Making Magic Happen in Orlando

By Joey Mazzaferro

UF College of Design, Construction and Planning

In Fall 2019, the College of Design, Construction and Planning added some magic to its curriculum when the Themed Environments Integration (TEI) program began at the School of Architecture’s CityLab-Orlando facility. The program offers a Master of Science in Architectural Studies with a concentration in Themed Environments Integration.

The TEI program is led by Steven Grant, a 28-year veteran of Walt Disney Imagineering. While Grant is a registered architect and a past president of the American Institute of Architects Orlando Chapter, he is quick to point out that this is not an architecture program even though it is housed in the School of Architecture.  

Grant explained the program is for a variety of disciplines: including but not limited to architecture, landscape architecture, technical theater arts, construction management, interior design and engineering.

“Students will understand all the different disciplines that go into creating and operating themed environments,” Grant said. “We are going to introduce them to the designers and operators of themed environments: resorts, parks, cruise ships, events, stores, restaurants and cultural facilities.” 

The Themed Environments industry participants, including owners, operators, vendors and designers, see the value of this new graduate program and have stepped up to share their wealth of knowledge and experience.

Between last semester and the current semester, the program has and will have over 40 guest speakers. The Reedy Creek deputy fire marshal talked about the value of Fire Department input in the early stages of design. A Walt Disney World Industrial Engineer spoke about how industrial engineering influences the design of theme parks to improve guest flow. A landscape architect from Universal spoke about what landscape architects do in Themed Environments. A writer/actor gave a lesson on storytelling that included improvisation exercises. These are just a few of the guests that have participated in the TEI classes.

While most of the learning about themed environments happens in the classroom, and in reading and writing, the students are sometimes afforded opportunities to see what they are learning about firsthand.

During the first semester of the program, Grant took his class on a field trip to one of those themed environments: the Orlando Shakes theater, which produces classic, contemporary and children’s plays.

“We went to the theater and saw the Shakes production of Evita, and then we were given a tour of the back of the house by the show’s technical director,” Grant said. “He spoke about how they collaborated putting the show together. It aligned perfectly with the class.”

During the second semester going on now, Grant has a field trip planned for Disney Springs, which was a project he worked on during his time at Disney. Grant said, “The Disney Springs Tour will include one of the project’s art directors. We will also be given tours of stores, restaurants and entertainment facilities by the operator.”

After the tour, Grant will have his students write what they found enlightening about the tour, what they learned and what surprised them. He wants them to document the tour and really think about it.

There are many factors that go into designing a themed environment and that leads to many different disciplines that help make the magic come to life. The Themed Environments Integration program offers students with many different undergraduate degrees the opportunity to learn what it takes to develop a themed environment in an interdisciplinary setting.

“No one person designs a themed environment” Grant stated. “Big teams design themed environments. So the skillset you need is to be able to work within a big team. To work within a big team, you need to know what everyone does and you need to know how to collaborate. That’s what we’re focused on in the Themed Environments Integration MSAS degree program.”

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