Florida welcomed more than 112 million visitors in 2016 – the highest number of tourists in history.
While many flock to Florida for its beaches and year-round sunshine, it is themed entertainment and attractions that put it on the map. For decades, these experiences have whisked guests away from the “real world,” immersing them in fun and fantasy, diversifying their perspectives and inspiring them to dream big.
Turning Fantasy into Reality
Themed entertainment technology is in Steve Birket’s genes. His brother, Glenn Birket, founded Winter Garden’s Birket Engineering in 1984. It has since grown to provide theme parks in the U.S. and Asia with custom electrical hardware and software controlling rides, shows, effects and interactives. Birket is the immediate past international president of Themed Entertainment Association.
Prior to joining the family business in 2001 and becoming vice president, Steve Birket held several project management, engineering and entertainment positions at Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World Resort. He’s seen the industry shift toward a focus on complete immersion made possible by electrical engineers and computer scientists who deliver unforgettable experiences.
“The parks must continually stay ahead of guest’s expectations in order to keep the experience new and keep the guest coming back,” said Birket. “That is the challenge and excitement of this great industry.”
Challenge and excitement are also common at ThemeWorks Inc. Located in High Springs, ThemeWorks creates imaginative environments for parks, attractions, museums and aquariums. From themed facades to elaborate signage and giant sculptures, the company transforms standard spaces and buildings into magical, captivating experiences. Its work can be seen throughout the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet and nearly all the theme parks in Florida.
“The scenic elements we fabricate play a large role in making Florida’s attractions so special,” said ThemeWorks’ Vice President of Project Development Ryan Kremser.
While Birket Engineering and ThemeWorks focus on developing technology to enhance the physical environment, companies such as brandVR lead the charge in creating virtual worlds.
Based in Orlando, the full-service virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology startup combines art, programming, design and music to create virtual worlds and immersive experiences for attractions along Florida’s Space Coast and beyond.
brandVR emerged from a shared enthusiasm for video games by its co-founders. Taking note of the local talent pool, fed largely by the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy at the University of Central Florida, the trio launched monthly meetups where others could collaborate and share ideas for video games. The monthly meetings attract more than 100 people and end each year with the Indie Galactic Space Jam, an event to develop space-themed video games.
“The Kennedy Space Center is 45 minutes away and we never interacted with anyone there,” said brandVR Chief Technology Officer Kunal Patel. “So, we decided to host a game jam, which is sort of like a hackathon, but with the purpose to create video games about space.”
In its first year, the sold-out event connected local talent with representatives from NASA and SpaceX, and generated more than 25 video game prototypes. Through continued conversations with NASA and collaborations with the local technology community, brandVR led production of three VR experiences found today at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex: Space Dreams, an exploration of the solar system and NASA technology; KSC 360 Expedition, an up-close look at NASA shuttles and capsules; and, Edge of Home, a tour of the International Space Station.
“We see these photos of kids trying out the experiences for the first time. They’ll take off the headset, look at their parents and their jaws just drop. Those kids now believe that they can be an astronaut and start to ask questions about what they can do to get there,” said Patel. “We achieved what we intended: we wanted to entertain them, teach them and spark their curiosity.”
VR isn’t the only way to engage kids in science and Tampa’s Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) is set to find new opportunities. It will temporarily close its doors August 14 and reopen November 18, 2017, in a renovated and smaller space, but with new concepts to help transition to new space 11 miles away in the city’s downtown.
“This is the next step toward transitioning to a new world-class MOSI in Downtown Tampa,” said incoming MOSI Board Chair Robert Thomas, CEO of Two Rivers Ranch. “We’re going to be asking for everyone’s ideas – we want them to dream and envision how their new science center will help Tampa Bay get ready for the challenges of the future.”
The move downtown should be complete in 2022.