Interview with Steve Tatham, Creative Director at Universal Studios Japan

July 31, 2015, 8:37 AM · Living in the Los Angeles area, it's not uncommon to run into and get to know people who work in the entertainment industry, including themed attractions. So it was through my child's school that I met Steve Tatham, a former Walt Disney Imagineer who is now heading the creative team at Universal Studios Japan.

Steve Tatham
Steve, in front of the Jaws ride that USJ still has.

Universal Studios Japan is enjoying unprecedented success now, with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter driving the park to record attendance. Next year, the park will open a Bolliger & Mabillard flying coaster themed to Jurassic Park. And a second gate, in Okinawa, is under development. Reportedly to be called Nangoku Resort, that park will not have Universal Studios branding and will not be affiliated with Universal.

Steve just started his new gig this month, and speaking on the record, couldn't share too many details about those new projects. But he was kind enough to take a few moments to tell us more about him and his new position, via email.

Tell us about yourself and how you ended up at Universal Studios Japan. What are you working on at USJ?

Thanks for your interest in what's going on over here on this side of the Pacific. After spending 27 years at Disney - having started at Imagineering right out of architecture school - I was contacted about an opportunity with Universal Studios Japan running the creative group. After a series of lengthy discussions, I retired from Disney and started here July 1. I'm really excited about all the growth that is happening here and the vision for the future that the entire team at USJ shares.  

There have been press reports about a project we are doing in Okinawa. I will say that, while I can't confirm any of the details, we are looking at expanding our entertainment offerings beyond Osaka, where Universal Studios Japan is currently having a very successful year. We are opening a new world-class Jurassic Park coaster next spring at USJ so look for more details about that coming up very soon! Beyond that, we have ideas that we are not ready to share yet, but, rest assured, guests that are looking for new family entertainment in Japan will find much to surprise and delight them in the coming years. 

Who or what are your influences in design and developing new attractions?

You ask about influences, and those can certainly be found anywhere: in a Broadway show, a movie, a great book, a mountain hike. I like to document my architectural influences on my Instagram stream. I'm also greatly inspired by the work of other designers. Two that I'll mention are Henry Bumstead and Claude Coats. Henry, or as he was known, "Bummy," was an Academy-Award-winning production designer who frequently worked with Alfred Hitchcock and did a million awesome things. He was working on the Universal lot when I was there working as a tour guide in the eighties. He was designing a “Psycho” sequel but would soon begin work on Universal’s new King Kong attraction. I snuck down to the art department and introduced myself to him. He was extremely gracious and helpful. He stressed the importance of a good solid architectural education. I soon began pursuing my Masters in Architecture at UCLA.

When I got to Imagineering, I was lucky enough to get paired up with Claude Coats, who had a staggeringly impressive career working at Disney animation and then he became one of the original Imagineers in the fifties. He did a lot of design for the 1964-65 New York World Fair attractions. He retired two years after I started so I feel fortunate that somebody had the wisdom to arrange for young designers to be mentored by those that had worked under Walt Disney so their extensive experience and insight could be passed down.

What's the biggest difference between designing and developing for Japanese audiences and those in the United States?

The thing that these, and all great designers, understand is how to look at design from the point of view of people that actually use the things that are being made. In my case, being that the vast majority of USJ visitors are from Japan, my goal is to understand the Japanese guest. It will be an on-going education, but one thing I’ve already noticed that sets them apart from other guests, is that they seem to have much greater patience for waiting in line. That doesn’t mean we’re not thinking of ways to make that time as fun and entertaining as possible!

What do you enjoy most about your new gig?

I feel extremely fortunate to have been given this opportunity. Having never lived in Japan, every day is a new adventure, whether it’s navigating the train system or figuring out the grocery store and its exotic produce. The best part is that I get to come to work every day and dream up fun things. I get to build this amazing future that I can’t wait for the world to experience. Really, what could be better?

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Replies (5)

July 31, 2015 at 9:20 AM · That's pretty amazing to get the top job without any prior knowledge of Japan, the language, and not even working at Universal previously. He can either succeed or crash spectacularly. At minimum, his posting will keep the park American.
July 31, 2015 at 9:29 AM · Pretty fascinating! What a amazing job that would be!
July 31, 2015 at 12:12 PM · I frequently travel to Osaka and am excited to hear about the new flying coaster. I wonder if Mr. Tatham's job will be to incorporate newer attractions to replace old ones at USJ like T2 with Transformers? Or will he create new ones for Japanese guests incorporating different Universal IP?
July 31, 2015 at 12:25 PM · Hmmm, a new second gate not themed to Universal, and Universal Creative just did a big deal with Nintendo, and this is
Japan. Hmmmm....
August 1, 2015 at 9:11 PM · Wow, lots going on at Universal's two American parks and their Japanese park (soon to be parks).

But what about Singapore? I've heard they don't have much room to expand there, but neither in Hollywood and they're still building new stuff! Besides, this is Universal we're talking about! Whenever they have to build a new attraction, all they do is shut down a prexisting attraction and retheme it.

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