Meet the Mastermind of the Modern Theme Park

My Orlando With Universal's Sr. Vice President Thierry Coup.

Thierry Coup leads the creative development for Universal Parks and Resorts world-wide. Since leaving Disney for Universal 10 years ago, he has played an integral role opening major attractions like Islands of Adventure, Spider-Man 3D and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Coup talked with Where Orlando about how he got his start in the entertainment business, the high-tech ride that revolutionized today's theme parks and what it's like working with creatives like JK Rowling and Steven Spielberg.

How did you get your start in the business? I’m from France originally; I went to Hollywood and struggled at the very beginning. I lived in an old car for six months and made my way working as a set builder and doing model making and visual effects. A lot of visual effects were done with models and miniatures then; explosions were real. I worked on films like "Flight of the Navigator," "Gremlins," "Dick Tracy" and "Total Recall."

How did you make the transition from film to the theme-park side? I worked my way up, and Walt Disney Imagineering had seen my work in "Total Recall" and wanted me to be part of their creative team to work on the new TomorrowLand for Anaheim. What was interesting was I didn’t know about Imagineering at all. I was really loving the film industry and didn’t want to disconnect. But, I ended up falling in love with the theme-park business. A lot of it is similar to creating film, but it lasts a lot longer. You can actually touch and feel it; it appeals more to the senses. The theme-park experience takes the film to a whole new level. 

When did you come over to the Universal side? I was working on a big project in Japan—Disney was creating a whole new park, and Universal called me in 1995 about Islands of Adventure. It was an opportunity to create something awesome from the very beginning. We started as a small team—15 to 20 of us—and we designed it in California and moved to Orlando to install it. I was art director for (the Marvel) area and focused a lot on Spider-Man, which ended up winning awards and created a whole new standard. It broke new grounds on many levels. I was directing the film for the Spider-Man ride, and we had to create a whole new technology. I had to create a patent to change the perspective of the 3D film as the guests moved through it. I pitched the idea for doing the ride on the largest format 3D screen, and the response I got from Universal executives was that I was out of my mind. I told them to give me a few months, and I could get it done. 

You are well known for revolutionizing theme-park rides with Spider-Man and then Forbidden Journey and Diagon Alley. What drives you? For me it’s about pushing the envelope and making our guests dream, to create these memories and insert them in their favorite world, with their favorite characters they could never even dream of before, and that requires pushing the technology. It needs to be invisible to them but allows them to expand the way they are experiencing it. It’s the best job in the world, and I have tremendously talented people that work with me.

Of course Diagon Alley opened this summer at Universal Studios, which connects to Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. What's been the reaction so far? Harry Potter is a phenomenon worldwide. We set the bar high with Hogsmeade in 2010, we brought the immersion to a whole new level, and we achieved it. For Diagon Alley, we wanted to raise the bar one more time. It’s been everything we’ve expected and beyond. As creators, when we go back to Diagon Alley, it takes your breath away, even when you’re familiar with every detail created for it. You’re taken in that story, it makes you dream and forget everything about outside. It fuels our desire to do the next best thing.

What was it like working with JK Rowling? We’ve had the great opportunity to work with some of the most talented people in the world, JK being one of them and also Steven Spielberg. She’s such a source of creativity. She lives and dreams the IP (Intellectual Property). It was great to collaborate with her. In 2010 when she came to see the finished product, there was nothing more rewarding for us than to see her reaction as she walked through it (Hogsmeade). She changed the world with the stories of Harry Potter, and it was a natural next step: the books, the films and now the world that we created that’s as real as you can imagine. We can place the audience right inside the 3D story. We go to the source and work with the authors and the creators. It’s the best way to make sure we deliver on the authenticity to our guests and our fans, who are so into every detail. We owe it to them and to ourselves. 

Now that you’ve seen these projects to the finish, what’s next for you? Well, we can’t reveal anything that hasn’t been announced yet, but I can say we are not resting at all. We are working on many new exciting immersive worlds for all our parks for Hollywood, Japan, Singapore and Florida. Everything starts from Orlando.

Can you describe your ideal day in and about Orlando and what you'd recommend for tourists? Not too far from the parks is Dr. Phillips (neighborhood). Since I’m French, a hangout for me is Café de Paris. They have a great breakfast with French bread, quiches and omelets. The Orlando Science Center is really nice, or you could spend the entire day just doing Harry Potter with Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. It’s truly phenomenal. For dinner, I love to go to VIVO, the new Italian restaurant at CityWalk, which has great food. For a fun and unusual place but some of the best food in Orlando is the Pharmacy. It’s a little speakeasy in Dr. Phillips. The two chefs were both instructors at Le Cordon Bleu. It’s a very cool, underground place with great food and drinks. To me, the perfect place to stay is the new hotel Cabana Bay. It’s a fun, 50s resort-style place that really makes you feel like you’re on vacation. I also love the Hard Rock.