Ever wondered how The Walt Disney Company or Universal designs a new park? There are so many bits and pieces to creating an immersive world that it might seem like magic, but there is a process that goes into creating every aspect — from the smallest sign to the biggest ride. And despite how intricate and whimsical it may seem, the process of creating a theme park — or any “themed experience” — can be dissected and learned.
A themed experience tells a story by creating an immersive narrative environment that is based on a popular book or film or an original story.
Just ask Peter Weishar, UCF’s new professor of themed experiences.
He was previously the director of the Themed Experience Institute at Florida State University (an institute he founded as their dean of the College of Fine Arts). Before that, he was dean of entertainment arts at the Savannah College of Art & Design, where he also founded the Master of Fine Arts in Themed Entertainment degree program.
His next move? Paving a path for themed entertainment education at UCF. Through hands-on and theoretical instruction, he will teach students how to design and produce themed experiences — a brand new discipline at UCF.
So what should you know about the themed-experiences industry before hitting the books? Weishar gave us his take as an industry insider, a notable academic and a fan. Some of his favorite themed experiences are the Avatar Flight of the Passage ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Parks & Resorts, and Sea World’s Discovery Cove.
“I’m fascinated by all kinds of themed experiences,” says Weishar. “That is why I have devoted so much of my career to the industry.”
- Themed experiences are more than just theme parks
A themed experience tells a story by creating an immersive narrative environment that is often based on a popular book or film, but can also tell an original story or alternative storyline within an intellectual property. Walt Disney World or Universal Studios probably comes to mind when reading that definition, but a themed experience can occur at any establishment. Retail spaces, restaurants, museums, libraries, zoos and aquariums can all fit into this category — as long as they have created unique, themed environments that guests can explore.
This is why Weishar calls these establishments “themed experiences” instead of the more limiting term “themed entertainment.” A themed-entertainment venue is always a themed experience, but a themed experience can do much more than entertain.
- Themed entertainment has its own international association
Like other industries, the themed-experiences industry has professional organizations that aim to further it. One that Weishar is a member of is the Themed Entertainment Association, a nonprofit organization that brings together creators, developers, designers and producers of themed experiences from around the world. Founded in 1991, TEA has more than 1,300 members. Weishar is also chair of the TEA Academic Network, which he calls “a community of researchers, educators and academics dedicated to [improving] the quality of student preparedness to enter the themed entertainment and experience industry.”
- There are many jobs for creatives in themed-experience companies
Weishar encourages creative recent graduates to look into the themed entertainment industry for potential jobs, as the companies employ thousands to work on their frequent, large-scale projects. Universal Orlando is estimating its new Epic Universe will create 14,000 jobs. Walt Disney Imagineering, the sector of The Walt Disney Company that creates its iconic theme parks, has more than 100 types of positions in its ranks alone. These positions include writers, lighting professionals, graphic designers, animators, programmers, producers and puppeteers.
- The future of the industry is bright
With the continuous expansions and profitability of theme parks, many retail and dining venues are also embracing what Weishar calls “the experience economy.” The term originated in the book The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage, in which authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore write, “Future economic growth lies in the value of experiences and transformations — goods and services are no longer enough.” In short, as today’s consumers desire personal and memorable experiences when shopping, more businesses will turn to creating themed experiences.
- Despite the industry’s success, themed experience classes are rare — for now
Weishar says the themed-experience industry can be compared to the film industry — they both use props, lighting, scripts and other elements to tell stories. However, there is one key difference between them: “There are only about six to nine universities in North America that teach classes or have degree programs in the themed experience discipline, but there are well over 1,200 film schools.” Weishar strives to help fill this academic gap by continuing to advocate for themed experience research and curriculum — and by contributing his knowledge to UCF in the years to come.
- UCF is perfectly positioned for students seeking an education in themed experiences
While Weishar is still in the process of designing the themed-experience courses for UCF, he believes that UCF will be a great institution to provide them. Why? “Because Central Florida is the hub of the international themed-entertainment industry. And UCF has the ideal combination of students, faculty, leadership, resources and a prime location,” he says. The numbers back him up, with five of the 10 most visited theme parks in the world located minutes away from the university. The area’s reputation will only enhance with Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Hollywood Studios set to open later this month and Universal’s Epic Universe in the works. Thus, UCF students have easy access to internship and job opportunities with these top themed-experience companies, as well as the opportunity to have industry professionals mentor them as they progress through their courses.