Live Active Cultures 

Seth goes behind the scenes and inside the brains of local theme park designers

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Talk about déjà vu.

In the spring of 1998, I was working for Universal Studios Florida as a Mardi Gras parade supervisor. For several months, I spent every evening shivering and sweating in a shower of plastic beads, followed by hours of paperwork, listening to “My Heart Will Go On” on an endless loop on the office boombox. Fourteen years later, Titanic is about to sail into theaters again and I spent last Saturday night back where I began: standing in a cold crowd, watching the same flamingo-headed stilt walkers strut down the same faux-cobblestone streets to the same soundtrack of “Iko Iko,” over and over.

Of course, nothing really stays the same. Then, I was an hourly employee; today, I’m watching the post-parade Diana Ross concert from a media corral. The inspiration for drag queens worldwide, having outlived her pop progeny Michael and Whitney, performed a crowd-pleasing (if slightly muted) show. The still-dynamic Ross (who turns 68 this month) rekindled warm roller-disco memories with vintage hits from “You Can’t Hurry Love” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and sequintastic costume changes every 20 minutes. While the night might have reminded me of the ’90s (or the ’70s), Universal’s Mardi Gras has moved forward. Four brand-new floats form the core of this year’s parade, and their design and elaborate lighting effects raise the bar for the already-popular procession.

Some of the creators of those floats appeared an evening earlier at my new favorite annual Orlando tradition. Last Friday’s Entertainment Designer Forum filled a hall at the Orange County Regional History Center with some of the area’s finest entertainment artists. In a rare show of cross-competitor solidarity, employees of Universal, Busch Gardensand Walt Disney World took part in two panels on the past, present and future of their craft. As in the first two editions of the forum, these designers and directors came together to support the American Cancer Society, with proceeds again donated in honor of late Universal artist Stephanie Girard. Participants on the panel I attended (the second of two scheduled sessions) were: Mike Wallace, designer at Universal Creative; Curtis Hopkins, designer at Universal Art & Design; Guy Petty,principal art director at Walt Disney Imagineering; Vicki Bowlin,art manager at Universal Art & Design; Kenny Babel, president of White Bird Entertainment, and Kim Gromoll, designer at Universal Art & Design, who helped organize the evening.

As someone with a lifelong interest in behind-the-scenes trivia, I greatly enjoy the question-and-answer sessions each year. But I was particularly pleased that this year’s stayed away from predictable fanboy queries about rumored future projects; the fact that moderator (and Universal Entertainment Production’s show director) Mike Aiellotold the audience upfront not to ask about upcoming attractions (“because we can’t answer you, and that would be awkward!”) probably helped.

That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of goodies for park geeks. Asked about their all-time favorite attraction that they didn’t create, Gromoll gravitated to the hairy-legged Pirates of the Caribbean, Babel gave an impassioned defense of the story structure of Universal’s long-closed Ghostbusters show, and others praised Space Mountain, Test Track and even It’s a Small World. (“I just wanted to stick that song in your head,” joked Petty.) And when questioned on projects that started big and shrunk, Gromoll revealed that a proposed Shrek stage show was scaled down to a parade, then to an exhibit, and finally to a single sign.

But what I most enjoyed were the thoughtful responses relating to the more philosophical side of the participants’ work. All praised the emotional power of live theater, with several citing Cirque du Soleil’s KA as particularly inspiring (Petty: “It’s like watching a good magician work, even if you know how all the tricks are done”), and shared the ways in which childhood obsessions – Legos, Star Wars, sword & sandal epics – contribute to their current work. Particularly fascinating was the conversation on the role of technology in creativity (digital drawing tablets and Google SketchUp are great, but sketching on paper is still vital) and the emergence of interactive attractions. Babel sees things like Epcot’s Kim Possibleas a “flippin’ brilliant” harbinger of parks that are more like cosplay games; Gromoll sees interactivity as another tool for storytelling like lighting or sound; and Petty says he feels sad for modern kids who are too busy “interacting” to talk to each other.

The common thread among speakers was that they fell into their careers, with several saying things like, “I came in for a few days and stayed for 13 years.” Today, Bowlin says, “To get a full-time job in [Universal’s] art department, one of us has to die,” as all parks now rely heavily on project-based freelancers. Anyone with the cash can visit Orlando’s fantasylands, but only these talented few get to build them.

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