Career Profile: Theme Park Designer

Theme Park Design

By Damian McKnight Contributing Writer

Theme park designers and master planners are unique in that they design to entertain, amaze and transform their audience through the right balance between immersive environments, high-tech thrills, and high-impact emotional content. Theme Park designers employ a variety of techniques including experiential, environmental, and breakthrough theatrical and film techniques; their aim being to create a theme park or attraction that visitors will want to revisit again and again.

By blending creativity and innovative technological advancements, the creations of theme park designers have enabled us to experience the thrills of an African river excursion, race down a Himalayan mountain, encounter swashbuckling pirates, and enjoy a spooky tour of an ominous haunted house, all without ever leaving the safety confines of a themed environment.

Theme Park DesignLegendary amongst theme park designers are Disney’s Imagineers. Walt Disney Imagineering (also known as WDI or simply Imagineering) is the master planning, creative development, engineering, production, and research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney Imagineering boasts an extensive resume – since its inception in 1952 the company has created eleven theme parks, a town, two cruise ships, dozens of resort hotels, water parks, shopping centers, sports complexes, and various other entertainment venues . WDI has also produced some of the world’s most distinctive attractions and experiential storytelling, including using Audio-Animatronics characters to tell the swashbuckling tales of Pirates of the Caribbean, to technological advances such as the Circle-Vision 360 film technique and the FastPass virtual queuing system.

“It was all started by a mouse,” Walt Disney once famously said. Thankfully, there appears to be plenty of imagination to go around among today’s theme park designers.

The Work

According to industry veterans, the average theme park job lasts 18 months and can be located anywhere in the world. The majority of work is done on a project basis, so it is important for successful designers to network heavily so they can move around from job-to-job without much difficulty. The majority of theme park design firms are located in Los Angeles and Orlando, FL so location can be everything.

Theme Park designers possess a broad range of skills and talents, and thus over 150 different job titles fall under the banner of theme park design. Here are a few careers:

  • Illustrator/Concept Artist: Illustrators are instrumental in the design of an attraction and it is often their inspiration that determines a final look. Illustration can be learned at a public or private art/ design school.
  • Engineer: Engineers do the math and programming that allow the mechanics of a themed environment to work. Engineering schools are found at major colleges, universities, and private universities. Structural, electrical, computer science and mechanical engineering are the most common majors.
  • Architects: Architects are trained and licensed in the planning and designing of the attractions and participate in supervising the construction. An architect must understand building and operational codes, the construction methods available to the builder in constructing the attraction’s show building and structures, and the desired results with the actual costs and construction schedule limits.
  • Interior Designers: Interior designers draw upon many disciplines to enhance the function, safety, and aesthetics of themed interior spaces. Their main concerns are with how different colors, textures, furniture, lighting, and space work together to ensure that an attraction’s theme is complete.
  • Film/ Video Specialists: Video and film production specialists are needed to produce the ride films for attractions. For the upcoming Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, filmmakers were utilized in creating the attraction’s newly created ride system. The ride will envelop guests in filmed action scenes and moves those scenes with them as they travel through the ride. The combination of pioneering, state-of-the-art ride technology and innovative filmmaking make this attraction the embodiment of the Harry Potter book and film series-and the future of theme park entertainment.
  • Show Writer: It is the show writers’ job to create the compelling story that you will experience in the ride.

This was just a small sampling of the types of specialists that are needed to produce a theme park or themed attraction. Literally hundreds of trades are needed: industrial designers, set decorators, graphic designers, lighting designers, carpenters, model builders, contractors, landscapers, lawyers, sculptors, and painters. The list is endless. So to be involved in this industry, you simply need to find a specialty career that you like, and go out and pursue it.


There are no college degree programs specifically in theme park design, so how can aspiring designers get the info and experience they need to jump-start a career? The answer to that question is both simple and complex. There are many hundreds of career fields involved in theme park design because it takes many disciplines in order to produce one.  The real key is finding an area that you would love to work in and then becoming skilled in that area(s).
The following schools of higher education are recommended:

  • The Art Institutes
  • The International Academy of Design & Technology
  • Art Center; Pasadena, California
  • California Institute for the Arts; (CalArts), Valencia, California
  • Ringling School of Design; Sarasota, Florida
  • University of Cincinnati; Cincinnati Ohio
  • Many schools in Southern California like Cal State Fullerton, USC, UCLA, and UC Irvine are good choices as they are close to where the themed entertainment industry is located.

It is also a good idea to join professional organizations like the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, (IAAPA) and the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and go to their meetings and conventions. Conventions are a great place to get to know the right people and the companies that design theme attractions.


“Disneyland will never be completed…as long as there is imagination left in the world,” Walt Disney once said. For those who are looking to conjure up some theme park magic, there are currently many theme park projects planned in Dubai, China, South Korea, and Australia.

Wizarding World of Harry PotterRecently, one of the most exciting projects in the theme park arena is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter located at the Universal Studios Orlando Resort. Attractions will include the Wizarding World’s signature ride, “The Forbidden Journey” and a life-size recreation of the village of Hogsmeade. The breakthrough attraction, a fusion of robotic technology and filmed scenes that has never been achieved until now, promises to take guests through scenes and rooms from the blockbuster movies inside a richly detailed remake of Hogwarts Castle.

“We have created an entirely new way to place our guests into the heart of one of the most compelling stories of our time,” said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. “What we have done will forever change the theme park attraction experience.”

Here are some of the areas of theme park design, followed by average (median) annual earnings figures.

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