Help! I want to be a Theme Park Designer. What Do I Do Now?
13 Guidelines for your success
by Nate Naversen
So, you want to be a theme park designer, do you? I get hundreds of emails every year from people who want to design rides and other theme park attractions for a living. In this article, I hope to answer a lot of the commonly asked questions so that you too will have a better idea about how to get started in the themed entertainment industry.
If you remember all guidelines I've laid down for you and follow them, your chances for success will be greatly increased.
Guideline #1: The average job in the themed entertainment lasts about 18 months
The average job in this industry only lasts about 18 months. This industry is volatile and almost all work is done on a project basis. When the project ends - you lose your job. It is not a bad thing. Usually it mean that you simply go onto the next job, wherever that may be. Successful designers are networked so well that they can move around from job-to-job without much difficulty. But it is not for the faint of heart. And while for a young kid starting out without any job it's easy to remain short sighted about this and say it doesn't matter. Down the road when you are trying to support a family this lifestyle becomes something more difficult to sustain. To be successful, you must be willing to accept change as the only constant.
Guideline #2: Learn how to draw even if you don't think you can.Walk around with a sketch pad wherever you go and draw everything you see. Everyone should learn how to express their ideas visually, especially if you want to be in the themed entertainment industry. Everyone can learn to draw well given enough practice.
I fondly recall asking two Disney animators about their figure drawing skills a couple years ago. At that, they both confided in me: "I'm scared to death of drawing people." I was shocked. I said, "Wait a minute, you just finished animating Mulan and Hercules. How can you be afraid of drawing people?"
I concluded that most sane people have an apprehension about sketching. If these Disney animators don't think they can draw, yet somehow manage to produce masterpieces. . . then why can you not draw very well too? I believe you can.
If you still think you need help learning to sketch, get the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain , by Betty Edwards. It will help you draw in the best way a text book can.
Guideline #3: Get the right reading material and start learning.
Read a biography of Walt Disney. Themed entertainment was revolutionized by this man, so you will do well to learn about him. A very good book on both Walt Disney's life and Disney philosophy is Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney and the American Way of Life . By Watts. Subscribe to the industry magazines as well. They will help you think like a theme park designer.
Guideline #4: Get a good education.
Your chances of a successful career are reduced dramatically without a college degree. The bottom line: You cannot chase your dreams without a good education. It is highly unlikely that you will have much success developing skills to make companies want to hire you without a degree. I therefore encourage you to work as hard as you can while you are in school. Learn good study habits by doing all your homework assignments and stay in school until you get a degree.
I recommend the following schools of higher education:
Guideline #5: Choose the right college major:
You might wonder what your college major should be in order to become a theme park designer. The answer to that question is simple and complex. There are many hundreds of career fields involved in theme park design because it takes many disciplines in order to produce one. The real key is just finding something that you love to do. Life is too short to spend it doing a job you don't like. Here are some theme park design careers and how to get involved in them.
This was just a sample of the types of people needed to produce a theme park. Indeed literally hundreds of trades are needed: lighting designers, carpenters, model builders, contractors, landscapers, lawyers, financial managers, sculptors, painters, actors, dancers, and vendors. The list is endless. So to be involved in this industry, you simply find a career that you like, and go out and pursue it.
Guideline #6: Become an expert in one skill and a generalist in many skills.
A few years ago I asked Tony Baxter, Vice President of Creative Services at Walt Disney Imagineering what a person needed to do to get started as a theme park designer. He told me that the most important thing someone needed to do to become an Imagineer is to become "Very good at just one thing." I asked the same question to Bob Rogers, President and founder of BRC Imagination Arts, an attraction design company located in Burbank, California. Mr. Rogers told me that he always looks to hire generalists -- people who can do a lot of things very well. The bottom line? Become an expert in one thing, but be able to do many tasks well. A single skill makes you employable. A lot of skills makes you attractive.
Guideline #7: Be nice to everybody.
The themed entertainment industry is a very small group of people. Everyone knows everyone. If you start making enemies you will soon be out of friends. Never burn a bridge! Repeat after me: I will never, never, ever, burn a bridge! Patrick McGarry, the area manager of Disneyland Engineering told me, "We know that there are lots of people who can do the job here, but what we really look for is people who can interact and communicate and get along with others." For Mr. McGarry it is the interpersonal skills that make the difference. And that makes sense. If you are going to spend all day with someone, you want to be around those dynamic people who can solve problems while maintaining a good sense of humor. People who throw temper tantrums or get stressed out during those normal storms of life are never much fun to be around!
Guideline #8: No one owes you a job.
Market yourself with the correct mindset: In the real world there is no affirmative action to help you succeed. No one owes you any sort of job, and no one is going to do it for you. Everything is up to you. No one will ever come looking for you unless you make the phone calls and write the letters and go meet people. When you are turned down for a job, you are never "out" like you would be in baseball. Instead, keep talking to your contact every month or two, letting them know that you are still interested. After a while, you will know lots of the right type of people and that good job will eventually come around to you. After all, it's not what you know; it's "who you know." If you were to fail in 50 straight interviews, but on the 51st interview you got your dream job then it would all have been worth it. So look at interviews as OPPORTUNITY, and never give up.
Guideline #9: Begin networking right here on Themedattraction.com.
Guideline #10 Join Professional Organizations
Join professional organizations like the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions , (IAAPA) and the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and go to their meetings and conventions. It's a good place to get to know the right people. You can go and talk to dozens of company executives at the convention. They are always happy to talk to you too, because every smart executive is always looking for good people. As Bob Rogers says: "Companies are ALWAYS hiring, no matter what they say." If the right person comes along, they will create an opening for that person. There are no rules in the business world and anyone can be hired at any time
Guideline #11: Get your foot in the door any way you can.
It is often a good idea to take a part time hourly position at a theme park because once you are inside the company, it is much easier to get hired into a more desired salary positions. Hourly work at a theme park provides invaluable experience that I highly recommend for everyone, but most design jobs are not at theme parks. It's a good idea to get in on the ground floor with any company that offers promising opportunity.
Guideline #12: Move to where the industry is located.
The themed entertainment industry is spread out widely throughout the United States and the world. However, the most concentrated areas are in three locations: a). Los Angeles, California; b). Orlando, Florida; and c). Cincinnati, Ohio. Other smaller areas of concentration are spread across the country and the world. Because of the thousands of resumes each company receives each year, it is doubtful that anyone will get serious consideration for a job if they live out of state. If you were a staffing professional looking to fill a job, where would you look first, in Bristol, Connecticut, or in your own city? Of course there are always exceptions, but in general, LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION are three very key words to know. This holds true for any company.If you'd like to work for the Disney Company or Universal Studios in a professional capacity (or any theme park for that matter) it is a wise decision to move to where they are located (Southern California or Central Florida).
Guideline #13: Don't put Disney on a pedestal.
Don't hold the Disney company as the end-all and be-all of themed entertainment. Up until 1990, Disney set the standard for themed entertainment, but there is a world of opportunity out there, so don't limit yourself to just one company. Too many people sacrifice good jobs at good companies for not-so-good jobs at Disney. Disney is a fine company, but please keep everything in perspective and realize that there are many great opportunities out there for you.
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