Want to be a theme park designer? Disney Imagineer and Universal creative experts offer advice

in Disney, Events, Theme Parks, Universal Orlando, Walt Disney World

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 with the goal of aiding 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 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 show 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 interested 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 on 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.

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.

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.]

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, it’s clear that 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 out 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.

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.

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 park land 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.

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 more crass 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



  1. Avatar

    rich west

    Wow, my aside comment about the #2 pencil really got frakked up and convoluted in the article. I used it as an example of what NOT to overlook. I was also the one who pointed out the importance of being a rennaissance artist. Not sure where “Until recently” came from as I’ve been using photoshop and Sketch up for 7 years now. Ahhh, now I know how the stars feel when they claim to be misquoted. 😉

  2. Avatar

    Ricky Brigante

    Rich – Thanks for stopping by! Sorry if the language I used above didn’t completely jive with what you were trying to get across. I’ve updated the post to clarify the points you made, as the goal of this article is to give sound advice to future theme park designers and there’s no point in leaving “misquoted” text in there.

    Of course, I could have quoted you directly if recording devices had been allowed during the discussion! 🙂

  3. Avatar

    Kim Gromoll

    Rich West, you’re such a diva. I wrote this with a #2 pencil before I typed it in 😉

  4. Avatar

    Fantastic forum, guys. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt very personal and relaxed. I did have a question, if I may?: do you have graphic designers and illustrators also on staff to carry out your initial concepts to production level, or do you do them yourselves? How much support staff do you have in the department?

  5. Avatar

    rich west

    Genuine Thanks for the clarification, I really appreciate it.
    Kindest regards,
    Rich West

  6. Avatar

    I like the Tin Woodsman. In all honesty, the evening was as rewarding for all of us on stage as it was for those who came to see the show. We are all fans of the genre and that is why we have succeeded… we love it. From Star Wars to JAWS to Lost in Space, we were mesmerized by some form of storytelling at an age that sent us on a life of creativity.

  7. Avatar

    Kim Gromoll

    Truth is, we would do this as a hobby if we didn’t have the jobs we have. Just ask Ray Keim. Rich West said it best. “Follow your bliss”.
    Thanks so much to all involved with the event. And thank you Ricky for getting the word out pre-show, and putting it out there for all to see post show.
    And special thanks to Stef.
    You are the reason the event even happened.

  8. Avatar

    Rich West

    On the subject of the ‘Roy Neary’ syndrome, It’s also interesting to note
    something I always find… profound. The actors from the shows that were mentioned (shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space), have noted in interviews that on the occation they have been to NASA, the Astronauts and technicians have all come out of their offices to tell them how they knew what they wanted to do in life because of these shows. Now can you imagine? An Astronaut on the moon because of a little 60’s show called Star Trek. I recently read an article about Doctors knowing what they wanted to be in life as they watched shows like Dr. Kildair and Ben Casey as small kids. Wow!

  9. Avatar

    I, too, really enjoyed this event. I would love to see more like it in the future. It was great meeting many of you all as well.

  10. Avatar

    Melody, to answer your question a while back. Most of us are jacks-of-all-trade, knowing a little bit of everything, so most of us have the ability to create digital art and illustrations for our own concepts (and usually do), however there are a couple of us in the department who are dedicated to creating art for concepts and final production.
    I can’t lie. Being a part the Universal A&D team can be very challenging work but it IS as fun as it seems!
    I’m glad everyone had such a great time! It was a wonderful night!
    Ricky, thanks again for your great coverage! Our Relay For Life event was a HUGE success!

  11. Avatar

    Max Newman

    thanks for the information yall but i would like to ask a question if thats ok? I just graduated high school and I am attending kansas city art institute in the fall to get my BFA and im very intrested in a career in amusement park design. what kind of things should i focus on while in college to reach my goal? do i need to get a degree in design? or would i be qualified with a degree in fine arts? and also does universal offer any kind of internist programs to college students? thanks very much!

  12. Avatar

    Michael Marante

    I really LOVED this article, it really let me know some sort of direction I should follow to pursue this dream job I’ve been fantasizing since I was 5 years old. Thank you.

    P.S. Now if someone can please inform me what sort of major or degree I should go for to make this dream a reality, please let me know, I would so appreciate it. Once again, thank you for the article and I would attens then next EDF if there’s one next year or soon.

  13. Avatar

    Inigo Montoya

    I just had a question about Imagineering. What field of engineering is it best to be in to actually come up with the concepts of rides and design them? My dream job is to design the rides/attractions in order to bring smiles to park guests faces. Can anyone help me?

  14. Avatar

    Onix Serrano

    What if one wants to be show director, or creative/direct parades what would the be?

  15. Avatar

    Im sorry but alot of the stuff you guys have done not just Disney has destroyed the infrastructure of vacation parks just as many small buisinesses have done choping up the rides like the sky cars and shipping them off to china or off for scrap. CLosing ANimal parks although disney opened theirs Kings dominion closed theirs. Building large bohemeth attractions like smurf mountain at Kings Dominion and closing attractions like 50,000 leagues although disney was able to rebrand the theme at disney Land and closing the Animation studio in Florida. Disney has done nothing with EPCOT in 20 years. I am happy to stay Far away after spending many years to goto college like most americans to brush up my design skills I will stay far away from companys like disney and make my home a vacation place.

  16. Avatar

    Clint Godwin

    So, I’m becoming a high school senior, and I want to be a theme park designer (for Universal Studios, specifically) but I have NO CLUE what major or career path to pursue in order to do this. Advice?
    Thanks~ Clint

  17. Avatar

    I think by reading this article I’ve really realized my passion. My life has many similarities to Walt Disney including where I grew up/spent my childhood, etc. It is really interesting about how many had this moment of realization as a child. This was an OMG moment for me. When I was about 7 or 8 years old or so me and a friend in Missouri that I went to school with were planning out an amusement park and we were even making a model of it. It was to be built on his family’s property, a farm in rural MO. LOL. Step by step I’ve come in this direction of creating. I’ve been drawing, molding and creating since I was little and I still spend time doing it, daydreaming about it, praying about it, focusing upon it and attracting it. I feel that I have that magic spark that some people lack that should go hand in hand with the artistic talent. I’d like to think that it’s that same spark that Walt Disney had within him. It’s not just one thought or idea. It’s hundreds of ideas flowing. It’s leaving the moment and going into “the zone” and feeling the idea as well as envisioning it. I can see them. I can feel them. I can experience them with my innermost being. I can feel when something is right and when it’s not and let me tell you….many amusement parks do not have the magic and/or are in the process of losing it. Even Walt Disney’s ideas and those who worked with him must’ve had that feeling in order to make it as popular as it is. I know that when I get tapped to consult with someone or to be a part of their business that magic will happen. I get so excited just talking about it! The feeling is what I feel separates the artists from the Imagineers. Feeling is what separates an awesome theme/amusement park from one that is just so-so. It is so critical in the process. I would like SO MUCH to get confirmation of this from Imagineers in the business. Maybe this is the key that will get me in the door. My whole thing is…how can I bring the Magic to others? How can I ensure that the Magic stays alive in Disney and other places? Remember the movie “Field of Dreams”? In the movie they say, “If you build it they will come”. It happened for them. Why? Because the magic was there.

    1. Avatar

      What’s even more of a coincidence is that I live in Louisiana where from my understanding was where Walt Disney wanted to build Walt Disney World. Things that make you go Hmmm…. There’s no such things as coincidences so it is said.

  18. Avatar

    Amazing item, from my point of view as a designer of theme parks, think essential, creativity and innovation as a product line for a company, and Disney certainly is the example to follow for all the creative world


  19. Avatar

    From a commercial standpoint, the design of theme parks, Disney is the benchmark for operational and commercial efficiency combined with beauty and aesthetic appeal, as a designer of theme parks are the reference and example to follow.


  20. Avatar

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  21. Avatar

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  22. Avatar

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  23. Avatar


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  27. Avatar

    kyle chadwick

    I have always dreamed of getting a career in ride designing ever since i was 5 years old watching the discovery channel on rides and attractions in 1995 and still watch them. even though i am not artistic but with computers, it is a different story. I have so many ideas for the ride industry, that i really want to pursue a career in that field. I am still in college but i need help on what classes to choose in order to be on the ride design team. Please help.

    kyle chadwick

  28. Avatar

    Very helpful! Thank you!

    I have a question I hope someone can answer. I think I chose the wrong majors if I want to be an attraction designer and I’m wondering if I am at a dead end. I majored in art and design and business with emphases in art history and marketing. I can paint quite well and am teaching myself digital painting. Do I have a chance or will the struggle to get hired and/or learn the required skills and programs be too great for me?

    I knew I wanted to do attraction design (didn’t know what to call it at the time) and the lack of understanding made it difficult for people to give me advice. So basically I chose what I did so I could develope my creativity and team project managment skills, mostly.

  29. Avatar

    I am a student in Digital Media getting my Bachelor Degree in Animation, Gaming and Modeling Concentration and I live in Florida and I this is my dream job!!! I love to go to Orlando and in love with all Theme parks!!! I have been considering working as a theme park designer, this article is awesome! Make me feel like this dream came come thru and I am starting looking for advice on this career, you all do an awesome job and I will enjoy working hard for this kind of job, I understand when you say than you will do this as a hobby because I feel the same passion like you, thanks a lot to share your experiences and advice and for doing this world a better place!

    Angie Reyes

  30. Avatar

    I almost never comment, however i did a few searching and wound
    up here Want to be a theme park designer? Disney Imagineer and Universal creative experts offer advice |
    Inside the Magic. And I do have 2 questions for you
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    😛 And, if you are posting on other online sites, I would
    like to keep up with everything fresh you have to post.
    Would you list of all of all your shared sites like your twitter feed,
    Facebook page or linkedin profile?

  31. Avatar


    I volunteer at the Historic Fourth Ward School in Virginia City, Nevada, upon which Disney based their Phantom Manorin Disneyland Paris. We are a non-profit with little funding and were hoping to approach the Disney Corporation in hopes of helping with the painting of the outside of the Fourth Ward School before it totally deteriorates. Who, specifically, at Disney would it be best to contact for HELP! Disney is a very difficult organization to find the best person to speak to about such a need!

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