How to Become a Theme Park Architect

How To Become a Theme Park Architect Content

  • A Brief History of Theme Parks
  • Speak With J. Daniel Jenkins About Imagineering
  • Architectural Degrees and Education
  • Work Experience, Talents Required, and Portfolio
  • Communication Skills and the Job Interview
  • Technical Skills
  • Path to Professional Licensure and Continuing Education
  • Team Integration
  • Resources
Alien Saucer Swirl – Toy Story Land – Disney’s Hollywood Studios

A Brief History of Theme Parks

Many people often incorrectly interchange the words “amusement park” and “theme park”. What’s the difference you ask? It’s very simple to remember; all theme parks are amusement parks, but not all amusement parks are theme parks. Still confused? Let me explain

An amusement park is defined as a park that offers visitors various attractions, such as rides, games, shows, or other forms of entertainment. Theme parks offer all the things that amusement parks offer, but the differentiating factor is theme parks base all of their assets (attractions) around a central, well defined unifying theme that can have multiple sub-themes underneath the guiding principle or ‘theme’ of the park.

Recommended reading about theme park design and history.

While amusement parks may have notions of underlying themes or stories that drive their idea, and can be located in beautiful settings, theme parks take those design principles to the extreme where the visitor or guest is immersed into a unifying ‘theme’. One common element found in amusement parks and theme parks, however, is the range of attractions or offerings they provide that are suitable for multiple age groups. 

Amusement parks have been around much longer than theme parks. Amusement parks evolved out of European pleasure gardens, picnic areas, and traveling carnivals and fairs dating back as early as the 12thCentury Middle Ages in Europe. History tells us the oldest amusement park is ‘Bakken’ in Denmark, which dates back to the 16thCentury. The more ‘modern’ amusement parks are the combinations of stationary fairs, pleasure gardens, and world’s fairs popular in 19thCentury Europe. These were places for large audiences to see attractions that often are associated with traveling circuses, such as menageries, acrobatics, freak shows, etc.

Modern amusement parks post 19thCentury, in both Europe and the United States, have always had the challenge of getting the mass populous to the front door of the parks. The invention and integration of local and regional mass transportation, such as the trolley car or railroad, was a means allowing both the working class and upper class to access amusement parks often located short distances outside of or near the larger city centers where the bulk of the populations lived at that time.

Luna Park, Coney Island, N.Y. circa 1905
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sea Lion Park at Coney Island, in the United States, holds the title for the first permanently enclosed, single owner entertainment venue (amusement park) opening its doors in 1897. England’s first amusement park, the Blackpool Pleasure Beach, was opened one year earlier in 1896.

Theme parks, on the other hand, are a relatively new iteration of the old amusement parks. Theme parks, in the United States, have their origins dating back to the 1940’s, with Santa Claus Land, which opened in 1946, being attributed as America’s first theme park. Other, regional family owned theme parks would begin to pop up in the U.S. in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Some with lasting success to the modern day, others succumbing to hard times during economic downturns. 

The landscape and future of the theme park industry would forever change, however, on July 17, 1955 when Walt Disney opened Disneyland. Walt’s vision and advancement of the unified storyline that binds a theme park was inspired by his early visits to Griffith Park in California. Walt Disney’s vision quickly evolved theme park’s use of technology and storytelling, in a safe and clean environment, to a whole new level.

In Walt’s theme parks, Guests were completely whisked away from the ordinary, real world and immersed into multiple storylines that were unified by a clearly defined theme and concept.

If you want to learn more about the history of amusement parks and theme parks, check out Stephen M. Silverman’s The Amusement Park: 900 Year of Thrills and Spills, and the the Dreamers and Schemers Who Built Them.

Speak With J. Daniel Jenkins About Imagineering

What else would you like to know about becoming a Walt Disney Imagineer? If you would like to have a 1 hour one-on-one conversation with Daniel Jenkins, a former Walt Disney Imagineer, click here to learn more!

Architectural Degrees and Education

Architecture, like most jobs in the public and private sectors, requires specific levels of education to meet the minimum level of skills to be considered for certain roles and positions. For example, if you want to be a Design Manager with Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) or Universal Creative (UC), you will need to have at a minimum a Bachelor of Architecture degree from an accredited architectural program at a college or university and be a licensed professional in your respective field.

Typically, for this position, its preferred to have a master’s degree in Architecture or a similar design program, i.e. master planning, landscape architecture, architecture, etc. It is true that WDI targets specific colleges and universities for its candidates.

Though preferred colleges and universities are targeted by WDI and others such as Universal Creative (UC), they are not a requirement for future candidates. Other disciplines within WDI and UC target minimum levels of education. For example, if you are considering a position in the Show Studio, i.e. Show Manager, Show Producer, etc.; these individuals typically have some form of a liberal arts degree, often in theater or the performing arts.

Becoming a licensed architect requires both education and experience. There are a few ways to meet the educational standards for the profession, but the most direct path is to earn a professional architecture degree from a program accredited by the National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB).

There are three degrees recognized as professional degrees by the NAAB: The Bachelor of Architecture (B Arch), Master of Architecture (M Arch), and Doctor of Architecture (D Arch) degrees. A Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in Architecture is considered a pre-professional degree and architectural licensure often requires the individual with these types of degrees to obtain a M Arch degree from an accredited college or university.

B Arch programs take at least five years to complete. Students in these programs take general education courses, liberal arts type courses including literature and history as well as high math courses such as calculus and physics related to structural engineering. Courses specific to your architectural major focus on design, the history of architecture, building materials, construction methods, and building structures.

The B Arch curriculum typically includes several studio courses where students complete design projects (both singular and team or group projects) and learn the rudiments of architectural drawing, architectural practice, and create models both physical and using computer-aided design and building information modeling (BIM) software.

M Arch programs admit students from diverse educational backgrounds, including those who have completed a pre-professional program in architecture and those who have bachelor’s degrees in other fields or do not have a five-year B Arch degree, such as a four-year Bachelor of Architectural Science degree.

These programs can take 2 or more years to complete and include courses in an advanced architectural design and theory, building environmental design, materials, sustainability, and architectural history. Like in a BArch program, students complete several studio courses focusing on adaptive reuse, planning and urban design.

The M Arch degree requires individuals to complete a senior thesis to meet the graduation requirements. Senior thesis projects often have two parts; one part is the information gathering, research, book writing portion of the thesis, where the other part is the implementation of the thesis via design presentation drawings and models (often both physical and electronic).

After prospective architects have graduated from a professional, accredited degree program in architecture, the next phase in the path to architectural licensure is the training process is to complete an Architectural Experience Program(AXP). This program is governed by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) working with the prospective candidate’s respective home state board of architecture.

❇️ Learn more about the business of architecture.

Work Experience, Talents Required, and Portfolio

Work Experience

One should realize and understand that the field of architecture, regardless of whether you’re designing hospitals or theme parks, is a slow-moving industry. Gaining the amount of knowledge and real-world experience to be able to deal with multiple design challenges at once is something that comes only by putting the amount of time necessary.

To become a good, well-rounded architect takes time. It is not something you can master in a few short years of time in the business. The business of architecture is a wide field that takes a lot of dedication, patience, and a willingness to learn by doing.

I’ve been in the business for more than twenty years and have had the opportunity to work on an array of different building types many with a level of complexity that requires a broad range of expertise in many aspects of the industry. To this day, I learn something new every week.

Regarding work experience specific to theme park Architects, I would suggest an individual in this career path (during their college years) apply for a paid internship with either Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Creative, or an architectural firm that specializes in themed entertainment design projects.

Not only will these internships provide an early glimpse inside the themed entertainment design industry, they will also provide an individual solid working experience within the unique world of the theme park architectural design. Later in the course I will provide a list of resources to assist you with professional internship options.

You have to think of an architect as being similar to a doctor who is a general practitioner. Like a doctor that needs to understand the various systems of the human body, an architect needs to have an understanding of:

  • the liability they assume
  • the various systems contained within buildings
  • an understanding of civil engineering and landscape architecture
  • structural engineering and systems
  • material selections and their long-term impact on facilities
  • planning of the projects
  • contractual and legal issues that comprise projects
  • Codes and regulations from local all the way up to State and Federal regulations that are constantly changing and being updated
  • The list goes on…

To be a successful and respected architect you need an understanding of all the aforementioned items; to be a theme park architect you need to know all of those items and an additional layer of unique design and construction attributes that are uniquely specific to theme park design.

For example, Project Architect candidate ‘A’ has ten years of large, commercial multi-purpose design experience that required them to use their expertise across a full range of campus type projects, such as large retail facilities and large-scale military facilities where various building types are located. Candidate ‘B’ has mostly small commercial, single family and some multi-family residential project experience that did not require the design integration of technically complex building systems.

Clearly, Candidate ‘A’ is more qualified for the type of architecture that he or she will experience with theme park design. Theme parks have highly complex building systems that support a multitude of show, ride, and entertainment experiences typically across campus plans within tightly controlled and designed environments.

Talents Required

We’ve touched on education and work experience for future theme park Architect candidates. WDI, Universal Creative, and theme park design architectural firms are, at its very core, is in the challenge resolution business.

Challenge resolutions that are a story or idea in someone’s head that result in amazing and highly creative Guest experiences. These organizations want (regardless of your college degree, your role, or your work experience) individuals that have other talents that are both relative and unrelated to their role within the company.

When Walt Disney started Walt Disney Imagineering, he sought out individuals that were not only experts in their respective fields; they were also individuals that had other talents and skills that gave them a little something extra and made them stand out above the crowd. 

Imagineering likes their Imagineers and Universal Creative their employees to have other talents and skills that may or may not be used on a daily basis in their respective role. Why then, you ask, do they want well rounded individuals?

Being a theme park Architect not only requires you to be a subject matter expert in your field, but those individuals who can creatively solve challenges are highly sought after.

Let’s use Candidate ‘A’ from earlier in this course. Candidate ‘A’ has a Bachelor and Master of Architecture from reputable universities. Candidate ‘A’ has ten plus years of professional work experience not in theme park design, but in similar scale and similar level of complexity of projects. Candidate ‘A’ has the third piece of the pie, as well. Candidate ‘A’ in their spare time is an amateur photographer that enjoys travel and on occasion does creative writing in their spare time. 

Can you see where we’re going with this? Candidate ‘A’ is well rounded professionally and has other skills and talents that require he or she to use different parts of their brain to solve problems and they enjoy activities that utilize different aspects of their time creatively.

The point is, having other talents outside your field of study may seem irrelevant at other companies or industries, as they may have never been utilized. Being well rounded is actually encouraged at most architectural firms, Disney and Universal, as they know that well-rounded individuals are typically better problem solvers and are more fulfilled individuals.

Portfolio

To truly be considered for a position with Disney, Universal, or any architectural firm, you will need some form of a personal portfolio. Your portfolio should be a reflection of ‘your’ previous work experience, ‘your’ unique talents, and it should be designed and laid out in a way that reflects ‘you’.

Many people believe their portfolio should be a collection of Disney-like or Universal-like projects. I disagree. These companies want to see what ‘you’ are capable of, what ‘your’ unique talents are, how ‘you’ put together the layout of your work that best describes the intent of the work with your unique influence.

I would suggest not providing a portfolio full of mere carbon copies of existing Disney or Universal projects (unless you already have that type of work experience). 

Learn more about making a successful portfolio.

Communication Skills and the Job Interview

Communication Skills

Pulling together a successful theme park attraction, show, cruise ship, hotel, etc. requires one common thing – clear and concise communication amongst all that are involved.

I can provide a long list of things that could derail a project; everything from schedule delays due to weather or material procurement, construction labor shortages, late design changes, etc. At the very top of that list is bad communication amongst the project team members.

Being clear with the exchange of information between team members within all forms of communication, whether it’s emails, physical or video conferences, site walks, etc., is extremely important. Creative minds and team members have amazing ideas and storylines in their head.

Being able to clearly convey their vision to the architects and engineers, the Show Producers and vendors, the contractors actually building the project, the estimators and finance individuals making sure it’s on budget, etc. is extremely important for a successful project.

Job Interview Tips
If one were to Google ‘job interview tips’ they would quickly find a plethora of tips and suggestions they should use in landing their dream job. My goal in this course is to provide more specific insight one can use when interviewing with themed entertainment design companies or architecture firms. Here are my tips:

  • Be prepared: have your personal information available and ready and leave behind if requested.
  • Be yourself: companies want to see the real you; who are they truly potentially hiring.
  • Be professional: be courteous and be respectful of the individuals you are dealing with during the interview process.
  • Be passionate: be passionate and enthusiastic about the opportunity to speak with one of these companies in person.
  • Be realistic: interviewing with large firms or companies and be a slow process.
  • Be honest: about your unique skills, talents, and work history
  • Be a rock star interviewee: if you’re good at interviewing learn how to turn the interview from you to them.

Technical Skills

Codes, Regulations, and Building Systems

Every licensed, practicing Architect will need to gain a working knowledge of the endless amount of Codes and Regulations that affect our industry. Architects must navigate the regulations that affect the design and life safety of the projects they design. These regulations exist: at the local/municipality level, in terms of guidelines such as Zoning Ordinances; the State or regional level model building codes, State Administrative guidelines, etc.; and at the Federal level such as the American Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. 

Additionally, with regard to theme parks; most large theme park companies have their company standards that may include: safety guidelines that are above and beyond industry minimum standards; specific best means of practice design guidelines that address issues such as material sustainment and durability (putting millions of guests through theme parks and attractions every year will destroy standard commercial buildings); company preferred equipment, plumbing fixture, door hardware standards; company environmental or sustainability standards; company ride or attraction standards, etc.

Theme park Architects will need to have a daily working knowledge of all codes, regulations, and specific company standards that affect the design of theme parks, attractions, shows, etc. All of these items can have major financial and creative design impacts on the theme entertainment venue, facility, attraction, landscape architecture, and utility or site infrastructure final design.

A great example of this is trying to design and thematically hide a code required fire sprinkler system in the exposed ceiling of a structure that’s thematically a Bedouin tent in the desert of the Far East. The detailing of this to meet all Code requirements for the building official and fire marshal while meeting the creative design intent is something a theme park Architect will need the expertise to resolve this particular design challenge.

A Bedouin tent would never actually have a permanent fire sprinkler system in it; the challenge is to make a Code compliant system that fits into the creative design without being intrusive or a deterrent from the overall storyline.

Facility and Site Development Computer Software

There are an endless number of facility and site development computer software that are used in the design and build industry. As stated earlier, discussing each of those would be an entire course unto itself. What I will touch on in this course is the computer software that is most frequently used by theme park Architects and designers, theme park Landscape Architects, and Engineers within the themed entertainment design industry.

By no means should a successful theme park Architect know how to use all of the software stated below but having a working knowledge of many of these will be helpful. Some software such as Revit, Microsoft Office, etc. are typically required technical skills for Architects and Engineers.

Theme Park Architecture Technical Skills

Theme park design is a niche area within the overall Architectural and Engineering industry. Niche segments such as this require its designers, Architects and Engineers to have a working knowledge of specific technical skills and terminology.

Themed entertainment venues, attractions, rides, and shows have their own unique set of design requirements that extend beyond normal, everyday commercial facilities.

As a theme park Architect, you will be required to understand these systems since you will be coordinating the design of theme park-specific systems such as: show lighting systems, water feature systems, multiple types of ride mechanical systems, and unique show effects systems (i.e. pyrotechnic systems, smoke/fog systems, etc.). 

Path to Professional Licensure and Continuing Education

Path to Professional Licensure

Once prospective architects have graduated from an accredited architectural degree program, the next phase in the training process is to complete the Architectural Experience Program(AXP).

These programs are administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) in conjunction with the candidate’s respective home state’s architectural board. Paid internships, working under the guidelines of the AXP, typically takes three years to complete and is usually completed in an architecture practice but they can be completed in organizations such as Walt Disney Imagineering or Universal Creative.

The AXP and state architectural boards require architects-to-be to work under a licensed Architect during the full term of their AXP program to monitor and sign off on their progress per the AXP requirements.All states in the United States require architects to obtain a license to practice. Earning a license means meeting specific education, experience, and examination requirements.

Architectural licensing requirements vary from state to state, the essential requirements are: architects must complete a professional, accredited degree program; complete an AXP; and pass the Architect Registration Exam (ARE). The ARE is administered by NCARB in conjunction with the candidate’s home state architectural board. 

Post LicensureContinuing Education

Once an Architect obtains their state(s) license, they will be required by their home state (and any other states they may be licensed in) to take a minimum amount of continuing education units (CEU) each year.

These learning units are a requirement by each state to maintain and renew their architect’s license. The minimum amount and cadence (yearly or bi-yearly) at which they earn CEU’s varies from each state’s architectural board, as does each state’s license renewal cadence.

It should also be noted that each state requires certain types of learning units (CEU’s) to meet their architect license requirements.

Some states, such as California and Florida, require additional, specific types of CEU’s that address their state’s unique environmental conditions.

For example, the State of Florida’s Architectural Board requires licensed Architects to take a two hour long Advanced Code course in addition to 22 other hours of CEU’s for a total of 24 hours of CEU’s required in a two-year period (Florida’s architecture licenses are renewed every two years).

Team Integration

Most large projects at companies like Imagineering or Universal Creative have upwards of one hundred or more individuals working on them. Large projects, such as new theme park lands or theme park expansions, may have well over two hundred team members.

Regardless of the size of the projects, more often than not they will be a mix of both internal individuals and external vendors. I can attest that individuals that have a solid character, that can be trusted and do what they say, and have good personal dispositions even when projects are at their worst, will come out in the end as being a successful theme park architect.

I cannot count on both of my hands how many times I’ve seen brilliant individuals in their field, true experts at what they do every day, but have bad personal dispositions. These individuals, very quickly, were known throughout the project team as being difficult to work with and often (right or wrong) were shunned by the teams. 

Slinky Dog Dash Roller Coaster – Toy Story Land

Resources

Below is a list of resources that one can utilize to assist them in either learning more about Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), Universal Creative (UC) and organizations that affect a theme park Architect.

The Walt Disney Company Career Website: 
https://jobs.disneycareers.com/

On the website type ‘Walt Disney Imagineering’ into the ‘Keyword’ search function. This will narrow down all open positions specific to WDI.

Universal Creative Career Website:
https://www.nbcunicareers.com/our-career-paths/theme-parks

WDI Imaginations Website: 
https://disneyimaginations.com/

Disney Professional Internships/Co-ops: 
https://jobs.disneycareers.com/professional-internships

Dining with an Imagineer:
The Hollywood Brown Derby:
https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/hollywood-studios/dine-with-an-imagineer/

Citricos
https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/grand-floridian-resort-and-spa/citricos-dine-with-an-imagineer/

National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB):
https://www.ncarb.org/

NCARB: Architectural State Board Requirements
https://www.ncarb.org/get-licensed/state-licensing-boards

Architectural Experience Program (AXP):
https://www.ncarb.org/become-architect

Architectural Registration Exam (ARE):
https://www.ncarb.org/pass-the-are

American Institute of Architects (AIA):
https://www.aia.org/

Society of American Registered Architects (SARA):
https://www.sara-national.org/

Themed Entertainment Association (TEA):
http://www.teaconnect.org/

About the Author J. Daniel Jenkins, AIA, NCARB is a licensed Architect, Theme Park Design Consultant, and former Senior Project Design Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering with over twenty years of subject matter expertise and design team leadership experience. Jenkins is the creator of themeparkarchitect.com who's goal is to teach individuals about theme park architecture and design, how to become theme park architects and designers, and discuss themed entertainment industry related topics. For nearly a decade, Mr. Jenkins has worked in the themed entertainment industry on new themed entertainment attractions, theme park lands, and new theme parks. Upon leaving Walt Disney Imagineering, Jenkins started his own Design Management Consulting company where he has consulted with and provided subject matter expertise and project leadership for new, confidential projects for several themed entertainment companies. Mr. Jenkins holds a five-year Master of Architecture degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design and a Virtual Design and Construction Certificate from Stanford University.
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