UCF Podcast: Reimagining Storytelling Through Themed Experience – UCF

Peter Weishar, UCF’s themed experience program director, shares how UCF is preparing graduates to make an impact in this multi-billion dollar field by providing the industry training, insight and connections needed to succeed.
By Nicole Dudenhoefer ’17 | Podcast by UCF Social August 15, 2022
Season three of Knights Do That, UCF’s official podcast, returns with its first guest, Peter Weishar from the College of Arts and Humanities.
Weishar is the director of UCF’s themed experience program, which includes an theatre MFA with a themed experience track, which launched in 2019, and an MS in themed experience, which launched in Fall 2021. This spring the first cohort of the themed experience track in the theatre MFA program graduated.
As UCF is training the future workforce of world builders and storytellers to fill the demand of this multi-billion dollar industry, Weishar — who has decades of experience in the arts — is helping reimagine what themed experiences encompass. Here he shares some insight.
Peter Weishar:  I went to commencement and watched them all walk across the stage. The first themed experienced students at UCF. It was an incredible experience. What was pretty amazing was most of them already were working in industry.
James Evans: UCF is a hub of art culture and innovation placed directly at the center of Central Florida, the themed to entertainment capital of the world. That’s why Peter Weishar chose UCF to be the launch site for an entirely new degree program. Themed experience is a multidimensional discipline of designing environments to immerse people into the stories being.
Peter sees the future of artistic expression in themed experience. From enhancing everyday life to creating new ways of using sound, light and space, graduates of the themed experience program will redefine storytelling. Let’s get right into the episode.
Thanks for being here today, Peter. Let’s just jump right into it. So you are the director of the themed experience program, both the MFA and the MS.
What are themed experiences?
Peter Weishar: When we think of a themed experience and we think of a storytelling in an environment, we usually think of a theme park, right?
James Evans: Mm-hmm
Peter Weishar: But it’s much, much more than that. It applies to retail and restaurants, museums, zoos, aquariums, almost anything that you interact with. That you need to tell a story by being in that space. That’s what we’re doing here. And that’s why we call it themed experience, not themed entertainment.
James Evans: That’s really interesting. So I know I have my Disney pass and I have plenty of friends who have their universal passes. So whenever you think of something, especially theming, you automatically, especially in this area, go to the parks. In general, it’s a much broader, more holistic perspective.
And we’re going beyond just that entertainment, which I think is a really good distinction because you developed the program at SCD and that was called themed entertainment, right? How is that different from the themed experiences here?
Peter Weishar: I was a dean at SCAD for about 10 years.
James Evans: Yeah.
Peter Weishar: And, I saw this opportunity to start a new major, and it is themed entertainment there. So it is a much more narrow focus. And I would also say, very proud of what we did there.
James Evans: Oh, absolutely.
Peter Weishar: SCAD’s a terrific school. It’s in a beautiful little town. There are some major differences between what we’re doing here at UCF and what we created at SCAD.
So SCAD’s a great large art school, but a specialty school, right?
James Evans:  Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: Obviously UCF is one of the largest universities in the country has all this diversity. So we’re able to collaborate with departments all across the board. Not just architecture, but of course, engineering, hospitality and, of course, the art department, performing arts, history, english, all these different things that go into creating a great themed experience we have here at UCF.
Most of my students here are working in the industry.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: Working as an intern when you’re not in Orlando, that’s very, very difficult, you know?
James Evans: Yeah.
Peter Weishar: Almost every one of my students here is. It’s a whole different kind of education, much more collaborative education and much more ingrained in the industry. It’s part of the industry here.
James Evans: Oh, absolutely. It’s one of the reasons I chose UCF was because of how much was out here, it is surrounded by various industries that just have such a pull.
Peter Weishar: And so I find it really interesting and it makes sense that the themed experiences program came here because we’re just so inundated with it. And I really want to hit that question home of how do themed experiences make life better? Really dig into that experience versus the entertainment there. When I look at entertainment in general, I think that does make life better.
James Evans: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Peter Weishar: And I think that, the arts are what makes us human, which makes it develops interest. And, most of us would not have gotten through COVID without books.
James Evans: I wouldn’t have.
Peter Weishar: Yeah. Without all the different things that we read and see, and all the different things we bring into the home. That does make life better. But if you think about a themed experience and you think about applying narrative into a space, think about going to a museum and you’re looking at a great piece of artwork or whatever it is and the themed experience brings a context into it, tells a story around it.
So I’m understanding more about what I’m seeing. And if I’m effective in that, it becomes natural. It becomes intrinsic to the whole process. So a themed experience can be very, very educational as well. Can help us understand something that we’re not just looking at an object, we’re understanding the context of that object. Even when you’re talking about dining, you know?
James Evans: Mm-hmm
Peter Weishar: You can go into a restaurant that’s nicely decorated and enjoy it, but if you feel like there’s a story behind it and you feel connected to that experience, it becomes that much more meaningful to you. One of the things that do with my really the first class first assignment is I talk about religious structures as a themed experience.
And if you think about it, ancient religious structures and temples were purpose built buildings that were designed to convey a narrative to convey a story, which might be the cannon of that religion. They’re not built for shelter. They’re not built for storage. They’re built to create a conduit in some cases between heaven and earth, a place where you pray and you become a part of that religion. Right?  So it can be something that’s incredibly meaningful that literally defines cultural heritage for entire peoples. And that can be a themed experience.
So I find that themed experience can be incredibly profound, is profound and can also be applied for fun into a theme park as well.
James Evans: That’s really interesting, the way you’re able to make these connections around the purpose of storytelling, how storytelling can be so intrinsic, right?
To the people, to a building, to an area, to a space, what’s your drive to have studied and worked in this industry?
Peter Weishar: Well, for me, I spent a long time in school and design and I was fascinated by actually digital art and I became a game designer and I was a creative director for a small game company. The first time I actually entered a theme park, I was 30 years old. I was almost 31.
James Evans: really?
Peter Weishar: And I walked in and I was like, “Oh my God, this is a giant themed environment. This is a huge interactive environment.” Just like I’d been working on, this is a huge stage set, I loved it immediately.
I could see that connection that these artists were creating something and that all these guests were playing and interacting. I don’t know if I would call it an epiphany, but it was a moment where I said, “This is incredible that you don’t have to just do this digitally, this kind of interaction. You can actually be in this physical space and make this happen.”
And it fascinated me from that point. I used to teach at NYU, I was the digital media professor in the film school
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: So I was in the animation area, which I guess is where they put me for that and, of course, every animation professor learns about Disney. He was incredible pioneer and did amazing things for animation. His greater contribution was the theme park.
James Evans: I think so. As an annual passholder, I certainly get way more value out of being able to go to the theme parks than actually enjoying the movies.
Obviously, what inspired me to get the pass, and their stories are fascinating, but being able to be in those spaces and getting a glimpse into how that all works and understanding it. It’s really interesting to see how much goes into the parks. I recently was out with a [friend]. And they were telling me that they had done the backstage tour before.
And that when you walk into Magic Kingdom, it’s like you’re walking into a movie. They have the intro credits where they have the posters with the names of Walt, Roy, et cetera, all along the walls. And you can’t see the castle at first. And then it opens up as you go down Main Street into the castle as if it’s curtains and you have the popcorn at the very, very beginning of the park entrance, giving you that smell and feel.
And so it’s really interesting, when he told me that, cause I had no clue. And it’s all those subconscious cues that go into building a theme park and building that experience. It’s eye-opening
Peter Weishar: Well, there’s a classic story that originally, when Disney had the idea for, you know, his park, he had hired architects and then he went and fired the architects and brought his scenic designers in from his films.
James Evans: Really?
Peter Weishar: Harper Goth, who’s a famous designer who did Main Street, you know, and, based it upon his his childhood town. One of the things we learned about in the program is we look at Disney as a filmmaker —
James Evans: Mm-hmm
Peter Weishar: And a person who understood film language and part of film, language, being really where you’re placed in the camera.
James Evans: Yeah.
Peter Weishar: The long shot, medium shot, closeup, and in a way the guest is the camera
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: And he’s treating you that way, not as an inanimate object, but as an extra character within the environment. So Disney was very aware of this moving camera through an environment and how it tells story and the guest moving through the environment and how the story is becoming apparent to that guest.
James Evans: That’s fascinating. We’ve discussed a little bit into the difference between the program here at UCF and the program at SCA. And a lot of that has to do as we’ve already discussed with accessibility to the Orlando scene and especially for internships, et cetera. Can you highlight why UCF, Orlando, the Central Florida area was such a good place to develop a program like the themed experience program?
Peter Weishar: It’s interesting if you look at some of the great schools of art The great film schools are New York and L.A., and that is not by accident. That is because that is where the industry is. Some of the great design schools are really in New York, which is the design center, one of the world’s design centers. Of course, Hollywood is the hub of the international film industry.
Orlando is the hub of the themed entertainment industry. And if you look at that and you say, this is the place where you go if you want to be a successful. If you want to be a successful producer, Disney of course is going to move their headquarters here.
They got delayed by a couple of years, but they’re still coming, right?
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: Universal is here. SeaWorld is here. they’re literally hundreds of firms that are surrounding that, that are all part of this whole creative community.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: One of the things that’s a great advantage is, because I’m here in Orlando, most of the professors, most of the instructors that are working with the students are active industry professionals. And just, I can get a person to come and speak to a group of students. I can also bring them in as adjunct. So the students are learning from people who were designing some of the major theme parks right now.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: And that’s an amazing experience. I will also credit the Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, Jeff Moore. We were both deans in Florida. I knew him from some of the committees that we were on and whatnot and I called him up and said, “I have this really weird idea for this program. I want to do this master’s degree and whatnot.” And, surprisingly, he bought in right away, said, “Yes.” He saw it. He shared that vision and he made it happen.
James Evans: That’s great.
Peter Weishar: And that’s a rare thing actually, especially in academia that usually moves slowly. That’s afraid of making bold moves.
James Evans: Yes. I have noticed that the academia is very much methodical.  Research we’re doing years and years of X, Y, and Z, before we ever really make a decision, which has its benefits, but in this case, it’s really good to move forward and move quickly into building something that can create innovation.
Peter Weishar: With that said, the new Master of Science program that we started last year, I came with a proposal for an MS program that was five years ago, and, it took a concerted effort of a lot of the great people in the dean’s office  push that through in what was considered relatively fast, 2 1/2 years through that process.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: So it went through, I think without exaggeration, maybe nine or 10 committees all the way up to the board of governors. What’s actually amazing about itm too, we now have a degree called themed experience. So we have the State University System of Florida recognize themed experience as a separate degree program as its own discipline.
That’s an amazing thing. That’s a huge feat. Having gone through it and spending many, many years as an administrator in university. I can see the validity of why you want to be methodical when you’re approaching something like this.
James Evans: Oh, of course. You don’t want to duplicate what you already have.
If you were to have gone to any other university, say anywhere else in Florida or across country, does not matter, do you think it would’ve happened as fast as it did?
Peter Weishar: It took about four years And I credited Paula Wallace, the president of SCAD because I was the nutty dean who said, “I want to do this new program.
James Evans: Of course.
Peter Weishar: You know, and, and at first she wasn’t that excited about it. And I wonder if I just wore her down a little bit, but, um, yes, there was an excitement here at UCF about it, and there’s a kind of a different attitude towards it.
They call us an entrepreneurial university, with that said there’s a lot of other universities and colleges around the country that have been inspired by what we’re doing and are starting programs like the one we have
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: I embrace that.
I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s a huge industry and one program at UCF is not going to have enough graduates to fill all of the positions that are available even here in Orlando. With that said, I don’t look at them as competition, but I’m also not worried about our place in academia and in the industry.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: We already are a first choice for many of the major design firms to come to, to look for new talent. And I think that’s only going to get stronger and stronger as time goes by.
James Evans: Are you noticing anything with other institutions developing their programs that you find interesting or you’re curious about because they’re basing it on their locales or their regionalities, they may have something different going on?
Peter Weishar: I think that most of them are at a disadvantage in not being here to be quite blunt about it, you know?
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: Now there’s some wonderful institutions.
Ringling is doing an undergraduate program. Cal arts is doing a program. Purdue is doing one, you know, and, these are all things that started after we started ours, you know?
James Evans: Yeah.
Peter Weishar: By the way, I and some of my colleagues helped found something called a themed experience and attractions academic. Every year we have a symposium, and we invite all the different academics who are working in this field to come and present. We have a peer reviewed journal. That’s part of it. We have its own website. We do a lot to create that community of academics. And I embrace all of that. I think it’s fantastic.
A school like Ringling is a magnificent undergraduate art school, and they’re going to bring a great deal of their prowess into that. They have a great digital media program, too. They’re using that.  By the way, we have some students who go undergraduate to Ringling, then come to us for the graduate school. There are people who are using their own strengths to do successful programs, I believe. If I was a potential student somewhere and I wanted to learn this, I would come to UCF.
James Evans: That leads me to a really good question that I was actually going to save towards the end, but you’ve brought it straight to the forefront.
Is there a standard or an ideal candidate for this program?
Peter Weishar: We try to bring in a diverse group and think of it like a music conservatory right?
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: You don’t want all violinists, right?
James Evans: Oh, absolutely.
Peter Weishar: So you have to bring people in who have different skill sets.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: With that said, most of the students who are coming in have some, art and design background, have a visual portfolio. So they’ll come from a whole variety of fields, interior design, scenic design, graphic, design, illustration, painting, sculpture, architecture, all these different fields,
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: And we look at each of them equally. Then we’ll bring in a small group, you know, usually one or two writers per year, too. You need that and you need a producer. We’ll have this kind. great collection in that cohort that can work together and collaborate together and assume the roles that they were assuming once they leave UCF.
James Evans: That’s really interesting.
So with the program, they go through it and there’s an advisory council built into its structure.
James Evans: How are both the students and the mentors deriving value from that?
Peter Weishar: I’m really proud of the people we’ve got to be part of it and incredibly grateful to the people who were on the advisory council. That was one of the first things we put together before we had a single class on the books.
It was very important to us to make sure that the curriculum we were developing made sense to somebody who is in the industry.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: We’re not a job placement program. We do magnificent job placing people. We have a very high percentage rate, but you don’t go and get a Master of Fine Arts and work for three years to get the first entry-level job.
You do that for your long career. So the people that we’re bringing in for the advisory council are people who have been in the industry for a while. Who’ve risen to the top, who’ve been wildly successful and we’re able to draw upon their experience and their knowledge to help us craft a CU. That makes sense for a long career. These are major players in the industry who were able to really help guide us and help students think about that long career.
James Evans: Why is it so important with this program that you were that close and that connected to industry and such a broad base of the industry?
Peter Weishar: In a lot of cases in industry is where a lot of the innovation is we try to do a combination of theoretical academic and practical when we’re in the program. So we want the students to understand the context of what they’re doing. We want them to understand the history behind it, to understand what people who came before them did, right? It’s very important that they understand the new innovations that are occurring today in the industry. Like the game industry that I was talking about. Before every year, something new comes out, there’s a new kind of an integration of technology and storytelling.
That excites you. And you want to go to that, right. I don’t know if you’ve already been to the Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster?
James Evans: A dozen times probably at this point. Absolutely.
Peter Weishar: Probably Rise to the Resistance you’ve found?
James Evans: Of course.
Peter Weishar: As well. OK, but you know, Universal is doing some great things with the Raptor  Velocicoaster.
James Evans: So good.
Peter Weishar: Yeah. So they’re always thinking about how do we incorporate new technology how do we do something new and create an exciting story with that. That’s using Orlando and using Central Florida as a lab. So we learn from them and then we take that in. And we analyze it and we say, “OK, how do we work with that to move the industry forward?”
James Evans: How does the program enable students to keep pace with emerging technologies and industry trends after they’ve graduated?
Peter Weishar: Well, of course that requires a dedication on each individual, but one of the things we do as I said with partnerships, too, we just did a really great partnership and we’re continuing that with, Christie Digital, and they do the high-end projection systems for projection mapping. They gave us four projectors, decent size, you know, good quality projectors we can project on buildings with these things. Editing systems, they’re providing training for us and we’re holding collaborative classes with them. So the students are using the latest technology and implementing it working with it right now.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: You can’t really train somebody to use a technology that hasn’t been invented yet, but you can work with them and have them understand how to integrate technology into the work that they’re doing today.
James Evans: Yeah.
Peter Weishar: And if you do that right, they will naturally gravitate towards that in the future as well. You want them to be technically savvy, but we’re not a trade school, you know?
James Evans: Yeah.
Peter Weishar: But you do want them to have that ability. And once a person becomes not scared of new technology, they never will be. And they’ll always embrace it as it comes about.
James Evans: The Master of Science in themed experience has a very interesting interdisciplinary curriculum. It has engineering classes built into it. It has hospitality classes built into it. Can you explain why that interdisciplinary basis was so important?
Peter Weishar: What we wanted to do was use what’s here at UCF.
James Evans: Absolutely.
Peter Weishar: Now the MFA, which we started two years before, does have two interdisciplinary classes, has two hospitality classes that are part of it.
And then we started working with engineering and  in the process over the years, we said, “OK, let’s include an engineering class.” So we now have an engineering and hospitality, part of the MS. Two hospitality as part of the MFA. They take a single engineering class or they take a single hospitality class.
They’re not going have all of the expertise as a person who’s gone through an entire degree program. Of course
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: But what I tell my students is, you’re the artist standing in front of the room and you’re presenting your great idea. And you’re doing your pitch and sitting in the chairs around you, it’s going to be somebody from production, somebody from maintenance, somebody from engineering, hospitality, operations. All these different people around the table.
And you have to understand enough about what they do to answer the most fundamental questions about your idea. You have to be able to connect with that person, show some respect for what they do, as well.
If you know a little bit about it, let’s say you were designing a roller coaster and you understand how that roller coaster’s launched. Is it a slow launch?  Is it catapulted out? Whatever the whole thing is, you then can communicate with the engineer about the kind of thing you want to do.
James Evans: So what’s next for the program? What does that look like for the future?
Peter Weishar: A lot of students have asked me/ or potential applicants will say, “What’s the difference? You know, you got these two different programs.” The MFA is a track within theater. So, it has a whole group of theater classes [and] theatrical design courses as well. It’s also recognized as a terminal degree in the arts and theater.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: So, a lot of students who were taking the MFA. They’re thinking one day, “I may want to teach,” and they have an internationally recognized terminal degree in theater with a themed experience track. It’s great for a lot of people who are coming out of an undergraduate program and they need three years develop their work.
Then of course, the MFA has a thesis project, which is the final year of the program. And the idea of a thesis project is it’s your piece. It’s your personal expression. And you can develop a portfolio piece that really shows what you can do intellectually, creatively, without constraints.
The MS is very attractive to a lot of people who have been in the industry for a few years, and they say, “I want to develop a portfolio of my own work.” That’s really where the MS shines. By the way, when you’re in the field, you sign an NDA with everything you’re doing. And then you can’t show anything you’ve done in the last two years, three years until it’s built.
When you’re working in the school, you can show all this different work. It’s great. Where do we go with it is the question, right? I had always envisioned that Orlando would be the lab for the students. That our students could go out and learn from what’s out there.
We’re working on something maybe by the time this podcast is out, we’ll be able to announce it. But we’re working on a formal partnership relationship with one of the very famous creative studios, and that’s really where I see that going. Just like when you’re looking at the connection that UCF has to aerospace and NASA —
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: And that hand in hand partnership. That’s what we’re developing with this program.
That’s where I really see things taking off for us and another aspect of what we’re doing here that’s going to be wholly unique to UCF. And impossible to do with any other program really.
James Evans: And I find that fascinating because, if you look at the history of UCF at all, it is rooted in the space race. Space University for a reason.
And we’ve got such a technical background. We started as a technical college, et cetera. But we’re in the center of Orlando. We’re at the heart of innovation, of culture, of the humanity of Central Florida. And so I find it really interesting that we’ve always been connected with that as our roots. That humanity there. That culture there. We’re really telling that story.
We’re really letting it show we’re really letting it shine. This program is a great example of that.
Peter Weishar: You know, it’s funny. Just by the timing that I’ve come here, we’ve had I think three different presidents, and each one of them has looked at it and said, “Of course! This makes sense. This should be here.”
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: Not a lot of time trying to explain why we have this program. Each of them has immediately supported what we do. And President Cartwright saw it. He’s already given a lot of his time. He’s met with a lot of the advisory council members.
It just makes sense to be here. And I think that’s where you were talking about before. I don’t think there’s anybody in upper administration at UCF that questioned why we have a program like this.
James Evans: Oh, absolutely. The story is so easily understood — how connected we are to the humanity and the culture and the arts in the area, in the state, across the nation.
Peter Weishar: When you look at all these great theme parks and teamed experiences that are here in Orlando, and you see all these different firms. People gravitate towards Orlando. Some of them leave and they don’t lose their creativity.
They’re going into the restaurant business, They’re doing installation work. They’re doing interesting things all around the city. And the arts are becoming stronger and stronger because of that. One of the interesting things, you know, COVID of course, a lot of people got laid off.
A lot of people left. A lot of people stayed [and] formed their own companies. And from that kind of adversity springs a whole new crop of creative ideas.
James Evans: We may have some applicants coming into the process or who may be listening to this. Can you tell us what that process is like as they’re getting ready to possibly get into the program?
Peter Weishar: We’ve been doing very well with the number of applicants every year. We get a little bit more which is a lot on the admissions committee, by the way.
It becomes more and more competitive each year. We’re going to expand the MS program in the next couple of years so that we’re going to have two cohorts of MS. We’re going to be able to accept up to 45 students a year.
We ask every student to provide a portfolio. We don’t ask students to design a theme park for their portfolio.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: We tell them we’re going to teach you that part. We tell them to concentrate on what they do.
And show us the work that they can do now. And we can look at that and we can see the potential there to be effective in the industry, or to be effective in the program. With that said, there’s some students who are really great writers.
We’ve added two writing classes since we started because that’s been so popular.
So we are really looking for where do you creatively fit in within the cohort of students? We ask them to write a statement of purpose or an essay. Why you as an artist or you as a designer have chosen this field to express yourself? What makes you passionate about themed experience that you want to spend the next two to three years studying this and the rest of your career doing exactly that? So, we talked to them about that kind of work as well.
I get inquiries from students who haven’t even chosen their major in college and they say, what should I major in so that I can get into your program in four years. And I always tell them major in something that you have a passion for, that you have an affinity for, that you have a talent for. And that way if you choose one day then you say, “Oh, I’m not going to go into the theme entertainment industry.” You’re still going to be happy with your choice of major and your choice of career.
James Evans: Absolutely. So, you’ve just recently had your first graduating class for the MFA. Where are some of them now? What are they doing?
Peter Weishar: I went to commencement and watched them all walk across the stage, the first themed experienced students at UCF. It was an incredible experience. What was pretty amazing was most of them already were working in industry. Last night, I had some meetings with some of the students who were going to be defending their thesis later this week, actually.
I talked to three students last night via Zoom. The first one I had met him about 4 ½ years ago. He’s at universal now. He’s just started two weeks ago with a full-time job. The second student went to Ringling that I was talking about before. Really very talented digital artist moves to Orlando. [He] was working at Disney as a ride operator. They loved him there.
He was doing a great job and there’s nothing wrong with working operations. It’s a great experience for that, but he said, “No, I wanted to be designing theme parks.” He’s designing theme parks. Now he’s doing digital mockups of whole rides and whatnot.
The third student I was talking to. She was a high school teacher in Texas. Two small children. Husband worked from home. Found out about this program [and] moved the entire family to Orlando. And she got an internship at a place, that basically does design build for theme parks.
One of the smaller firms, maybe a 100 or so people, you know, maybe 200 people, and she just got a full-time job from her internship.
All of them [have] incredible amounts of commitment. All of them moved to Orlando to be close to the industry and then used UCF and the program that we have here to learn about what they needed to know to get that first job. And I always tell we’re not a job placement service. That’s not what we do. You don’t go and get a master’s degree for the first job. But you try to balance what you’re teaching in the program. So they have the skill set to get that first job. Then they have the knowledge and the talent and the context to go onto a great career. Look at that as one of the successful outcomes. The people that are coming through our program are very desired in the industry.
James Evans: What’s that like? All that payoff that now you’re leading in the next cohort of creatives.
Peter Weishar: I remember many years ago talking to some of the Imagineers and they said, “We need a next generation. A lot of us are aging to a point, where we’re going to be retiring. and who’s going to be the next group coming in?” And I look at them and I say, “This is it. This is the next generation of leadership that’s going to take this field to a whole other level.”
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: And I talk to some friends in the industry, who are retiring now or whatever, and they talk about what they did, and you realize they were the same age. They were in their 20’s. You know, they didn’t know everything. They had a lot of enthusiasm, talent, hard work, and they created something that was absolutely magnificent. That was greater than themselves. The students that are coming out of our program have a tremendous advantage over them at that time. I believe this is going to be the standard for the industry.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: I believe that within maybe 10 years almost everybody entering the themed entertainment industry is going to have a related degree. And if you look at film even 50 years ago, 40 years ago the industry would say, “There’s no need to get a film degree. Just get into the industry and apprentice and learn it there.”
James Evans: Yeah.
Peter Weishar: Now it’s very hard to name a famous director if they didn’t go to film school, except for Quentin Tarantino, who I love. He’s fantastic, but he didn’t go to film school. What film schools have done is they’ve elevated the industry.
The people coming out of film school, Understand the technique already understand the history. They’re already filmmakers by the time they’re walking into their first job. And the same is true of the themed experienced students. They’re coming in with so much more than a person who’s kind of fell into the industry.
James Evans: What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?
Peter Weishar: The arts are not easy. There’s no clear career path from studying art to being successful. You do what you do with passion. You put yourself into your own artwork. When I go back and I talk about [Walt] Disney and Disneyland, which is the park that he designed and how much of his own personal life was really in that land.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Peter Weishar: There are different schools of thought and they call, you know, it’s really a reflection of America, I think is a reflection of Disney. It’s a personal statement for him. One of the reasons he loved it so much is because it was not just things that from his childhood, but things that meant a great deal to him.
And that would be my advice is you put yourself into it, never expect a guest or reviewer to get more out of your artwork than you’ve put in yourself. Every artist will tell you if the viewer or the guest gets 10% [or] 20% out of it, [then] you’re successful.
When I look at a themed experience, it’s not just about decorating or about, making sure there’s no anachronism in there. It’s also about what are you trying to say? What’s the personal message you’re trying to bring out?
And that’s what we’re trying to help the artist and designers and the program understand, and put that into the work. It sounds very simple to be quite honest with you. What we’re doing is we’re telling stories by interaction, within an environment. You go, “OK, well, what are you going to do the next 20 minutes?”
It would be like saying creative writing is learning how to tell a story by writing it down. It’s an oversimplification but it’s a simple objective and a long road to get there. And I think what’s interesting is I’ll talk to people who are in the industry 20, 30 years and there’s still the thinking about ways to innovate ways to tell stories better.
James Evans: Oh, absolutely. Always learning. Always growing. Right?
Peter Weishar: And I think that’s, what’s wonderful about it is there’s no definitive answer. That’s the classic Disney line: “It’s never finished.”
One of the statements that a lot of artists says, “You know, you’re done when they take it away.” And that’s how you’re finished is someone says, “OK, you’re on the next project.” But that’s what keeps the job fascinating you’re never done with what you’re working on. There’s always something more to be done creatively
James Evans: Final question: “What’s one thing you’re still hoping to do?”
Peter Weishar: I kind of alluded to it before. I think, the industry partnerships that I want to bring in are going to be important. We want to increase the scale of the programs so that we have enough diversity of students so that we’re attractive to people. They can come and see a whole group of students and portfolios for every position they have. And that there’s enough of a scale of a program that we can collaborate and partner with multiple design firms at once.
I see that formal connection only growing stronger and making us even better. Think about how magnificent it would be to walk through with somebody who actually designed the rides and have them tell you about the decisions they made, why they did it, what’s insignificant about each piece of it. And learning from that person right there. Staring at something that is incredibly famous [and] that is enjoyed by millions of people, that’s an experience you’re never going to forget. And that’s something that all of our students will be able to take with them for their entire career.
James Evans: That’s amazing. Thanks so much for being here, Peter. Really, it was such a pleasure.
Peter Weishar: My pleasure. Thank you for having this.
[Outro Music]
James Evans: In our everyday lives. The space around us is telling a story. Peter is blazing the trail for the next generation of creatives. To tell those stories. I’m inspired in understanding how this will enhance the human experience.
I’m grateful to help share the story of the themed experience program and have such a wonderful conversation with Peter. Join us in the next episode of Knights Do That, where I’ll be discussing the future of UCF and all things strategic planning with Provost and Executive Vice President Michael Johnson.
Michael Johnson: We want to make sure we recognize our obligations, our responsibilities, but then also the opportunities that presents us as a university.
It’s a good path. We’ve been on that path for 50 years of partnership of building together with this community. It’s carried us a very long way and I think it’s going to lead us a really great excellence in the future.
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