By Published: Sept. 1, 2017

illustration of theme parks

Jim Doyle (Thtr’78) knows how to turn a space into a spectacle.

The Academy Award-winning special effects guru masterminded the water-dancing Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, the volcano outside the Mirage hotel nearby and the flame cauldron for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Soon he’ll be guiding a new generation of thrill-producers as an adviser to a pioneering new CU Boulder master’s program that blends elements of theatrical, lighting and graphic design with aspects of architecture, landscape architecture and engineering.

Fully approved by the Board of Regents, the master’s in experience design is preparing to enroll its first students next year. It’ll be among the only academic programs of its kind — and a timely addition, as venues aim to add bits of Hollywood and theme park magic to their sites.

“More and more we are being asked to provide these design services to areas where entertainment was normally not thought of a few years ago,” said Doyle, director of technical resources at Los Angeles’ WET Design. “Where do you get people who have some sort of education in this? You can’t.”

CU plans to fill the void by educating versatile designers who can transform uninspired or static spaces at hotels and zoos, on cruise ships, in parks, shopping centers and Federal Reserve banks — almost any place that hosts lots of visitors — into visceral, dynamic environments.

“The experience design industry has indicated that the abilities to think through projects, to collaborate effectively and to communicate eloquently are the qualities most lacking among aspirants to their field,” said Bud Coleman, the former CU Boulder theater and dance department chair who has led development of the new degree. “Our main objective is to train a process of thinking.”

Over four continuous semesters, students will develop skills in communication, modeling, scenic art, dramaturgy and design technology, for example. They’ll also do group projects, devising their own solutions to assignments faced by real-world design firms. And they’ll complete internships with firms like Doyle’s while developing portfolios.

Few other universities have similar programs, according to Coleman. Savannah College of Art and Design offers an MFA in themed entertainment design, for example. Columbia and Carnegie Mellon offer degrees in aspects of entertainment technology.

Doyle — who won a 1992 Academy Award for technical achievement — and Dave Cooperstein of PGAV Destinations, an architecture and planning firm whose clients include Sea World, NASA and Busch Gardens, have signed on as early industry advisers. The program will draw heavily on faculty and instructors from CU’s theater and dance, environmental design and engineering programs.

“Having someone that has the knowledge and understanding of the collaborative process is incredibly valuable,” said Cooperstein, who designed China’s Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, one of Asia’s top theme parks. “Those are the types of people we can put in a brainstorming session and they can help design an experience no one has ever done before.”

Incoming students will represent a wide range of talents. Coleman and program director Bruce Bergner, a theatrical scene designer and artist, expect a meld of creative students who range from novelists and cooks to artists and engineers.

When they graduate, they’ll be on a path blazed by Jim Doyle.

“Once people figure out this exists,” he said, “you’ll have people all over the world who will want to hire them.”

Illustration by Rod Hunt