Published: Feb. 27, 2020 By

My name is Emily, and when I graduate I want to design experiences. Reading those words, you may not know what that means, but the themed entertainment and experience design industry is everywhere. These are the engineers who design rollercoasters, animatronics, live performance stages, water parks, museum exhibitions and anything else in the realm of fun. This career path may be considered atypical for a mechanical engineer at CU Boulder since there are only a handful of amusement parks in the entire state, but that isn’t stopping me; it just means I have to be a little more creative when it comes to building a network and learning more about this insane industry. Back in November 2019, that is exactly what I did.  

Every year, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) puts on a four-day expo in Orlando, Florida where industry professionals come to sell products, buy products or just explore the new innovations coming to theme parks across the world in the coming year. There are also panels, site visits, networking lunches and talks for all guests to attend.

Emily Page at IAAPA Expo
Above: Emily Page attends the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo in Orlando, Florida. 
Top: Panorama of the 2019 International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo

When I originally heard about this expo in the IAAPA promotional emails, my first instinct was to go. I know the importance of building a strong network and how students are more likely to be successful in their job search if they have connections within the companies where they are applying but reality kicked in, and I started to think about all of the reasons why I couldn’t go. This list included missing class, flying to Orlando, finding somewhere to stay and the fear of talking to strangers in such an intimidating environment. However, when I received a scholarship from the Themed Entertainment Association NextGen program that would cover the cost of my floor pass at the expo, I knew I couldn't pass up this opportunity. I worked it into my schedule, booked a flight to Orlando and got a room at a hotel near the convention center. Before I knew it, I was on my way to Florida.

With my newly printed business cards in hand, I walked into the Orange County Convention Center. I was terrified to say the least, and I really didn’t know what to expect. As soon as I walked onto the show floor for the first time, my jaw hit the floor. Imagine a 2 million-square-foot warehouse filled wall to wall, floor to ceiling with everything amusement park. I am talking carnival games, bowling lanes, snow cone stands, virtual reality games, indoor ropes courses, full-size rollercoasters and so much more! They even had a whole section dedicated solely to inflatables. 

There were reveals of new rides coming to amusement parks where you could see the ride vehicles up close. My favorite one was the motorbike vehicle from Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure ride at Universal Studios. The section I spent most of my time in was full of design firms, the companies that actually contribute to the design and construction of the rides in parks across the world. This is the part of the industry I want to work in, so I scoured the map in search of people to talk to. 

There was one booth sponsored by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) which was set up more like a lounge. Expo guests from across the world came to relax, have a cup of coffee and socialize with their friends and colleagues. I did the bulk of my networking here. I spoke with a range of people, from college students like me to CEOs and company founders. Everyone I spoke to was extremely willing to talk to me, pass on advice and answer my questions about this industry.

I didn't go to this expo with the intention of finding a job but with the intention of learning and making connections. I met engineers from places such as Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Creative but also some incredible people from smaller companies across the country. Coincidentally, I met a CU Boulder Engineering alumnus who works for a design company in Pennsylvania focused mainly on stages for concert tours and residencies; we bonded instantly over our love for the Buffs. I walked out of the convention center that day with a bag full of free swag and over 20 business cards for new contacts.

That evening, the Themed Entertainment Association held a member mixer at the Hard Rock Hotel. I happened to see the CU alumnus I had met, and he introduced me to another CU alum! Who knew there were going to be so many Buffs in Orlando? I did even more networking at the mixer and nearly ran out of my own business cards. The next day, I explored the show floor several times in search of new things I hadn’t seen the day before. I'm pretty sure I clocked in over 20,000 steps and ended the day with a trip to Disney World, the cherry on top of a great few days. 

I know what you are all probably thinking: “Emily, you’re crazy! I could never do something like that!” But I am here to tell you that you can. My biggest piece of advice for those of you out there who are looking to build your network is to look outside the “Boulder bubble” for opportunities. Research industry conventions and local professional societies. Take advantage of opportunities that come your way as a student such as scholarships or stipends that will cover the cost of attendance. And most importantly, do not be afraid to put yourself out there. Just the fact that I flew across the country alone to talk to people I have never met before spoke a lot about my character. 

When you are at these networking events, here are some tips:

  1. Be prepared to have an answer for the question, “Tell me about yourself,” and practice your 2-minute elevator pitch. You want to be able to confidently talk about yourself, your interests and your hobbies. It doesn’t have to be all academic; I love to mention that I do crossword puzzles and watercolor paint.
  2. Bring business cards! I made cards for myself at Staples with my email, phone number, LinkedIn profile link and a QR code that led to my portfolio website and resume. It was much easier than carrying around a folder with my resumes and was preferred by the people I was networking with.
  3. Don’t go into the networking event with the mindset of leaving with a job. Instead, have the mindset that you are going to make connections, learn and bond over common interests. It removes a lot of pressure from all the conversations and leads to better connections overall. You can always reach out to your contacts down the line when looking for a place to work.

All in all, this trip was worth every minute. I am still in contact with most of the people I spoke with at the IAAPA Expo and am working my network to explore potential jobs for after I graduate. I'm excited to see where this industry will go in the future and how I might be a part of it.