Theme Park Landscape Architect Interview: Part 1

Designing theme parks takes a small village of skilled, licensed Architects and Engineers, and designers working together to bring theme park design sketches and concept art to reality. Using this as a springboard, I wanted to begin shedding more light on the role of Theme Park Landscape Architects and Architecture – a vital component of successful immersive Guest experiences and theme parks.

For seasoned readers of, you understand that while we have a heavy focus specifically on Theme Park Architects we also highlight and discuss the various other A&E (Architecture and Engineering) design disciplines required to bring theme park designs to fruition.

In a new multi-post series, here on, I’m focusing on the extended efforts of Theme Park Landscape Architects and Architecture; what it takes to become a Theme Park Landscape Architect, the theme park design challenges they face, etc. I hope to inform and inspire individuals who may be in high school or currently attending college/university who may be interested in a career in Theme Park Landscape Architecture and inform everyone of what it truly takes to turn sketches into real-world, built immersive environments.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have had the great fortune to work with some of the most amazing design talent in the theme park design industry – both while at WDI and post-WDI consulting. As I was formulating a plan to dive deeper into Theme Park Landscape Architects and Architecture, I didn’t hesitate to reach out to an extremely talented colleague and personal friend, David Harrison.

David is a licensed Landscape Architect who has spent years working on themed entertainment projects, immersive Guest experience projects at various zoos, theme park design projects for Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Creative, Sea World, etc., and various other large scale Commercial Hospitality projects. David is in a senior leadership role at the award winning Planning, Landscape Architecture, and Thematic Design firm of Perry-Becker Design.

Magic Kingdom Hub Concept Site Plan
MK Hub Enhancements Early Site Plan ©Disney

Theme Park Landscape Architects and Architecture

Q: Can you provide a brief BIO of yourself?

David: My name is David Harrison, and I am a Landscape Architect.  I have been fortunate to have been involved with some awesome projects and have learned a lot from the people I have worked with.  I started my career as a zoological designer and have evolved into providing immersive story driven design to various clients from zoos, aquariums, and various themed entertainment groups such as Disney, Universal Studios, SeaWorld.  I love working on these types of projects as it gives me an ability to create spaces that enable people to escape, learn, and connect with each other.

Q: What was your personal inspiration that made you want to work on theme park landscape architectural projects?

David: My personal inspiration comes from the quote “if a man has a bow and keeps it constantly strung tight, it will soon lose its spring.  The bow must be unstrung”.  That may be a symbolism not too many city folk understand, but the idea is that if you do not let loose and have fun you will soon lose the ability to function.  Too often, we do not take the time to relax and have a good time as we are constantly immersed in emails, appointments, bills, and other “grown up” things that keep us from enjoying life.  Theme parks, zoos and play areas give people permission to do just that, let loose, escape reality, unplug and enjoy the day with their family and friends.

Q: What is the role of the Landscape Architect with respect to theme park design?

David: Landscape architects are responsible for the design of all exterior spaces.  That means it is your responsibility to ensure the project theme, program and goals are met while coordinating the work of the architect, engineers, operations team, ride and show and everything else that resides in the landscape.  You are also responsible for overseeing the construction of the project and working with the contractor to get the project built per your specifications and requirements.  This includes in field changes to unforeseen circumstances.

MK Hub Concept Aerial
MK Hub Enhancements Concept Phase Rendering ©Disney

Q: What is the unique role of the theme park landscape architect in terms of the overall exterior ‘theme’ or ‘placemaking’ for a theme park project’s design?

David: Everyone recognizes iconic buildings from theme parks and can close their eyes and see them in exact detail, but can they do that with the landscape?  A landscape architects’ role is to provide the world that supports these icons and provides the environment in which stories and experiences play out.  In my opinion, a good theme park site design isn’t something you can easily recall, it is more about the feelings and experience it enables.  A themed land should immerse you in a story and not call attention to itself.

Q: How do theme park landscape architects collaborate with theme park master planners on projects? For example, where does each role’s scope of work begin and end to avoid overlap of design effort.

David: That is a very blurry line.  The best theme park landscape architects are also fantastic theme park master planners.  As a landscape architect, your training is specially suited for leading master planning efforts.  I have filled both “roles” in my career and do not see a difference in what is expected of your or the results required of you.  To fill the master planner role well, you must be well versed in other disciplines requirements and lingo.  You must understand the business side of theme parks, engineering, marketing, operations and more.

Q: Can you touch on the importance of having a qualified landscape architect versed in themed entertainment and/or theme park design?

David: A client needs a landscape architect who has been through things before.  If you do not have experience in theme park design, you will not be able to help steer others away from common pitfalls and provide a highly successful and sustainable project.  Theme parks are complicated projects, they are mini cities that have enormous populations of workers and guests.  These areas must be designed to accommodate for or prevent common problems large crowds of people cause while on vacation.  Ride safety, operations, terminology (buzz words) and theme, if not being watched over by a seasoned professional, will become blind spots and cause a project to ultimately fail.  Failing can be anything from not meeting budget, losing the theme, heavy maintenance cost, injuries, and poor function.

MK Hub Model shot with fountain
MK Hub Enhancements Concept Rendering ©Disney

Q: What is a theme park landscape architect’s role/duty in the four major areas of a theme park project’s evolution: Blue Sky Phase, Design Development/Construction Documentation Phase, Construction/Implementation Phase, and post-project turnover?

David: Blue Sky Phase duties typically include utilizing project comps to establish program requirements (including sq footage, layout, capacity, flow), setting the overall theme and narrative of the land, determining the look and feel of a project, establishing project goals and communicating those elements through drawn plans, sections, elevations, perspectives and 3D models.

Q: Can you provide a description of the term ‘Area Development’ used in theme park design?

David: Area Development is a term used in the theme park world to describe every service a landscape architect provides.  Landscape Architects are responsible for the overall look, feel, layout and experience outside the buildings.  This includes building placement and orientation, pathway and plaza planning, landscape and irrigation design, themed rockwork and show set pieces, water feature design, grading and drainage, railing design, vehicle and guest circulation, ADA compliance, lighting integration, and more.   

Suggested reading on landscape architecture!

Q: What is the difference between ‘softscape’ versus ‘hardscape’ with respect to theme park landscape architecture?

David: Softscape refers to any area such as planters and berms (Soil and Plants = Soft).  Hardscape includes plazas, circulation paths, and seating areas (Concrete = Hard)

Q: What various types of theme park projects might a theme park landscape architect be required to work on?

David: Everything from Rides, themed lands, water parks, zoos, resorts, hotels, RDE (retail/dining/entertainment) venues, roadways, parking lots, bus loops, BOH (back of house) dumpster relocations and more.  I have found each type of project is important as they all contribute to the overall function and aesthetics of a theme park.

MK Hub Final Design
Magic Kingdom Hub Enhancements Final Built Design – J. Daniel Jenkins

Q: Excluding budget and schedule constraints, what are some of the typical design challenges a theme park landscape architect may encounter on a theme park project?

David: Function vs Aesthetics, it is a fine balance between these two.  You want an area that meets the theme down to the smallest detail, but it has to hold up to some pretty large crowds and daily wear, tear, and power washing.  Some of my favorite projects have been when we have worked out innovative ways to use one material in place of another while still achieving the aesthetic goal.

Q: What are some of the design and implementation challenges/efforts a theme park landscape architect might be asked to resolve that many theme park Guests or fans may not realize are an issue in theme park projects.

David: ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is a huge one.  Providing a land that meets requirements for people with different abilities has been a large part of my career.  Forethought, experience, and knowledge goes a long way into designing areas that incorporate ADA guidelines into the theme from the beginning.  Nothing is quite as jarring as a handrail, exit sign or other out of place element that was added after an inspector discovered a code violation. 

Check out Part 2 of my interview with David where we dive deeper into the education and experience required to become a Theme Park Landscape Architect.

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