Commencement weekend. Some UCF graduates will head into backyards to celebrate with family and friends. Some will board planes to take long-awaited escapes. But eleven graduates will travel across Orlando to Universal Studios, which for them is a bridge from the completion of their master’s degrees into a world beyond school — and maybe beyond reality.

“It makes perfect sense for this group,” says Alex Marcello ’14 of the entire cohort from UCF’s inaugural themed experience track, which happens to be the only program of its kind accredited by the National Association of Schools Theater. “We entered the program so we can design theme parks and bring stories to life for people just like us.”

You’d think Marcello had all the perspective she needed before joining the program in 2019. She already worked at Universal, first as a show coordinator and then as assistant manager of intellectual property. It’s natural to wonder if an untested master’s track would be worth her time.

“If I could go back three years and show myself the portfolio I’ve built through this program, it would blow my mind,” she says. “I had no idea of the possibilities it would open to us.”

Marcello’s classmate, Jordan Zauha, echoes her wonder. “The program gave me exactly what I needed: a new beginning.”

From Cornfields to the Big Apple to UCF

Zauha grew up in the heartland of Nebraska. His high school senior class totaled 41 students. He studied musical theater at Nebraska Wesleyan, which provided him the opportunity to perform in 25 stage productions while earning a degree.

Glee was a thing at the time,” says Zauha, who turns 30 in July, “and Broadway was the goal for anyone in theater.”

Jordan Zauha (Photo by Carly Hollowell ’14 ’20MS)

Ten days after accepting his diploma, Zauha moved to New York. He worked in restaurants, stood in line for auditions as early as 5:45 a.m., and tried to make the story he imagined come to life. It didn’t take long for him to go broke.

“It’s the reality for a lot of young adults who love theater and chase the dream,” he says. “A friend of mine said it best: ‘New York is not what we imagined. This is not a city where experimenting will go well for us.’ I began to question the entertainment industry and whether I’d ever have a place in it.”

Zauha did some research and saw that regional markets were open to new ideas, new art, and new people. Orlando was one of those places. He’d been to Orlando as a seven-year-old when his dad took him and his grandmother to Disney World. He vividly remembers entering the gates, walking down Main Street, and believing he’d truly entered a different world. When he asked how it could all be possible, his dad said, “People created this.”

“When he said that, I started thinking about a group of people creating this living story for others to enjoy,” he says. “After I moved to Orlando almost 20 years later, certain moments triggered that memory.”

The most important moment happened while Zauha helped a customer in a clothing store where he worked. The man’s shirt depicting Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas and his Disney Visa card became the conversation starters. The man said his name was Peter Weishar and that he was about to start a new master’s program at UCF in themed experience.

“The … Themed Experience (program) was designed to educate and train the next generation of creative leaders in the themed entertainment industry,” says Weishar, a professor and director of UCF’s themed experience graduate programs. “Themed experience is more than theme parks. It is utilized in exhibitions, museums, zoos, retail, dining, libraries and can be applied to almost any compelling space designed to convey a story. There could not be a better fit for this program than at UCF, located in the heart of the themed entertainment industry.”

From the very first week, students rethought whatever they believed about theme parks. Adjunct faculty shared stories about the nuances of design, the creative processes that few people will ever know about, and the people required to turn fiction an actual experience.

“There’s also a rule of thumb,” Zauha says, “that if you want to create themed places, then you have to immerse yourself in them yourself.”

He took a notebook whenever the class went to food truck gatherings or themed restaurants or the parks. He’d write about facades and architecture — the subtleties that opened his eyes wide as a 5-year-old, but later faded into the periphery of his tunnel vision to be an entertainer. The idea of actually creating an immersive narrative like a Harry Potter Experience or Super Nintendo World electrified him.

“The program has given me assurances that there’s a place for me in this industry,” says Zauha, who already has multiple job offers. “I have a peace about my future that I didn’t have three years ago.”

Creating the Rest of Her Life

Marcello has always wanted what so many kids and grown-ups want: to make pretend places come to life. Growing up, she and her friends played the The Legend of Zelda and fantasized what it might be like in a real-life theme park.

“It was a dream of mine to explore Hyrule in real life,” Marcello says. “I still wish it existed.”

She developed a talent for art and hoped one day to build a career around it. After earning a bachelor’s degree from UCF in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on art administration, Marcello landed a job at Universal Creative.

Alex Marcello ’14 (Photo courtesy of Alex Marcello ’14)

“I had no idea I’d fall in love with the industry and the collaborative environment,” she says. Marcello worked with a team that helped build Universal Beijing and she could see a clear career path in creative project management. But something kept tugging at her.

She’d always known she was an artist. Deep down she wanted to be the one who started with an empty blue sky, sketched out concepts, painted props and facades and made it possible for people to spend an entire day in an imaginary place. To do that, she needed to learn from people who have done it and she needed to build a portfolio.

“The themed experience program came along at just the right time and place,” Marcello says. “Peter has the credentials. The vendors who do a lot of the art are right here. We toured private creative studios that work directly with the parks, companies that are crucial in the process but that we wouldn’t know existed if we hadn’t seen them for ourselves.”

In the coming months, Marcello, Zauha, and the rest of the first themed experience cohort will begin to weave their childhood imaginations into actual experiences for future theme-park guests. “It isn’t as impossible as we once thought,” Marcello says. “But for now, we’re just going to enjoy a weekend at the park.”