A top destination for theme park visitors, Orlando companies also spearhead entertainment innovation used across the globe.

ITEC Entertainment office
ITEC Entertainment employees work on themed experiences from conceptualization and concept development to project creation. Photo courtesy of ITEC.

An angry mummy challenges a carful of visitors to unravel his puzzle. Their roller-coaster ride continues through the darkness to projections of bugs crawling out of broken walls. More undead shout and guests of the Revenge of the Mummy ride at Universal Studios Singapore scream in terrified delight.

It’s half a world away from Orlando, but Revenge of the Mummy is one of many entertainment experiences around the globe that showcase the innovation originating in the heart of Florida.

From lighting and digital projections to ticket sales and virtual queuing systems, Orlando is a technological hotbed of modern amusements that is shaping the experiences of millions of people around the world.

“This is physical storytelling,” explains Marc Plogstedt, a founder and chief technology officer of ITEC Entertainment, the Orlando company that produced the mummy ride. “When we do our jobs well, you don’t know how we did the trick you experience on a ride. Surprise and delight are fantastic gifts to give to an audience, and the technology we produce in Orlando helps with that.”

Mummy ride Singapore
ITEC Entertainment Executive Vice President Jeff Jensen working on construction of Revenge of the Mummy ride in Singapore. Photo courtesy of ITEC.

Entertainment As An Export

Tourists the world over likely know Orlando for its dominant footprint in the world of theme parks. Household names like Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando call the area home. A record-setting 75 million visitors streamed into Orlando in 2018, generating billions in revenues and putting the region at the top of guest attendance totals globally.

Orlando’s attractions industry isn’t just being fed by domestic visitors—it’s also fueled by a growing international leisure market. From Asia to South America, middle classes are expanding around the planet. Newly expendable income means these people want to be entertained. One report valued the global amusement parks market at more than $45 billion in 2017 and forecast annual growth of nearly six percent through 2025, when it will be worth around $71 billion. This demanding audience is always looking for the next big thing – and that is driven by the innovation and technology making its home in Orlando.

To keep attendance growing, the leading theme park companies have built specialized technical and creative teams to build the next generation of entertainment experiences. Disney and its Orlando-based Imagineering group, for instance, employs 232 experts in 3D modeling, software development, computer-aided design and visual effects. Universal, meanwhile, has more than 120 people with the same skill set on the books.

These opportunities in amusements need the expertise at the heart of Orlando’s high-tech workforce. The hard-won knowledge of the region’s creative and technical attractions talent is unique in the world because it has accrued over decades as a result of the city’s centrality to the theme park world.

These days, Orlando firms are selling their know-how to foreign operators while also servicing domestic majors like Cedar Fair, Disney and Universal as they expand their property list across continents.

News broke recently, for instance, of two Orlando attractions companies, Katmandu Group and Falcon’s Creative Group, teaming up to open the first theme park in the Dominican Republic. Not only will Katmandu be the country’s first theme park, it will also feature the unveil of Falcon’s brand new ride system, the Suspended Theater®. ITEC, meanwhile, is planning and developing themed entertainment projects from Norway to Indonesia. And AOA, a firm based in Winter Park, is building experiences in China and Australia as well as an immersive observation deck at One Vanderbilt in the heart of Manhattan.

Katmandu theme park
A rendering of the Katmandu, the first theme park in the Dominican Republic, set to open next year. Photo courtesy of Falcon’s Creative Group.

Big Business in Back Offices

But the business opportunity isn’t just in what visitors will see and do when they enter a park or other attraction. Orlando companies are innovating to improve the guest experience from when people buy a ticket to after they’ve returned home. To meet this need, back-office providers like hospitality sales and management heavyweight Epos Now and cutting-edge queueing and ticketing technology provider accesso‘s largest office is established locally, in Lake Mary.

accesso, for instance, has developed tools to take the hassle out of ticketing and line-standing. The business uses high-tech wristbands and other handheld devices to diminish time spent in line by putting guests in a virtual queue and alerting them when it’s time to come back.

“Guests want to buy tickets at home. They want to be marketed to as individuals. They’d rather wait in shorter lines,” says Paul Noland, accesso’s CEO. “They’re asking for these things.”

Noland says long waits and confusing customer interactions create friction with guests that can seriously degrade their experience. And operators know that a bad experience can mean poor reviews and one-time customers, which push down revenues. The company promises to erase those pain points, and clients around the world have signed up.

The Experience Economy Expands

The main industry group, IAAPA, put a fine point on how Orlando had become the industry’s global hub when it moved its headquarters from Alexandria, V.A. in 2017.

IAAPA announcement
IAAPA announces its relocation to Orlando at its 2018 conference held at the Orange County Convention Center. Photo courtesy of IAAPA.

Matt Broffman, director of innovation for the City of Orlando, says talent is the primary ingredient behind the rising status of the local tech industry. More than 4,000 tech creatives—illustrators, animators, artists and designers—call the area home. That number increases dramatically when counting workers on the technical side—software developers, engineers, data architects and the like. As professionals move from job to job, and ideas and knowledge are shared, they help keep the region’s industry on the cutting edge.

“Someone who used to take tickets at Disney is now providing that knowledge to a company solving ticketing problems. These are people who know how to create great guest experiences.”

Matt Broffman, director of innovation for the City of Orlando

Area universities are also expanding their contribution to the talent pipeline. Trained graduates from the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management have long contributed to the area’s big attractions operators. The Digital Animation & Visual Effects (DAVE) School, located in on the backlot of Universal Studios, produces skilled graduates in the fields of digital entertainment and interactive media. And now UCF is running a graduate program it launched this year in designing and building themed experiences, the term used to describe physical or virtual environments that convey a narrative to visitors.

Meanwhile, the University of Florida has instituted a graduate architecture program with a concentration in themed environments in Orlando.

“The themed-entertainment industry is one of Florida’s largest employers,” Jeff Moore, dean of the UCF College of Arts and Humanities, said in a statement. “Our goal is to work with the parks to ensure that our students are being trained to fill the creative positions they need.”

FIEA studio
Motion capture software being used by students at the UCF Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA) in downtown Orlando. Photo courtesy of FIEA.

Graduates will have a bigger task to accomplish than their predecessors. Visitors today expect a whole lot more from an attraction visit than previous generations. Storylines, lighting, audio and roller-coaster design must engage an audience that is bombarded daily by digital stimuli.

“People are now accustomed to seamless, frictionless interactions and experiences online,” says Noland. “Then they go to an attraction somewhere, and it doesn’t work as seamlessly for them. It’s frustrating. But we believe technology has the power to redefine the guest experience.”

There’s also a new vista opening up for front- and back-end guest experience developers. Municipalities from Orlando to Cairo are realizing that launching initiatives with these technologies at their heart can help drive tourism dollars and help citizens become more satisfied with city services. ITEC, for instance, recently inked a deal to develop a $20 billion entertainment district in Egypt.

And it’s a small world after all in the expanding domestic and international market for guest experience tech—both operators and municipalities around the world are relying on Orlando to capitalize on the growing demand for leisure. The city’s ecosystem of seasoned professionals and companies are poised to exploit these budding opportunities.