Live Active Cultures

Pop quiz: What do Orlando's theme parks have in common with a metastatic malignancy? (Pipe down, anti-tourism types — this week I'm accentuating the positive.) The answer last Friday (April 23) was the Entertainment Design Forum, a rare opportunity to meet and speak with the masters of imagination who design the fantasies that fuel our economy. For one night only, nearly a dozen "rock stars" of the local theme-park design world gathered for a casual, candid Q&A — and it was all for a great cause.

As veteran Universal scenic designer Kim Gromoll explained in his introductory remarks, what brought together so many top creatives was Relay for Life. The American Cancer Society's annual fundraising drive — which began in 1985 with a single Tacoma surgeon circling a running track for 24 hours — has grown into a worldwide movement involving 3.5 million people. Gromoll was motivated to join the effort after his sister lost her battle with lung cancer in January. While his initial idea for a fundraiser focused on "Halloween Horror Nights über-geeks," he was encouraged to expand its scope.

That led Gromoll to Stephanie Girard. If you've seen the films Ray or Leatherheads or visited Universal's Halloween Horror Nights or Grinchmas, you've seen her work. But she's also become, in her own words, a "locally famous cancer survivor." Girard spoke movingly of her decision to raise $25,000 for Relay for Life following a "grim" prognosis last December in her five-year fight against colon cancer and how generous support from her Universal employers accommodated her 72-hour chemotherapy infusions. (Cue an audience-pleasing Star Trek IV allusion on the barbarity of modern oncology methods.) Far from appearing frail or fading, Girard is inspiring in her devotion to her "bucket list" goal; that intensity has already taken her past her original aim to an amazing $32,000 total to date.

Without further ado, moderator Rick Spencer introduced the panel participants. The first of the two 90-minute sessions focused on Universal's Halloween Horror Nights' design team. In addition to Gromoll, speakers included David Hughes, T.J. Mannarino, Manuel Cordero, Nick Farantello, Michael Aiello and former HHN creative director (and current freelancer) J. Michael Roddy. They were joined by special guest Alan Gilmore, an art director on Jason Bourne and Harry Potter feature films who was imported from Ireland to re-create his on-screen work at Universal's soon-to-open Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion.

Other notables in attendance included Disney Imagineer Jason Surell and haunted-house industry icon Leonard Pickle, whose HauntCon tradeshow comes to the Celebration Ramada in Kissimmee this week, April 28-May 3 (

From the onset we were warned there would be no big secrets revealed or spoilers about upcoming attractions; Mannarino replied to requests for details about HHN's upcoming 20th anniversary with "wait until June." But they did speak of the various, sometimes-surprising career paths that brought them to theme-park design: stage and television design, architecture, illustration, even the former Terror on Church Street and Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise.

When an audience member wondered aloud why so many panelists previously freelanced for the Mouse before becoming Universal employees, Roddy was quick to truthfully retort "someone has to die `for someone new` to get a full-time job at Disney." But the fuller answer was that designers are "like gypsies" and "get antsy." Hughes said that despite "corporate competition" between rival parks, the artists who work at both attractions "love each other." (Aww.) As Mannario put it, "The people who love doing this become a community."

There were the expected questions from Horror Night groupies, like the guy who flew in from Minnesota to ask, "What's your favorite HHN icon?" Gromoll and Roddy are proud parents of Jack, whom Gromoll designed by painting clown features on Roddy's face; Farantello and Mannario favor the Caretaker's elaborate facade. More revealing were tales of their biggest detours (Cindy, an evil child character nixed by negative news attention), disasters (an experimental Tesla coil effect that fried $10K worth of electronics on its first and last outing) and disappointments (2002's budget-hobbled Fear Factor maze, featuring K-Y Jelly—smeared squid lures and scary fish pillows).

For me, the second-best part of the evening was meeting Gilmore, who graciously responded to my inside-baseball ramblings on thematic coherence and chronological continuity. (FYI: the Wizarding World exists "frozen on a day" occurring shortly before the events of Half-Blood Princeyou heard it here first!) We shared stories of Dennis Hopper shooting million-dollar Japanese whiskey commercials while they worked together on the Stuart Gordon B-movie Space Truckers.

The best part was learning that, between ticket sales and the silent auction of theme-park memorabilia (including attraction blueprints, a Roy Scheider autograph and various VIP tours), the single evening raised nearly $6,000 for Relay for Life. (Mad Cow Theatre donated its space to host the event). Those theme-park über-geeks may be annoying — ever been stuck behind one in a queue? — but they obviously have big hearts and checkbooks to match.

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