UCF’s Masters Program Trains the Next Generation of Theme Park Designers – Orlando Sentinel
While on a trip to Walt Disney World at the age of 5, Jordan Zauha marveled at the Magic Kingdom and remembered asking his father if Walt Disney had built the park himself.
“He said, ‘Yeah, people made this place,'” Zauha said. “And that didn’t spoil the magic for me – it made me even more fascinated by the fact that we humans have the ability to create places that people can walk into that seem to exist only in their imagination.”
Now 29, Zauha is well on his way to shaping theme parks himself soon. On Friday, he became one of the first 10 students to earn a master’s degree from a new graduate program at the University of Central Florida.
With its Master of Fine Arts in Theatre, Themed Experience, UCF is one of the first universities to offer a curriculum that includes theme parks and other forms of entertainment.
It is the only nationally and regionally accredited state university to offer a master of arts in the field, said program designer and director Peter Weishar.
Eight of this semester’s graduates have already secured jobs or internships locally, he said.
“It’s very rare to have an arts program where 80% of the students are already working before graduation,” Weishar said. “That’s an incredible number.”
After studying all aspects of creative design and production for three years, two of which involved remote collaboration due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the new grads say they feel equipped to lead Orlando to the future. future of themed entertainment as the local industry grows and they pursue their own creative goals.
“It will only go up from here,” said recent graduate David Brescia, 33. “For me personally, I’ve seen such growth in myself and in my experience as a writer, understanding the industry and getting great opportunities.”
UCF offers two degrees in thematic experience, a Master of Science and a Master of Fine Arts.
Although both are relatively new, the three-year Master of Fine Arts program was launched in the fall of 2019, while the two-year Master of Science program began last fall.
Students take courses in storytelling and design, including hands-on lessons in designing collaborative projects. They are required to complete a professional internship in the field before graduating.
“We try to have a really good balance between practical and academic knowledge that students acquire and create,” said Weishar, who developed a similar program at Savannah College of Art and Design before coming to UCF.
Many adjunct faculty in the program are industry leaders, including executive creative directors and CEOs of major entertainment companies, Weishar said. Experienced professionals also form the Program Advisory Board and help shape the degree program while helping students make industry connections.
The program welcomes students from a variety of backgrounds, but most master’s candidates have backgrounds in writing and the visual arts, including architecture, design and theater, Weishar said.
Brescia, who holds a bachelor’s degree in science writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s of fine arts in creative writing from Full Sail University, said he enjoyed being among the “guinea pigs” of the first cohort from the program.
“The attention we received from our teachers and people in the industry was also very nice,” he said. “Everyone has been really open and welcoming to us and willing to share their information and give us a foothold in the industry.”
Cohorts are small by design to focus on individual student attention, Weishar said. In the fall, the total enrollment between the MFA and MS programs will be approximately 64 students.
Programs will expand to nearly 90 students over the next two to three years as Orlando’s themed experience industry grows, he added.
In recent years, themed entertainment companies have increasingly moved to Orlando to be closer to major industry players. Disney’s creative division, Imagineering, is moving to Lake Nona from Southern California. Universal Creative has been headquartered in Orlando since 2001.
Companies that do business with major theme parks and local themed experiences, such as PGAV Destinations and the global TAIT Group, have moved to establish offices in Orlando over the past year.
Weishar said the UCF program was designed to train students in the “international hub of industry.”
Although the students have seen Orlando’s tourism industry stumble during the pandemic — and some have lost their jobs or internships at local theme parks — they feel confident about the future.
“There are a bunch of experiences opening up in Orlando, and the live experience is becoming central to how we build businesses,” Zauha said. “Experiential retail is really ‘a thing’. People don’t just want to go to a store; they want to experience something different.
He currently works as an editor at InPark Magazine and is expected to join the design team of a “major theme park company” this summer, but could not share additional details.
“I hope to one day be a storyteller or a story leader, leading a team of other story artists,” Zauha said.
Brescia works as co-host of Universal’s new official podcast, Discover Universal. He eventually wants to bring his decade of experience in the company’s theme park entertainment division — plus a stint at Disney — to become a show writer or creative director for live entertainment.
“It’s the creative voices that oversee entire projects, so it’s a long way down the road. I have to have a whole career before that happens,” he said. “But that’s definitely the goal.”
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