When it comes to theme parks, members of Generation Z (born approximately 1997-2012) have more than their share of stories to tell. From Disneyland’s milestone anniversaries, to the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and beyond, the Gen Z theme park experience has largely been a time of tremendous growth and innovation. As a working themed entertainment professional and a member of Generation Z, I can also personally attest to the notable impact these experiences have had on today’s young creative minds. Continue reading for an overview of how Gen Z’s theme park strengths can benefit the future of storytelling.
Tycoons in Training
How many generations can say they managed a theme park before starting high school? YouTube creator Airtime Thrills once listed the March 1999 release of Rollercoaster Tycoon as an event that changed theme park history. The Rollercoaster Tycoon video game franchise introduced young Gen Z-ers to the exciting world of planning, budgeting, and maintaining a virtual theme park – complete with virtual guests (“peeps”) and critics. Following Rollercoaster Tycoon’s popularity, Thrillville launched two games of a similar nature; unlike Rollercoaster Tycoon, Thrillville included the option to initiate a conversation with guests, in order to directly collect satisfaction ratings on your park’s amenities. The theme park subgenre of gaming continued to advance with Planet Coaster, perhaps the most mathematically precise theme park design simulation game on the market.
Years of theme park business strategy gameplay could be seen as a sort of training course for members of Gen Z working in today’s themed entertainment industry. With the ability to customize and receive true-to-life feedback for nearly every element of your pixelated parks, from ride layouts to portions of ketchup served on hamburgers, theme park simulation games offered educational benefits for future professionals across an array of departments. Besides gaining business sense, a few real-world tools of the trade also came into play: tech-savvy gamers could travel the extra mile by creating custom scenery models for Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 using SketchUp, an architectural planning and modeling program utilized by real-world developers.
Similar customization could be found in Minecraft, another favorite among Gen Z gamers. An elaborate Minecraft recreation of Disneyland served as a meeting place for gamers who doubled as theme park fans. Design student and themed entertainment enthusiast Chloe Noelle recalls her days of avid Minecraft creation, and the game’s influence on her real-world creative skillset: “Minecraft allowed me to create whatever was stirring up in my brain. From a very young age, I was obsessed with the building aspects of the game. It taught me how to create an immersive environment within a digital space, in a game consisting of nothing but blocks. I was visiting theme park servers at the age of 11, with a notepad by my side; I would spend time sketching out the buildings I wanted to create on paper before tackling them in-game. Little did I know, this sandbox adventure game would be teaching me the basic design process at a young age.”
Whether it be designing scenery in Minecraft or balancing a budget in Rollercoaster Tycoon, one can easily identify a host of real-world skills utilized within Gen Z’s simulation games. As a working professional, I still find myself falling back to what I learned in the digital realm; when faced with guest satisfaction scenarios, I may even ask myself, “What would the Park Inspector from Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 advise me to do?” Former Disneyland cast member and Rollercoaster Tycoon fan Scott Senior also jokes, “If the peeps aren’t happy with one little thing, you’re gonna hear about it. Rollercoaster Tycoon taught me that every aspect of a park matters.”
Can We Build It? Yes, We Can!
When they weren’t playing theme park simulation games, chances are members of Gen Z were busy watching videos on YouTube. With increased accessibility to the world outside our windows, Gen Z’s imaginary line between possible and impossible wore thin. As such, many ambitious Gen Z-ers have taken it upon themselves to get busy creating at home. A number of Southern California’s prominent “home haunts” (Halloween walk-through attractions built on residential property) are operated by members of Gen Z.
One such creator is Jacob Larson, the Gen Z mind behind Pirate’s Cave Haunt in Orange, California. Online access to design tutorials and like-minded creators helped shape Larson’s initiative to construct a freestanding walkthrough attraction in his residential footprint. “Applications like YouTube are revolutionary to the industry because of the number of tutorials you can watch and learn from on any given topic. Learning applications like Photoshop, Premiere, and After Effects have really skyrocketed our production into the modern age of home haunt attractions. These applications have helped me to embrace projection mapping and custom-made logos, as well as creating a strong brand image on our social media pages.” Larson adds, “Networking through social media has been very beneficial. Seeing many young themed entertainment designers opened my eyes to see that you’re never too young to start making a name for yourself.”
Another Gen Z innovator, Sam Kellman of Opechee Haunt, used his home haunt as a springboard to a career in entertainment writing and directing. During the recent global pandemic, Kellman even adapted his home haunt to a drive-thru experience – perhaps as one of the only Gen Z creators to adapt concurrently with large-scale events. Kellman explains, “The way I see it, adaptability and compromise are huge parts of the creative process… being able to go from your most ‘out there’ blue sky ideas and reworking them based on what can realistically happen, considering all of your parameters. Sometimes this can even change your product for the better in ways you hadn’t anticipated. Being someone who’s created short films, home haunts, and other immersive experiences, the idea of adapting and coming up with solutions within certain constraints has been an essential part of making any of that, especially on limited budgets.”
It would seem Gen Z television icon Bob the Builder was right, as he motivated young creators to overcome hurtles with his signature call and response catchphrase: “Can we build it? Yes, we can!”
Career Day, Every Day
Thanks to industry-focused conventions like Midsummer Scream, young creators have been granted access to the creative teams behind numerous well-established attractions and events. In the same way, prior generations may have enjoyed Walt Disney showcasing his ideas on television, copious YouTube videos and convention panels now offer young minds the inside scoop on who creates and operates today’s beloved storytelling experiences. Attendees of Southern California’s April 2022 Attractions Technology Lab mixer were even treated to a full-scale dark ride demonstration, followed by an informative panel with representatives from each of the vendors involved in the dark ride’s creation. Many of the event’s attendees were students of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, ready to learn from a variety of the industry’s top technical teams.
Before the popularity of conventions and industry mixers, my early influences included a series of behind-the-scenes video essays from Haunted Media DVD Magazine, particularly the 2005 feature-length documentary Season of Screams: The Legacy of Knott’s Scary Farm Halloween Haunt. Content creators like Haunted Media collaborated with events to shine a spotlight on the back-of-house talent responsible for some of the world’s largest Halloween productions. Gen Z is perhaps the first generation to have similar themed entertainment educational programs designed specifically for their career inspiration and enrichment. In the late 2000s, Disney released a series of straight-to-DVD educational productions titled The Science of Disney Imagineering, showcasing theme park-centric examples of concepts like gravity, energy, magnetism, and design/models. Early Gen Z television network Discovery Kids also featured several entertaining educational programs, including Popular Mechanics for Kids; naturally, my favorite episode featured two young co-hosts learning about the science of fear and designing walk-through haunted attractions.
When it came time for Gen Z theme park aficionados to enter the exciting world of college, many were delighted to find a plethora of options tailored to their interests. The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) website outlines how TEA’s NextGen Initiative “works with academic institutions to foster the creation of themed entertainment curricula,” and “facilitates member companies’ ability to recruit from this fresh talent pool.” TEA NextGen clubs established on campus also play host to lectures, socials, and other events for members. TEA@UCLA External Vice President Jennie Tuliao shares her experience working within this talented group of up-and-coming creators: “Starting to build this network early on is very beneficial, as the themed entertainment industry is very niche. Programs like TEA@UCLA definitely help inspire and provide realistic options to younger people. As this small industry continues to grow, members get to enjoy the unique experience of learning with their friends (and potentially future coworkers) before graduating. I’ve seen results through graduated students starting their early careers, and still sharing their journey to current members of this club.”
Additionally, The Themed Entertainment Creative Academy (TECA) offers a series of courses, workshops, and masterclass presentations, operating as an organization to “unify our industry, facilitate peer support in a safe and inclusive space, and provide educational outreach to both students, underserved industry newcomers, and industry professionals.” I attended a TECA masterclass with show writer Stacy Barton in January of 2021, and frequently call back to the pointers learned therein. By providing affordable programming comprised of valuable firsthand stories, lessons, and ideas related to our shared vocations, TEA and TECA have ensured accessibility remains a factor in nurturing and encouraging the future of themed entertainment creators.
And, in case you were curious… encouragement works! As former Disney Imagineer Noah Sunday Lefkowitz detailed in a TikTok video titled My Disney Journey, “When I was fourteen, I wrote to Walt Disney Imagineering saying I wanted to be an Imagineer, and I actually got a response back. The letter encouraged me to focus not only on my love of Disney parks and their history but also my specific talents and skillsets, so that later on in life I could use those skill sets and put them to work at Imagineering.” Thanks to organizations like TEA and TECA, young creators have more opportunities than ever to hone those talents and skillsets alongside industry veterans, leading to fulfilling careers.
Safety and Security
When it comes to the future of themed entertainment, Gen Z will likely be quick to emphasize safety and security. Growing up in a post-9/11 world has instilled a strong set of precautions and priorities in our day-to-day routines; much like our adaptability post-pandemic, utilizing these traits when designing for themed entertainment may be beneficial for planning security measures and evacuation plans/safe refuge areas. My personal observations as a member of Gen Z often help inform my employment decisions; for example, knowledge of my generation’s experiences helps me prioritize working with haunted attractions that emphasize the importance of active shooter precautions.
License to Create
On the topic of haunted attractions, Gen Z has also been experiencing (and working on) an unprecedented number of licensed intellectual property-based themed entertainment experiences. Over the course of one particularly influential decade (2007-2017), Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights rose to new heights by bringing together some of the most recognizable characters and brand names in the horror genre. From Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface to The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Stranger Things, the business and licensing behind popular culture continues to fuel how Gen Z experiences entertainment.
While entertainment industry business deals have been happening unnoticed behind closed doors for decades, one could argue Gen Z has felt the effects of widely publicized deals involving their favorite mainstream stories earlier in life than most other generations. Older members of Gen Z will remember a childhood before Marvel was acquired by Disney, and in which Revenge of the Sith was advertised as the final film in the Star Wars saga. (I was eleven when Disney acquired Marvel, and fourteen when they acquired Lucasfilm.) As we moved into adolescence, we experienced the evolution of movies, perhaps most poignantly with the creation of the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gen Z is consciously aware of how business deals affect the stories we experience.
This awareness carries over to themed entertainment, where the aforementioned licensed attractions at events like Halloween Horror Nights are no longer shrouded in mystery. Social media continues to provide Gen Z minds with a direct link to the creative process. Throughout the 2010s, Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights creative director John Murdy frequently hosted Q&A sessions through Twitter. When asked about why certain movies or television shows had not yet been adapted for the event, Murdy would often offer real-world explanations as to why certain licenses are difficult to navigate.
For example, Murdy’s Twitter transparency regarding the restrictions of licensing Stephen King stories for themed entertainment experiences helped me gain perspective and clarity when deals were eventually reached for King-inspired attractions at multiple venues. Two such attractions were walk-through mazes constructed in Los Angeles at the intersection of Hollywood Blvd. and Vine St. by Experiential Supply Co. to promote the release of It (2017) and It Chapter Two (2019). While prior generations primarily experienced licensed attractions within the confines of a theme park, Gen Z has seen their favorite stories spill out into the streets as part of today’s particularly creative promotional installations.
Growing Bigger and Better
For Gen Z-ers coming of age in the early 2010s, an important parallel exists within themed entertainment: to a certain perspective, theme parks themselves were concurrently maturing. When The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in June of 2010, fans of the Harry Potter franchise (many of whom were members of Gen Z) were treated to the first pages of an exorbitant new chapter for theme park storytelling. Gone were the days of smaller-scale theme park lands created during Gen Z’s childhood (for example, A Bug’s Land at Disney California Adventure); as Gen Z’s bodies and minds grew, so did the scope of theme park real estate. From Harry Potter to Star Wars, larger fandoms called for larger lands.
This visible growth did not go unnoticed in the eyes of Gen Z, who may be using these new immersive lands as the benchmark in themed entertainment. To the youngest members of Gen Z, born around the dawn of immersive mega-lands, this level of heightened immersion may eventually prove to be the only level of quality they’ve ever known – thus establishing a new normal in Gen Z’s creations. Early evidence suggests this quality may extend to live performances, as well, thanks to the influence of immersive storytelling experiences like Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town Alive. Chloe Noelle reflects, “Being able to experience Ghost Town Alive at a young age helped shape me into the creator I am today. Our experiences with productions like Ghost Town Alive can now be used as a stepping stone to creating even more immersive attractions.”
Theme Parks Read Mean Tweets
The evolution of theme parks also brought about the evolution of how guests experience them. A spike in annual pass program popularity has increased attendance and accessibility for venues once considered primarily vacation destinations. With some guests visiting monthly, weekly, and even daily, details and perceived flaws that may have gone unnoticed before now have increased visibility and exposure. Members of Gen Z may be no stranger to unsolicited comments passed through the Internet, in regard to appearance, personality, or lifestyle; theme parks are now subjects of similar scrutiny, akin to being placed under a magnifying glass.
There is almost certainly an array of emotions associated with increased popularity and scrutiny in theme parks; on the negative end, social media frenzy among annual passholders surrounding exclusive collectibles may result in operational chaos and frustration among guests and employees. On the positive end, however, comes a curious exploration of room for improvement. While some armchair enthusiasts may “nitpick” online, with no intention of proposing a productive solution, budding Gen Z designers may find opportunity in imperfection. Having been the subject of intense scrutiny themselves, many members of Gen Z have adapted to filter out unproductive criticisms and complaints.
Defunct History at Our Fingertips
If there’s one sure way to view theme parks with 20/20 clarity, it’s in hindsight. Thanks to YouTube, Gen Z can access encyclopedic knowledge of defunct-themed entertainment experiences through informative documentaries from content creators Defunctland, Yesterworld, Theme Park History, ReviewTyme, and others. While these documentaries are entertaining enough for general consumption, they also serve as a valuable resource for Gen Z creators. In addition to inspiring viewers with memories, ideas, and stories previously considered lost to time, themed entertainment documentaries often explore why certain circumstances or business deals lead to attraction closures. Through these informative and entertaining productions, Gen Z-themed entertainment professionals can learn valuable lessons from mistakes they weren’t even alive to experience firsthand.
Rise of the Machines
Armed with the knowledge of themed entertainment’s past, Gen Z has inherited an appreciation for timeless storytelling and attractions of all kinds – not necessarily just what’s trending. When presenting repetitious screen-based technology in attractions like Transformers: The Ride 3D and Fast & Furious Supercharged, it may be more difficult to impress Gen Z. Having grown up with screens and cutting-edge technology as part of their everyday lives, some younger theme park aficionados are looking to experience that certain “something” which is primarily found in classic dark ride-style theme park storytelling experiences. Of course, this isn’t to say technology shouldn’t be utilized, or that it’s impossible to create an innovative and compelling experience for younger guests. It remains important to remember, however, that technology itself is neither a fresh nor exciting concept to Gen Z.
Disney’s Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance stands out as one example of an attraction that utilizes innovative technology, without making said technology the focus of the ride. Compelling storytelling, clever illusions, advanced audio-animatronics, and immersive set design serve the magic of Rise of the Resistance, giving it similar timeless qualities to many beloved theme park attractions of yesteryear. As technology advances and the ways we tell stories evolve, members of Gen Z may continue to emphasize this balance of ingredients when designing attractions. In fact, some Gen Z creators have already begun integrating professional-grade technology to enhance their storytelling experiences, as aforementioned home haunter Jacob Larson explains. “Learning how to program DMX lights, projections, a simulated moving elevator, and water effects to a show controller have been some of my most daunting tasks. I think it shows to my future employers in the themed entertainment industry that I’m a resilient worker, and always ready to learn whatever projects they throw my way.”
Doing It Our Way
The themed entertainment industry has made itself more accessible than ever for members of Generation Z. Whether it be through theme park strategy games, vocational courses, workshops, panels, or documentaries, a vast well of knowledge serves to nourish our interests. In return, we will continue to bring our passions, training, and skills to the future of storytelling.