When John Strope started the Theme Park Design Group at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in fall 2017, he never imagined the group would gain national attention for its work or even be in the same room as Disney executives.
In fact, the sophomore mechanical engineering major never intended to start a theme park design group at all.
Strope said he formed the club when he wanted to enter a competition called Disney Imaginations, but had no connections to theme park design experts as an out-of-state student.
The recognized student organization, which is open to all majors, works on themed entertainment projects, participates in competitions and goes to conferences. The group meets on Wednesdays at 7:45 p.m at the Scott Engineering Center, where they talk about current theme park design-related news and hear from speakers.
“It’s been really rewarding to see the progress we’ve made as a group and developing as a team,” he said.
Strope said he’s always been creatively inclined and interested in movie special effects, which he later thought stifled his creativity. He said he became interested in theme park design after visiting Walt Disney World Resort with friends during his junior year of high school.
“You design something, film it once and then tear it down and it never happens again,” he said. “In the theme entertainment industry, you have to design an effect that impresses guests and adds to the story but is repeatable 2,400 times an hour for 18 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 10 to 20 years.”
Strope said he liked the storytelling aspect of theme park design and how creatively challenging it is, which motivated him to learn more about it.
Unlike Strope, Zoe Jirovsky, a junior mechanical engineering major and primary programmer for the group, said theme park design has been her dream job since high school.
”Nebraska’s not necessarily a theme park hub,” she said. “I was really excited that there was an outlet for me to work on stuff like that here.”
Jirovsky said she grew up near Disneyland and frequently visited the park as a child. She said she loved the park’s technicality and art.
”Normal engineering tends to bore me,” she said. ”I need that extreme creativity element to really have a passion.”
Since Strope started the group, they’ve worked on two major projects. In early 2018, the group designed an interactive attraction that imitated super strength for a superhero exhibit, according to Jirovsky.
Jirovsky said the group built two chairs: one with pulleys to pull the user up and another to give the user super strength.
In January 2019, the group, with referral from its faculty advisor David Martin, started a project at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.
The zoo expanded in 2017 and received three adolescent giraffes, according to Strope. Strope said the zoo asked them to design toys to keep the giraffes active.
“Giraffes sleep for about an hour and a half a day,” he said. “It’s important to keep animals engaged and active, which could be a burden on zookeepers.”
The group designed a clear puzzle box for food that could accommodate the giraffes’ long tongues.
In addition to the box, the group made hoses with attachment points that the giraffes can use to hang their toys off of from the inside.
Strope said they designed the toys to fit in the giraffes’ enclosure and to reflect the zoo’s color palette, which is blue, orange and white.
”We’re trying to balance a pleasant visual design for people with a fun toy for a giraffe,” he said.
When they’re not working on projects or talking about the latest theme-park related news, the group attends national conferences to network with executives and meet other students who are interested in the topic.
The group attended the ASTM F24 Committee Amusement Rides and Devices Meeting in fall 2018 in San Diego and again in spring 2019 in Houston, where they talked with executives like Steve Blum, the senior vice president of engineering and safety for Universal Parks and Resorts.
Jirovsky said she loved how the executives encouraged student involvement at the conference.
“When we went to the conference, we thought it would be students sitting in the back and watching,” she said. “They were putting an effort in to make us feel like we belonged there.”
Despite its success, Jirovsky said she thinks the club needs to expand its artistic side and recruit more students who aren’t engineers.
“In themed entertainment, there’s not an area of expertise that you don’t need,” she said. “You need engineers to build the thing, the artists to make it look pretty and the architects to make the structure.”
Strope said he wants to do projects like projection mapping, which is a 3D projection onto different surfaces, and an on-campus escape room in the future.
Students can join the club by reaching out to the executive members or attending the Wednesday night meetings.
Jirovsky said before joining the RSO, she didn’t know anyone with her same career goals and felt overwhelmed and lost. She said it’s beneficial to have a creative outlet on campus.
“It’s important to group the few kids who have that dream together so they can work with each other on it,” she said.