During a trip to Walt Disney World when he was 5, Jordan Zauha was amazed by the Magic Kingdom and remembered asking his father if Walt Disney built the park himself.
“He responded, ‘Yes, people made this place,’” Zauha said. “And that didn’t ruin the magic for me — that made me even more fascinated that we as humans have the ability to craft places that people can go into that seem to only exist in their imagination.”
Now 29, Zauha is on track to shape theme parks himself soon. On Friday, he became one of the first 10 students to earn a master’s degree from a new graduate program at the University of Central Florida.
With its Master of Fine Arts in Theatre, Themed Experience, UCF is one of the first universities to offer a program that includes theme parks and other forms of entertainment.
It is the only nationally and regionally accredited state university to offer a Master of Arts in the subject, program designer and director Peter Weishar said.
Eight of this semester’s graduating class have already secured a job or internship locally, he said.
“It’s very rare to have a program in the arts where 80% of the students are already working prior to graduation,” Weishar said. “That’s an amazing number.”
After studying all aspects of creative design and production for three years, two of which involved remote collaboration due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new graduates say they feel equipped to lead Orlando into the future of themed entertainment as the local industry grows and they pursue their own creative goals.
“It’s only gonna go up from here,” said recent graduate David Brescia, 33. “For me personally, I’ve seen such a growth in myself and in my experience of being a writer, understanding the industry and getting great opportunities.”
UCF offers two degrees in themed experience, a Master of Science and a Master of Fine Arts.
While both are relatively new, the three-year Master of Fine Arts program launched in fall 2019 while the two-year Master of Science degree track started last fall.
Students take classes in storytelling and design, including hands-on courses in designing collaborative projects. They are required to complete a professional internship in the field before graduating.
“We try to have a really great balance between practical and academic knowledge that the students are gaining and creating,” said Weishar, who developed a similar program at the Savannah College of Art and Design before coming to UCF.
Many of the adjunct professors in the program are industry leaders, including executive creative directors and CEOs of major entertainment companies, Weishar said. Experienced professionals also form the program’s advisory council and help shape the degree’s curriculum while helping students build connections within the industry.
The program welcomes students from a range of backgrounds, but most master’s candidates have experience in writing and visual arts, including architecture, design and theater, Weishar said.
Brescia, who has a bachelor’s degree in science writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Full Sail University, said he’s enjoyed being among the “guinea pigs” of the program’s first cohort.
“The attention we’ve gotten from our professors and from people in the industry has been really nice, too,” he said. “Everyone’s been really open and welcoming towards us and willing to share their information and give us that foot in the door into the industry.”
Cohorts are kept small by design to focus on giving students individual attention, Weishar said. In the fall, total enrollment between the MFA and MS programs will be around 64 students.
The programs will expand to nearly 90 students within the next two to three years as Orlando’s themed experience industry grows, he added.
In recent years, themed entertainment companies have increasingly moved to Orlando to be closer to major industry stakeholders. Disney’s creative division, Imagineering, is relocating to Lake Nona from Southern California. Universal Creative has had its headquarters in Orlando since 2001.
Companies that do business with major theme parks and local themed experiences alike, such as PGAV Destinations and TAIT global group, have moved to establish offices in Orlando over the past year.
Weishar said the UCF program was designed to train students in the “international hub of the industry.”
Though students saw the Orlando tourism industry stumble during the pandemic — and some lost their job or internship with local theme parks — they feel confident in the future.
“There’s a bunch of experiences opening up in Orlando, and live experience is becoming the core of how we build businesses,” Zauha said. “Experiential retail is very much ‘a thing.’ People don’t want to just go to a store; they want to experience something different.”
He is currently working as a news editor at InPark Magazine and slated to join the design team of “a major theme park company” this summer but could not share additional details.
“I’m hoping one day to be a narrative or story leader, leading a team of other story artists,” Zauha said.
Brescia is working as a co-host for Universal’s new official podcast, Discover Universal. He wants to eventually bring his decade of experience within the company’s theme park entertainment division — plus a stint at Disney — to become a show writer or creative director for live entertainment.
“They’re the creative voices that oversee whole projects, so that’s very far down the road. I’ve got to have a whole career before that happens,” he said. “But that’s certainly the goal.”
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