About the Thea Awards

Like the TEA - Themed Entertainment Association itself, the Thea Awards were created to bring recognition to achievement, talent and personal excellence within the themed entertainment industry. From a modest beginning in 1994, the Thea Awards have become internationally recognized as a symbol of excellence.

From the start of the TEA in 1991, the TEA’s founder, Monty Lunde, felt our industry represented some of the most accomplished yet under-recognized talents working in all of entertainment. Therefore after launching the TEA, and guiding it safely through the first critical years, Monty’s next priority was the creation of an award that would bring recognition and prestige to the people of our industry.

Photo at top: Michael Mercadante, then President of the TEA International Board of Directors, opens the 25th annual TEA Thea Awards Gala presented by Chimelong at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California USA in 2019.

TEA's first Awards Judging Committee was comprised of Bob Rogers, Pat Scanlon and Barry Howard. In early 1994 they met in a single session at Monty’s Restaurant (an ironic coincidence, no relationship to Mr. Lunde) in the west San Fernando Valley. The choice of an honoree was easy: Industry veteran, Harrison “Buzz” Price would be the first recipient of the only award to be given out that year — the TEA Lifetime Achievement Award (now called the Buzz Price Thea Award Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements)

The name of the award is a play on three words: The first is “Thea,” the Greek goddess from whom all light emanates. Thea was the mother of Helios (the sun), Eos (the dawn) and Selene (the moon). The second key word is “Theater,” a word which derives from the goddess Thea. The third word, of course, is “TEA,” the name of our association. The original Thea and AOA (Award for Outstanding Achievement) trophies were designed by Barry Howard and Jeremy Railton. The new Thea, which debuted in 2001, was designed by Zofia Kostryko.

The first year’s ceremony was produced by Ron Miziker of Miziker Entertainment, and the event was coordinated by Jana Love with Monty Lunde serving as Chairman of the Awards Ceremony Committee and master of ceremonies. It was held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and was attended by over 200 people. The evening was partly a tribute and partly an affectionate “roast” of Buzz, although at least one speaker came with the impression that it was a men-only “smoker” and mortified the guest of honor and audience members with his presentation. Overall, the balance of the evening was magnificent. Many of us were so astonished by the sight of each other in tuxedos and evening gowns that we agreed to do it again the following year.

Our second year, in 1995, our single honoree was Walt Disney Imagineering’s Marty Sklar and again the event was held at the Biltmore, but in a bigger room with about 350 people in attendance. Again the format was a series of speakers, roasting and saluting the honoree. One of the highlights was a long parade of “Marty’s former secretaries” in which half of the ladies in the audience participated. (Marty had a reputation for high turnover among his administrative assistants!)

Thea’s third year (1996) was a major turning point. That year, the Awards for Outstanding Achievement (AOA) were introduced, turning the TEA Thea Awards into a multi-award event. Ten AOA awards were distributed and several breakthrough traditions were established that have come to characterize the Thea Awards:

  • The objective of the Thea Awards is simple: To find excellence and celebrate it. It is not a judgment of winners and losers. The achievements selected for awards are chosen because they represent the excellence found throughout the themed entertainment industry. This simple philosophy guides the entire Thea process.
  • There are no surprise announcements, no secret names in envelopes, no division of attendees into winners and losers at the Thea Awards. Everyone walks in a winner and leaves as a winner. This Thea tradition brings our industry together for a completely positive evening.
  • Membership in the TEA is not a requirement or a consideration in judging. Excellence is our only standard.
  • Within the AOA there are no set categories. The TEA is free to honor several achievements in the same category or to skip categories, as the year’s achievements warrant.
  • The AOA honors the entire achievement and everyone who worked on the achievement. We ask the owner of the achievement to designate the individuals who will come to the podium to collect the award on behalf of all of the people and companies who contributed to the achievement. These two Thea traditions remove the TEA from the impossible task of trying to determine or arbitrate credits (an issue in which the TEA has no legal standing) and it spreads the sense of honor and accomplishment to all who worked on the achievement. Thus the Thea Awards become an event that brings us together rather than one that tears us apart.
  • To receive a Thea Award, the owner of the achievement must provide a credits list, which TEA publishes in the official Thea Awards Program. In this way, the TEA Thea Awards established the very first standards and requirements for credits in the attractions industry. The publication of credits has been a significant breakthrough - many operators and clients in our industry had previously resisted doing so. The credits lists have helped build awareness of the multi-faceted, multidisciplinary nature of our industry and of the true scope and breadth of the project teams that bring about these achievements. They also provide recognition to individuals and companies on those teams and are a symbolic handshake between the owner-operator and the creative/supplier community that TEA represents. The creation of our industry’s first credits may be Thea’s greatest accomplishment to date.
  • Trophies for the team - Individuals and companies named on the official credits list of a Thea-honored project are entitled to obtain their own trophies from TEA.
  • Open nominations - Anyone can nominate a project, person or technology for a Thea Award. It is not necessary to be a TEA member. You can nominate your own project.

Also noteworthy in 1996, as a variation of the usual Lifetime Achievement Award, the TEA gave a special AOA for Outstanding Individual to Monty Lunde, the founder of the association.

In 1997 two additional special categories of the AOA were created. Excellence on a Limited Budget (assuring annual recognition for one or more achievements created for less than $5 million) and the Thea Classic Award, honoring one achievement each year, which has stood the test of time.

For 2014-2015, new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions at Universal Studios prompted the Thea Awards Juding Committee to create the Paragon Award, which recognizes a project that sets a new bar of excellence. In 2017 (and since) several Thea recipients have represented the newly created category of Connected Immersion, recognizing that tremendous advances in technology, social behavior and connectivity are reinventing our notion of storytelling and the possibilities of guest experience.

As our industry has expanded globally, the TEA Thea Awards have reflected this and the geographic coverage of the awards has grown accordingly. It should also be noted that the Thea Awards are not by any means confined to theme parks. Museums and museum exhibitions, heritage centers, casinos, multimedia spectaculars, brand experiences, theatrical productions and many other types of attractions and guest experiences fall into the realm of projects that can be eligible for a TEA Thea Award.

The TEA Peter Chernack Distinguished Service Award is also presented at the Thea Awards Gala. This award was created and is decided by the TEA Past Presidents Committee, and was renamed in honor of the late Peter Chernack, a past president of TEA who was instrumental in conceiving this award.

Just prior to the evening of the Thea Awards Gala, the Thea Award recipients receive a special showcase at TEA Thea Case Studies Day, which is the second day of the annual TEA Summit conference. Together, the TEA Summit and Thea Awards Gala are the biggest weekend of the year for TEA and the international attractions industry that TEA serves, bringing together hundreds of entertainment professionals from around the globe to learn, network and celebrate. The elegant, black-tie dinner event that is the Thea Awards Gala has become THE social/business event of the year within our industry. Over the decades, TEA has created a series of great awards shows — each one topping the previous.

The Thea Awards are now internationally recognized as the equivalent of an Academy Award in the themed entertainment industry. Each year over a hundred highly qualified achievements from all over the world compete for between 12 and 18 awards. Traditional awards include:

  • The Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Outstanding Achievements
  • The AOA (Award for Outstanding Achievement) – Any Category
  • The AOA for Achievement on a Limited Budget – Any Category
  • The AOA for Technological Achievement
  • The Thea Classic Award (Recognizing an achievement, usually an attraction, that has stood the test of time)
  • The Thea Catalyst Award, recognizing an individual who has recently made an important impact benefitting our industry.

But the overriding objective remains to find excellence and celebrate it — a search for projects that call attention to the excellence that exists throughout our industry.

 As we look to the future, the Thea Awards will continue to grow, evolve and change, never forgetting their original objective of bringing recognition to achievement, talent and professional personal excellence within our themed entertainment industry.

Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts provided essential information for this article.