TEA Connect Blog

12 November 2019

TEA Member Spotlight: Susan Bonds

Learn about Susan Bonds, chair of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) 26th annual Thea Awards Committee.

The new slate of TEA Thea Awards recipients will be announced November 19, 2019 with a press conference at IAAPA Expo Orlando, followed by a press release. MORE INFO

Susan Bonds started as an aerospace engineer working for Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks, before joining Walt Disney Imagineering. There, she developed The Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland and Mission: SPACE at Epcot, two of the parks’ most popular and innovative attractions, and ran Imagineering’s Concept Studio, producing out-of-the box experiences. Susan then went on to produce the MMORPG, URU: Ages Beyond Myst before launching 42 Entertainment in 2004. Susan has developed and produced over 40 immersive entertainment experiences that have won over 50 awards, including the Cannes Cyber Grand Prix, multiple Webby Awards, Thea Awards and GDC Innovative Game of the Year. Recently, Susan launched an immersive entertainment studio, Animal Repair Shop, to design and launch next-generation mixed reality experiences, games, products, content and location-based entertainment.

Susan Bonds talks to the press at the opening of The Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland in 1995.

Interview with Susan Bonds by TEA publicist Judith Rubin

How did your participation within TEA begin and how did it evolve to your present role chairing the TEA Thea Awards Committee?

While at Disney Imagineering, we received a TEA Thea Award for The Indiana Jones Adventure, and Mission: SPACE, but I wasn’t fully aware of the reach and impact of the TEA organization until much later – 2012, when we were again honored with a Thea Award for Flynn Lives, a multi-year alternate reality experience that played out over multiple platforms, including themed entertainment venues.

You were instrumental in defining the Connected Immersion category for the Thea Awards. What is Connected Immersion?

After leaving Imagineering, I got into game development and produced massively multiplayer online games. Going from fully immersive brick and mortar to fully photorealistic virtual worlds was a great transition that taught us a lot about guest experience. We then developed a genre of gaming that uses the world as it’s gameboard, and the digital devices that guests have in their hands: Alternate Reality Gaming. This taught us that there are new tools and stories that can be told when physical and digital are mixed. Your experience can start before you visit a physical attraction, be enhanced while you are there in person, and continue after you leave. The possibilities for format and storytelling with connected immersion are endless and bring two industry talent pools together.

Susan Bonds at the opening of "Flynn Lives" in 2011

From your viewpoint, what are some of the most important ways the TEA Thea Awards benefit the industry?

Across guest experience, craft, technology innovation and authentic integration, showmanship, immersion, thrills and storytelling, the Thea Awards recognize excellence: Thoughtful evaluation and clear examples of what are the standards for excellence in this industry are incredibly important to recognize and celebrate, and should be aspirational for everyone.

How did you get your start in this industry?

I was lucky to be one of five kids needing to work our way through college, and Georgia Tech had a cooperative education program that allowed engineers to work six months of the year in their field while earning their degree. My big break was securing a job as an industrial engineer for a new Disney theme park at Walt Disney World: EPCOT. I was fortunate enough to work at WED [now WDI] for the entire period of construction, show installation, programming, T&A [Test and Adjust], opening and first year of operations at EPCOT. It was an incredible education with lasting mentors and friendships stemming from that collaborative experience.

Bonds in 1980 at Walt Disney World

Tell us about what you and your company specialize in and what markets you serve.

My company specializes in connected immersion and mixed reality: immersive experiences that incorporate emerging technologies, digital and physical show elements for stories and worlds that you can live in, personalize and perhaps even have a role. We are starting to break the “themed experience envelope” and allow people to not just spend their money, but also to expand  their imagination in new experiences.

What do you find is unique about working in our industry? What’s special about themed entertainment?

What I find most compelling about the themed entertainment industry is the crazy talent and collaboration to invent new ways to escape ordinary life for a few minutes, hours or days. So many experiences created by our industry make people smile, think differently about something, allow them to travel and explore, share experiences with family and friends, and just have fun. That’s an industry that’s very unique and special in the world.

What’s special about TEA? What motivates you to be a member and to participate as a volunteer and leader?

It is important for our community to share the talent, craft and disciplined design process behind these amazing themed entertainment projects. This ambition needs to be nurtured and explored so that we evolve and grow as a group. One of my favorite things is the TEA Summit each year, where we go behind the scenes and hear about the struggles and the triumphs. 

Bonds in 1994 in a Disneyland construction trailer for the Indiana Jones Adventure

Name an important change you have seen in the course of your career. 

When I left Disney and went into gaming, I started playing games myself and quickly realized there is a new language, entertainment dynamic and set of behaviors within digital experiences. I’m glad I was able to be part of communities that developed and stayed together for years online without ever meeting in person. These new aspects need to be understood to design experiences that will stand for the next 50 years the same way the classic attractions from our industry’s early days have stood the test of time.

Do you have a favorite slogan or saying? 

Something that has stuck with me from EPCOT days is “If we can dream it, we can do it!”

What advice would you give to others looking to enter the themed entertainment industry? 

Themed entertainment is about crafting an experience, story, and immersive environment around the guest. My best advice from WED Imagineers was to always look at everything from the guest’s perspective. And, as Tony Baxter once told me, enjoy the journey of creation as much as the finished product.

What makes a great leader in this industry? 

Listen, respect, inspire, innovate, evolve and teach others not just how to dream, but how to do it!

 

 

 

 

Posted by Judy Rubin

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