After four years at Universal Orlando, Cindy Gordon recently moved on from the resort after heading their new media projects. During her time there, she led several exciting initiatives to integrate Universal Orlando’s efforts with new media. Considered one of the industry’s brightest creative minds, Cindy recently visited with us for an exclusive interview covering her experiences in the theme park world.
By Chad Emerson
Q: Prior to joining Universal Orlando, where had you been?
A: I've had the good fortune of marketing some very dynamic brands including Jeep, Dodge, Dunkin' Donuts, Togos, Baskin-Robbins, NutraSweet and KPMG. My background includes both agency and client side experience.
Q: Tell us how you ended up at Universal Orlando in the first place?
A: I was recruited to Universal while working with the CEO of Polaroid on a Boston-based community outreach program. To be honest, when I got the call, I had never been to Universal Orlando, and wasn't all that familiar with the property. When I went down for my interview, I was blown away by what I saw and the opportunity that unfolded.
I felt as though I had been transported to another dimension - a dynamic, complex and fun city, and I was surrounded by so much energy and so much pop culture that I was completely energized. I remember how emotional it made me feel to see families literally skipping from their cars or hotels down the path to the theme park because they were so excited to GET THERE. In my head I could literally see the family calendar posted on the wall with the "GO to Universal Orlando" date bolded and circled with a bright marker. Their anticipation about going to this special place was moving for me. I accepted the job without hesitation.
Q: What was the first project you handled after arriving at Universal Orlando?
A: The very first project? Well, this one will tell you a lot about the Universal Orlando brand and how it's a brand that is unafraid to be edgy and irreverent. Universal Pictures was launching a sequel to "The Fockers" movie, called "Meet The Fockers". I was asked to develop a synergy PR program that would both promote the movie and simultaneously promote the theme park. What we did was to announce the first ever "Focker Family Reunion" and let's just say, we generated tremendous press coverage. Even had a few reporters lose their composure and cry/laugh during their normally serious newscasts. Focker families joined us at Universal from all over the globe. There were a lot of fake Fockers who tried to join the reunion but our snappy website detected the frauds.
Q: Tell us how about your career at Universal Orlando evolved and what positions you held?
A: For three years I was the VP of Communications, overseeing both media issues and crisis management as well as proactive brand and event communications. It's a great job because you get to use both the left and right sides of your brain.
During this time I worked on many exciting initiatives and launched many new attractions and events such as Fear Factor, Halloween Horror Nights, Blue Man Group, High In The Sky Seuss Trolley, Mardi Gras and Grad Bash, and we also announced The Simpsons Ride and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I had a very talented PR team, with folks like Tom Schroder at my side, and we were truly expert in branded event and new launch communications.
During my tenure, we also made great progress fostering partnerships with top national media including The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Today Show, CBS Morning Show, Comcast, The Food Network, and VH1. Those shows garnered Universal some pretty terrific and in-depth brand coverage.
Following the successful social media driven announcement of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I was tapped to pioneer new media and social media, and had the perfect opportunity to cut my teeth in this new role with the launch of The Simpsons Ride. The large, cult-fan base for the Simpsons brand made viral, online media one of the cornerstones of our integrated launch program. Millions of fans had created an avatar of themselves in the likeness of a Springfield resident for the launch of the Simpsons Movie, and with simpsonsride.com, we gave these avatars a new place to play online. The website, as we predicted, garnered tremendous viral buzz and served as a big boost to building out our customer database.
Q: What were some unexpected challenges you encountered while working in the theme park industry?
A: The amusement industry was even faster paced than I imagined. No sooner are you done with one launch or announcement than you're onto the next one. There's really no downtime, and very little time to look back and reflect. But that's also what makes it fun. It's perfect for people like me who suffer from a little adult ADD.
The unexpected communications challenge I encountered was that many people continue to think that Disney and Universal are the same place. So, more work had to be done to differentiate the brands.
Q: What about unexpected benefits?
A: Does riding the Hulk and eating Dots during my lunch break count? It's a fun place to work. And the people who work at Universal are brilliantly creative. On my first day on the job I remember thinking, "Wow, I finally landed a job where I'm actually getting paid to make people scream!"
Q: Tell us about your strangest experience while working at Universal Orlando?
A: Halloween. I was warned about Halloween Horror Nights, but the experience was completely surreal for me. I had never experienced anything so over the top scary and creative all at once, and I did feel a huge sense of accomplishment that I made it through all of the haunted houses without bolting out of an emergency exit.
Q: How was working the amusement park industry different than your previous work?
A: In some ways it's different, and in other ways not at all different.
The skills involved and the art of launching and marketing a theme park attraction, a cup of coffee, or a new car are all surprisingly similar, but I have to say that theme park communications is consistently more dramatic because the events and attractions are rooted in immersive pop culture entertainment.
The similarity of Universal to Chrysler is that you are constantly in launch mode and your PR events tend toward the big and dramatic. We did things like drop trucks from ceilings, crash cars through windows, and simulate lightning storms at COBO Hall in Detroit, and generally had a lot of fun like we did at Universal.
The similarity of Universal to Dunkin' Brands is the tremendous number of guests being served in a day. Whether it's in one location as in the case of Universal, or in any one of the 12,000 retail store locations in the case of Dunkin', that's a lot of activity and a lot of people, and so the opportunity for issues and incidents to occur is naturally there. A big difference from my perspective is that marketing a single destination that also happens to be a high-ticket item is definitely more challenging than selling a cup of coffee that can be bought on every street corner for a couple bucks. But flipping that challenge into an opportunity, it's exactly because Universal is a single destination that we were able to partner with celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and with shows like the Today Show to broadcast from the Resort and generate the kind of intensive, on-message, and in-depth coverage that other brands crave.
Q: What do you think are the best ways to integrate new media and the amusement park industry?
A: I think the big opportunity is to bring the theme park to life on the web in a way that feels very real. The win is to create a life like immersive interactive experience that is compelling yet complementary to the theme park experience, so that prospective guests want to schedule a visit on the spot.
In my view the Halloween Horror Nights website and viral marketing campaign is the standard to beat. The team really has taken the site to new heights of immersive entertainment and is using leading edge viral and social media technologies.
Q: If you were to return to Universal Orlando as a visitor, how would you spend your perfect vacation day?
A: That's easy. Done it a dozen times with my family. And we'd do it the same way again. We start off the day early and head straight to Marvel Super Hero Island for a couple of turns on the Incredible Hulk, Dr. Doom's Freefall and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Then we charge over to the Lost Continent for a spin on (both) the Dueling Dragons and take a late morning splash on Ripsaw Falls if it's a warm day. We ring dry as we walk over to Finnegans for lunch and a beer at Universal Studios while we each take turns riding The Mummy multiple times. We'd cap off the day at the parks with my absolute favorite attraction,The Simpsons Ride. Late afternoon, we like to cool off on the water slide at the Hard Rock Hotel, and then head to dinner at our fave Italian restaurant, Pastamore on CityWalk where we hope we'll be greeted by Joey Bag o' Donuts, the best in the business.
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Halloween Risk Management for Amusement Parks: Curbing the Scary Specter of Legal Liability
Amusement Law : Theme Park Trends in Central Florida and the Game of "What-If?"
The Simpsons Ride Opens at Universal Orlando
Disaster! A Major Motion Picture Ride… Starring You! Opens Today at Universal Orlando Resort