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  • Writer's pictureDan Wright

Reflections On Becoming The Next Generation Of Themed Entertainment


12 months ago, it had been a lifelong ambition to work on a creative project in the themed entertainment industry. To learn from individuals I was inspired by and aspired to be like. Heck, even to visit an IAAPA expo was up on the bucket list. Since then, countless hours worth of education, team meetings, creative processes and getting the chance to present at multiple events has been the culmination of one of the most eye-opening learning experiences I've ever had the pleasure of undertaking.



For as long as I can remember, the themed entertainment industry has been a forefront interest in my life. Like many others passionate about this industry, I was raised as a child on copious memorable trips to theme parks, in addition to spending countless hours on related video games. Everything from Theme Park Inc (remember that one?) through to the Roller Coaster Tycoon franchise, Thrillville and most recently Planet Coaster. My fondest memories have been visiting many theme parks for the first time. That jaw-dropping awe of seeing the Disney castles in Paris and Orlando down Main Street, or the magnificent ruins at the heart of Alton Towers. The enticing smells of Dollywood's iconic cinnamon bread, as well as the billowing ash and soot from its heritage railroad in the Great Smoky Mountains. Unwinding with a crisp German pilsner at the range of stunningly themed Europa Park hotels after being immersed in its extensive range of cuisine, shows and plethora of varied rides and attractions. Even standing on the platform of Helix at night, overlooking the beautiful lights of Swedish Gothenburg below with the thumping soundtrack by IMAscore, or taking a pedalo boat out onto the idyllic lakes of Farup Sommerland in Denmark. Each memory is equally special for different reasons. But at their core, these memories have been shaped as a part of a wider escapism image; bestowed upon us as guests in a themed environment. Even the amusement parks which focus more solely on ride hardware still offer some of my most cherished memories. But none of these experiences would be possible without the wealth of talented and dedicated individuals who ideate, tirelessly craft and maintain this each and every day. As a guest, being immersed in these worlds is a joy. The sounds. The smells. The sensation of euphoria of being put into an experience that attempts to break you away from the harsh realities we face in the modern world. Being on the other side of that coin is an entirely different yet rewarding experience. I worked for three years as part of a Guest Experience team for Merlin Entertainments. Rather than being part of the experience, I was contributing to making it for guests. And whilst I was knocked into a very different career path at the end of my three years with the company, there has always been that gut desire to make something of it. Not just to have a job in the industry, but to shape a lifelong invested career. A career in themed entertainment where I had a degree of responsibility in forging memories and delivering exciting adventures. But how?


Finding A Place In The Industry

When it comes to talents, the artistic style has never been my strong point. Attempting to draw or sculpt, heck, even attempt freehand Lego builds has been nigh on impossible (who'd have thought I'd have then been delivering Master Model Builder and school workshops to dozens of guests at once?!) Whilst I enjoy some of the technical details and components that power the themed entertainment, I'm certainly not clever enough to work on or apply them in scenarios. There are of course plenty of pathways into the themed entertainment sector. Working tirelessly on the front line as a ride operator, food and beverage vendor, retail assistant or costume character are great examples. Even behind-the-scenes roles such as marketing, management and HR. And whilst these avenues of entry exist, I still found myself at a crossroad of confusion. Yes, I'd done it before by starting out operating rides and hosting shows before progressing into a Team Leader role, but at the time that was a job. How can anyone take serious steps into taking this remarkable sector and turn it into a career? How do I find my place in the themed entertainment sector?


Educating The Next Generation


It's a question I know for certain I'm not the only one to have ever asked. Thankfully there are now a growing number of universities globally that are providing a form of insight into how to do this: Staffordshire University in the UK with its dedicated Visitor Attraction and Management course. Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands offers an Attractions & Theme Parks Management (ATPM) course, whilst Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida has also started catering to these needs. Then of course there are the various related degrees you can obtain through more traditional methods. Art and Graphic Design. Animation. CGI. Mechanical Engineering. Theatre and Stage Management. The list is expansive. But what if like me, your university days are long behind you and finding a way into the industry without leaving full-time employment isn't an option? What if your current degree has virtually nothing to do with the industry? This is the position I found myself in 12 months ago. A sense of identity crisis and not understanding my place or where I could be within the industry, or how/if I would ever be able to step through that door properly for a career. The NextGen Showcase appeared as a recommendation from a friend I'd previously done leisure and hospitality journalism with. To say I was sceptical at the potential prior to and reading over the details would be an understatement. It wasn't the first time I'd heard of a similar concept which another friend of mine had undertaken, citing it as a waste of time. With a promise to accelerate career development, connection-building and skill honing, and certainly nothing to lose, I agreed with myself to give it a shot. After missing the initial launch live stream entirely due to other commitments, submitting an application to this was a stab at the unknown. Filing off a CV and cover letter of course feel equivalent to applying for a job (which is rarely a painless task). But there is good reasoning behind this for the management team to assess your strengths and find something that is not only suitable for you, but allows you to grow your skills. One of the most daunting prospects applying to the NextGen Showcase is the number of roles available per team. A Project Manager. A Project Coordinator. Show Producer. Technical Director. Engineer. Creative Director. Art Director. An entire creative team. I've never done anything remotely like any of these roles in my life, how the hell am I going to be able to attribute myself to one of these? I can't quite remember which specific role I applied for at the time (possibly the project coordinator - which my friend landed as his role), but I was prepared to embrace stepping out of a comfort zone to learn - the most important component of the entire showcase.


Back To School


It had been six years since I graduated from uni. Those scheduled weeks of lectures, time to complete work and meet up with those on my course to discuss group projects together. Whilst a distant memory at that point, it soon felt all too familiar once again. The educational seminars for the NextGen Showcase typically took place on a Monday evening around 1900 GMT, giving me a couple of hours after work to relax and eat, before preparing to open myself up to new knowledge from industry leaders and experts. I hadn't anticipated just how broad the subjects would be, or how many there would be to cover. What really brought everyone down to Earth I feel was the scope of the brief. This wasn't just a "plot of land, build a ride on it" competition that you commonly see on forums. An entire fictional park had been created from the ground up. It had a history. It had a location. It had successes and it certainly had failures. It had a vision, and it had money to play with. The brief provided us with a colossal amount of information. This isn't a document to be skipped over either. The park management team, comprising of real world professionals, had expectations that needed to be met. In summary of our brief, we were to re-theme two existing areas within a park and redevelop a previously unused plot of land for a new area/attraction, with boundaries to work against and a pesky, unmoveable tree. The first step is to digest all the possible information, and think of questions to ask through an RFID document. These questions can be anything from what systems the park has in place already that can help you determine accessibility needs, through to the stance on IP usage and so much more. The reality of the project hit home on the first team meeting. With individuals scattered across the UK, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Poland, it was the coming together of personalities I'd have never thought about meeting at all. Different cultures. Different backgrounds.

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