Should theme park attraction designers be household names?

June 10, 2019, 1:26 PM · This is going to seem off topic for a moment, but stay with me. It will swing back to theme parks quickly, I promise.

You might be familiar with the website Masterclass, which sells online lessons in various creative disciplines from masters in those fields. You can learn about screenwriting, cooking, and playing various musical instruments on the site, which sells access to the classes individually or with an all-access pass. The latest is from classical music superstar Itzhak Perlman, who teaches about playing the violin.

The reason I bring this up is because our Laurie Niles played some key roles in the production and post-production of the Perlman class. (She runs Violinist.com, BTW, if you are wondering how she got that call.) Watching her working on this project for the past six months got me thinking about what person might teach a Masterclass on theme park attraction design.

Laurie's gonna hate me for writing this, but waaaay more people go to theme parks than watch classical music concerts in this country. I also suspect that the themed entertainment industry employs more people in attraction development and design than work full-time as performing violinists in America today. If classical music is a big enough business to be worth Masterclass' investment in an Itzhak Perlman class, then surely the bigger themed entertainment business is worth a class, too?

Maybe. But there are a couple of problems standing in the way.

First, Masterclass is going after amateurs and aspiring professionals who want a more informed understanding of the work that top pros do. Outside of maybe a few people building home haunts, there's really no amateur community working on themed entertainment attraction design the way that amateurs and students cook, play, build, and even write.

(This is where I ask you to keep to yourself that snarky thought about writers that you just had!)

The bigger issue is that Masterclass is a celebrity play. They didn't hire Augustin Hadelich or Lisa Batiashvili to teach the violin. They hire people such as Itzhak Perlman, Gordon Ramsay, and Natalie Portman for these online classes because you've heard of them.

And that's the problem with themed entertainment. I might drop $90 for a Masterclass with Scott Trowbridge, Joe Rohde, Kathy Mangum, or Thierry Coup, but 99.9% of Americans have no clue who those people are. There's no celebrity appeal there. If you asked people outside this community to name a theme park designer, I'll bet you'd get these responses:

Despite creating some of the most popular and lucrative creative works in the world today, themed entertainment designers work in almost total obscurity. You can blame Walt for this. As the late Marty Sklar often said in regard to the work that Imagineers do, "there's only one name on that door, and it ain't yours." Disney attractions are "Disney," not "Trowbridge" or "Rohde." And the rest of the industry, as it so often does, followed Disney's lead.

Sure, designing and building theme park attractions demands the work of hundreds of people, not just that of their creative directors. But the same is true of motion pictures, yet film directors still get credit and billing. I bet you know who Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Christopher Nolan are. (The first two have Masterclass courses, BTW.)

Should theme parks do more to credit the creative professionals who make their rides and shows? I'd love to see that happen. As a theme park fan, I believe that the creative professionals who make the magic that we adore deserve more public recognition for their work. Let's start by acknowledging that this isn't simply "magic" — it is work, hard work, that tests the development of experienced professionals.

Greater public recognition for themed entertainment professionals can help cast the industry's leaders as role models, inspiring a new generation of professionals to enter the field. Greater recognition for themed entertainment design might also open the eyes of a more diverse pool of talent to these opportunities that await them, too.

But how to do it? A post-show credits scroll isn't compatible with the world building that designers look to create in so many theme park rides and shows, and getting your name on a Main Street window near the end of your career is far too subtle a way to provide credit for the public to notice. Surely there's some middle ground between these?

The Themed Entertainment Association provides recognition to creative professionals with its annual Thea Awards. But the TEA's program defies the conventions of awards programs in other creative fields, such as the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, and Grammys. The TEA does not announce nominees, but just reveals the winners... five months before the awards show. There's no campaign season leading up to a broadcast ceremony. A TEA committee selects honorees who rise to a designated creative standard. There aren't even fixed categories from year to year, like in other creative awards.

The Thea Awards provide a compelling honor for people working in the themed entertainment field. But in their current form, they're never going to command the public attention necessary to make the best attraction creative directors household names. Is the TEA, or the industry, willing to change the Thea Awards, or create a new awards program, to grab that type of attention?

Or does anyone in the field even want that? The Thea Awards ceremony is the "theme park prom," a chance for the industry to come together for a fun, well-earned party. If they were broadcast or even just covered more widely, the presence of cameras and more reporters would necessarily turn the awards ceremony from a party into a staged performance for everyone in the hall, and not just those on the stage.

And becoming a household name can put enormous strain on your life and your family, as well. Living where we live and doing what we do, my family and I know people in the entertainment industry. So we have seen the stress that comes with having "celebrity" status, which makes public the mistakes and embarrassments that others suffer in private. As they say, be careful what you wish for — you might get it.

So this isn't an easy question. Maybe themed entertainment creative directors don't want to be celebrities like movie directors. But I still believe they deserve that opportunity.

Ultimately, as with pretty much everything in the business world, those who sign the checks get to make the decision. If Disney, Universal, or another theme park company decides that it wishes to publicize the individuals (and contractors) that design and create their attractions, then that company will find ways to make that happen. And the industry will change in response.

In the meantime, I will keep doing what I can — under the limitations of the NDAs, contracts, and corporate rules that keep design pros from talking — to tell the stories of the people who create the attractions we love so much. These pros are true masters, and no matter what their employers say, these masters have much to teach us.

Replies (7)

June 10, 2019 at 2:27 PM

With the Tony's just airing last night, you can see some similarities. Both live theater and theme parks have a lot of overlapping attributes, and if it weren't for the token celebrity actor (or egotistical writer - ahem Aaron Sorkin), those who put on performances 8 nights a week on Broadway (and around the country) are generally as anonymous as those that design and build theme parks. However, those "theater nerds" out there can probably tell you every single role Audra McDonald ever played, every actor who suited up as Jean Valjean, and even the costume designers for every colonial-era musical from the past 10 years, just like us theme park nerds could pick Joe Rohde out of a crowd or tell you the principle designers for every record breaking roller coaster in the world.

It's just the way society approaches celebrity, and the frequent ignorance and lack of appreciation for all the people it takes to make something happen. For every Gordon Ramsay, Isaac Perlman, and Natalie Portman out there, there's a symphony of sous chefs, orchestra players, and gaffers ensuring that the stars' work connects with their audience. It's rare that an artist becomes a star by themselves, which is probably why they spend hours thanking people at awards shows. In the theme park world, it's the rides, shows, and attractions that are the "stars", while the people that make sure those "stars" wow guests with an amazing experience or make their jaws drop with unbelievable visuals go relatively unnoticed.

I think the real artist takes pride in remaining in the background and seeing how people react to it without knowing that the creator is standing right next to them, much like a great film director that tends to prefer seclusion to the bright lights of the actor or musician. I think they also have pride in seeing their peers celebrate their work from an insider's perspective. In the end, the turnstiles, reactions from guests, and "borrowing" of ideas in future projects is all these masters probably need to feel good about what they do. These masters are teaching us all how to ply their trade with each successful project.

June 10, 2019 at 2:37 PM

I would love to see masterclasses of creatives from the Theme Park industry but I think some of the theme parks won't allow it.
I watched a Tested episode about Garner Holt Productions. They builded a (or the) Lincoln AA. They make it clear some (Disney) theme parks don't want them to tell for who it is. Disney is selling their work as their own work and it sucks.
https://youtu.be/F1PI1FOYJoM

June 10, 2019 at 2:41 PM

That's a good point OT. There's a lot of collaboration in the industry, and theme park companies what guests to think everything comes out of their internal R&D. The fact of the matter is that most things people see in a theme park are a collaboration of many different companies under contract that may also work for competitors. Do you think UC wants to publicly say that Hagrid's is the same coaster manufacturer as Incredicoaster? Or that the finishing work on Mythos was done by the same plaster company that did the exteriors for Antarctica? Companies want their attractions to seem unique and one of a kind, when in reality, most can be duplicated elsewhere with enough collaboration and money. Parks would rather these intricate details in bringing an attraction to life remain hidden to the average guest, despite the increasing complexity of theme park attraction projects these days may seem intriguing to us theme park "nerds". Joe Smith from Des Moines probably couldn't care less if there were a dozen different contractors and thousands of artists and craftsman to create Flight of Passage, all he cares about is flying on that Banshee, and Disney would rather not give away those secrets if nobody is insistent on peeling back that curtain.

June 10, 2019 at 3:48 PM

Noticed the similarities Russell mentions during the Tony Awards telecast too- especially when they applauded Broadway's record attendance this season was 12 million total- less than any of the top theme park operating companies entertained in the TEA/AECOM index. Yet despite having far more guests than Broadway theaters,there's no national telecast for the THEAs or the Brass Ring Awards. James Corbin doesn't do dark ride karaoke. And as Robert points out, the larger developers generally control everything themed entertainment professionals develop so NDAs and other legal restrictions limit what talent can potentially reap from their efforts despite being a far larger medium both in revenue and in attendance.

June 10, 2019 at 4:04 PM

There was a sign with the credits posted at the exit ramp for Back to the Future...The Ride in Orlando. If memory serves, it was just outside the door from the exit hall way on the lowest level on the south dome. I can't remember if there was a similar sign on the north dome or not. I also believe it was mostly about the creative talent responsible for the film, not the entire experience, but I can't be sure at this time.
I do think that with the importance of Social Media, we are seeing more and more of the creative forces behind these attractions getting some of the spotlight. I also believe that like all creative under takings, while there is one person sitting in the captain's chair there are a LOT of people involved, so where to draw the line?
I think as in many industries, the people who really want to know who the driving forces are behind the things we love have a way of finding out, or at least getting close. But no, I don't imagine the general public would ever set the DVR to watch the THEA awards...but I would.

June 10, 2019 at 6:46 PM

If there's one thing the world does not need more of its award shows.

June 11, 2019 at 12:47 AM

It'd be interesting if new lands or attractions were marketed in the same ways as trailers: "From the mind that brought you Revenge of The Mummy and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, comes Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge!"

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