“Five, four, three. . . And here he is once again—Jimmy Fallon!” The blue curtains on the Studio 6B stage fly open as Fallon, in a futuristic race car, zooms to center stage and challenges the studio audience to a race through New York.
So begins Universal Orlando’s newest attraction, which UA alumna Olivia West helped to create as an intern in 2014.
“That was my first big foray into an attraction that would actually come to fruition,” West said. “It was really the cherry on top of my internship. “
Now, only four years later, West is innovating full-time for Universal: Most recently she worked as the lead writer for a new $3 billion park set to open in Beijing, China in 2020. The park will be the first of its kind to open in the country, and West was responsible for the story behind almost every attraction, restaurant, and hotel for five of the six lands in the park.
“It was the biggest, most exciting opportunity I could imagine,” West said.
When thinking about theme parks, it is easy to consider the work of engineers and art designers, but the story writers are actually the first people to envision what the final rides will be like. They choose what aspects of a movie or show guests will want to immerse themselves in, they determine what the characters and narrators of the ride will say, and they even plan what moves the ride will make in each “scene:” a vertical assent, followed by fireworks, then a fast plummet to the ground, followed by a 90-degree pivot to the side.
Though West can’t reveal the details of the parks’ themes or attractions because they have not yet been officially announced by Universal, she says that she wrote stories for more than 20 attractions—ranging from high-budget, high-capacity rides to full-service restaurants and live shows.
She was even responsible for the graphics content on the props and set pieces throughout the park that add to the atmosphere and sense of place.
“If you’re walking around a theme park, and there are crates and barrels with random numbers, for instance, a story writer was tasked with creating that,” West said. “It seems like one of the more boring tasks, but I have a lot of fun with that because I work in my birthday, the date that I’m going to get married, and initials of things that I care about.
“When Beijing comes out, my birthday is going to be all over the place.”
Like many children, West says her love of theme parks began when she was young and went to Disney World for the first time, but it wasn’t until a candid conversation with her mother about her future that she realized her dream job was to be an Imagineer for Walt Disney.
West pursued her dream first as an art major and creative writing minor at UA. Then she went to the Savannah College of Art and Design, one of the top-25 design schools in the country. During that time, she took an internship with Universal, where she helped with the Jimmy Fallon ride, and later she accepted an internship—and then a freelance job—with Walt Disney Imagineering in Burbank, California.
“Disney felt like the behemoth that it was. There were so many moving parts and so many people. It was a very fast-paced environment.”
Though Disney was, and still is, West’s dream, she decided to leave California after two years so that she could get more stable full-time work.
“Talking to different people—both at WDI and Universal—they said you could have waited years and years at Disney to get an opportunity like you’re getting with Universal—to write for an entire park.”
For now, West wants to continue to hone her writing skills at Universal, but eventually she would like to return to Disney as a creative director, overseeing an entire project start to finish.
“My heart is with Disney,” West said. “I grew up loving the Disney parks, and that’s why got into this in the first place. That’s where all the magic is.”