Destinations

Universal Orlando Entertainment Director on Content Creation

Aug 18, 2014 6:00 am

Skift Take

Universal Orlando must be doing something right. Competition from new attractions at Universal Orlando and Disney has eaten SeaWorld’s lunch.

— Jason Clampet

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Universal Orlando

Diagon Alley brings even more of Harry Potter’s adventures to life at Universal Orlando Resort. Universal Orlando


Michael Aiello has spent half his life working for Universal Orlando. He was on the theme parks’ streets as one of the Blues Brothers and as Jack the Clown, a Halloween Horror Nights icon. The 36-year-old Orlando native eventually moved off the front lines and, last year, landed the position of director of entertainment — creative development for the resort. He talked about his career with Sentinel reporter Dewayne Bevil.

How did you get your start at Universal Orlando?

I started at Universal on March 8, 1996. I was a skipper on the Jaws boat. It was my first job. It was going to be a summer job that turned into 18-plus years.

Were you psyched to be a skipper?

It was awesome because I’m a huge movie fan. Being on the Jaws ride was like a mini-movie every 41/2 minutes, and you’re the star of it.

You also had early work with Halloween Horror Nights?

My first entertainment job was with Halloween Horror Nights as a scare actor. It was in 1997, I believe, in the maze Hotel Hell. … I had to pop out of a washing machine 80 times an hour. But I caught the bug.

How did you go from being a performer to being a creator?

I had submitted a script for [Horror Nights stage show] “Bill & Ted.” … Everyone seemed to like it, so they hired me on for one day to help punch up the “Bill & Ted” show in 2002. It was an eight-hour call of me riffing with Michael Roddy — he was the show director and writer at the time — just riffing back and forth, giving him some gags and bits he could include in the script, and that was it. And then a year passes, and Michael had gone to do some other things, and I was the only one on the books that had written anything for “Bill & Ted.” So I get a call … “Hey, we want to bring you in with a guy named Kenny Babel, and we want you guys to write the show this year.” I was floored.

What next?

That really kind of opened the door for me in Art and Design and to meet people and get a sense who does this stuff here. … In 2005, I officially became a show director in entertainment. … It’s the sort of mindset of putting yourself out there, seeing what you can do. If you do great, do better. If there are challenges, figure out what they are and keep going and see what happens.

You were promoted last year. Does it feel like a grown-up job?

There are some additional responsibilities. Like with Halloween, we have a lot of licensed brands that we’re working with to replicate the content or expand the content that they own. That’s been a new facet to my job, to be that liaison. … The big-boy pants of the job have been being in more high-profile meetings with individuals who own these brands, ensuring them that we are heralding their brand with the best quality possible.

You had a hand with Universal Studios Japan’s Horror Nights last year?

It was myself and [Universal show director] Patrick Braillard. We both went out there for many, many weeks and helped them with their street content. Last year, it was all about zombies. They wanted hordes and hordes of zombies,

The bar was set high with the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Were you nervous about the entertainment offerings for the new Diagon Alley?

If you’re not nervous about the content you’re creating, you’re not doing it right. There should always be a sense of excitement and nervous tension in what you’re creating, I believe.

As a former skipper, what did you think when you heard the Jaws ride would go away to make room for more Potter?

The reaction for me was definitely bittersweet. But for me, personally, I saw it as an evolution. Again, I was thinking only about myself. In my brain, it was more of an evolution of “There’s where I started, and now I have the privilege of being able to create something new right there.” … Then, of course, I went and walked around and rode the ride a bunch of times after that and was very nostalgic.

dbevil@tribune.com or 407-420-5477 ___

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