A Call For Enrichment and Education Within the Themed Entertainment Industry

Themed Entertainment Show Writer / Creative Director Rick West

Show Writer / Creative Director Rick West

I have written about the themed entertainment industry, attractions of all kinds, and the men and women behind them for more than 20 years. I have seen a lot in the past two decades, from the opening of Luxor in Las Vegas with its groundbreaking Doug Trumbull attraction trilogy to the modernization of the San Diego Zoo with high tech habitats such as Hippo Beach and Polar Bear Plunge. I’ve watched Six Flags Magic Mountain build and open some of the biggest scream machines on Earth, and have been around to cover both the original opening day and re-dedication of Disney California Adventure.

Throughout my travels, I have been fortunate enough to interview some incredibly influential individuals for Theme Park Adventure, from Marion Knott to Marty Sklar. Always awed by their accomplishments and life stories, the history of the theme park industry has always been near and dear to my heart; often times, more exciting and engaging than the present. Not because the now isn’t exciting – it is, and it is my own profession – but hearing about how the pioneers did things from scratch with a vision and elbow grease… those stories and events capture my heart, and truly shaped the industry we all love and cherish today.

In addition to being a self-admitted long-time theme park fanboy and author, I also work in the industry; something that many of our readers may not be aware of (I try to keep the two as separate as possible, since the nature of my work rarely lets me divulge what it is I am working on at any given time anyway). In the late ’80s, I worked in attractions at Disneyland and then moved on to The Walt Disney Studios, where I worked in Television Animation on The Disney Afternoon. From there, I worked at Knott’s during Halloween Haunt one year; that led to a short stint in their Operations department. Later in life, I served as the Visitor Services Manager at the Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39 in San Francisco. Most recently, I worked at Thinkwell in Burbank, California, as a creative Show Writer, developing a multitude of blue sky projects from attractions to theme parks and shows for about a year and a half.

All the while, I continued writing about the themed entertainment industry for TPA – from international parks and attractions to the mega resorts of Las Vegas. It’s always been the world I am happiest in, and most comfortable with. And the people that make it up – the men and women that design these experiences and immersive environments – are the best people in the world; I love it all dearly.

That is why it pains me so and concerns me gravely enough to voice my observation of a cancer growing throughout the industry as a whole. The themed entertainment community has a very serious problem; it’s in our midst, ignored and left unchallenged. This isn’t a critical judgment of any one company or meant to be disrespectful in any way. It is however, one professional sounding the alarm and raising the biggest red flag I can against something that is infecting the entire industry across the playing field. If left unchecked and not addressed by each and every company within the theme park design world, it’s going to have a very real and detrimental impact on all of us as a whole within the next few decades.

toursfansYou see, I’d always just assumed that most everyone in themed entertainment and certainly those creating the next generation of theme parks and attractions is like me. I had visions of working in this industry alongside countless other creative misfits and nerds, who spend most of their time either visiting theme parks, reading about the latest events online, traveling the globe to see the newest shows and rides to open, and just being completely aware of the happenings around us on a constant and always-evolving level.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Truth be told, most of the people that work in this industry are not ravenous theme park enthusiasts, nor do many of them spend a great deal of time “in the field” checking out new attractions in person for inspiration and personal/professional understanding and knowledge. I’m not saying that everyone involved should be as extreme as I am with annual passes to every SoCal park, visiting one of them at least once a week. But what I feel is necessary for everyone in this industry to succeed in the long run, is a firm, constantly updated understanding of what’s going on in the field and to at least make an effort to keep current in some way or another, whether it be visiting in person, reading articles online or watching videos on YouTube. As of now, there are practically no measures in place anywhere to motivate staffs to do this. Sure, companies such as Walt Disney Imagineering give their employees complimentary access to the Disney theme parks as well as free tickets. There is however, no structured or corporate program in place that has Imagineers actually going to the parks on a regular basis as a part of their expected scope of work. Many WDI folks I know and have known rarely visit the parks, and often simply give their tickets away to other family members and friends. So, while a nice and expected gesture, free entry to the Disney parks for Imagineers is not mandatory or deemed necessary most of the time. Therein lies the very problem that is plaguing our industry. No one appears to feel full enrichment and true understanding from a first-hand perspective is of any critical value to the production team, as long as they can draw and meet deadlines set by clients or executives.

Currently, there is still a decent mix of “old timers”, seasoned vets and newcomers within the themed entertainment industry. The old guard is rapidly vanishing; many of the industry legends such as Marc Davis, John Hench, Wathel Rogers, Yale Gracey, Bud Hurlbut, Walter Knott, Walt Disney and others have been gone for a long time. It’s fantastic that there are still pioneers such as Bob Gurr and Rolly Crump around to at least share their knowledge and history with people willing to listen. Eventually however, they will be gone as well; mortality works against us that way.

Themed Entertainment and Imagineering Legend Tony Baxter

Imagineering Legend
Tony Baxter
(C) Disney

The next generation of innovators and designers is still relevant and active, although we are seeing the sun beginning to set on this group of legends as well. There will come a time when individuals such as Gary Goddard, Joe Rohde, Doug Trumbull, Bob Rogers, Tom Fitzgerald, and Garner Holt retire and fade away. Just this year, the industry was stunned by the news that Tony Baxter, perhaps the most iconic “Second Generation Imagineer” ever was stepping down as Senior Vice President of Creative Development at WDI after an incredible 47-year career with the company. Politics and insider rumblings aside, the fact that Tony has stepped down for whatever reason, signals a new change in climate industry-wide; that sooner than later, we will begin to see this second generation of dreamers and designers who were taught by the masters disappear. Once enough of these folks are gone, our first-hand knowledge of the trials and errors of this business also becomes subject to history books and second-hand recounting.

At Thinkwell, I worked with individuals who have an obscene amount of talent and industry experience such as Tom “Thor” Thordarson, Chuck Roberts, Bob Baranick, Gwen Ballantyne, Terry Palmer, and Sam Russo, just to name a few. Individuals that have been in the trenches, that have designed and seen their projects produced and installed around the world. In working with them, blue sky development was so much easier – and better – than with folks that have never seen their work progress further than storyboards or concept renderings. It wasn’t just easier having seasoned professionals on our various teams – it was essential to the viability of each project they were a part of.

All firms within the themed entertainment industry hire young talent much of the time; students with crazy artistic sense and ability fresh out of Art Center or CalArts (and other schools). They’re eager, enthusiastic about working, and generally a lot cheaper than seasoned vets when it comes to being hired for projects. The work these individuals produce is astonishing. One of my favorite things is to see an artist take what I have written and breathe life into it; to bring the words off of the page and translate them into dimensional environments that I truly want to visit as a fan! That process is incredibly rewarding and magical to me. The powerful tools that these young men and women have at their disposal such as Cintiq work stations and a multitude of 3D animation and CAD programs only serve as extensions for their fantastic natural talents. It’s all very exciting, to say the least.

There is another group of people in all areas of our profession, from entry-level staff to executives making multi-million dollar decisions that will alter the landscape and skyline of this business – and many of our careers – for the rest of our lives, that have no clue as to what’s going on in the industry around them or in many cases, right under their very noses. Nor do they care, or feel it is necessary to know first-hand the intimate details of our business; they just do what they’re asked without question or dole out decisions as dictated by advisers. It is this group that is the weakest link in the chain that drives our industry forward, with sometimes short-sighted recklessness and little or no regard whatsoever about our past.

Themed Entertainment designer Garner Holt

Garner Holt and Friend
(C) Garner Holt Productions

Recently, Walt Disney Imagineering turned over most of its audio animatronics development and fabrication to Garner Holt Productions. GHP has been doing incredible AA figures and scenic work for Disney for years, but this windfall of spare parts and business has ensured two things: that Garner and his incredibly talented team will now be the undisputed leaders in the field of animatronics, which is fantastic news for them. The second part of this is the sobering realization that in doing so, Disney has opted to sell off and forego its own pioneering legacy in the world of animatronics; a rich, colorful part of the company’s incredible history. Quite literally, there will come a time much sooner than later that there isn’t one individual at WDI that has the slightest clue how to design or produce an audio animatronic figure. To me, that is very sad, although I greatly admire and respect my friends and peers at Garner’s company, as well as Garner Holt himself. It is very disappointing however, to see Disney sell off and shut the door on such a critical part of WDI’s past, regardless of the economic feasibility argument that Disney and others bring up when discussing outsourcing.

The core of this industry was born mostly out of WED Enterprises, Walt Disney’s theme park division that he assembled in 1952 to handle the development and production of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. In following years, splinter groups formed their own similar companies to service and create non-Disney theme parks around the U.S. and beyond. Largely, the industry has remained rooted in the Burbank/Glendale area of Southern California; even larger companies such as Universal Creative with its anchor now in Orlando, have firm genetic ties with WED and the industry that evolved out of the “big bang” that was Disneyland’s creation. Southern California remains “ground zero” for the themed entertainment industry, regardless of where the current hotbed of activity or field of operation may be at any given time in the on-going theme park wars saga – Orlando, the Middle East, China or elsewhere.

That said, there is no reason whatsoever that all companies involved in this industry shouldn’t take the time and make the effort to invest their people – young and old – in the rich history of this business and show them these parks and attractions on an on-going basis as part of their corporate philosophy and strategy. Absolutely their strategy, because those companies that survive long enough to see this all come to fruition down the line will either benefit by taking action now, or suffer because they chose to turn a blind eye to this situation.

Make no mistake; there are enthusiastic “foamers” and fans working at the companies that make up our industry. I know many of them and have worked with them over the years, either via Theme Park Adventure or professionally. However, we are outnumbered; having a handful of industry fans in a company that might employ hundreds or thousands isn’t going to cut it. As I said, it has to be part of each company’s corporate philosophy and core structure to be effective and to work; it must be part of everyone’s learning experience to be successful and the nucleus of our team efforts.

When I worked at Thinkwell, I approached management and voiced my concerns about this subject, and proposed that I educate staff members with a series of presentations about the history of our industry. The company thought it was a fantastic idea, and fully supported my proposal. However, my workload was such that it was next to impossible to make time for such a thing, and everyone else’s workload was so intense that no one would have had the time to come regularly to such presentations. And so, it fizzled, never getting off the ground. It frustrated me and I felt that I’d failed in a way, to carry out my own proposal. However, that’s not the case. Every company has a busy schedule, and employees do not have time for anything extra in their day. This is why I say it needs to be part of the corporate structure – built in to the company timeline and scheduling, so that “spare time” doesn’t dictate this critical mission. It must be part of a company’s DNA.

Recently, BRC Imagination Arts closed its doors one day and took the entire staff to the Disneyland Resort for a group outing. Not only is this brilliant, it needs to happen way more than it does with every company in this industry. Additionally, BRC regularly has industry figures come and give presentations to the staff about their own careers and experiences. What Bob Rogers does with his team should be applauded – because it’s not the norm in our business. However, it should be; we shouldn’t have to take notice or hail that type of thing when our peers do it – it should be expected.

carsHere in Southern California, we have a wide array of world-class parks and attractions at our disposal within driving distance: Six Flags Magic Mountain, Universal Studios Hollywood, The Los Angeles Zoo, Knott’s Berry Farm, The Disneyland Resort, The Queen Mary, Aquarium of the Pacific, Legoland California, and the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Throw in other smaller attractions such as Raging Waters and Madame Tussauds Hollywood, and it is crystal clear that Southern California is a virtual classroom that is right outside our door, generally 365 days a year for all types of designers, project teams, enthusiasts and executives to study and explore together and at will. Yet, so few of us do.

If a company says that type of mandatory outing or enrichment is too expensive, that is a cop out. Our industry spends incredible amounts of money on freelance staff and executive travel expenses, and they sign client contracts regularly that are worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions in revenue for services rendered.

If a company states there simply isn’t time for that type of team enrichment, that is a cop out. If your company is being run in such a way that this type of activity to boost performance and excite your staff isn’t possible, there is a problem with your scheduling and way of corporate cultural thinking. This isn’t simply a “day at the park” for your people to blow off work; it is a critical enrichment programming tool that will strengthen and truly invigorate the entire staff and give them new appreciation and perspective on what it is we actually do.

If a company states that it’s simply not important to participate in such activities, it’s a cop out. What will be important years down the line is the fact that they aren’t hired to do any work because other companies and groups that did see the value in planting the seeds of enrichment are so much better than they are, and are thriving. The term “you reap what you sow” has never been more accurate and applicable to this industry as it is right now.

People working daily for these design companies are generally hungry and more than willing to learn more about the industry, and are absolutely excited about being a part of it. They want to learn, but in most cases, I find they just don’t know where to start or how to go about it. As for those employees who genuinely don’t like theme parks or attractions and have zero desire to be a part of it all and be open to ongoing enrichment measures – this will sound harsh, but those people are dead weight, and should be cut loose, replaced by individuals with the same abilities and talent that do want to be part of the industry and make a difference. In the long run, enthusiastic employees that get it are going to serve this industry far greater than those with their eyes only on their paychecks and quitting time. Sure, It works short-term to have someone that’s an amazing artist or CAD designer who doesn’t care at all about the business work for you; that’s undeniable and evident – because it’s happening at every company today. Right now.

transbwBut it’s not how it has to be. I’ve been there, with these new designers. When Transformers: The Ride opened at Universal Studios Hollywood, I took as many Thinkwell employees as I could as often as I could, so they could ride the attraction and understand what it is first-hand. I must have taken close to 15-20 people, each with different skill sets – artists, creative directors, AutoCAD and area development specialists – anyone and everyone I could. No matter their job duties, they all were so genuinely thrilled and completely recharged by this type of outing that I could feel their enthusiasm. I could see their eyes light up and the bulbs come on. It’s one thing to be around blue sky concept art all day – it’s another thing completely to actually experience a new attraction or park and make that physical connection; to see the end product, to witness others screaming and laughing while experiencing the very type of thing that’s back at the office on your desktop or drafting table, waiting to be brought to life. One of my peers said to me, “I get it! I really can see and appreciate what it is we do, and I am so pumped now to go back to work and kick ass on our project!”

And that, folks, is what’s so very necessary. Hands-on experience, someone explaining the technical and historical points of these parks and attractions while being there, discussion on a professional level about likes and dislikes, observations and questions. A virtual classroom with every type of experience there is, just a few minutes outside of our office doors; it’s all there, and it’s completely ignored most of the time.

This isn’t a rant to recruit new foamers within our ranks. It’s not a criticism or editorial sneer at any one company. Nor is this a fanciful flash flood of hyperbole that is without fact or true sincerity. This is a desperate challenge and wake up call from one industry professional to the rest of my colleagues and peers not just here in Southern California, but everywhere – a heartfelt battle cry to sound the alarm that we are on a certain collision course with fate if we as an industry continue to be complacent with “good enough” or allow fellow designers to advance without passion or a true sense of pride in this incredible line of work.

We cannot possibly think that we can build the rides and parks of tomorrow without first knowing and understanding where we have been and how decades of trial and error have brought us to where we are now as a community. Only after team members of all walks and job descriptions have been empowered and enriched with a sense of history, tradition, and real first-person knowledge can they press forward into the future with certainty and a much better chance of success.

The themed entertainment industry spends hundreds of millions each year on new attractions, hiring teams, travel and corporate expenditures. It’s not fanatical or outrageous to stop and challenge each and every company out there to spend a fraction of that on its own team development and internal enrichment programs.


Concept art for Jurassic Dream, a large-scale indoor theme park concept developed by Thinkwell for a client in Daqing, China. Rick West served as the main show writer for Jurassic Dream. (C) Thinkwell

As designers, we spend our lives creating new worlds, exotic environs and bold new experiences. What we must do on all levels, is make the time and effort to design our future as well, so that twenty, thirty, or fifty years from now, we know exactly who we are as a creative group and can stand with one foot firmly rooted in our incredible past and one surely placed on the threshold of tomorrow. Only then, can we strive for and accomplish bigger and better things; new ideas and concepts, mind-blowing new technology and incredible means of story telling while staying true to ourselves and those pioneers and legends before us.

This is my battle cry. And that is my challenge to each and every one of you. Our future is at stake, and the richness of this time-honored craft is being diluted each day as more new designers enter the fold and aren’t given the proper education and enrichment they need to sustain what we do for decades to come. Let’s take the time and make the effort to ensure our own future is secure and amazingly bright, and that we deliver experiences and attractions that will stand as a testament to our profession long after we’ve all faded away like those before us.

Make the difference. Engage this challenge. Design our tomorrow beginning with today.

– Rick West

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