Ex-Disney designer Doris Hardoon on training students to design theme parks

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Doris Hardoon spent 31 years at Disney designing theme parks. And she helped create the Themed Entertainment program for students at the University of Southern California.

USC Games is holding its seventh annual USC Games Expo on May 10 with an expo for over 60 student-made games. In honor of the annual event, students in the Themed Entertainment program at USC created a mini golf course for attendees, and that led to my chance to interview Hardoon.

“I’m excited actually to have the opportunity to be part of the USC game Expo happening on May 10,” Hardoon said. “The public will have a chance to meet and see the work of the talented students.”

She added, “The entertainment industry continues to attract to young, amazing creative thinkers and doers. And I believe this Themed Entertainment program will provide a huge opportunity to individuals to be educated, immersed, and have totally hands-on experiences like the mini golf project, as well as being exposed to all aspects of what it means to be themed entertainment, whether it be a leader, designer, artist, writer, producer, architects and engineers.”


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Hardoon is consulting again after retiring from Disney after 31 years of work at the company, mostly designing theme parks and rides as an Imagineer. Her final title was executive creative director and producer, and her credits include leading the six-year creation of Shanghai Disney Resort. In 2022, she received the prestigious Disney Legend award for her work on Disney theme parks.


USC students designed a mini-golf course as part of their themed entertainment training.
USC students designed a mini-golf course as part of their themed entertainment training.

Hardoon grew up under British rule in a place steeped in Chinese culture. She did singing, modeling and dancing early on. And she focused on graphic design when she went to study at the California College of the Arts.

Hardoon joined WED Enterprises (which later became Walt Disney Imagineering) in 1979. She impressed her interviewers with her work at a small animal-themed park after college. She worked for Rolly Crump on EPCOT Center’s The Land pavilion as her first among many Imagineering projects.

At Imagingeering, she moved from graphics to show design, including designing many of the exhibitions at EPCOT. She did both production and conceptual design. And she went on to work on Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, among other projects. In fact, she worked on every single Magic Kingdom in the world in some form, she said.

She was also loaned out to lead the design of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles and the Port Discovery Baltimore Children’s Museum, as well as to design an exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Shanghai Disney Resort

Doris Hardoon led the creation of Shanghai Disney Resort.
Doris Hardoon led the creation of Shanghai Disney Resort.

She took a nine-year hiatus, moving with her ex-husband to Vermont to run a design consultancy. In 2010, she accepted an invitation to return to Imagineering to work on her biggest project. Then-CEO Bob Iger told her to make it “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.”

Her career culminated in a leadership role during the six-year journey that was the creation of the Shanghai Disney Resort. That project meant a lot, as her parents (of Emirates and Shanghai descent) had met and married in Shanghai before they moved to Hong Kong. She was also design lead on a new land at the park’s hub, the Gardens of Imagination, and the original design lead on the park’s Enchanted Storybook Castle.

Hardoon, who speaks three languages, said big international job are often all about diversity. She had to make sure that the Disney project in Shanghai was respectful of the culture and true to Disney’s identity.

Hardoon said she loved the “blue sky part” where you could dream with no responsibility and could come up with all kinds of ideas and stick it up on the wall.

“It’s the fun part because you’re not straddled by responsibility yet,” Hardoon said. “I love to do that part, but I take it all the way through to what’s called turnkey, which is actually finishing it. Because I think the fun part is on the day when you actually stand in the theme park.”

On Shanghai Disney Resort, Hardoon worked on its for six or seven years.

“Actually standing on that property and you’re seeing the flowers are in, the savings, the sign that you designed is up, the interiors are all there, all the merch is on the shelves, and the food is now being served. And then the attractions are actually moving,” Hardoon said. “I can literally pull up the artwork that I did, or my team did, and stand there and look at that artwork and look at what’s actually there. And they match. That’s pretty cool. That’s the good part.”

Doris’ final project with Imagineering took her back to Hong Kong to transform its centerpiece icon into the grand Castle of Magical Dreams. Now she continues to consult and mentor people in an effort to give back.

“I want to continue supporting the great generation of talent for this amazing entertainment industry,” she said.

Themed Entertainment

Doris Hardoon worked on Shanghai Disney Resort for almost seven years.
Doris Hardoon worked on Shanghai Disney Resort for almost seven years.

For Themed Entertainment, Hardoon believe it’s important to learn how to illustrate, draw and produce in terms of core skills.

“Then there’s a lot of teaching them about how to think creatively,” she said. “On the concept side of it, how do you participate on the front end of a project? I actually participated in various class projects, working with individual teams in listening to how they design something like a mini golf course with no additional information. They have to go away and come up with a theme for it. How do you operate it? How do you make it so that it’s interesting for the guest?”

Then there are tasks like the finance and management side, which is important for creative students to understand.

“You need to come up with an idea that fits the budget,” she said. “The other part that’s important is this industry is about the intellectual properties. Like Mickey Mouse,or Ariel The Little Mermaid. IPs are extremely important in how they’re interpreted. Whether it be merchandise, a restaurant, an attraction that you would ride in — how do you express that IP properly?”

All of that will be part of the courses that students take on designing theme parks. And in the end, the students have to pitch their ideas. Hardoon recalled that she had about four minutes to present her Hong Kong Castle idea to Iger. And it turned out to be a success.

“All of that is part and parcel of this whole thing,” she said. “Even if you have a financial or business-minded side of it, you can absolutely still be part of this industry from the aspect of a project manager or an estimator or finance. It’s creative as well as pragmatic.”

She noted that students from all over the world come to Los Angeles as the entertainment capital of the world.

“What better inspiration for them to have USC be literally in the backyard of all the major entertainment giants,” she said. “This allows the faculty of this program to tap into the best of the best assets and resources for the benefit of the students. We can offer decades of real-world knowledge, experiences and context for all facets of what themed entertainment means. I’m very honored to have played a small part in the early stages of the inception of this program.”

Students will be able to earn a bachelor’s of fine arts degree and eventually a master’s as well.

The School’s new BFA and MFA programs in Themed Entertainment draw on a variety of disciplines to develop tools for creating immersive cinematic experiences at locations such as theme parks, zoos, retail, museums and restaurants. The new program is being led by Joe Garlington, former VP of Walt Disney Imagineering.

The blending of entertainment, games and other media

Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Since we have so much transmedia these days like The Last of Us crossing from games to HBO and Super Nintendo Land at Universal Studios, Hardoon said the industry has transformed.

“It’s actually changed from the time when I started right in the industry, which is eons ago,” she said. “There wasn’t any of this. It was really just about getting into the theme park. Walt Disney created this entire themed entertainment world. Movies and animation was already well on its way. Gaming wasn’t as hot and popular at the time. But to your point, it has expanded through time. And it sort of consolidates now from gaming to animation, themed museums, educational programs, live entertainment events of all types, to interactive and immersive experiences.”

Hardoon said her bias is to anchor all of it back to a kind of theme park, resort, retail, hotel or immersive environment — all packaged under themed entertainment.

“The public really wants an experience,” she said. “That word ‘experiential’ is all part and parcel of it. They just want to be entertained. They want to be absorbed, they want to be immersed. They want to feel like they’re part of something. For schools like USC, it’s part of the responsibility to tap into all parts of what it means to be in the entertainment.”

The importance of EQ

You need EQ to design theme parks.
You need EQ to design theme parks.

For students, landing a dream job like this is tough, as Hardoon said you have to specialize in narrower areas of study now but theme park creators need to have a wide range of skills. She started a Global Connections Collective a while ago to help kids get exposed to this kind of work.

“The hard part is for the kids to focus, when they get to their junior or senior year,” she said. “That’s when you’re literally getting ready to go out the door and get your job. And a lot of them may suddenly get exposed to live entertainment in this industry.”

Hardoon said that internships often give good exposure to what a job might be like in the real world, where you can see the park operating in real time and understand the revenue picture. It’s like a real world version of Rollercoaster Tycoon.

“You have to be able to create things that ultimately people want to go to see or be part of so that your client or your company sees a return,” she said.

With games and themed entertainment, you also have to get used to the notion of being one person on a very large team. Some of the USC Games projects give students a chance to work on such large projects. At the same time, it can also be a great experience to learn how to do it all yourself, at least from the perspective of an indie project leader.

“At the end of the day, you need to be good at what you do,” Hardoon said. “The definition of who you are — designer, artist, illustrator, thinker, writer, engineer or architect — whatever that skill factor is, you need to hone in on that and be really good at it. It’s so competitive out there. That’s one side of creativity.”

She added, “The part that I think is extremely important is what I call the EQ factor, the emotional intelligence factor. You have to know how to handle people and communicate and connect with people.”

A lot of people get paid to be in a cocoon environment with others with the same skills. But to become a leader, you have to be a people-oriented person and focus on delivering a complete project.

“Through that process, I learned about how to listen to people, how to respect people, how to understand the values of different talent, and that I need these people to do the job,” she said. “It’s about how to cast a team. That is how I was able to lead a team on Shanghai that had a budget of billions.”

And she said, “Theme parks take a long time. And then company decides. And you put your heart in it and your team’s heart in it. And the company suddenly turns around and decides, I don’t think we’re going to do it. And you walk away. The hard part about the EQ is, as a leader, a lot of the teams would go, ‘Was it my fault? I didn’t do the job.’ The designers and artists would really take it personally that maybe they didn’t. And that’s not true. It’s all because of the end, it didn’t match a financial return plan that the company had. So it wasn’t personal. But yeah, it was personal. Because it hurt. It hurt to not be able to follow through on something that you just fell in love with.”

USC Games Expo Day

USC Games Expo 2023
USC Games Expo 2023

Meanwhile, the 7th annual USC Games Expo Day is returning in person to the USC campus on May 10 at 5 p.m. Pacific time with a showcase of more than 60 student games from the USC Games program.

Supported by HoYoverse, the maker of Genshin Impact, the flagship event showcases talent from the game design program, said Danny Bilson, chair of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ (SCA) Interactive Media & Games Division (IMGD), and director of USC Games, in a statement.

“We’re thrilled to have the event return to in-person this year with more live activities to look forward to than ever before and we invite USC alumni and members of the community to meet the students shaping the future of the games industry,” Bilson said.

Attendees will have access to a USC hosted esports tournament, food catering, and the special mini golf course created by students from USC’s Themed Entertainment program, which is part of the School of Cinematic Arts.

On Expo Day, 10 projects developed in USC Games’ capstone course, the Advanced Games Program (AGP), will be featured with their first hands-on showcase. Those titles include Birds Aren’t Real (PC), Bloompunk (PC), Bomb Buddies (Mobile iOS/Android), Eye 4 Eye (PC), Grandma Green (Mobile iOS/Android), Blindsight: War of the Warden (PC), Machine Heart (PC), Manas (PC), Neon City (PC) and Try Again (PC).

USC Games is a flagship collaboration offered jointly by the School of Cinematic Arts Division of Interactive Media & Games and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering Department of Computer Science.

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