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Themed Entertainment: Mark Thomas on Keeping the Guest Experience First

Mark Thomas has over 30 years experience in all aspects of the themed entertainment industry, describing himself as a “technical producer” who can “translate the creative vision into working hardware”.  He started his career at Six Flags Mark ThomasMagic Mountain before moving on to Landmark Entertainments Group and then subsequently founding On Track Themes and Eight.  Chad Emerson (left) caught up with Mark (right) to talk about his career highlights.

Related: Themed Entertainment and the Guest-Centric Experience: AO&A's Bonnie Kersten/ The Masterplanner: Theme Park & Museum Design with Larry Wyatt    

Share with us how you first got started working in the amusement and recreation industry.

In 1980, I came home from my first year of college to discover my hoped-for summer construction job was not happening thanks to the ongoing economic malaise.  Six Flags Magic Mountain was nearby, so I wandered over thinking I’d flip burgers for the summer.  On my job application, I hinted at some experience with theatre in college.  A few hours later, I was wearing the uniform of a stage technician and entered the world of theme parks and show technology. 

Lex luthor Drop of Doom at Six Flags Magic MountainAt the time the park had one computer-controlled lighting board (a Strand Multi-Q).  Everything else was analogue and manually operated (2-scene presets for lighting, NAB Carts for short audio cues, etc.).  I worked summers at Six Flags, and shortly after earning my B.A. I was offered full-time employment.  By the time I left the park in January 1989, the technology there had evolved into the world of computers and digital devices.   Along the way, I learned about designing, installing, maintaining, and operating a wide array of show technology.

During my 8+ years at Six Flags, I worked with and learned from an amazing group of people.  Too numerous to name them all, but a few notables:  Scott Trowbridge, Michael Sinks, Michael Finney, Don Burgess, Larry Wittenberg, Brian McQuillian, Scott Sterner — and most importantly my wife, Stephenie.   

What have been some of the most rewarding projects you’ve worked on and why?

This will probably make some folks moan “Spare me, ” but, for me, the rewarding parts of the work often come wStar Trek The Experience Las Vegashen we open a show or attraction and I see a child with a look of joyous anticipation as their ride vehicle is dispatched from the load station, or when I hear a crowd laugh with delight at a joke, or when I feel the waves of applause ripple through an audience as the finale comes to a close.  Not that people have been diverted, but that they have been reached, touched, and changed– that is the most rewarding thing.   I’m so blessed to have experienced that many times in my career, and I hope I will again many more times.  

If you're looking for a more specific story, here's one that stands out for me.  While working with Landmark Entertainment Group I was responsible for the technical design of "Star Trek: The Experience" in Las Vegas.  Landmark’s CEO Gary Goddard really pushed the team to do something different.  He challenged us to create an effect where the guests actually experienced being transported — not something where you watched others be transported.  It was a struggle to pull it off.  In the end, I believed what was designed (and what Scenic Technologies delivered) was fantastic.  But it all became clear to me on Grand Opening night.  I was going through the attraction with Stephenie when we happened to be on the transporter standing next to LeVar Burton and Jonathan Frakes (two cast members from "TNG".)  After the effect was over, Burton turned to Frakes and said “So that's what it feels like to be transported!”  That was a wonderful moment.

What about some of the most challenging ones?

Failure is a great teacher, and I have been well taught.  Many of my most challenging projects became the most rewarding, so there is some crossover.  These days, I don’t generally categorize work into “bad projects” and “good projects.”  Sometimes the challenges are what make the projects so rewarding in the end.  But of course some are more "educational" than others.   

Sanrio Puroland Hello Kitty

Sanrio Puroland (opened Dec 1991, Landmark Entertainment Group) was easily the most challenging project I have ever done.  About 23 days before opening, I went to site and didn’t spend another night in my apartment until it was open.  I slept on-site in hidden corners and grabbed a few hours here and there.  It was very stressful. 

I learned a lot through the whole process, but many lessons were burned into my psyche during those 23 days.  I learned what should be a part of technical designs and scopes of work.  I learned the value of good factory acceptance testing.  And I learned that there are only so many “science projects” that can be undertaken in a single project, no matter how much money the client has.  The most important lesson I learned from that project:  It takes real commitment to keep the guest experience first.  It is so easy to lose that golden thread when focusing on schedules, budgets, permits, procurement, maintenance, etc.  All those items are important, don’t get me wrong.  But if the guest experience isn’t there, those other things end up not mattering.  

I’ve seen great show ideas squashed because the process of developing the idea could not be easily written into a scope of work, so the idea was abandoned.  It sounds crazy, but it does happen.  Ultimately, a show where the creative people are the only ones working toward a good guest experience are not likely to be successful.  The whole team needs to be committed. 

Currently, what types of projects are you working on and how has your experience in the amusement industry influenced those projects?

In the last year or two I’ve worked on a pretty wide variety of interesting projects including theme parks, themed retail, corporate visitor centers, museums, etc.  I have been fortunate in my career in that I typically start early on during the concept phase  and stay with the project all the way to opening.  This experience helps me see the bigger picture.  My hope is that it also allows me to help make the projects better.  I've spent enough time working on technologically complex projects with integrated  media that I've become what a friend calls a “technical producer” — able to help translate the creative vision into working hardware.  These days, every project seems to live and die in that particular intersection.


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