What it’s like to be a theme park designer

What it's like to be a theme park designer

(CNN) Taylor Jeffs is living her dream.

Growing up in Orange County, California near Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, he regularly visited some of the best theme parks in the world.

“Back then, it definitely wasn’t cool to be in theme parks, but I was obsessed,” Jeffs, 39, tells CNN.

“I realized how special and important they can be and I would dream of working in the industry.”

Within decades, he oversaw some of the world’s most immersive rides and parks as co-owner, president and chief creative officer of Legacy Entertainment, a leading California-based entertainment design and production company.

In addition to theme parks, Jeffs has also been involved in a variety of creative endeavors, such as producing hit Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, choreographing drone shows, and consulting as creative director for Cirque du Soleil.

From hustling at Disneyland as a teenager to designing and building theme parks around the world, Jeffs shares what it’s like to create immersive worlds that bring families together.

An early start

Taylor Jeffs joined Disneyland at the age of 15.

Obsessed with Disneyland from a young age, Jeffs wanted to work on it as soon as possible.

At the time you had to be at least 17, he recalls, but luckily he found a loophole.

“Through California’s ROP (Regional Occupational Program), I was able to earn college credit instead of cash, so at age 15, I got a job as a sub-burger flipper — one step below a burger flipper — at a restaurant in Frontierland,” , remember.

Later, she worked as a Disney tour guide and then conducted park surveys for the marketing team.

“Every day, I felt how much people loved the park’s size, colors, scenery and music,” Jeffs recalls. “Listening to that feedback on a daily basis and learning how much they valued the experience has been an important foundation for my career.”

His big break

Jeffs worked at Disneyland for five years before joining what was then the Goddard Group (now Legacy Entertainment) in 2002 as an intern.

The group had recently laid off hundreds of employees due to a sharp decline in tourism following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The resulting atmosphere allowed Jeffs to work on high-profile projects, from Hershey’s Chocolate World to the Georgia Aquarium.

The very first attraction Jeffs designed was a parade called “Glow in the Park”.

In 2008, then 24, Jeffs designed and produced his first attraction: “Glow in the Park,” a family-friendly nighttime parade at Six Flags Mexico.

It had a relatively small budget — “$1.5 million all-in, less than half what Disney would have spent on a single parade float at the time,” he estimates — but it brought on several big names, such as Raul Rodriguez , who designed hundreds of floral floats for California’s Rose Parade and Benot Jutras, a leading Cirque du Soleil composer.

With its lighted floats, original soundtrack, dancers, drummers and cartoon characters, the parade was so successful that Six Flags commissioned five more for other parks in the chain.

Expansion in Asia

After the Great Recession of 2008, the company shifted its focus to Asia.

Since then they have built an impressive portfolio, from Studio City Macau to Chimelong Marine Science Park in China, Lotte Worlds in South Korea, Trans Studio Parks in Indonesia, Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park and Sea Shell Aquarium in Vietnam, to name a few. some.

When it comes to designing theme parks, Jeffs says the process begins with a feasibility study, followed by a “blue sky” brainstorming where the team pitches the wildest ideas.

Haichang Ocean Park in Shanghai.

“We just went crazy: ideas for attractions, crazy restaurant concepts, social media moments, landscaping possibilities, everything,” Jeffs explains. “I also collect about 200 reference images, like an inspiration book, to gauge what resonates and what doesn’t.”

After receiving customer feedback, they begin sketching and drawing the park layout and key features.

Over the course of several iterations, the park’s design becomes more and more specific, right down to the placement of light poles and the number of turnstiles, right up to the time when construction begins.

“Often, the design continues throughout construction,” he adds. “And then ideally, we’ll have producers, managers, technical directors, art directors on the ground during opening day.”

Ideas outside the box

Every once in a while, one of those blue sky ideas gets the green light.

Jeffs cites the immersive “Pacific Rim: Shatterdome Strike” ride at Trans Studio Cibubur, part of Indonesia’s largest theme park chain, as an example.

In a conventional dark ride experience, a vehicle moves through a themed world with music, black lights and special effects.

But Jeffs and his team have thrown a twist. What if the ride stops and passengers have to grab torches and continue on foot as a monster attacks, then re-board to fight the monster and escape?

“We didn’t think they were going to try, but they did! And then we even had some of our people saying, ‘That’s crazy. It’s not going to work.’ But we found a way – and now it’s one of the most successful dark rides in recent history,” Jeffs says.

The extraordinary Golden Reel of Macau.

In another case, they reinvented the concept of a “pre-show,” typically a video that plays before the ride begins.

“The trip was all about escape, so we thought: instead of a video, what if we lock you in a prison cell and you have to solve a puzzle to get out of before starting the journey?”

And then there was the Golden Reel.

In Macau, Jeffs helped design the Studio City Macau, a Hollywood-themed hotel, and the Golden Reel, the world’s first eight-figure Ferris wheel, at the center of the hotel’s facade.

“We came up with the idea of ​​building a Ferris wheel between the towers. But it was Lawrence Ho, the founder of Studio City, who wanted to make a figure eight because eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture as it is the same name for the wealth,” Jeffs says.

“Lawrence said he didn’t care if the ride was empty — it was all about the wow factor.”

Art meets science

But in most cases, wild and crazy ideas don’t fly if they don’t meet commercial needs.

“It’s an art and a science—these two things have to meet,” Jeffs says. “Capacity drives everything, so we need to make sure there’s plenty to do and people aren’t spending their entire visit waiting in line.”

Also, every member of the family should be able to enjoy themselves.

“Our job is to make sure there’s variety: enough rides with no height requirements for parents with kids, thrill rides for teens, and parades and shows for everyone,” she adds.

This was his approach when designing Lotte World Adventure in Busan, South Korea, which opened in 2022.

Lotte World Adventure, in Busan, South Korea, opened in 2022.

From family-friendly trains and canal rides, hair-raising roller coasters, parades and theater shows to engaging restaurants, there’s something for every age group.

For a timeless feel, the team took cues from European gardens, incorporating lush green spaces, plazas and water features that “will only get more beautiful with time,” says Jeffs.

“When I was growing up, theme park design was often dismissed as a second-rate artistic discipline, simply because it was rarely done well.

“I’m happy to say that’s definitely not the case anymore. Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen the realization of what this medium can be when it’s running at full speed.”

Fun for the whole family

As expected, a busy travel schedule comes with the territory.

Before the pandemic, Jeffs spent a week a month in Asia, meeting with various clients and governments.

“I’ve flown more than 3 million miles, stayed more than four years in hotels, collected about 2,000 hotel room keys, and visited six out of seven continents, all as part of the job,” she says.

When the travels stopped in 2020, she took a road trip across America with her family.

“That first summer, we drove 10,000 miles and hit pretty much every theme park that had managed to reopen,” she says.

The family enjoyed it so much that they spent two months on the road the following summer, including a month at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Jeffs says he’s now rediscovering the magic of theme parks with his two daughters.

And though he’s ridden over 600 roller coasters and explored theme parks around the world, Disneyland in California remains his all-time favorite park.

“Design-wise, it’s perfect. It’s the only park Walt Disney has personally worked on,” Jeffs says.

“And since the film set designers staged it, the forced perspective of the buildings on Main Street, the human scale of the architecture, the color choices, the castle, the intimacy of the lands – you don’t get that anywhere other Disney parks the same way.”

These days, rediscovering the magic of theme parks with his two daughters – aged 5 and 1.5 – has made him appreciate it even more.

“When I go to parks with my family, we’ve found that babies and young children can’t participate in many of the attractions. This has focused my thinking when creating programs for our parks,” Jeffs says.

“While we can’t dispense with height restrictions altogether, I now find myself incorporating more universal entertainment experiences that the whole family can enjoy together.”

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