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Developing an MFA track in Themed Experience at the University of Central Florida

UCF advisory council on master's themed experience visit Falcon's HQ

Cecil D. Magpuri, founder of Falcon’s Creative Group, reflects on education options for the attractions industry, and on being a member of a UCF Advisory Council for its new master’s program in Themed Experience.

On February 1st of this year, Falcon’s Creative Group celebrated its twentieth anniversary. In the days leading up to that milestone, I reflected on my journey. My mind was flooded with happy memories of my early days when I was a child who found joy in creating cool sketches that I shared with my family.

As I refined my artistic skills, I started to think about a career in architectural design. Architecture was, and still is, a traditional focus in academia. I had the pick of a slew of universities where I could learn from excellent teachers. If I wanted to pursue an art degree instead, I had that option because, again, many schools offered that specific curriculum. The field was wide open for me.

Themed experience design

But where could I have gone to college if I intended to work in themed experience design? Could I have studied at ANY school back then and earned a diploma with that degree etched on it? No, I couldn’t, because up until about eight years ago, no American institution offered a master’s, or any kind of degree, in the field of themed experience.

Early artwork by Cecil Magpuri
Early artwork by Magpuri

Consider the amount of money that the themed experience industry has been bringing in for years and years. It’s astounding to think that we went so long without establishing an educational foundation for people interested in working in this profession.

Many of the veterans in our industry obtained degrees in engineering, writing, interior design, art, theatre, film, and yes, architecture. Perhaps they eventually made it to where they wanted to be, but it likely took extra years. Having the right connections and a portfolio that proves you have the chops to be a solid contributor are crucial to getting off to the best possible start.

The first master’s in themed experience

Peter Weishar designed the master's themed experience degree for UCF
Peter Weishar

Thankfully, in 2012, Peter Weishar had the vision to establish the very first master’s program for themed entertainment design. The successful program at Savannah College of Art and Design proved the viability of this line of study.

Bob Ward, my mentor from Universal Studios, introduced me to Peter about six years ago. I was impressed with Peter’s accomplishments. He is very well respected, not only in academic circles but in the themed experience industry in general.

In the summer of 2018, The University of Central Florida recruited Peter to lead the charge for a graduate program in themed experience. He started thinking about establishing an advisory council for the Master in Theatre (MFA) track in Themed Experience as he was still getting settled into his new office.

I remember when Peter asked me to join his council. He told me it was important to seek guidance from employers who may potentially hire his graduates. He was hoping to stock the council with successful leaders based in Central Florida who could carve out time for important discussions that would pave the way for this unique program, which would start accepting students in the fall of 2019.

The fact that this type of master’s program was finally going to be offered in one of the hottest hubs for themed experience design in the entire world filled me with emotion. And I thought, there’s no one better to lead it than Peter Weishar.

UCF Advisory Council

UCF offers a master's themed experience degreeIn early 2019, as our first meeting date approached, I thought about my expectations for the council. I knew it would be a good way to gain information about prospective master’s students who’d be pursuing a career in themed entertainment/experience design. And I knew I wanted to add as much value as possible.

I was also excited about collaborating with other members of the council. Some of them I know well, like Bob, who is a Thea lifetime achievement award recipient. He’s an obvious choice for this council.

Peter committed to selecting seasoned experts from a variety of sectors in the industry. Disney and Universal are represented, as well as a cruise line, the Orlando Magic, and other outfits like Falcon’s. UCF also has an internal team that contributes great ideas to the council.

As the advisory council took shape, Peter’s intentions became clear. He wanted the group to help provide a proper foundation on themed entertainment for master’s students, allowing them to make the most of this program. But it wasn’t just about setting up the building blocks; it’s about actively participating in these students’ journeys as they earn their master’s degrees.

Building a program

This kind of mission helps feed the entire ecosystem. That’s why I’m so thrilled to be a part of this process. The energy that my fellow council members exude in these meetings is electric. Everyone on the council is motivated to lead these master’s students to the brightest future possible in themed experience.

One of the first topics discussed was the software programs these students should learn. If grads can communicate using tools like SketchUp, AutoCAD, Revit, Unity, Rhino, Maya, the Adobe Creative Suite, and audio and video systems, they’ll be a step ahead.

UCF’s College of Arts and Humanities looks to the advisory council for help in understanding the types of job candidates we consider. Who looks the strongest on paper and why? What does their demo need to show? What qualities do we look for when interviewing face-to-face? When I heard answers from other council members, I thought, wow, same here!

UCF’s soon-to-be MFA graduates will have the opportunity to work at respected businesses in the field

Another important role we have as advisors is reviewing students’ portfolios and offering feedback. It’s rare for students to receive direct communication about their work from industry professionals. I can impart some of my wisdom from at least two vantage points. As the owner of a creative design studio (who has been at this game for almost three decades) and as a potential employer.

The advisory council is an important piece of the overall puzzle, but it’s not the only commitment that Peter and team have made. They’ve also forged strong bonds with theme parks, themed entertainment companies, and experience design firms. UCF’s soon-to-be MFA graduates will have the opportunity to work at respected businesses in the field.

Real-world experience in themed experience design

This type of real-world experience in themed design goes hand-in-hand with earning a master’s degree, and it’s a crucial component of the educational process. It goes back to what I said earlier about making connections. A door will get cracked open when you meet people who work in the industry, but when you team up with them on a project, that door opening widens.

UCF Master's Themed Experience students on a visit to Falcon's office
UCF Themed Experience MFA students on a visit to Falcon’s office

In the classroom, students are learning creative and production skills while studying designs that were utilized to produce themed environments in zoos, aquariums, themed retail, dining, museums, virtual worlds, exhibitions, and yes, theme parks, too.

They’ll also have the chance to conceptualize their ideas. I love the fact that UCF’s curriculum boasts this much diversity. After all, themed experiences are not just for theme parks.

I’m seeing a wide range of interests from students in the MFA program – gaming, writing, producing, drawing, designing, and others. Their backgrounds represent the same level of diversity. They want to have their hands in more than one discipline, which is especially important these days. Individuals who can contribute in multiple areas are superstars.

I know we feel way at Falcon’s, and we always keep that in mind during interviews. It’s a big deal.

A unique course

I remember speaking with other council members about how unfortunate it was that, until recently, no one could get this type of quality degree. Since Peter started the program at SCAD, a few other schools have created programs with a concentration in themed design, or they offer some type of certificate.

This new master’s track will help mold extremely capable job candidates

That’s great, but what differentiates UCF is they have a dedicated, fully accredited Master of Fine Arts track within the School of Performing Arts in themed experience, and that makes them unique.

This new master’s track will help mold extremely capable job candidates. And it can connect them with business owners and hiring managers. It’s a giant win-win scenario, and it is immensely gratifying for me to be a part of the process.

Peter’s students are lucky to have him as a professor, mentor, and advocate. There’s no doubt, this will be an insanely popular MFA choice. The future of our industry looks very bright!

Top image: Members of the UCF Themed Experience Advisory Council visit Falcon’s office

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Cecil D. Magpuri Falcon's CEO and founder

Cecil D. Magpuri

Cecil is the President and CCO of Falcon's Creative Group, which he founded in 2000 with the goal of developing inspiring experiences for people of all ages. His visions have taken flight in the hands of a talented team that continues to bring joy to a global audience with award-winning designs, attractions, and content.

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