New theme entertainment covers more than just theme parks – Annenberg Media

Amy Wu changed her major five times. When she arrived at USC as a freshman, she planned to study gerontology, but for Wu, the study of aging quickly grew old. In the second year she was completely lost. That was until a friend at USC’s Themed Entertainment Association suggested she investigate the brand new major the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) was launching: themed entertainment.

Theme entertainment as a field is “the creation of an artificial environment in which various elements bring to life a thematically driven story to immerse visitors in a strongly identified or branded environment,” according to Theron Skees, a veteran of Walt Disney Imagineering.

Wu, sitting outside the George Lucas International Building, discussed his first experiences with the program: “I was worried that it would only be about theme parks.” Delving into her studies, Wu discovered that was far from the case. She said the program helped her not only develop her interests, but expose her to subjects she never had an interest in before. “Any discipline is possible in the world of themed entertainment, it’s just a matter of leveraging your skills and finding what makes you tick.”

The themed entertainment major is not only new to USC, but is a burgeoning field in its own right—there are few programs like it in the country. The major launched at USC in the fall of 2023, with just six students in its first freshman class and 15 students in the program overall, including Wu. Despite the novelty of the major, it was the interdisciplinary nature of the cohort-based program that drew Wu in.

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“My strong feeling is that we’re kind of a trade school in that we’re here to give students the opportunity to get a job and have a career,” said theme entertainment professor Joe Garlington. “Social skills are critical to success in this industry, so everything we do in all the classes is team-based.”

A photo of students working in a classroom.

During the 2022-2023 school year, students in the newly formed entertainment program, in a class colloquially called “Golf,” teamed up to create an immersive miniature golf course on campus. The final product was the culmination of collective woodworking, mechanical engineering, visual arts and storytelling.

“Through this process, I saw Amy grow into herself personally and as a creative as she problem-solved and channeled her creativity to master her projects. I watched her grow into a great leader,” said Tayler Somerville, a former suitemate of Wu.

“Our industry is an ‘industry of industries’,” Professor Garlington added. “The boundaries of the field are of course a little poorly defined, but there are many ways to tell a story. What distinguishes storytelling in our world from storytelling in other worlds is the use of physical space.” Space, sound, smell, density, taste, color and light are all important factors for students to consider when creating and developing immersive spaces.

Not only is Wu a pioneer in themed entertainment, but the program’s interdisciplinary complexion sparked other interests for her as well. Wu is vice president of development for ART/EMIS, a student-run multimedia organization, as well as assistant technical director for KXSC, USC’s globally broadcast radio program.

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A photo of Wu posing in the School of Cinematic Arts courtyard at USC

“She has worked as a collaborative team member for so many projects now, and it seems like the major has allowed her creativity to flourish and lead to projects that really shine,” said Carissa Liu, a friend of Wu’s. Along with his BFA in themed entertainment, Wu is pursuing two minors: product design at USC’s Iovine and Young Academy and consumer behavior at the Marshall School of Business.

“Overall, I think [the program] has made Amy and others with interdisciplinary interests very happy intellectually and creatively,” said Lizzie Lee, a friend of Wu’s. The best part about the themed entertainment major is how each student comes from different backgrounds and expertise to “make something worth telling,” Wu said. Because after all, themed entertainment wouldn’t exist without stories worth telling.