Every kid dreams of designing a theme park. These places are engineering marvels and the pinnacle of experiential fun.
But while enjoying the fun rides is great and all, have you ever thought about who gets to design and engineer these magical parks? Is it an engineering firm or are there theme park designers that travel the world designing different attractions? Let's take a look at a few of the paths to becoming a theme park engineer.
The career path to becoming a theme park designer
Theme park projects usually have a plethora of subtasks that require a variety of different disciplines to accomplish. There's art directing and design, ride engineering, layout design; but there are also less fun things like waste management.
And in any of those given roles, someone might consider themselves a theme park engineer or designer, so it's important that you choose your educational path right if you hope to land a gig in theme park design.
You could become an illustrator or concept artist. These are the people who sketch and plan out a theme park design. They might work closely with an architect or operate as an architect themselves laying out everything about the park. A theme park illustrator will shape the creative direction of any park and ultimately shape the experience of a visitor. For this path, you'll want to get a degree in illustration or a similar art degree and immediately start seeking jobs in the entertainment or theme park industry.
Another design-centric role involved in theme park creation is that of interior designers. They will layout the ebb and flow of the interior spaces of the attraction, from the waiting lines to hotel lobbies. They'll work directly with the creative director to bring their vision to life. You can become an interior designer at most design schools, but specializing in theme park design requires different skills. You'll want to hone your illustration, space planning, materials selection, and computer skills that will help you land a job in the industry.
Moving away from artistic roles, we can focus on what it takes to become a theme park engineer. Engineers have the role of bringing the designs of an illustrator or architect to life. Primarily, this means creating roller coasters, rides, or even building wonky buildings to fit the theme. A variety of engineering disciplines are involved in the process (practically all of them), so you'll want to choose a specialty that aligns with your skills. Structural, computer science, mechanical, and electrical engineering are the primary disciplines used in the theme park world. If you work your way up, you can be a project manager or you can focus solely on the execution phases as a theme park engineer.
As for employment, usually you either work at a firm that specializes in theme park engineering, or you work as an independent contractor that consults on any given theme park project.
Because theme parks don't just pop up across the street from one another, the industry has its ups and downs for consistent employment. That means that you likely can't expect to be designing a theme park 5 days a week, 365 days a year. You'll need something else to fill your time with. If you need consistency, you'll want to try to land a job with an engineering, architectural, or design firm that has experience in theme parks.
How long do theme park design jobs last?
Like we mentioned above, the theme park design industry is mainly project-based, and the average job only lasts about 18 months. Projects are also heavily dependent upon the health of the economy, as the industry is a direct reflection of how much extra cash consumers have to spend on entertainment.
Successful designers and theme park engineers will build up their network so they can move from job to job without worrying too much about what might come next. All that being said, the industry isn't great for anyone that needs a consistent income.
Learn extra skills to make yourself a good fit for the industry
Becoming a theme park engineer or designer often means setting yourself apart from the start engineer or designer pack. That ultimately means that developing extra skills on top of your regular job is probably a good idea. Here are just a few you might want to consider.
Being able to bring a creative vision into reality through sketching, either by hand or through digital media, will set you apart. As someone who can hold their own in illustration today, I'd argue that illustration, while certainly an art form, can also be taught with a lot of practice.
Become a generalist
This skill isn't just one thing, rather it's a recommendation from the industry for all the skills you learn. You don't need to be really good at one thing, like video editing, illustration, public speaking, concept design, but rather you should be skillful in multiple areas revolving around theme park projects. Because theme park design is so interdisciplinary, knowing your way around a variety of disciplines is highly beneficial.
Theme park design and engineering is highly collaborative and also a very saturated community. You'll want to spend a lot of time developing your soft skills to be as personable as possible and ultimately collaborate as best as possible with everyone in the industry. Like we mentioned before, good theme park engineers have a close network which doesn't happen if everyone hates you.
Get your foot in the door
The theme park industry is very small, which means that not everyone who wants to design theme park attractions gets to do it. At the end of the day, if it's the industry that you want to get a career in, you'll want to get your foot in the door any possible way that you can. From just befriending someone in the industry or taking an unrelated job at a company that also works on theme parks. Take the opportunities presented to you to market yourself and get involved in theme park engineering. And who knows, you might just get to do the thing you dreamed of when you were a kid.