UCF and Universal launch ‘Creative Lab’ for themed design

Next semester, select master’s students at the University of Central Florida will call Universal Orlando their classroom.

Through a partnership with Universal Creative, UCF’s Themed Experience program is offering a Creative Lab course where students will learn about entertainment design and development in the classroom and at Universal’s creative headquarters in Orlando while developing their own projects.

The program will help students make professional connections as they gain “hands-on, real-world experience” in the project development process, Universal Creative President Mike Hightower said in a statement. Other program leaders said it also helps the theme park company mentor emerging designers, including those from underrepresented backgrounds.

“This kind of learning is great for UCF students, great for our theme parks and entertainment, and great for Universal Creative as we help grow and inspire the next generation of creators,” Hightower said.

The first “UCF/Universal Creative Lab” course next spring will only be offered to graduate students in the Themed Experience program, which trains students to create attractions, exhibits and other experiences for venues such as theme parks and museums.

Next summer, the lab will open a six-week class to graduate and upper-class undergraduate students from across UCF or any accredited college or university, according to the school.

“Not every program has the advantage that we have of being located right here in the heart of the industry,” said Peter Weishar, founding director of the Themed Experience program. “So you could be a magnificent designer who’s looking to work at Universal eventually, but located out of state — you could come here for the summer and take this class.”

Students will have to sign non-disclosure agreements with Universal. Even though they will not be working on upcoming projects with Universal firsthand, students will still be learning about things in development and showing Universal’s teams their own projects, Weishar said.

“On one hand, we don’t want them talking about trade secrets outside of class, and on the other hand they have to agree that they know they’re showing their work to Universal,” he said.

Universal Creative plans, designs and builds entertainment across Universal’s theme parks, from roller coasters to hotels and restaurants. Many of its staff are working on the Orlando resort’s third theme park, Epic Universe, slated to open in 2025.

The class is expected to be popular, but it will only be able to admit about 20 students each semester, Weishar said. The program has 62 students enrolled in its Master of Fine Arts and Master of Science tracks this fall after graduating its first class in May.

Students will split their time between UCF’s classrooms and Universal.

“They’re going to go on field trips to Universal, whether it be in the parks and resorts, walking the rides after hours, [and] spending time with the ride designers, operators and engineers talking about how it’s all put together,” he said. “And some classes, we’ll be going to the Universal Creative studio offices and talking to designers. They’re going to learn about intellectual property and legal issues and all the other things that go into creating a themed environment.”

Weishar said the course has been in development for about a year. He pitched the idea and Mike West, a Universal Creative and Walt Disney Imagineering veteran who serves on the program’s advisory council, set up a meeting between Universal and the Themed Experience team.

“They loved the idea from the start, and they set about trying to make it happen,” Weishar said. But it had to go through several teams at UCF and Universal to get approval first.

The lab is a “multi-year commitment” from UCF and Universal that Weishar hopes will help students cultivate their creative styles.

It also aims to increase diversity and representation in the theme park design industry. Experts say the field skews white and male, and it can be hard for aspiring designers from non-traditional backgrounds to access.

“The course opens up opportunities for new and diverse perspectives for aspiring creators from all over the globe — which will only benefit our thriving industry,” Chris Oliver, vice president of engineering and safety at Universal Creative, said in a statement.

Weishar said some scholarship money is available for students who need financial support to take the course.

“I don’t know if we’ll change the world, but we’re definitely doing as much as we can for this class,” he said.

[email protected] and @katievrice on Twitter