Iona Jost has been obsessed with roller coasters since childhood. She spent family holidays visiting the different Disney theme parks and became interested in how they were created. After reading lots of books and watching many documentaries, it suddenly occurred to her that “oh, maybe I could make this a career”.
This career path was an unusual one and it certainly stumped Iona’s high school career counsellors! But this was the dream and Iona was going to make it happen.
Iona’s favourite roller coaster
“I’ve loved Big Thunder Mountain since I was a kid. My current favourite is the ‘Jurassic World VelociCoaster’ ride at Universal... it’s something else!”
Iona discovered Edinburgh Napier’s Interior & Spatial Design course
while researching subjects that would help her to become a theme park designer. The course gave her a good grounding as students were encouraged to explore different styles as part of their education. Iona spent some time in the student Drama Society in order to gain experience in set design. She also took on the role of Class Rep to develop her leadership skills.
In third year, Iona took up the opportunity to go on placement as part of her course.
“I knew that this was a good opportunity to get my foot in the door in the themed entertainment industry. I reached out to ‘blooloop’ - a themed entertainment news site. I emailed them to ask if they could recommend any design studios that were looking for interns. I got sent a list of companies that were hiring and a list of companies that were good studios to know. I was encouraged to contact them to see if they had any positions. I sent my portfolio to a bunch of studios and Falcon's Creative Group invited me for an interview”.
Falcon's Creative Group is an experience design and theme park design company based in Florida, USA. Iona’s initial placement lasted three months. This got extended over the summer and then Iona was offered a permanent position. This was a brilliant opportunity and Iona decided to accept the offer and leave Edinburgh Napier after third year.
What does a theme park designer do?
“The client comes to us and says, ‘we want a theme park, we want a ride, we want an immersive experience’. We work out how to tell the story. What is the narrative that we’re trying to tell? How do we tell that? What would the park layout look like?
We’ll then look at the rides and work out the best way to take guests on an adventure. We’re trying to take them to another world.”
Iona and her colleagues develop existing theme parks and design new ones. The most fun happens at the concept stage when they sit in a room and throw ideas around. While Iona is based in the US, the company designs parks around the world. On average the whole process will take a couple of years, if it’s a large park it will take even longer. Iona has been working at Falcon’s for just under 3 years and a project she worked on at the start of her career is currently being built.
Iona role is quite varied, and she’s involved in the various aspects of park design. The next step is to figure out what she really likes doing and specialise in that.
“I’m also interested in sustainability. How can we educate people about the subject but make it interesting and fun? Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a great example of this. They have a very strong sustainability message but it’s also a beautiful park with many interesting things to do. It’s a great balance.”
Do you want to follow in Iona’s footsteps? She offers her advice
“Don’t be afraid to try lots of different things to see what you like. There is nothing wrong with trying something and realising you hate it or you’re not good at it. Find out what you’re interested in and chase it.
It’s also never too late to learn something new.
Connections are so important especially in the creative industries. It’s all about who you know. Make friends with people, reach out to people. LinkedIn is a good tool for that.”