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Theme parks: Dewayne Bevil of the Orlando Sentinel talks about amusement industry reporting

chad emerson theme park interviews
Interview with Chad Emerson.

Chad Emerson:  Share with us how you got started covering the amusement industry and what specific part of the industry you cover for the Orlando Sentinel.dewayne bevil theme park reporter orlando sentinel

Dewayne Bevil (right):  At the Sentinel, we have several reporters on the tourism beat. For instance, Jason Garcia covers the business aspect of Walt Disney World, Universal  Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. I’m more of a features writer with an emphasis on the experience of going to a theme park – what to expect, what’s new, what’s going on this weekend and the back stories. Our former business reporter referred to me as his “entertainment counterpart.” I also include the experience of our smaller attractions (such as Gatorland), the International Drive area, the science center, the history center, etc. 

Is there overlap? Sure, but we just talk it out. Really, any Disney story can be a business story in Orlando because WDW is our largest employer.  We have business reporters and columnists who cover smaller attractions – hotels, transportation, the airports – and other writers, including the tech reporter and restaurant critic, can be involved.  It seems like a lot of staff, but tourism is a big deal here.

I’ve been in this position for almost three years. When I came to the Sentinel, I was a business copy editor and designer, and then for 10 years I was the designer of Calendar, our Friday entertainment tab, which now carries my weekly column. I also contribute to the Theme Park Rangers blog along with other staffers, including a mom blogger, a longtime Disney devotee and a photographer who grew up in Central Florida.

Actually, a story I wrote on the side for Calendar several years ago may have led to my current gig. I did a cover story about going to all seven of our theme parks in a single day.

Emerson:  How has the web altered the way reporters cover the amusement industry?

Bevil:  The way to look at it is to consider it an expansion of available space. Some things we never would have put in print 10 years ago because of a narrow audience, we can slap online. Or I can post 10 pictures of the construction of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal every week or two and make thousands of people happy. And some briefs we might have held for a weekly print roundup can now go up as soon as we have time.

Meanwhile, I’ve been using Facebook and Twitter to bond with theme-park fans and employees. The Twitter people can be our eyes in the parks when I’m stuck at my desk, and some of their observations have definitely led to stories.

Emerson:  What have been some of your biggest surprises while covering the industry?

Bevil:  I knew there was a subculture of Disney fanatics. I didn’t realize how segmented and diverse it is. Now I think of them as sub-subcultures or sub-sub-cultures. There is someone out there – probably not even a cast member – who cares about every aspect of Walt Disney World, every square foot. I have seen Internet rants about changes in the font on trash cans. The Disney fans are very focused.

Emerson:  What about some of the biggest challenges that you face?

Bevil:  It took me awhile to admit that we can’t beat everyone on every angle.  I read breathless reports every day about some alleged oddity in the parks. Maybe the lines are extra long, or a roller coaster isn’t running, or a restaurant isn’t open for lunch anymore or show costumes have changed. The challenge is figuring out which of those things is a big deal or a trend or appealing to Orlando residents.

Emerson:  Of all the stories that you’ve covered, what are two that you are most proud of?

Bevil:  I wrote a recap of a day at the Holy Land Experience. Many people told me they were curious about the park and its religious theme. I was proud of my round-up, just telling what I saw without being disrespectful of anyone. I’m a preacher’s kid, so I know some folks will be uptight.

Alas, some readers took exception. They didn’t like that I referred to (the actor playing) Jesus as the rock star of Holy Land Experience and that he rocked a Johnny Depp ’do. To me, that’s a compliment. The actor was great, doing a convincing job of Christ’s greatest hits and interacting with guests. The day ends with a crucifixion scene – a bloody, realistic one – which was disturbing but designed to be. But what really freaked me out was tourists enthusiastically taking pictures of it. And I said so.

One upset caller said to me, “I can only assume you were assigned this story because of the EVIL that’s contained in your last name!” Wow. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned “spontaneous human combustion.”  (For the record, my last name rhymes with “devil, ” not “evil.”)

I enjoyed writing a Disney Cruise Line story about the making of an onboard stage show based on “Toy Story, ” probably because I like behind-the-scenes, creative stories. Folks want backstage info, whether it’s an event like Halloween Horror Nights or a project like SeaWorld’s Manta roller coaster.

Emerson:  It’s a beautiful day in Central Florida.  Describe for us your perfect theme park afternoon.

Bevil:  When I’m on assignment in the parks, it’s usually a solo trip. You make good time that way, but it can be lonely. So I look forward to going with friends and letting them direct the day. It gets me out of my routine, and I like it when they can show me something I’ve never noticed. But if we’re dreaming of a perfect day, I’ll imagine very short lines for the coasters and an absence of double-wide strollers.

In a perfect Orlando theme-park world, there would be a bullet train to connect all seven parks. I’d ride Spider-Man (my top pick) at Islands of Adventure and The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios, then zip over to Manta at SeaWorld, followed by the Disney “four-play”: Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios, Haunted Mansion at Magic Kingdom, Festival of the Lion King at Animal Kingdom and, for the nightcap, IllumiNations at Epcot.

See also:
Amusement Parks: Writing about Orlando’s Major Attractions

Amusement Parks: Five Questions for Alice Norsworthy with Universal Orlando Resort
Experiencing the Holidays at Universal Orlando: Interview with Michael Roddy
Amusement Parks and Government: Blooloop Interview with John McReynolds, Universal Orlando
The Creature from the Black Lagoon returns, in a new attraction at Universal Studios Theme Park Hollywood

Image: kind permission Seaworld.

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