When Zeitgeist has thoughts about the future of Orlando’s biggest economic engine, we listen

Ryan Harmon and Joe Lanzisero collectively boast nearly 80 years of experience in the themed entertainment industry

Zeitgeist's Joe Lanzisero thinks "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts" at Universal Hollywood's Super Nintendo World. (Image shows rendering of Epic Universe Celestial Park Super Nintendo World portal)
Zeitgeist's Joe Lanzisero thinks "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts" at Universal Hollywood's Super Nintendo World. (Image shows rendering of Epic Universe Celestial Park Super Nintendo World portal)

Ryan Harmon, the president and chief creative officer of Zeitgeist Design & Production, was once the youngest Imagineer working on the development of Disney/MGM Studios, before founding his own attraction design company 13 years ago. Joe Lanzisero, Zeitgeist's executive vice president and chief art director, spent 35 years Imagineering Disney classics from Mickey's Toontown to Mystic Manor.

Between the two of them, they've got about 80 years of experience in the themed entertainment industry, and have interviewed dozens of top creatives through their "Spirit of the Times" Zoomcasts. So when they have something to say about the future of Orlando's biggest economic engine, we listen.

Here are just a few highlights from my recent conversation with Harmon and Lanzisero about what's new and what's next in theme parks.

Orlando Weekly: What new attraction have you experienced recently that excited you?

click to enlarge Joe Lanzisero - courtesy photo
courtesy photo
Joe Lanzisero

Joe Lanzisero: I think it has to be the Super Mario World at Universal Hollywood. I think it succeeds because it's an immersive world. I think with a lot of these things, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. ... That's what for me is kind of the trend looking forward, and I think that's part of what Epic Universe is going to be about: creating these really immersive places, so you get lost in the storytelling in a deeper way. And it's not just a single ride, it's not just the restaurant. It's the whole experience that works together to deliver the story, and hopefully puts you in a deeper emotional connection with the story as well.

click to enlarge Ryan Harmon - courtesy photo
courtesy photo
Ryan Harmon

Ryan Harmon: The TeamLab experience called "Planets" in Tokyo is like nothing you've experienced before. You take your shoes off and put them in a locker. It starts off with you walking up a hill in a waterfall, and your ankles are in water, and you're immersed in these amazing experiences of lights and mirrors and water and projection and live flowers. It was mind-blowing for me to do, and I don't know if it's something that would translate to Western culture, mostly because of the walking around barefoot.

OW: What is your take on the growing trend of immersive hotel experiences?

RH: I really hope that developers are not dismayed by what happened to the Galactic Starcruiser [which closed at Walt Disney World]. Because the notion of spending the night and role-playing in an immersive experience, I think, is going to be big eventually. Someone just needs to figure out how to do it so it makes financial sense.

We were approached a few years ago by Marriott, about a resort they have in Jamaica and were looking to make it more experiential. And we told them to turn it into a pirate resort. You are actually in the Caribbean on the water: build a ship, have rum bars, turn it into a village! And they came back and basically said, "We think people come for the spa."

click to enlarge Epic Universe Celestial Park Blue Dragon Restaurant - rendering courtesy Universal
rendering courtesy Universal
Epic Universe Celestial Park Blue Dragon Restaurant

OW: How much do you think Epic Universe will impact tourism trends in Central Florida?

JL: I think it's going to be tricky. With so many choices in Orlando, there's a lot of noise in the marketplace. I think it's going to be an amazing park; the scale of it, the kinds of things that they're trying to do. They're creating these very immersive story worlds that you're going to get lost in — which is, I think, great — and they're doing them at a massive scale.

Nothing is timid about it; it's all big strokes, and that was by design. I think their biggest challenge is going to be how they market it and how they communicate that it is something different from all the other choices that you have when you go to Orlando.

RH: I've been in this business 36 years — worked for Universal, Warner Brothers, Disney and pretty much everybody — and I have never seen something of this magnitude and scale. It's truly mind-blowing. ... A lot of us designers lament Universal's attractions in recent decades that were basically all a movie screen or a TV screen with us in front of it, which I hate. They've actually made an effort to make this a more old-fashioned, physical, tactile theme park, and I'm super excited to go see what they do. Because as much as we love everything Disney stands for and does, I'm really afraid that Universal is starting to edge them out in terms of innovation and creating new paradigms, and I hope that inspires Disney to come back at it with a vengeance. It's good for both companies, and it's especially good for us as guests, to have these companies compete.

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