothing to do but to wait for a letter in the mail after the interview.  I’m not sure what was worse: The interview itself, or the waiting period afterward.  Will told me that when I got their letter I would know right away whether I had been hired or not.  “The hirees get a thick packet,” he explained.  “The reject letters come in a thin envelope.”  The weeks passed, and I waited, until finally spring break came around.  From Oregon I called Colorado to ask if I had received any mail.  “Not much, Nate,” my roommate said, “Except this letter from the Disney.” I was excited, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Boulder to open the thing.    “Tell me,”   I said, “Is it a thin letter or a fat one?”  “It’s just a regular letter,” he said.

When I got back to Boulder my wait was finally over. The answer I got from the Disney company was not the one I was hoping for, but it was just the answer I was expecting after what my roommate had told me. It was one of those typical form letters stating,  “You are very qualified, but were not chosen, we will keep your resume on file,  etc. . . ”   Just as I thought.  I got the thin rejection letter.

But in the midst of my disappointment I got an idea. . . a glimmer of hope to hang on to.  I put myself in the shoes of all the other college students in my position and asked myself what would they do when they got a thin envelope?  Well, I figured they’d do what any sane person would do. . .shrug their shoulders, say, “Oh well, I tried,” and go find another summer job. In my thinking, 900 people just took themselves out of the competition.

But the competition was not over yet in my mind. I assumed that of the 150 that made it at least 5 or 6 would change their mind and take another summer job. After all, Los Angeles is a scary, far off place to those coming from places like Pullman, Washington or Moscow, Idaho.  Surely someone would change their mind?  My goal was to get the spot of the person who changed his or her mind.

So that was my new strategy. . .  to nab one of the last 5 spots I assumed would be there.  That very day I sent my second thank you letter to my interviewer, Jay. (The first thank you was right after the interview) And thus my letter writing campaign began.  In my mind, keeping in contact with the interviewer was one of the keys to my success in this matter.

I wrote one letter each week. Not enough to be a pest,  but enough to stay in the back of their minds given the few short weeks until summer. I wrote the letters attempting to be as upbeat and excited about the college program as I possibly could without sounding too obnoxious.  I stressed my commitment to Disney as a career goal,  my personal assets (like good attitude, work ethic, being able to work with people, etc…) and the fact that I wanted the spot of the person who changed his or her mind.  Stressing those characteristics, I sent my letters, saying a silent, and somewhat silly prayer before dropping each letter in the mailbox. If nothing else, my letter writing skills improved dramatically in those few weeks. Later, I decided that God listens to even silly prayers, and sometimes He blesses people not because they deserve it,  but just to demonstrate how good He really is.

Three weeks from the end of school, I had not heard a word from Disney, and had all but given up all chances of getting the job.  So I prepared myself to go back to my old job at the pool.  And ironically,  it was the day after I had given up all hope that I got the phone call that forever changed the course of my short life.  Bridget Lindquist was her name, daughter of then Disneyland President Jack Lindquist.  She said, “Hello,  Nathan, how would you like to work on the Jungle Cruise?”  My heart leaped for joy.   I don’t remember what happened after that, but I obviously told her “Yes” before I hung up, because I actually did end up at Disney that summer.

I remember calling Will,  telling him to ask me what I was going to do after finals.  “What?” He asked.  “No no,” I said, “Ask it like I asked it!”   After some coaxing, he finally said “Okay you big dork,  what are you going to do after finals?”   “I’m going to Disneyland!”  I exclaimed, just like in the Disneyland television commercial.  It was the happiest day of my life to that point.  He sounded pretty happy too.

As it turns out,  Shannon actually had won our interview.  She won the custodial sweeper job, too.  Me, the “loser” ended up with what I consider the best job at the entire Disney company…. Jungle Cruise Skipper on the ” World famous” Jungle Cruise.   I’ve never felt so good about losing in my life.

It just goes to show you that sometimes an initial no in a job search is not always a permanent no.  Every wall is a door of opportunity if the right thinking can be applied to initial failures and if you stay persistent.  As for me,  I still remember the day God answered my silly little prayer.

So there you have it.  When you get turned down for a job, you may not be as out of luck as you might think.  Anyone can be hired at any time, especially in smaller companies.  Persistence in letter writing to perspective companies will help you succeed in the future.  I still make it a point to drop letters in the mail to those I have met while searching for jobs.  They are personal notes,  and are the true key to networking.

I hope this helps you.  That was the start of how I found my true passion in life, theme park attraction design.   For more information about jobs searches in the themed entertainment industry, be sure to check out my other article, “How to Become an Imagineer.”

Much luck! Nathan Naversen

The Disney Dream Job Page

19 Apr 2012 Career Advice

Would you like to work for the happiest company in the world? Well if so, you are in luck! Here’s some information to get you headed in the right direction:

Disney Company Job Line: 1 (407) 828-2850

Walt Disney World Casting Office 1515 Lake Buena Vista Dr. Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830 1 (407) 828-1000

Walt Disney World College Relations Department P.O. Box 10,000 Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0090 American Students (407) 828-3091 International Students 407-828-2850

Disneyland College Program Disneyland College Relations 1313 Harbor Boulevard PO Box 3232 Anaheim, California 92803

Walt Disney Imagineering Attn: Human Resources 1401 Flower Street PO Box 25020 Glendale, CA 91221-5020 (818) 544-6500

Help! I want to be a Theme Park Designer. What Do I Do Now? 13 Guidelines for your success

19 Apr 2012 Career Advice
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

  • 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

Confessions of a Freelance Attraction Show Writer

19 Apr 2012 Career Advice

In response to your excellent questions about getting into the business of becoming a freelance themed attraction writer, I can only refer to my own experiences. As you know, I worked as a freelance writer in the themed attraction design business for several years before ITEC Productions finally hired me to be their full-time show writer. But I actually started my writing “career” many years earlier writing for free. Yes, I actually gave my work away. The point was to get myself published in any way possible so I could get the experience and the portfolio. So my first assignments were writing articles and book reviews for a newsletter published by a space advocacy organization to which I belonged. I was still in college at the time. Though it did nothing to enrich my wallet, it was excellent training for me and helped me develop certain journalistic skills (getting my facts in order, learning how to communicate quickly, clearly, accurately, working under deadline, etc.)–skills which have served me ever since.

Later, I started writing professionally (for money, though not very much). It was very opportunistic; I had recently graduated from film school and was working for a motion picture visual effects firm in L.A. as an f/x cameraman. During slow periods, I also wrote press releases and ads for the company. More good, basic training–this time in marketing. One day, I happened to find myself on the phone with the publisher of a major movie industry magazine and, on a whim, I asked if they might be interested in an article about a recent f/x project we had been shooting. To my surprise, they said “yes.” They didn’t know or care if I had any writing skills. They just wanted the facts behind the project. I ended up spending much of my vacation time that summer writing the article, which they published with almost no editorial changes. The check they wrote me was tiny, but it was just cool to see my article on the newsstands a few weeks later. So in this case, I saw an opportunity and grabbed it. I ended up writing another article for the same magazine, and later I was able to get other industry magazines interested in having me write articles for their publications. It helped a great deal that I had a publication history and a reputation for turning my manuscripts in on time, properly written, and neatly typed to the assigned word count.

I later moved to Orlando, where my journalistic background and my portfolio of published articles helped me land a part-time writing gig with WDW Cast Communications, writing articles for Eyes & Ears (the Cast Member news publication). At the same time, I was writing more articles for other magazines. From time to time, one of my old film school pals would ask me to write a training video script. So I was doing a lot of little writing jobs. But, like you Will, I had always longed to be an Imagineer. Alas, WDI was not in a hiring mode during that period. Nevertheless, I decided to supplement my portfolio with sample attraction design manuscripts and spent months composing a small pile of them to add to my portfolio. Eventually, a friend gave me the name of a contact at one Orlando-based attraction design company. We set up a meeting, I showed them my portfolio, and they gave me my first freelance attraction writing assignment. Tiny amount of pay and ridiculously tight deadline. But I took the job eagerly and they were pleased with my work.
The next freelance attraction writing gig did not follow quickly. Instead of waiting around, I found out about a charity design project that one themed design company was working on. I promptly offered them my writing services for free and they accepted. I worked my tail off on that charity project, donating literally hundreds of hours of my time as a writer. The quality of my work earned me a fair amount of professional respect, if not any actual money. The gig also gave me ample opportunities to hang around the design company’s office where some of the charity project meetings were held. I made friends with the folks there and became a familiar face. Occasionally, since I was already in the building on charity business, they’d call me into one of their other project meetings and the next thing you know, they were giving me paying assignments.

Over time, some of the folks from this first design company left to join other firms, or sometimes they started their own. They all remembered me along with the quality of my work, so whenever they needed an attraction writer, they would call me. In this way, I managed to cultivate a growing list of entertainment design clients. It took years, and some of those were very lean and hungry years! To make ends meet, I had to continue taking occasional journalism gigs. Once, I even took a gig writing an employee benefits manual for a local construction supply company! Eventually, as the market and US economy in general improved, the flow of work became quite strong. At times, it even became a flood, and I occasionally had more work coming in than I could handle–almost. It was during one of these busy periods that one of my top clients–ITEC–offered me a full-time gig. After some quick negotiations, I accepted their offer. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So what are the lessons to be learned from my experience?

– Do whatever you must do to get experience as a writer, even if it means writing free articles for some organizational newsletter. You may not have any desire to be a journalist, but the skills and habits you will learn doing that kind of writing will serve you well for the rest of your career. It’s also a good way to get yourself published and thus build up your portfolio.

Today, there are also many Web-based venues that will gladly accept free submissions from aspiring writers. Find a topic that interests you, find a Web site that addresses it, and make your move.

– Be on the lookout for opportunities and be prepared to seize them if they come your way. They don’t have to be attractions-related. Any chance to get yourself published is worth taking–especially if someone’s offering you money for the privilege.

– But don’t turn up your nose at volunteer writing work–especially if it gives you a chance to prove your talent in front of potential clients. Success often hinges on being at the right place at the right moment, and a volunteer gig that puts you into contact with potential design employers will improve those odds immeasurably.

– Be nice to everyone you meet in the field and keep in touch with them. You never know when they might throw you a writing gig.

– Make yourself reliable, someone the clients know they can always depend on to deliver. You should earn a reputation as a perfectionist who always submits his work on time and gives them exactly what they had in mind–even if they didn’t know what that was. And yes–spelling, grammar, punctuation, and neatness DO count!

– Don’t quit your day job anytime soon. Until you build up your client list, writing alone will seldom pay your bills. You may often have to take writing jobs that have nothing to do with your ambition. Accept them with enthusiasm.

– Use the slow periods to build up your portfolio with sample manuscripts–especially if you don’t have a lot of real ones to show off.
Will, I’d like to clear up one misconception that I perceived in your letter. You didn’t say it in so many words, but it sounds like you are under the impression that freelance writing is a sort of “stop-gap” profession–something a writer does until a full-time (i.e. “real”) writing job comes along. The truth, however, is that for many writers, freelancing is their entire career. True, it may sometimes turn out to be a “stepping stone,” as it was in my case. But that doesn’t mean that the freelance world is a mere training camp for aspiring writers. Yes, it’s a good learning experience. But it is also extremely demanding work, often requiring more effort and concentration and energy than a full-time writing job. I even know a few writers who voluntarily gave up full-time employment in the attraction design field to become freelancers because they wanted a greater challenge and more variety. They also wanted to be “their own boss.” (Surprise! As a freelancer, I had more than A DOZEN bosses!)

As for your question about what “those companies” look for in a freelance writer:

– Track record. Your clients will count on you to deliver what they ordered, well written, and on time. They’d rather not have to take it on faith that you will come through. They would much prefer it if you have proven yourself in the past with other companies. The better your track record, the more interested they will be in you.

– Quality portfolio. They will want to see actual examples of your work. If you don’t have enough professional examples, show them exercises. But everything you show should be as close to perfect as possible. Quality really does count.

– Knowledge of the profession. Know your stuff as a writer and as a designer. Most of your design clients won’t have time to explain all the design basics to you, so you should go in with an understanding of their “language.”

– Knowledge of the world. Often, you won’t just be asked to write down something someone else has thought of. Rather, you’ll be required to contribute your own ideas. The more you know about the worlds of science, art, architecture, music, nature, literature, theater, etc., etc., the more you’ll be able to involve yourself and the more valuable you will become in their eyes.

– Versatility. You may be asked to write all sorts of different types of manuscripts. One client might need a script for a 4-minute simulator ridefilm. Another might need a guest experience for a themed restaurant. A third client might need you to write captions for displays in an interactive museum exhibit. And a fourth client might want you to write a marketing sheet describing a recent technical project they just completed. If you can switch gears and capably handle all the above and more, you will become quite popular with your clients.

– Affability. There are plenty of prima donnas out there. A few get hired; most don’t. Be prepared to get along with your clients and colleagues. Design is a collaborative profession, so be prepared to see things from many other points of view.

– Proximity. In this wired world, you’d think it would be easy to do business by long distance through faxes and e-mail and never have to sit down face to face with your client. This, in fact, does happen from time to time. While living in Orlando, I occasionally did gigs for clients in Missouri, North Carolina, Alabama, and even Japan. But it was often difficult at best. Clients like it a lot better if you are based in their vicinity. This way, they can call you in for meetings, show you story boards and models, get you involved in group brainstorms, etc. So the best place to be if you want to freelance in the entertainment design field is wherever the design companies are located. Like Orlando, or L.A., and I think there are a few others around the US.

I know a lot of this advice may sound like “paying your dues.” And I guess that’s true. My experience tells me that clients always prefer a “known quantity.” There’s too much at stake in this business to take chances on someone unproven. Folks just don’t want to risk giving some newcomer “a break” when there’s so much riding on each project. So if you can show them that you’ve done it before and delivered, the clients will take you much more seriously. You need to get professional experience wherever you can. If you aren’t writing every day–even if it’s for charity–you are passing up an opportunity to build your credibility and expertise.

I’m not trying to discourage you. But the truth is that success seldom comes overnight. If you are truly serious about a career as an attraction writer, you should be prepared to devote YEARS to achieving that goal. The good news, though, is that IT’S WORTH IT!
Adam Berger Attraction Show Writer
ITEC Entertainment Corporation (theme park design)


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