Want To Be A Disney Theme Park Designer? Universal Creative Experts Offer Advice

in Disney, Theme Parks

You may want to create the magic by working at Walt Disney Imagineering on Disney’s next E-ticket attraction. You might dream of unleashing the darker side of your creativity on Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios. Or perhaps you wish you were helping to bring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to life within Islands of Adventure.

If any of these describe a dream job of yours, then read on as we share a few tips and stories straight from a panel of theme park design experts that assembled for a unique look behind-the-scenes at how some of the world’s top attractions are created.

The Experts

The Entertainment Designer Forum took place on April 23, 2010, at Orlando’s Mad Cow Theatre. The event brought together leading theme park designers from Universal Orlando and Walt Disney Imagineering to benefit Relay for Life, a charity to aid cancer research. Attendees and panelists alike each chipped in $25 to attend the event and the combination of ticket sales and the proceeds from an auction of unique and one-of-a-kind theme park items resulted in the event raising more than $5,000 for Relay for Life. (Great job!)

But those in attendance received even more than the satisfaction of helping a great cause. The two sessions presented at the Entertainment Designer Forum featuring theme park designers were question-and-answer style, revolving around audience members asking the panel questions. Surprisingly few of the asked questions were about specific attractions. Instead, it seemed that many hopefuls were seeking career advice on how to become a theme park designer and wanted to learn more about what the job is actually like for the lucky ones who get it.

Pictured above are the following designers (left to right):

  • Ray Keim: Haunted Dimensions, Halloween Horror Nights
  • Rich West, Designer: The Simpsons Attraction, Halloween Horror Nights
  • Michael Burnett, Designer: Star Trek Enterprise, Halloween Horror Nights
  • Alan Gilmore, Art Director: Harry Potter films, The Bourne Ultimatum
  • Mike Aiello, Show Director: Halloween Horror Nights, Harry Potter
  • Jason Surrell: Pirates of the Caribbean / Haunted Mansion refurbishments, Monsters Inc Laugh Floor
  • T.J. Mannarino, Director: Art & Design Entertainment Universal Studios

Also in attendance (not pictured) were:

  • Stephanie Girard, Designer: feature films and theme parks
  • Kim Gromoll, Designer: Halloween Horror Nights, Disney’s Animal Kingdom
  • David Hughes, Senior Designer: Terminator 3D, Halloween Horror Nights
  • Rick Spencer, Creative Manager, Show Development Universal Studios
  • J. Michael Roddy: Halloween Horror Nights

Here are a few specific pieces of advice offered up by the designers:

Work your way up

Many theme park designers will tell you that they started working as hourly employees in the theme parks. Whether it’s working at an attraction, selling tickets, or just walking the streets in a custodial position, it’s an important step to show that you are committed to a long career within the theme park industry.

Universal Orlando shows director Mike Aiello started his career at Universal by “shooting sharks” on their Jaws ride. He was also a Blues Brother. But these hourly jobs were only a stepping stone to reach his current position as one of the leads on the uber-popular annual Halloween Horror Nights events (amongst others). His career turning point took place when he slid a script he had penned for the Horror Nights show “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure” underneath the office door of then-show director Michael Roddy. Aiello received an interesting call from Roddy a week or two later and the rest is history.

Likewise, Walt Disney Imagineer Jason Surrell took a similar path to ultimately reach his goal at Disney. Surrell began as an hourly worker at a Disney theme park and also took it upon himself (with the help of a friend) to write a script for a theme park show. The script was good enough that it eventually made its way up the ladder to decision-makers and the show ended up being produced. Surrell decided then to take his resume to Universal Studios, whose Orlando theme park was still young at the time. They saw he had some success working at Disney and hired him to work on a show based on Beetlejuice that they were developing at the time. Surrell went on to work in the early years of Halloween Horror Nights and eventually found his way back to Disney, where he now “Imagineers” new shows and attractions.

A friend of Inside the Magic, Ray Keim, discovered a much different approach to his theme park career. Until just a few years ago, Keim had no career connection to the theme park industry. He ran a website called Haunted Dimensions, for which he – as a hobby – created detailed paper models of Disney’s Haunted Mansion and other theme park buildings. (In fact, I found out Friday night that I was the first to ever interview Keim – about anything!) Fortunately, Keim knew a friend and former teacher at Universal Orlando who thought his model building and web design talents could be useful. Keim nervously presented his paper models to the Universal team and has since been hired to help design the official Halloween Horror Nights websites for the last few years.

Find your passion

An interesting question was brought up at the Entertainment Designer Forum asking how each of the panel members discovered that they wanted to work in the theme park industry. It was discovered that each of the designers had a moment, somewhere in the 6-8-year-old age range, that told them this was what they wanted to pursue in life. That moment generally occurred while watching a favorite movie or television show and was important enough for each designer to specifically remember it.

Star Wars Trilogy

Several of the panelists said that watching the original Star Wars trilogy was a life-changing experience. Wizarding World of Harry Potter art director Alan Gilmore (who also worked on several Potter films) was curious to know how that fantastic world was created by George Lucas and his team of filmmakers. He mentioned that when Darth Vader made an “appearance” at a local shopping mall in Gilmore’s hometown in Ireland, he wondered why such a powerful man would show up in his small town (prompting a few Irish-accented jokes from the panel about “Darth O’ Vader”).

Halloween Horror Nights designers Ray Keim and Rich West both were fascinated by macabre television shows, one preferring The Addams Family and the other The Munsters. The original Planet of the Apes was also a source of inspiration.

Related : Now in Un-Living Color – “Addams Family” and “Munsters” in creepy colorized clips

Be diverse in what you can do

When asked about what tools a theme park designer needs to be successful, the panel agreed that one should not be limited to just one or two specific tools. The ability to be creative across any medium is more important than expertise in one particular area. Universal designer Rich West emphasized the importance of the simplest design tool: a number 2 pencil. He pointed out that at one time he was against the technological advancements of Photoshop, Lightwave 3D, 3D Studio, Sketch-Up, and other similar computer-aided design packages. But he realized that just as many rely on Photoshop for their design work, he may have relied too much on only the pencil and stated that designers should capable of using as many tools as possible, allowing them to choose the appropriate one for the task at hand. [Note: This paragraph was updated per comments below.]

Theme Park Design

It was noted that theme park designs almost always start on paper and eventually move to more refined techniques, either by sculpting or computers. Designs touch many hands and an early paper sketch is much easier to pass around and alter than a polished computer-generated design.


Beyond refining talent, it’s important to get yourself known around the company you want to work for. It was advised by the panel of designers to attend events, like the Entertainment Designer Forum, and introduce yourself to those you strive to be like. Tell them how much you enjoy their work and offer your own thoughts and ideas (but don’t be pushy or overly critical). It goes back to the cliche, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Although, in the theme park design industry, it seems to be both who you know and what you know that will enable you to succeed.

Pulling it all together

In summary, the overall theme surrounding all of the advice given is: work. Generally speaking, it’s unlikely you’ll walk straight into a top theme park design job. But by starting at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole, meeting people you strive to work with, and making your passion known to them, it’s likely that as long as you have the talent to back up your desires, your hard work will eventually pay off.

But then what happens when you get there? What is it really like to be a theme park designer?

This was the second most popular line of questions at the Entertainment Designer Forum, so I’ve included some of the more interesting responses here.

The creation, modification, and lifespan of ideas

In the worlds of Universal Creative and Walt Disney Imagineering, ideas very rarely die. They come together, in meetings, on a whiteboard, or just on a spare napkin. They get molded and shaped and sometimes discarded. But in the end, they never entirely disappear. An idea discovered today may not find its way into a theme park for decades.

Halloween Horror Nights

In 2009’s Halloween Horror Nights, Universal’s classic Frankenstein monster was reinvented to both stay true to the character but also work in today’s world of horror. The popular notion of “steampunk” was mixed with the somewhat medieval Frankenstein style to great success. Mike Aiello said at the panel that the ideas of “steampunk” and “Frankenstein” were literally written on a large planning board, amongst many other general concepts, and were eventually paired up.

Theme Park

The initial ideas for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter were pitched to Warner Brothers and Potter creator/author J.K. Rowling around five years ago. Art director Alan Gilmore has had the unique opportunity to watch the Potter world go from books to Hollywood movies and now to an elaborate theme parkland that will soon welcome thousands upon thousands of guests. In the process, he was tasked with the challenge of modifying designs initially intended to be temporary (and often flimsy) film sets to become permanent (and never flimsy) theme park buildings.

The choice: Pursue a career at Disney, Universal, or just freelance?

While there often exists animosity between Disney fans who enjoy other theme parks and Disney fans who never leave Disney property when in Orlando, that same conflict does not exist within the theme park design community. While Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World are businesses in competition with each other, designers use this competition to develop friendships and to better themselves and their craft. As described above, designers often move from company to company, bringing with them their talents and creativity. During the recent discussion, Universal creative manager Rick Spencer mentioned that there is a regular gathering of folks from SeaWorld, Universal, and Busch Gardens in which they all have a friendly chat over drinks.

Walt Disney

However, the friendship between each company’s designers doesn’t stop the group from joking around with each other. During the discussion, Disney Imagineer Jason Surrell couldn’t resist launching a few jokes at the Universal designers about the fact that their Islands of Adventure park still features Marvel characters (Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk) though Disney now owns Marvel. But it was all in good fun.

But designing for the 100% family-friendly atmosphere at Disney is very different from designing for a Universal park, which can be crasser at times with its entertainment. I asked Jason Surrell if he had any mental conflicts while working on Disney’s Haunted Mansion refurbishment after having worked on the adult-oriented Halloween Horror Nights at Universal. He told a story of how, at one design meeting, he presented an idea for a Haunted Mansion scene in which ghostly voices of children playing would recite the attraction’s famous “Grim Grinning Ghosts” song in nursery-rhyme form. He received blank stares and the idea was shot down as Disney wasn’t thrilled with the notion of insinuating that there were dead, ghostly kids inside one of their attractions. Over at Universal, that idea would be tame in comparison to what is shown to guests during Horror Nights.

If you can’t decide which company you want to work for, you may consider being hired as a freelance designer on a contract basis. This is often how Walt Disney Imagineering works, hiring the team they need for a specific project and then letting them go until they’re needed again in the future, allowing them to pursue other jobs. While this may seem like a great way to enjoy the best of all theme park worlds, it’s not without worry. Freelance designers are obviously not guaranteed work and must always prove themselves to get a job. Moreover, freelance designers only get paid when they work.

Corporate hassles

Creative types often like to be in total control over their own ideas. Unfortunately, it’s rarely the case when working for a major theme park company that your design will see the light of day exactly as you have created it.

If a design gets modified/improved by another designer, it’s unlikely that the initial creator will be upset. But when a budget falls through or a corporate head decides to cancel a project, designers need to be able to shrug it off and move on. When asked about these situations, Universal’s Rick Spencer simply said that there is no time to sulk. There are far too many projects to work on and a designer’s focus should always be on the project at hand, not concerned with what may or may not have been.

In the end, the choice to become a theme park designer revolves around talent, hard work, and patience. Keeping in mind some of the proven advice offered above by experts currently working in top theme park design positions, anyone with creativity and a passion for themed entertainment can find themselves on a path toward achieving a dream and may end up working on the next big theme park attraction.

Sources (photos): Universal Orlando, Walt Disney World, Haunted Dimensions, Busy Gamer


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