Friday, August 9, 2013

From animation and comics to the themed entertainment industry - Marissa Garner's story

"The collaborative spirit told me I had found my industry."

Life is full of paths that lead where you don’t expect. I was asked by Kile Ozier, head of the NextGen Committee of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), to tell the story of how I stumbled into the themed entertainment industry. I suppose it is best that we start at the beginning of my convoluted path.

It was a cold, crisp day with clear, cerulean skies early in the morning in Tokyo, Japan 2009. Little did I realize that lovely day in mid-December would send a wind to blow me into a life direction I never expected. That day, along with several of my classmates from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), I visited Tokyo DisneySea with a former Walt Disney Imagineer to learn about the park. While others were actually enrolled in a class on the subject, I was one of the few who had opted out of taking that class because – irony of ironies - I didn’t think I was interested. I wanted to be a comics artist. I was just there to enjoy the park and the experience, or so I thought.

However, as soon as this gentleman walked us through the park, and explained the thought process and all the detail that went into the storytelling… I was bitten by the bug. I was caught - hook, line and sinker. I had gone to Japan to study animation and comics, and came back wanting to work in the themed entertainment industry.

At that point, my knowledge of Disney parks was minuscule, and I had pretty much no other knowledge of the industry as a whole. To my great good fortune, I found out about the off-campus program that SCAD offered, to go behind the scenes at Walt Disney World. There, I first heard about the TEA and a student competition that TEA was running in connection with its annual SATE conference (SATE stands for Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience). Another great resource was the print copy of TEA's Annual & Directory that my professor gave me. It had all the names and contact details of the TEA member companies, plus some very informative articles, and I used it immediately to learn as much as I could.

"The networking opportunities TEA creates have been invaluable to me in not only forming business connections, but also friendships." 

Marissa Garner dressed for interactive role-play at this year's D23 Expo, a major Disney fan event held annually in Anaheim.
I went on to enter and win the SATE student competition in 2011, and received the privilege to present my work at the conference that fall. And that was where my experience with the TEA – and the industry - really started to take off.

There I was, a nervous whippersnapper who dared think she had any good ideas to contribute. And was scared out of her mind. But when I stepped into the conference room, I was greeted by several friendly faces who immediately made me feel comfortable. I was amazed by how encouraging and open everyone was, and as the conference continued I was also inspired – though at first mystified - by the sense of synergy that existed. I was struck by the fact that while many TEA companies are business competitors with one another, within the context of TEA they were working together - collaborating to improve the industry as a whole.

Want more information about TEA, TEA NextGen and SATE?
Connect with TEA's NextGen initiative on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter
Membership information is at this link
Information about the SATE conference is at this link.

This collaborative spirit told me I had found my industry. I used my time at the SATE conference to absorb as much knowledge and advice as I could from those who were present. It was eye opening, overwhelming and inspiring. And I am 100% certain that it was that experience at SATE that lent some vital component that later helped my team become one of the finalists for Disney ImagiNations 2012. ImagiNations is an annual design competition sponsored by Walt Disney Imagineering to promote diversity in the industry and help cultivate new interns, and that experience led to my own internship with Disney. I had the honor and privilege to work there for a full year before recently converting to contractor status. Coincidentally, I have had the pleasure of working closely with some of the designers who helped create Tokyo DisneySea - the park that inspired me back on that clear, winter day in December.

I've retained my connections to TEA and want to always be involved with the organization as long as I have a career in the industry. The networking opportunities TEA creates have been invaluable to me in not only forming business connections, but also friendships.

I'm particularly interested in doing what I can to help TEA's NextGen initiative grow. Funny enough - the themed entertainment business is still considered a “young industry.” The generations that preceded me in the industry had many fewer formal educational resources than I had. I'm fortunate to have come into the business at a time when there were many educational curricula specifically focused on the attractions business as well as a fully-formed Themed Entertainment Association.

"If you really want to be part of the theme park industry, get yourself to as many conferences, mixers, trade shows and behind the scenes events as you can."

To help those resources grow even more in order to cultivate and recruit even more talented people into the themed entertainment community in future, I've made two short lists based on my experience and observations. The first indicates information for students and aspiring professionals to seek out to learn the industry as thoroughly as possible. (You won't always find such information organized just as you might like it, or all in one place, but you can usually find it. Consider it a research exercise. And who knows who you will meet.) The second list is of some critical things I've learned in my early professional work experience that I wish I had insight into before.

One of the things that I've learned is that themed entertainment is a relationship-based business, and that you can't find everything you need online. My own path as described here shows that – the face-to-face contacts I made and what I learned talking to people have had a huge impact on my career. Networking is one of the most important skills to acquire. Plan to stick your neck out – or more accurately, your hand. If you really want to be part of the theme park industry, get yourself to as many conferences, mixers, trade shows and behind the scenes events as you can. You can learn about all of those as a TEA student member, just like I did.

Information that will help you learn the themed entertainment industry
Good sources include the TEA Directory and TEA website, company websites, industry publications and other industry associations.
  • Historical knowledge about the companies and how they came to be
  • What projects different companies have worked on
  • Who the human resources personnel are within companies
  • Where to get as many technical skills/knowledge as possible
  • Contact information for other people in the industry, or trying to enter the industry: this can help you stay connected and motivated in multiple ways
  • News about pending big projects: this will help you know when companies are likely to have openings available

Things that I have learned since I started working in themed entertainment
  • There will always be some people who don't want an inexperienced hand. While this is frustrating, move on and keep trying until you find an open door. Most people are interested in sharing knowledge and helping if they can.
  • A CLOSE MENTOR IS A MUST. Look for someone to confide in when you are troubled – someone who won't judge you, but is knowledgeable enough in your particular field to give sound advice. Seek out multiple mentors to learn multiple perspectives and niches of the industry .
  • Even when you have all the work you need for the moment, keep your networking strong. It is just as valuable as your projects.
  • Work on as many different projects with as many different people as you can. You learn more with different group dynamics and perspectives.