The company’s faux brick walls and “steel beams” made from particle board are just a sampling of the creativity and magic to be found behind the doors of ThemeWorks. Located in High Springs, ThemeWorks is a full service custom fabrication firm creating experiences, real or imagined, for theme parks, zoos, aquariums and museums across the country.
While the products themselves may be fabricated by the High Springs manufacturer, nothing can fake the talent, hard work and commitment to excellence the 100+ employees of High Springs’ ThemeWorks bring to the table each day.
A Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce 2016 Manufacturer of the Year finalist, ThemeWorks is housed in a production space that was originally a tobacco auction site. Once filled with mountains of tobacco piled to the ceiling, you can still see the yellow lane markers for transporting the tobacco on the facility floor.
There is no tobacco anymore – but just about anything else you can imagine (and many things you probably couldn’t even imagine) can be found at ThemeWorks.
The 54,000-square-foot facility has been home to multiple iconic theme park pieces such as the famous Knight Bus of Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter as well as the Diagon Alley Eros Fountain modeled after the original in London’s Piccadilly Circus.
For that undertaking, the actual fountain was scanned on-site with a 3D scanner and a computer model was generated. Due to the sheer size of the piece, the reproduction was actually made in multiple sections.
“A robotic milling machine was used to roughly carve the fountain out of huge blocks of foam, then a layer of clay was applied over the foam and the details were meticulously sculpted by hand,” said Ryan Kremser, vice president of project development at ThemeWorks. “A lot of time and effort went into making sure the replica was true to the original.”
Kevin Allard, lead sculptor, takes each project as a challenge. “There is always something different, and success comes from figuring out how to achieve the client’s vision while keeping costs down. We call that value engineering.”
Beyond theme parks, ThemeWorks has worked with clients on projects ranging from those honoring historical events to creating habitats for live animals and aquatic life. They’ve also been involved in projects at every stage of the development process.
Allard explained that projects come to them in many ways and that’s what makes it fun. “We have started projects with a 2D drawing, a napkin sketch, or a model. The only thing that is the same is that they are never the same.”
But it always comes down to execution.
A few years ago, ThemeWorks worked with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC on a project for their Human Origins Exhibit. It required precise detail on a diorama that was not particularly thick and a designer was concerned with the level of detail the company would be able to achieve. The answer received from ThemeWorks was, “You can get the Lincoln Memorial on the back of a penny, so you can get a lot of detail in a two-and-a-half-inch deep diorama.” Lead sculptor Kevin Allard worked intensely to enhance shadows and etch detail into his lifesize representation of the African elephant. It hangs in the Smithsonian today.
The production facility has multiple areas to address the unending diversity of projects they receive. As one would expect of a major manufacturer, there is a wood shop, a CNC machine room, a welding area, metal shop and fiberglass room. Also included? An art room and sculpture studio.
“We work with plastics, foam, wood, aluminum, steel, laminates, epoxies, paints, you name it,” says Wayn Utman, ThemeWorks’ production manager.
When asked how production is managed when projects are constantly changing and many times consist of creating something that just doesn’t exist, Utman says, “It is an hourly collaboration with everyone. The goal is to make it happen whatever that project requires, and we simply have to figure it out.”
With at least six trades under one roof and up to 80 people in manufacturing, everyone becomes a well-rounded problem solver who has to step out of their comfort zone. “Our cabinet makers don’t just work with wood, they have to know metal, plastics, and fiberglass too,” Utman added.
Repeated problem solving requires creativity and energy, something that Jeff Guice, art director, says is constantly being recharged at ThemeWorks. “The nature of what we do and seeing the installations on-site is reenergizing. Every project uses multiple mediums, has a different production process, and is unique in what its focus is and where it will finally live.”
“The best is seeing tourists and trade people react to what we do, but also seeing animals having a blast in an aquarium environment you created is just fun,” added Guice.
Utman described a time not long ago when a shipment of fabricated trees was sent by truck to Chicago for an African exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo. Shortly after passing an agricultural inspection station on the highway, the driver was pulled over by multiple officials intending to cite him for violation. “We actually had the officials touch and feel the trees to convince them that they were not real,” said Utman proudly. That’s a pretty good assessment of quality.
“Finding the right people is and will always be our number one challenge. There’s just no substitute for talent,” says Kremser.
“Rather than relying on subcontractors, we keep the entire fabrication process in-house and we send our own people on-site to perform installations. That helps us ensure a very high level of quality and service, but it also means that our people have to be very flexible and highly skilled in multiple disciplines,” he explained.
“Over the years, we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve attracted a lot of world class talent to join our team,” Kremser continued. “We’ve built a great reputation and capacity, not sales, has become our limiting factor. Our ability to grow the business will be entirely dependent on our ability to bring in the right people and grow our team.”
So the future likely holds even more growth for ThemeWorks and its creations. And that’s not imagined.
By Kathryn Pizzurro