Behind the scenes opportunity

NMI students and staff walk through Universal Islands of Adventure.
NMI students and staff walk through Universal Islands of Adventure. (Elisa Fontanillas/UGA)

Behind the scenes opportunity

March 14, 2024

New Media Institute students get an inside look at Disney, Universal Orlando

While standing in line at a theme park in Orlando, Florida, visitors don’t get bored. The line itself is an experience.

Screens and interactive displays showcase brief videos or dioramas while visitors wait to board a ride or other theme park attraction. But not everyone thinks about the people behind these displays—the creative minds who planned out flooring, lighting and overall design.

This winter, 20 students from the University of Georgia got to meet some of the minds behind those decisions. In UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s New Media Institute, students learn about the work behind digital and technological experiences. They create brand designs, code apps and websites, and integrate strategies that prioritize user experience.

NMI Students and Staff pose with Eric Baker in front of the Gringotts Bank at the Universal Hollywood Studios park.

As part of the NMI’s Professional Friday Initiative, students recently went behind the scenes at Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and EPCOT in order to see these skills applied in the real world. They learned about user experience, career opportunities and a passion for magic.

As the NMI’s second out-of-state site visit, students were able to network with industry professionals, learn about career paths and experience ways to apply the skills gained through NMI coursework.

On site and behind the scenes

Standing outside of Cosmic Rewind, a roller coaster in Disney’s EPCOT based on the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, students gained insight into the user experience decisions all around them. Everything from the pavement color to the design of the Starblaster perched in front of the attraction was intentional—an opportunity to immerse visitors in the experience.

While at EPCOT in Walt Disney World, New Media Institute students learned about the creative process behind attractions in the parks. This included a diorama in the Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind experience. (Erica Techo/ UGA)

The day continued as Walt Disney Imagineers, part of the research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company, walked students through parts of their creative design process and “Mickey’s 10 Commandments,” which outline their goals for visitor immersion and storytelling.

This involves striking a balance between experiential moments and potentially overwhelming park-goers, the panel said. For example, it is important to provide attention-grabbing details like the dioramas in the Cosmic Rewind lines, while also making sure any interactive elements are easy to follow. These details were a big takeaway for students, said Megan Ward, NMI administrative director.

“We really stress the importance of storytelling in the NMI curriculum. We have both a graduate and undergraduate class dedicated to it,” Ward said. “And honestly, we’ve never thought about bringing resources from Disney into our curriculum, but at the end of the day, they’re probably some of the best storytellers in the business.”

NMI Students and Staff stand in a circle outside the Universal Islands of Adventure as Kiefer Perusaud speaks with them.

The next day, students had a similar experience across town at Universal Orlando.

The group toured the parks with Kiefer Persaud, associate media producer at Universal Creative, and Ashlee Hawk, team member experience specialist, who highlighted the use of technology throughout rides and experiences in the park. UGA alumnus Eric Baker also joined, providing insight into the design decisions in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter before sitting down with students and other Universal Creative employees for a panel.

“Getting to talk with these industry professionals and walking through the park, seeing the projects they have worked on, it showcased the breadth of opportunities that a theme park can offer,” said Hope Thornton, an Emerging Media master’s student who is set to graduate in spring 2025. “It underscores the value of diverse skills and having various passions—those can lead to where these professionals are.”

Supporting future opportunities

The Professional Friday Initiative started as a networking opportunity between students and industry professionals. Events range from question-and-answer luncheons to site visits and tours, and in 2023, those opportunities expanded to out-of-state site visits.

NMI Students and Staff capture photos of a dinosaur animatronic while in the queue for the Velocicoaster at the Universal Islands of Adventure.

“This is a chance to immerse our students in that professional space off campus and outside of the academic setting,” Ward said. “With this trip, we wanted to show that our bordering states are a really great option for tech-based jobs.”

Students in the New Media Institute speak with Walt Disney Imagineers in EPCOT. The discussion was part of a site visit to Orlando, Florida. (Erica Techo/UGA)

Esther Kim, an undergraduate student in the NMI’s certificate program, said the trip inspired her to explore new ways to apply new media, including web design, user experience and branding design.

“No matter what career you go into, no matter what field you go into, the skills you learn in New Media can really be applied anywhere,” said Kim, who is pre-med and set to graduate in December. “I want to go into health care, and the skills I’ve learned through the certificate, I’ve been able to apply to the clinic where I work and the nonprofit I work with.”

These trips are kept as low-cost and convenient as possible so that students from all backgrounds can attend, Ward said. This means that most transportation and lodging is covered, whether that is airfare and a hotel or simply a ride to and from Atlanta. In addition to funding from the NMI, donor support has enabled trips to expand.

“The NMI has committed to funding that can cover all of the in-state site visits, which is great because it’s important to sustain those local connections,” Ward said. “But donor funding is 100 percent required for the out of state site visits because we don’t want cost or location to be prohibitive for our students.”

Author: Erica Techo

This article was originally published on UGA Today.