Theme Park Landscape Architect Interview: Part 2

In this multi-post series, here on, I’m focusing on 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.

In Part 2 of my interview with David Harrison, from the the award winning Planning, Landscape Architecture, and Thematic Design firm of Perry-Becker Design, we dive deeper into what it takes to become a licensed Landscape Architect and the skills and experience required to be a successful Theme Park Landscape Architect.

Epcot Japan Area Development
Disney’s Epcot: Japan Pavilion – J. Daniel Jenkins

Q: What are your suggestions for High School students, or someone already in college/university, who is interested in a career in theme park landscape architectural design?

David: Network, get to know people who are in the industry, not just landscape architects.  The theme park design world is full of people who studied one thing and have carved out a niche for themselves in a completely different area of expertise.  The best designers can communicate across disciplines and not be so completely specialized that they can only perform one function.

Q: Are there specific colleges or universities that have landscape architectural degree programs that specialize in theme park landscape architecture OR a similar focus of study that you can recommend?

David: Theme park specific programs are starting to become more prevalent, but my advice is do not let your university prescribed curriculum determine your course.  I attended a program that specialized in preparing students for a career with the BLM, National Parks and Urban Design.  I took classes beyond my curriculum, joined clubs, pursued internships, networked like crazy, adapted school projects to teach me what I wanted to learn and took ownership of my career path all while having professors dismiss my aspirations.

Recommended reading about Landscape Design!

Q: If a recent college graduate or someone with approximately 2 – 5 years of professional landscape architecture experience would love to work for a major theme park owner (i.e., Disney, Universal, etc.) but is unable to land a job on their first try; are there specific types of Commercial landscape architecture projects and/or firms you would suggest they work on/with to gain similar real-world experience? (the ultimate goal being a few years in the future of this scenario they re-apply to land a job at Disney, Universal, etc.)

David: I actually get this question a lot.  I interview a lot of applicants who only want to work for Disney.  They believe a career as an Imagineer is the pinnacle of design existence.  My answer to that is while working for the actual company has its perks, most of the design work for projects is completed by outside consultants.  If you work for one of these “vendors”, you can work on five or more projects in the same time frame that someone internal to the theme park companies works on one.  If you want to only work for Disney, by all means, go for it, but there is an enormous number of possibilities beyond that path which allow you to pick which projects you want to be a part of.  I have had the great privilege of working on, and leading design, of many well-known projects as a “vendor”.

Sesame Street Land Sea World
Sea World Orlando: Sesame Street – J. Daniel Jenkins

Q: What types of computer software do theme park landscape architects use to design theme park projects?

David: 3D modeling software is essential in theme park design, and not just any 3D modeling program.  Ones that include smart data (Revit, Civil 3d, etc.) enable you to work as a team with architects, show set designers, engineers, and others to constantly be coordinating.  A landscape architect typically is responsible for pulling all exterior pieces together (including building envelopes, doorways, and views from inside) and making sure everything is coordinated and meeting design requirements. Sketchup, Landscape render programs, digital clay modeling (for rockwork/show set pieces) are also essential computer software.

Q: Excluding technical skills and college degrees, what type of personal traits or characteristics make a successful theme park landscape architect?

David: Interpersonal Communication, the ability to roll with the punches and quickly adapt, and passion for what you do.

Q: What are the (high level) steps required to become a licensed landscape architect in the U.S.? (beginning at high school graduation through the day you receive your license)

David: Licensure requirements vary by state but there are typically two paths to licensure.  One path requires a degree from an accredited landscape architecture program (4-5 years) followed by taking four standard licensure exams (L.A.R.E.) and some states have an additional exam that is state specific.  The other path involves working for a licensed landscape architect for a determined number of years (usually 6) and then presenting your intent to become licensed to the state board.  Your application will be reviewed to ensure your have enough experience and then you will be cleared to take the licensure exams.

Slinky Dog Roller Coaster Landscape
Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Toy Story Land – J. Daniel Jenkins

Q: On average, how many years does it take to become a licensed landscape architect?

David: Typically, if you stay focused and take your exams as soon as possible after graduation, you can become a licensed professional in 2-3 years on average.  

Q: Does a person who wants to become a landscape architect who works on theme park/themed entertainment projects have to be a good artist or able to draw well?

David: Absolutely, the ability to quickly and clearly express your ideas in drawn format (whether by hand or digitally) is essential.  Being able to draw out an idea while in a meeting instead of going back to the office and trying to explain to someone else what they need to draw saves time, expedites decision making and helps the client be confident in your design abilities.

Click Here to read Part 1 of my interview about Theme Park Architects and Architecture.

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