Team 31 Showcase: 2020 TPEG Alumni Theme Park Design Competition Winner

When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit earlier this year, hundreds of college students with lifelong dreams of working in the themed entertainment industry saw summer jobs and hard earned internships evaporate before their eyes. Luckily, a group of Ohio State Theme Park Engineering Group (TPEG) alumni decided to do something about it. Abigail Erwin, Tiffani DuScheid, Stephani DuScheid, and Mandy Dodge organized a Theme Park Design Competition to provide students with an opportunity to showcase their creativity and the results were incredible. Learn more about the genesis of the competition by reading our earlier Q/A with the creators.

The winner of the 2020 TPEG Alumni Theme Park Design Competition was Team 31 and their highly-detailed creation, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Gardens. I had a lengthy discussion with the members of Team 31 to learn more about their creative process and what goes into designing a new theme park land.

Meet The Team

Any undergraduate student who was enrolled in any university or who had graduated within the past year was eligible to compete in the summer 2020 competition. Submissions are anonymous until projects are judged. The four members of Team 31 are:

  • Eric Ginsberg, a student at the University of Central Florida majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in hospitality & tourism management with a focus in theme parks.
  • Mike Sturman, construction engineering and management at Cal Poly Pomona.
  • D’Angelo Reyes is studying Civil & Structural Engineering/Themed Entertainment Design/Theatrical Design at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
  • Jessica Goldberg is enrolled at Purdue University studying multidisciplinary engineering with a concentration in theatre engineering.

You may have noticed none of the team members attend the same school. In fact, they had never even met each other before the competition! Even while working on the project they never once met in person, conducting all their work socially distant through virtual meetings and workspaces (Google docs and Discord). Which just makes their project that much more impressive.

Each member of the team has aspirations to work within the themed entertainment industry full-time one day. “I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of designing something where its prime objective is to make people happy,” Jessica. “I want to make other people happy,” Mike agreed. “It’d be a dream come true,” Eric said about becoming a Walt Disney Imagineer.

Dealing with the Pandemic

When asked if the global pandemic affected their college or career plans, the team had a surprising response. “I see it as a blessing in disguise,” Jessica said. “Without the pandemic, I probably would’ve gotten a summer job at a local amusement park, and while that still would have been a good experience I never would have met any of these people. I wouldn’t have all the connections I do now.”

Mike’s plan to work at Legoland were put on hold. “Yes, I didn’t get the practical experience working in the park,” but he used the time to expand his network which will help him in the long run. “Making the most out of a bad situation. We could have sat around all sad and just watched videos of Disney rides but instead we designed something for ourselves.”

Eric, who was on track to be hired by Disney to work in the parks over the summer, added, “This competition has given us the opportunity to hone in our skills a lot more than we would have had to in any other situation.”

“It was an amazing opportunity for the additional portfolio work to show off. I wouldn’t have had the time to do that.” D’Aneglo added.

“If we get asked in a future interview ‘what did you do during summer of 2020 during COVID’ we’ll have a pretty good answer,” Jessica commented. “It’s something I think I’m going to treasure for years to come.”

I was absolutely blown away by just how positive and inspiring the team’s mindset was. It really reminded me of a book by Ryan Holiday, “The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph,” about turning obstacles and perceived disadvantages into advantages. The team embraced the obstacle and the challenge of the pandemic and everything that came with it and came out better for it in the long run.

The Prompt

“Throughout history, artists have observed the world around them and materialized it into different mediums of art. A theme park located in Helena, Montana wants to expand their park in a way they have never done before. They want to create an immersive, fully themed land and they need your help! They would like you to create a minimum of one of each of the following locations: a quick service restaurant, a sit down dining experience, a merchandise location, their signature merchandise item, a ride or attraction, and some kind of entertainment element. They want to theme this area based on an artist from history.”

About the Park

Infinity Gardens imagines the impressive artwork of Yayoi Kusama across 10.7 acres of land. “We weren’t given a size so we gave ourselves an arbitrary restriction to keep it realistic,” the team said. They used Frontierland at Disneyland as a reference for what approximate size their land should be, the first of many references to Disney theme parks.

Aerial view of Frontierland at Disneyland for reference

This immersive land places guests in the middle of a unique world where they can experience the harmony between nature, art, and imagination. Infinity Gardens includes majestic walking trails, a dark ride, an hourly light show, two restaurants, multiple shopping opportunities, and more. Another famous Disney attraction, Tom Sawyer’s Island inspired portions of the land.

After the team picked their artist, they split up their roles. “We all had our hands in pretty much everything,” D’Angelo told us, “but we split up the land into three smaller ones to divide and conquer.”

The giant pumpkin is the land’s weenie, a term Walt Disney coined to describe a landmark attraction used to draw guests into a space. “One of our original designs was we actually had the entire park inside of a giant pumpkin. That didn’t happen but you can still see remnants of that idea.”  The land’s centerpiece is reminiscent of Spaceship Earth at Epcot, otherwise known as the “giant golfball”, except here it’s a massive pumpkin instead. Quite possibly the world’s largest pumpkin themed building.

D’Angelo’s beautiful artwork really brings the land to life and helps make it feel real

Multiple attractions are housed within the giant faux melon, including The Carve, a sit-down dining experience. The food is inspired by Japanese-American fusion cuisine, combining traditional and modern dishes. The menu itself takes its cue from the surroundings, with minimalist representations of Kusama’s dots as framing. The specialty dish is “The Root”, crispy fried taro potato ring filled with an assortment of vegetables and your choice of beef or chicken.

Beyond Pumpkins Dark Ride

The signature attraction of the land is Beyond Pumpkins: Into the Element of Art dark ride and yes, you get to ride in a pumpkin! “It’s really a one of kind experience that we developed. I don’t think there’s anything like it,” Eric said as he described the immersive 360 degree experience. Partly inspired by the classic tea cup rides, Beyond Pumpkins is a tracked ride like many of the classic dark rides at Disney parks with the added element of being able to spin – a controlled spin that would rotate the vehicles slowly to give riders a 360 degree experience. The team told me they thought about letting guests be able to control how much they would spin but they didn’t want their to be any sensory issues and wanted to make sure all the riders had the best opportunity to see everything.

“The dark ride would use projection mapping to highlight the seven elements of art (line, shape, space, value, form, texture, and color) through four unique pieces of artwork inspired by Kusama,” D’Angelo explained, showing off the ride’s storyboards and layout.

The vehicle is guided by a two inch thick rail, and has four wheels to propel itself. Each pumpkin car allows for up to four guests to sit comfortably, with a sliding door to allow guests to enter an exit. Due to the low accelerations of the ride a seatbelt is not required for the attraction by ASTM F2291 safety standards. The trains consist of three pumpkins, giving 12 riders per cycle. The attraction lasts about 3 minutes, so the ride has a capacity of 1680 guests per hour.

Eric showed us how the ride vehicle would look in the video below: “I couldn’t use my laptop for five days, I spent so much time rendering the best image of the ride vehicle I could. All for a 35 second animation.”

Attention to Detail

The team knew even when designing for a fictional park, not every attraction can be a record breaking roller coaster or a world class dark ride. Mike explained the team’s mindset when it came to attention to detail: “One of the things you have to really think about when you’re designing a theme park is that it’s not just a ride, or a roller coaster, or a restaurant. It is a city that has to have a lot of utilities in it. It has to have maintenance and storage facilities. You have to have breakrooms for staff and so on. We created a utility complex to house all that. You can’t just go crazy and build fun things, you have to have a functional side to it as well.”

Mike continued, explaining how they came up with the Isao Falls walkthrough area. “We looked at the various attractions themed entertainment could offer, not just your major E-ticket rides like a dark ride or a roller coaster. What is something more experiential? These type of attractions usually don’t get their time in the spotlight but they are important and can be really incredible when done well.” I agree, and they probably don’t cost as much as a $25 million dollar roller coaster too.

You can’t have a theme park land without shops and restaurants either. The team created menu items for the land’s restaurants. They even added the cost of each item by researching similar items at Disney, Universal, and Six Flags parks using their mobile apps. Mike even actually made one of their menu items. “I needed to each lunch and I thought having a picture of actual food would look good for the presentation. And it tasted good too!”


Tools & Software Used

I was curious what tools and software the team used to sketch, design, and render their theme park into reality. Eric told me, “It was an arduous process to get our Inventor and Solidworks models into SketchUp. We had to export it, put it into Blender, then upload it to Sketchup where it would be the wrong size and we’d have to scale it down or it would crash our computers because it had too many polygons.” A few of their most used tools include:

Project Challenges

The team had several challenges throughout the design process they had to overcome, from simply how to communicate with each other to transferring data between software systems, there was always a problem that needed solving. “We had to submit a PDF of the presentation, so we had to convey all the information via text and images rather than using video or our own voices,” Jessica explained.

“I thought this was going to be very difficult,” Eric said, “the whole virtual thing because I’m a very hands-on person, I like doing things in person with people. I had never even heard of Zoom before. But honestly, it was not that bad. The whole virtual thing went so seamlessly I was like ‘wow, technology is awesome’. A testament to our skills at adapting.”

“Yeah,” Jessica chimed in, “it definitely helps now that we’re back at school because all my friends are like ‘How does Zoom work’ and I’m like ‘I’ve been using it all summer!'”

Speaking of Zoom, I recorded a Zoom meeting I had with Team 31 and you can watch some of it below. I hadn’t planned on making it public so I apologize for the sub-par audio quality but I thought the content would still be useful to others pursing a career in themed entertainment.

Final Thoughts

From the menu items, to calculating the ride’s theoretical hourly capacity, actually making some of the items on the menu, to composing songs for the light show – it feels like the team really thought of everything. They even went as far as designing several facemasks and other merchandise. The team’s passion for themed entertainment is evident.

However, Team 31’s attention to detail was what really blew me away. “We weren’t asked to go this detailed. The prompt was very vague,” Mike explained.  “But when doing a project like this it’s important to show you know what you’re doing or (at least you that think you know what you’re doing). So it’s really about doing as much research and making it as thorough as possible so the it feels real. And that’s what I’m really proud of with this project. It feels real. It feels like a place you could really build, everything makes sense and is there for a purpose.”

“All the teams that competed did such an amazing job,” Jessica “It’s kinda weird sitting here working with these people, knowing later on in the future we could be working on a real life theme park project together one day.”

“I don’t think there’s a better time to be a student,” Eric said. When the competition was over, all the teams got together virtually one night where they all shared their presentations with each and celebrated their achievements. The team agreed: The design competition was “a lot of fun. We’re very grateful we’ve had this opportunity.”

When students with similar passions and similar life goals come together, greatness happens. With all the young talent coming up, the future of theme parks is very bright indeed.

View Team 31’s winning presentation here.

To learn more about the competition and for information on the upcoming 2021 contest visit the TPEG alumni site.

Night time look inspired by Animal Kingdom’s Pandora.

Thanks again for each member of Team 31 for taking the time and sharing their thoughts with us. We’re looking forward to experiencing the real life attractions you’ll work on one day.


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.