The individual parts are greater than the whole
The Themed Entertainment Industry is a broad and wonderfully complex world that offers incredible escapism, imagination and emotional connection. It also feels like the projects we undertake to build these experiences are equally complex, vast and definitely generate emotion! Telling dimensional stories to one of the widest demographic of visitors of any market in the world and creating them to perform 365 days a year for 15-18 hours a day without diminishing the experience is a very tall order indeed!
Highly specialized, interdisciplinary team work for years to create and build these experiences with multiple layers of detail. There are many educational materials available to inform the curious how these experiences are dreamt-up and delivered, however, there doesn’t seem to be much discussion on the dynamic, collaborative teams and their culture that is created to foster these awesome achievements. The first step is to recognize that this industry is really a hybrid collection of many others and, to understand the culture of these teams, it’s important we look at the individual parts of the whole.
Story-telling on film is our heritage
We know that Walt Disney created the first “Theme Park” when he opened Disneyland in 1955. Before then, there were mostly amusement parks that were a collection of disjointed rides, many of them unsafe. To dream up and build these dimensional stories, Walt thought it was logical to use film-makers. He knew these professionals had Animation and Live Action experience, and that they would use locations, action and characters to tell a story. It’s been well documented that this transition from telling stories in the two-dimensional medium of film, to telling them in three dimensions was a challenge that they eventually mastered. With this as context, it’s easy to see that the most significant industry to influence the current culture of our project teams, from the very beginning, has been the art film-making. One of the ways this is evident today is in the terminology we use every day. Terms like “onstage” and “backstage” describe when employees are a part of the “show experience” in front of guests or not. These employees are called “cast members”, just like performers in a film and they often memorize written lines of dialogue for an attraction experience that we call a “script” or “spiel”. Cast members don’t wear uniforms, they wear “costumes” that are appropriate for the story or scene they work in and if they change locations, they also change their costumes to correspond to the new location.
More than just terminology, we apply the arts of film-making during the creation process as well. Using a story as the core element for the experience we’re designing contains the same elements you find in film: A scene (which includes time and place), characters, a theme and an action. Like film, themed experience designers create a scene to match the story by using architecture and landscape instead of sets and props. This illustrates “who lives in the scene” and further details the story of the environment.
Lighting, Media, scenic arts and all of the other elements synergize to deliver an emotionally-connecting, physical experience for guests. In addition, the film industry often hires only the resources it needs to create a film, then those resources move on to other projects in the industry once completed. Many of the companies who deliver these themed experiences follow the same process which creates an ebb and flow of talent throughout the industry. Even the legacy companies who feature large studios filled with 100 or more professionals creating and implementing project work, spend years working on one project then transition to another when it’s complete. This new team may consist of all new people... adapting to this culture may be hard for some, but is exciting and adventurous for others. Many of us have the perspective that we’ll never get bored with the same type of work!
The built environment
Another pair of industries that have an influence on Themed Entertainment are design and construction. Architecture, Engineering, Interior and design of all kinds as well as fabrication, construction and specialty scenic builders have established the primary process for the creation of themed environments. So, the same processes used for making skyscrapers, malls or even residential communities are used to build theme parks, attractions, water parks and resorts. This common process follows a “Concept, Feasibility, Design, Construction and Turn-over” approach and is used on most projects world-wide. Of course, there are different subject matter experts used when building an attraction, or theme park but the same basic phases, principles and terminology provide a structured methodology for the project team.
The fact that most individuals on a themed experience team will be working on a construction site at one time or another has an influence over the team culture and the way it collaborates. To be successful, the team will need to communicate very well with these design and construction team members ensuring the story elements and emotional connection created in the concepts are physically delivered in the built environment.
Working in a role that is located on a single site, such as an office building or studio environment is a very different experience than the constantly changing world of themed entertainment. These adaptive pros can be in a boardroom strategizing the project budget with a client, next they can spend multiple years working through the design process with multiple firms, and then they’re sweating it out on a dusty construction site for years… sometimes these entire projects or even certain phases will be located in other countries. It is common for the work to require many, many long days to accomplish. It goes without saying that this is a very dynamic environment to manage within. Another element are the costs associated with this work: it is in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars and, because of this, it creates a “high stakes' ' environment for the project team. I would also like to note that not all companies demand the same level of project delivery as the ‘Legacy Companies’ like Disney or Universal. The amount they invest is often higher than others in the industry and, because of this, they have a higher expectation from their brand. For example, the level of detail, quest for innovation or story requirements are a lot higher than for a regional amusement park. I mention this not to suggest they are better experiences, but rather, to emphasize a very different requirement on the teams that perform those projects.
What kind of team is required?
Understanding the influences on team culture from the nature of the industries that make up the world of themed entertainment is only part of the explanation. We need to look at the composition of the team itself. The discipline categories, or divisions of work, commonly found in this industry are: Creative, Delivery, Design and Management. On the creative team, writers, graphic designers and concept illustrators led by the creative directors establish the story and the experience vision for the whole project. The delivery team, consisting of project and construction managers, establish and manage the schedule, budget and large group of contractors to build and “deliver” the project. The architects, engineers, ride and specialty show designers on the design team are the bridge between creative and delivery. Taking the concepts and story vision then applying the schedule and budget, they document the details necessary to build the environment. These three disciplines collaborate through the whole process, each compromising and remaining focused on the client’s primary business objectives for the project. Finally, the team I labeled as “management” contributes to each discipline and at each stage throughout the whole project. Estimators, schedulers, contracts and the finance teams support this project flow, constantly measuring the project’s performance and risk.
Considering the diverse talents and the inherent differences in each discipline’s natural objectives, you can see how various challenges could arise. For example, the creative team members achieve their objectives by “dreaming big”, taking risks, driving innovation and often thinking non-linearly to develop experiences that authentically surprise and delight guests. Conversely, delivery team members are process-oriented (linear thinkers), risk averse and base their paradigms on the last project that they delivered. When you throw the design team in the mix, you realize that they have to be licensed to practice their profession. This legally requires them to avoid risk, to specify based on known quantities/performances, they’re bound by local building codes and must align their work with the budget and schedule seamlessly.
Finally, the disciplines in the management group are tasked with assisting the balance between all of these diverse focuses and to helping us all get to the finish line! The truth is, none of these groups could deliver a successful themed experience by themselves; it requires all of them working in collaboration and maintaining what I call “Positive Tension”. Like the two poles on a battery are different charges, positive and negative, both of them are required to work together to deliver power. Such is the requirement for project teams creating and delivering themed experiences.
Some of these disciplines have similar competencies, which offers them the opportunity to shift roles. The benefits to the individual are avoiding stagnation, deepening their overall project collaboration ability and making them more valuable to the industry as a whole. The benefits to the project and the industry are the addition of team members with broader knowledge, higher level of collaboration skills and experience as well as a higher level of competency across all of the disciplines. Another powerful influencer on the dynamic of “team” culture and collaboration is: leadership.
Leading the way
A great leader sets a vision that encourages buy-in, participation and ownership by the team members. It’s not the leader’s vision alone, it becomes “our” vision. Every one of your favorite themed experiences may have started with an idea from a single person. However, by the time it moved through the processes we’ve reviewed and has been touched by so many different disciplines, all passionately committed to making it great, it will be different than when it started. If done collaboratively, it will be better, more complete and something the guests will love! These leaders elevate their teams while at the same time shielding them, where possible, from the challenges that would bog them down. In this environment, the individual team member’s feeling of contribution and meaning will be highly elevated as will their productivity and the fidelity of their work. Conversely, a poor leader drives down productivity and personal meaning in the work-place, often resulting in team retention challenges and mediocre work. I don’t know anyone who wants to work in an environment like that... By the way, we can all lead even if our titles and responsibilities aren’t officially labelled as “leaders”.
Demonstrating team spirit, collaboration, and a mind-set that anything is possible often helps deliver “the impossible”. Team work really does require the whole team, so your efforts to stay team focused and not individually focused will sustain that goal and make the process rewarding for everyone.
In my experience, the qualities of professionals who are best suited for the work in this industry are being highly adaptive and infinitely curious. They crave learning, are infectiously passionate and can visualize “the big picture”. There are so many different applications of the disciplines and processes we’ve reviewed for multiple business markets that I believe professionals have some freedom to move into the segment that best suits their skill sets. This allows them to feel their work has the most meaning and delivers the most satisfying personal results. It’s for this reason, I commonly use this challenge with my project teams: “Deliver the best work of your career”. I feel like if we’re collaborating, being led by an exciting vision, and enjoy the work we’re doing, we should aim to learn, adapt and implement daily. Leveraging all of the experiences from our past work, we should have the goal of delivering our personal best. The next project will be different, staffed with new teammates and a collection of new challenges to overcome will await us... I hope this endeavor will always cause me to find new solutions, dig deeper than before and draw on knowledge I didn’t know I had. That is what I truly love the most about this work: the team culture and the collaboration that draws the best out of me.