Amy Wu changed her major five times. When she arrived at USC as a first-year student, she planned to study gerontology, but the study of aging soon grew old for Wu. By the second year she was completely lost. That is, until a friend from USC’s Themed Entertainment Association suggested she explore the brand new major the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) was introducing: Themed Entertainment.
Themed 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 in front of the George Lucas International Building, spoke about her first experience with the program: “I was afraid it would only be about theme parks.” As she delved deeper into her studies, Wu realized that was far from the case. She said the program not only helped her develop her interests, but also exposed her to topics she had never been interested in before. “In the world of themed entertainment, any discipline is possible, it’s just a matter of using your skills and finding what drives you.”
The entertainment focus is not only new at USC, but also an emerging field – there are few comparable programs in the country. The major launched at USC in fall 2023, with just six students in the first freshman class and a total of 15 students in the program, including Wu. Despite the novelty of the major, it was the interdisciplinary nature of the cohort-based program that intrigued Wu.
“I strongly believe that we are a vocational school in some ways in that we are here to give students the opportunity to get a job and pursue a career,” said Joe Garlington, professor of themed entertainment. “Social skills are critical to success in this industry, so everything we do across all courses is team-based.”
Throughout the 2022-2023 school year, students from the newly formed thematic entertainment program came together in a class colloquially known as “golf” to create an immersive mini-golf course on campus. The final product was the culmination of collective woodworking, mechanical engineering, fine art and storytelling.
“Through this process, I watched Amy grow into herself and as a creative by solving problems and channeling her creativity to master her projects. I’ve seen her grow into a great leader,” said Tayler Somerville, a former roommate of Wu’s.
“Our industry is an ‘industry of industries’,” added Professor Garlington. “The boundaries of the field are of course somewhat unclear, 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 important factors for students to consider when creating and developing immersive spaces.
Not only is Wu a pioneer of themed entertainment, but the interdisciplinary nature of the program has also sparked other interests in her. Wu is the associate development director of ART/EMIS, a student-run multimedia organization, and the associate technical director of KXSC, USC’s globally broadcast radio program.
“She has worked on so many projects as a team member now, and it seems like the major has been able to unleash her creativity and lead to projects that really shine,” said Carissa Liu, a friend of Wu’s. In addition to her BFA in Thematic Entertainment, Wu is studying 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] made Amy and others with interdisciplinary interests very happy intellectually and creatively,” said Lizzie Lee, a friend of Wu. The best thing about the thematic entertainment major is that each student has different backgrounds and expertise to “create something worth telling,” Wu said. Because without stories worth telling, there would be no themed entertainment.