June 2016 Special Section

Innovating Audience Interaction

Written By: Kaley Thomas

Located in an unassuming 54,000-square-foot former tobacco auction warehouse in High Springs is one of the largest innovative leaders in the themed entertainment industry: ThemeWorks and its founder and President, Scott Gill.

ThemeWorks is an over 70-employee operation that creates absolutely one-of-a-kind sets and décor for theme parks, museums and zoos all over the United States.

The company was founded by Scott Gill in 1995 after he graduated from the University of Florida. He chose High Springs for its location, given the proximity to where he was living in Gainesville. Gill had always had a passion for set design since he was a child building model railroads.

“I didn’t realize it at first, but I didn’t care about the trains running,” Gill said. “It was more about how I created an environment — the sets and scenery for these trains to run through.”

Gill got to practice his passion for real after he was hired at the now closed company Museum Services during his freshman year of college. After graduating with a business degree, Gill continued to work for the company until he rose to one of the top positions.

He then took the risk to form ThemeWorks at the age of 26. Gill’s first big break came the following year through a job request from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

“They were referred to me by a friend, and they asked us to price out a sculpture of a seal,” Gill said. “We did that, and they said, ‘This is part of a larger project, would you guys be interested in doing that?’ It was a huge project.”

A major problem was that he didn’t have a proper workplace for museum staff to visit in order to discuss a possible contract. Gill purchased the warehouse because it was the only building on the Gainesville market that was both large enough and in his price point at the time. He has always stayed in the same building — he loves it and has updated it to fit his needs, even though it might still be small (some say) for what he does. Gill loves the surrounding community and the history of the building itself.
“There are actually a few of sections of the shop floor where you can still see the old painted lines that indicated where the tobacco should be stacked for auction,” Gill said.

The zoo’s project was called The Living Coast and was intended to model the coasts of Chile and Peru.

“When I was in college, there was an area (where) we used to go cliff diving in Newberry — it had all these interesting rock formations,” Gill said. “One of the things the zoo was interested in was replicating the coastline very accurately. I showed them our rock formations, and they thought it was a really good match.”

At first, the contractor wasn’t convinced because he thought hiring a fledgling company was too much of a risk. The project manager of the zoo, meanwhile, insisted on hiring ThemeWorks because he believed in the team and approach we put together. ThemeWorks won the contract, and the rest is themed entertainment history.

Today, ThemeWorks has done hundreds of projects, from the hyper-realistic to the whimsical — working for almost every theme park in Florida and some of the most prestigious museums and zoos across the country such as The Smithsonian, the National Museum of the Marine Corps, the Airborne and Special Operations Museum and the San Diego Zoo.

There is no typical project in the themed entertainment business, and a project can last anywhere from a few weeks for rushed projects to a few years for more complex work. Each one has dozens of hands touching every aspect of creation, from its conception to its execution and installation.

Walking through the warehouse and design space one can see dozens of workers everywhere working on different aspects of various projects. There is constant activity in woodworking and shaping, fiberglass molding, sculpting, painting, metal welding and so much more. Some intricate pieces have to be carefully created by hand, while others are crafted using a Computer-Numerical Control (CNC) router to intricately cut metal or wood. The machine takes up almost an entire room.

Theme parks are the most visited places on earth, and with that volume of traffic, it is important to create attractions that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also physically safe and capable of withstanding heavy interaction with people. Nearly every object designed for theme parks is crafted with a strong metal framework and covered with textured and colored materials for realistic effects. These specially designed items can range from menus, kiosks, life-size character models and decorative rocks.

“People are touching and grabbing — they do things that you just don’t expect,” Gill said. “After a while, you stop getting surprised. You can’t predict the things people do if they’re bored waiting in line, etc.”

Through experience, however, ThemeWorks has developed an expert understanding of which materials and designs are capable of withstanding guest contact, and it is at the top of the field, creating structures that do not require constant maintenance.

ThemeWorks is very excited about new technologies and what might be coming next — for example, programming chips on drones that allow them to interact with audiences or fly through an exhibit and change colors at a certain geographical point. The future of creativity, technology and human interaction is constantly evolving.

Gill cannot stress enough how fortunate he feels to be able to do what he has loved his whole life.

“For those who feel that they were born to build cool stuff, this is a dream come true,” Gill said. “Although this work is demanding and stressful at times, participating in the creation of these amazing tangible things is so rewarding that it becomes very hard to imagine doing anything else.”

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