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Student-run conference brings together theme park enthusiasts

Not many conferences begin by asking speakers to share their favorite amusement park rides. Few host a trivia night with questions like, “If you were to ride every coaster at Cedar Point, how many times would you go upside down?” And even less would have about 75% of the audience get the answer right. Unless, of course, it’s the Students in Themed Entertainment (SITE OSU) conference.

A group photo of conference attendees.The Students in Themed Entertainment conference drew approximately 120 students and professionals to Ohio State.Held on campus in January, the weekend event was hosted by the Theme Park Engineering Group (TPEG) at Ohio State, a student organization dedicated to fostering professional development and interest in the theme park industry. This year marked the organization’s second time hosting the conference, where professionals and students alike attended panels, networked and participated in social activities like trivia and a coaster-building contest.

About 20 professionals and 100 students from 24 universities attended the event, venturing from California, Florida, Las Vegas and cities across the Midwest. Professionals working for household names like Disney and Universal shared experiences from their careers in creative design, engineering, ride safety, and marketing and advertising, and students from across the country connected over a shared love for all things theme park.

“It’s a chance for anyone interested to learn about the industry, talk with professionals, and learn how they can get a job and pursue a career,” said TPEG Event Chair Robert Anderson, a third-year electrical and computer engineering major. “It’s oftentimes not talked about, because themed entertainment is such a niche industry.”

Mechanical engineer Abigail Erwin ’18 served as TPEG’s former president when she had the idea to host a student-run themed entertainment conference. Now an engineer at Animax Designs, a Nashville-based vendor that creates custom characters for theme parks, she noted the value of a conference like SITE.

“We could have only dreamed of this a year or so ago,” said Erwin. “This conference gives professionals a good opportunity to answer questions and meet students.”

Her presentation, “How to Be a Professional Nerd,” followed Erwin’s longtime passion in theme parks to her involvement in TPEG at Ohio State, and internships at Universal and Disney, where she worked on the Galaxy’s Edge attraction in the new Star Wars section at Hollywood Studios.

Event organizers Anderson and Taylor Daniel, a fifth-year biological engineering major and treasurer of TPEG, started planning this year’s conference in August. They wanted to make it accessible for all students, by keeping the cost low and featuring a range of topics. Sponsorships helped tickets stay at $31, and panels discussed technical sales, project management, and resume and internship tips.

Students look at animatronic Brutus, a miniature animated version of the Ohio State mascot.Attendees showed off their creations at the project fair, including this animatronic Brutus, created by Ohio State students.“What sets us apart from other conferences is that we’re more geared toward students,” said Daniel. “We do things to help networking between students and professionals, and it’s way more relaxed.”

Because many themed entertainment companies recruit from amusement park meccas like Orlando and California, and many conferences are for professionals already working the industry, a student-focused conference in Columbus helps foster that passion for the industry in the Midwest.

"Many professionals, including myself, used the phrase ‘I wish we had this when I was in school,’” said panelist Nick Weisenberger, the creator of Coaster101.com, a coaster-focused blog. “The information and contacts you make are invaluable and are not easily found elsewhere."

Conference speaker Sarah Kelley ’05, ’07, a mechanical engineering alumna, began her career building flight simulators before working for Universal as a supervising engineer, then a managing engineer in the creative department. Currently, she helps draft and conceptualize new rides and attractions for Universal.

Kelley noted that themed entertainment is an industry people usually stumble upon during their careers. However, students now want to start out in themed entertainment and Kelley noted how refreshing it is to have “young blood” in the industry bringing new and innovative ideas.

“Ohio State … truly prepares you for being an engineer in the real world,” said Kelley. “Anything you have a passion for, someone is doing it. Find it. It might be this tiny little industry, but seek it out.”

by Brianna Long, College of Engineering student communications assistant