Attractions Expert Q&A: Bob Dennis

Bob Dennis is currently the senior director of resort development for global creative placemaking at Universal Beijing Resort, overseeing creative conception through construction management. 

Decepticoaster at Universal Beijing
Decepticoaster at Universal Beijing Resort

By Kendall Wolf

Bob Dennis has worked as a creative executive in China since 2016 – and before that, as art director for live entertainment at Universal Studios Japan. He also serves on the advisory board for Project for Public Spaces and served as creative director for 12 design/build theme park projects Internationally, as well as creative director at Paramount Design and Entertainment.

For almost 12 years, Bob developed curriculum and master classes for entertainment design majors at art colleges and universities internationally and worked with development partners to secure internships for new graduates. He still serves on the advisory board at Laguna College of Art and Design, providing his expertise on the specific art form of theme park design and lecturing on illustration and character development.

Bob Dennis

What theme park souvenir might we be surprised to find on your shelf? What’s the story behind it?

I have a lot of theme park souvenirs on my shelf at home. But, surprisingly, not one on my shelves at work. I like a Spartan work environment without clutter, and I especially don’t want to be distracted by old designs. My favorite souvenir is Bob the Minion’s bear, Tim. You can see him holding the little bear, and I love the plush hat because it is very warm and practical. I don’t mind at all that I look insane wearing it as a 62-year-old man.

What theme park have you always wanted to visit but have never been to? 

Tokyo Disney Sea. I have just been too busy, and that is not a good excuse.

Was there a theme park or attraction that made you want to be in this industry? How did it inspire you?

When I saw the Adventures of Conan the Barbarian live show at Universal Hollywood, I knew that I wanted to be in this industry. It was 1982, I believe. I remember thinking I want to make a show where a giant stuntman does battle with a giant snake. It was just so powerful for me. I was an Animal Health Technician at the time and studying to be a veterinarian. I never looked back. I was a little disappointed to find that there was no actual formal course of study at any college I could afford, so I apprenticed myself out to whoever would teach me. That happened to be Buzz Prize, Louis Allen, and Charles Cancilier.

What was your favorite ride/attraction as a child, and why?

Rebel Yell at King’s Dominion. My mom took me to Virginia when I was 16. She wanted to show me the Smithsonian and the capital. But, my Uncle Billy had other plans. He took me to the recently opened King’s Dominion. I rode Rebel Yell all day long. It was so exciting, and I remember I felt like I was flying. Needless to say, I became Creative Director there during the Paramount years and put in many new Roller Coasters such as Flight of Fear and Volcano Blast Coaster.

Was there a ride, attraction, or character that frightened you as a child?

I was traumatized by Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. I think I was four years old, and I truly believed I was supposed to be driving this stupid car that didn’t respond to me turning the steering wheel at all. I started crying uncontrollably when I thought we were going to hit the train. I honestly believed I was going to kill my mother seated next to me because I wasn’t driving correctly. Then, of course, there is that little devil at the end. This trauma stayed with me all through my life until I finally learned to drive for real and learned that Disney just put the steering wheel there to mess with little minds. I have remembered that my whole career.

What is the oddest or coolest job you’ve had in a theme park?

Creative Director at both Kings Dominion and Kings Island. We put in a lot of firsts. The oddest thing is that I started my career in theme parks as a Project Art Director for Hello Kitty’s theme park in Oita, Japan. I did not work my way up in the ranks. I worked on animation features before that, such as Beauty and the Beast. I was a contractor hired to log the ADR sessions. I finished that, and then everyone forgot what I was hired for. I spent my time in the rafters of the Bowling Alley with the animators learning how to do Layout, etc. From there, I became an art director for theme parks. I think that is very odd and cool at the same time.

What ride/attraction do you think everyone needs to experience and why?

Decepticoaster at Universal Beijing Resort. Not just because it is mine but because we made it so much better than Hulk. We created entirely new characters for the Transformers Canon that you may see soon in a theater near you. Decepticoaster is by far the best roller coaster I have done in my entire career. I never get tired of the screams. It makes me giddy.

If you were tasked with creating a new theme park food, what would it be?

I have to be careful here because we are always creating new theme park food. I am in charge of the Global Restaurant Development Group for Universal Beijing Resort, and we have 27 restaurants on the property (and counting). But if it were up to me, I would create thin-crust prosciutto, and arugula pizza with slow-cooked Roma tomato sauce and Parmigiana-Reggiano paired with Prosecco or Lambrusco. Oh wait, we have that at Red Oven Fire Backed Pizza. How about savory donuts filled with Sichuan pork sausage and cheese? We don’t have that yet.

You’re a walk-around character for a day – who do you choose?

Prince Charming. No need for plush and I can let my natural beauty shine through.

What types of attractions would you like to see more of and why?

More family-friendly rides that grandma and grandpa can enjoy with the grandchildren. I always feel bad that the attractions we put in to drive the gate can split up a family for a few hours. I love me a wild roller coaster, but we need more things that are family-friendly. I also think we can include family members that cannot ride by allowing them to see their loved ones from the family room while they ride. They can watch them scream in close-up technicolor. What if they could talk together during the ride?

Do you have any interesting theme park pandemic stories?

We built a park and operated it for over a year in the most draconian covid restrictions on the planet. I have plenty of stories but I also have serious PTSD issues about it. Someday, I will be ready to talk about the police picking me up in hazmat suits and taking me to a place next to the forbidden city. I did not have Covid, and I did not get Covid. However, I nearly died in the center because I was allergic to shrimp which they put in the rice as a sauce and did not tell me. There is no menu. And you are not allowed to leave even if you have trouble breathing. They sent a nurse and he told me to drink warm water and not eat shrimp. After that, they did not serve me any more shrimp.

Can you talk about what you are working on these days?

Ha Ha. I work for Universal Creative. I can’t tell you anything. Nice try. Loosen me up with fun and whimsical questions, and then ask the real one. I am the Senior Director for Resort Development at our newest theme park, which just won the THEA award for best new theme park in the world. That is what I am working on.

You are going to your favorite theme park – which industry people (dead or alive) are you taking with you?

Buzz Price, Louis Allen, Chuck Cancilier, Greg Damron, Luc Mayrand, Scott Trowbridge, and Chris Kubsch.

Kendall Wolf is a long-time consultant in the themed entertainment industry. She has worked with designers, producers, and fabricators to help developers create unique and successful projects around the world. In 2017, she introduced Merlin Entertainments to a development group in Sichuan province for the first Legoland park in China. Kendall continues to consult for the developer to open more themed resorts in China.


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