Former Disney Imagineer Ryan Harmon Reimagines Experiences Outside the Parks

Ever since the country reopened following the shutdown of most available entertainment experiences brought about by COVID-19, consumers have been looking for new and exciting ways to enjoy themselves. They don’t want to return to the way things were before — they want to head into the new future of entertainment, one that combines the contemporary edge of new technology while still delivering the great fun they expect.

Ryan Harmon, the President and Chief Creative Officer of Zeitgeist Design & Production, has extensive experience in design, with a decades-long career with time as an Imagineer for Disney — where he still serves as a consultant. He also serves on senior creative positions at Delaney-Harmon, Story Dept., Universal Creative, Warner Bros., BRC Imagination Arts, and Landmark Entertainment Group, as well as a vast array of consulting work.

Creating “user experiences in real life”

The motto of Zeitgeist is “UX-IRL,” which stands for “User eXperiences In Real Life.” In other words, they are making the entertainment experiences of today, designing entertainment that is both extraordinarily timely while also maintaining a feeling of timeliness. Many of the experiences created by Zeitgeist are so immersive that they are beyond what the person who commissioned them could have even dreamed. 

Like many other design and production studios, Zeitgeist works with existing IPs and brands while also working to develop original stories and historical accounts. However, they do so with a twist, emphasizing the storytelling and immersion just as much as the fun. They don’t want to create entertainment that is simply amusing — this will only provide visitors with a brief, fleeting feeling of fun — they want immersive experiences, ones that create memories that will last a lifetime.

Part of what makes Zeitgeist so unique is Harmon’s ability to find inspiration in unique places. While he often looks to established pop culture and other trends in the entertainment industry, he also explores the deeper concepts of humanity found in art, fashion, music, literature, architecture, history, and even basic human nature. 

“We hope that by thinking outside the box, we can give consumers an experience that is both fun and truly original,” Harmon asserts. “We are in the business of creating experiences and memories, and there is no better way to be memorable than to be unique.”

A perfect example of this can be found in Zeitgeist’s collaboration with theme park giant Hersheypark for their Dark Nights event. The team at Zeitgeist helped to create three immersive walkthrough haunted house experiences based on local Pennsylvania folklore and legends. These aren’t the type of haunted houses you might be used to seeing — with costumes and sets that look like a community theater production. Rather, Zeitgeist’s Dark Nights experiences offer elaborate costumes and movie-quality sets that will fully immerse the visitor in the terror.

Blending new tech with established principles

Indeed, Zeitgeist lives up to its namesake, a German word meaning “spirit of the times.” Without sacrificing the traditional theatrical techniques that have made everyone love being entertained throughout the years, Harmon and his crew combine them with state-of-the-art technology that makes it much more immersive. The name of the game in entertainment these days is cutting-edge, and that is precisely what Zeitgeist sets out to do on every one of its projects.

Experiences beyond the theme parks

Although Zeitgeist began within the theme park industry, thanks to Harmon’s extensive resumé working for theme parks, the company has expanded into developing other forms of immersive, location-based entertainment. The team also offers brand experiences, special venue media, live shows, museums, experimental retail, resorts, restaurants, and more — all of which boast the same creative flair they bring to each one of their projects.

Some examples of immersive experiences that Zeitgeist has worked on outside of theme parks include the Pirate Bay Playground and the Louisiana Music Experience. These experiences — an indoor children’s entertainment center and a music museum, respectively — certainly aren’t the experiences one would typically associate with immersive design. Still, Harmon and his crew are changing the game, making these experiences more immersive and memorable. 

According to Harmon, he operates his shop akin to a film production. Zeitgeist keeps its core team of creatives small and expands it as needed, ensuring that as much money as possible goes into the project and its design. Zeitgeist also does not believe in “B teams,” with every single staff member at Zeitgeist being thoroughly qualified and experienced, and senior staff members taking charge of all projects.

Zeitgeist’s work is representative of the shift towards entertainment experiences that are much more immersive and innovative. With the convenience and quality of entertainment options available from home, in-person entertainment options must prove their worth to consumers to be successful. With their innovative blend of modern technology with tried-and-true principles, Harmon and his team at Zeitgeist are delivering those extraordinary experiences.

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