Ambient lighting and ethereal depictions of Greek mythology welcome visitors to Daedalus: The Lost Wings, Texas Theme Park Engineering & Design’s latest pop-up attraction. Teams of UT students enter a room filled with artifacts and puzzles – a tiny Grecian boat, a glowing fountain, a bookcase that doubles as a doorway – with 45 minutes to unlock a pair of Daedalus’s legendary wings. Beneath the puzzles are wires, magnets and structures built by an ambitious group of students from across the Forty Acres. The Texas Theme Park Engineering & Design student organization, sponsored by Theatre and Dance faculty members J.E. Johnson and Karen Maness, may be comprised of a variety of academic emphases, but they are united under one goal – to entertain their audiences through unique, story-based experiences, cultivating the creative problem-solver within each of its members.
Texas Theme Park Engineering & Design (formerly Texas Theme Park Engineering Group*) or TxTPED, exists as a space for students interested in the amusement park industry to get hands-on experience crafting elements for themed attractions. A student organization within the Cockrell School of Engineering, their membership is largely made up of engineering students, but over the past academic year, their roster has grown to include students from the School of Design and Creative Technologies, the Department of Anthropology, the Department of Radio-Television-Film, Undergraduate Studies and the Department of Theatre and Dance.
The group’s multidisciplinary approach to themed entertainment is what originally connected them to Theatre and Dance faculty J.E. Johnson and Karen Maness, who have championed the intersection of design, fine arts and technology for years. Their courses in fabrication and Applied Arts, such as the Raptor build for Texas Theatre and Dance’s production of Enron, attracted students from the School of Engineering in addition to those from the College of Fine Arts. Engineering students taking their courses invited them to serve as guest adjudicators for a TxTPED meeting, which Maness noted “was such a clear fit… [TxTPED’s] passion towards performance and their passion towards experiences with a story thread – it [was] a perfect alignment.” When the student organization’s former faculty sponsor retired in 2020, Johnson and Maness were approached to fill the gap and gladly accepted.
Both professors bring a wealth of experience in crafting props and scenic elements that are visually dynamic and easily transportable, two important aspects of TxTPED’s attractions. Johnson noted that he and Maness are very hands-off when it comes to specific projects, but are always present to provide advice and suggestions. Their affiliation with the College of Fine Arts opened up opportunities to recruit members from fine arts disciplines, including B.A. in Theatre and Dance major Natalia Martin Rodezno, who now serves as the organization’s social chair. “Through these collaborations, I’ve had the chance to see different perspectives of the themed entertainment industry,” shared Martin Rodezno, “especially what goes on behind the beautiful stages and other forms of design.”
As members of staff at Texas Performing Arts, Maness and Johnson also provide the group with a small amount of space and storage for their projects, allowing them to dream big without worrying about limited space – and dream big they have! Between their largest haunted house yet and their first fully-functioning escape room, TxTPED has taken on ambitious projects during the course of the 2021/2022 academic year.
These large-scale attractions give members hands-on experience applying science, math and craftsmanship beyond a classroom setting. For TxTPED president and mechanical engineering student Katie Kohutek, the organization fit a need she was seeking in her undergraduate studies. “I was looking for a school that would offer me a chance to pursue a career in the themed entertainment field,” Kohutek shared. “I found out about TxTPED and when I browsed through their website I knew that these were my kind of people and I instantly wanted to attend.”
Whether students are seeking a career in the themed entertainment industry or not, TxTPED offers its members opportunities to stretch their creative and problem-solving muscles. “As someone who is studying engineering but also loves to be creative, TxTPED offered a way to make tangible projects that used both skill sets,” shared project chair and mechanical engineering major Kendall Duggar. In this organization, the terms “creative” and “problem-solver” aren’t reserved only for artists and engineers; students have autonomy over the projects they create and how they contribute to them.
“These identities get formed in people’s heads [that] they’re the STEM type or they’re the creative type,” said Johnson, “And so, in our classes and in [TxTPED], what we see is people trying out new identities once they come to a university.” For Daedalus: The Lost Wings, these sentiments manifested as groups of students contributed to tasks in various areas. Electrical puzzles were fabricated alongside aged parchment and prop wings, with members nurturing skills in areas they were interested in. Remote-controlled projections, lighting and sound design, including voice-overs by Theatre and Dance major Bella Morgart, completed the ambiance of the escape room, which was built using PVC pipe structures to hold up their walls.
“I was able to really do it all during [Daedalus: The Lost Wings]: work a bit on story, physically fabricate props and help with the managerial tasks,” noted mechanical engineering major and external vice president Olivia Pierce. “That’s really the best part of our project, you are given the opportunity to work on whatever parts of the project interest you and grow your skills in so many different areas.”
Thanks to the ambition and versatility of TxTPED’s members and officers, Daedalus: The Lost Wings exceeded the organization’s expectations, with sold out runs on their last two days. The group submitted the escape room to the 2022 Themed Attraction Student Showcase, where they received numerous recognitions, including Best in Show; Best in Class – Guest Narrative; Best in Class – Operations/Project Management/Budgeting; Special Achievement for Feasibility and numerous honorable mentions. Time after time, Johnson and Maness have witnessed this ambition earn TxTPED members outstanding professional connections and recognitions in and beyond the university.
TxTPED continues to actively recruit students from all over the Forty Acres, eagerly seeking to welcome new perspectives into their creative process. Simultaneously, Johnson and Maness have remained dedicated to fostering these multidisciplinary collaborations. As their Applied Arts course offerings have continued, they’ve seen the number of engineering student participants grow. Maness and Johnson often set aside time during their courses for TxTPED officers to introduce the organization to their peers in the College of Fine Arts. Together, TxTPED and its affiliates are expanding the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaboration on campus, one innovative project at a time.
*In order to reflect the expansion of their membership base beyond the School of Engineering, TxTPED is undergoing the process of officially changing their name from Texas Theme Park Engineering Group to Texas Theme Park Engineering & Design. The new name is used per request by the student organization.