Since Walt Disney World’s creation, Central Florida has been the destination of choice for creators of innovative experiences. As the region gained recognition, so did its flagship university. UCF took this association to the next level in 2019 when it created the themed experience graduate program, the first of its kind at a public university. It now includes M.S. and MFA offerings, through which students learn how to design interactive environments alongside the industry leaders who put Orlando on the map.
“At its core, a themed experience is interaction with an environment designed to convey a narrative,” says Peter Weishar, director of UCF’s themed experience graduate program. “There is an established process … that … involves input from dozens of creative and technical disciplines.”
For students in the program, Central Florida is a laboratory for transforming imagination into reality, with some classes held on-site at the parks. But what is the recipe for making worlds that bring in millions of guests a year? Weishar shares his expertise.
Writing and Storytelling
“Story is one of the core components of a successful themed experience,” says Weishar. “Guests are not passive observers in many themed environments — they become part of the story and discover the narrative as they move through a space.”
Art and Design
Themed experience creators design environments reflecting the story’s aesthetic and setting. This involves aspects of fine art, interior design, graphic design, architecture and more when conceptualizing a world.
Production and Management
“The producer is the glue that holds the project together,” says Weishar. “They don’t just oversee budget, but they help pick the team, schedule work, communicate with vendors and different departments, and are involved in every aspect of the experience from conception to operations and maintenance.”
“Great themed experiences often push the envelope and explore new ways of creating compelling attractions,” says Weishar. “Designers work hand-in-hand with engineers who develop safe, dynamic and practical attractions that delight and sometimes thrill guests.”
“Most high-end themed experiences use a combination of digital and physical props and sets. AR, VR, projection mapping are all used extensively,” says Weishar. “Additionally, digital tools are frequently used to visualize and design environments.”
“Theater is a close cousin to themed experience. In the MFA themed experience track in theatre, students learn set design, period and costume, theatrical storytelling and other important skills that directly support their career goals,” says Weishar.
On-theme accommodations, entertainment, food and drinks are essential for creating a convincing, multisensory experience. Meanwhile, employees might embody characters that fit seamlessly into the themed world.
of UCF themed experience students had a full-time job or internship upon graduation in 2022
increase in global theme park attendance in 2021, signaling the industry’s revival post-pandemic
of the world’s 12 most-visited theme parks are in Orlando
students are enrolled in the program this year, allowing for intimate, collaborative classes
Other Examples of Themed Experiences
As consumers desire more personalized and memorable experiences when shopping, dining and learning, more businesses turn to creating immersive, branded experiences. Some examples of experiences that students design include:
- Live Events
- Themed retail
In the themed experience capital of the world, students in the program regularly collaborate with industry leaders, such as Universal Creative, to prepare for roles like:
- Art director
- Creative director
- Intellectual property manager
- Show set designer
- Show writer