Phil Hettema

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Philip D. Hettema
Born 1955
Occupation President and Creative Executive
Known for The Hettema Group

Philip D. Hettema (born 1954) is the President and Creative Executive of The Hettema Group. With a distinguished 40-year legacy in themed entertainment, Phil leads a world-class team of experience designers, architects, and media producers known for creating uniquely compelling guest experiences with great emotional resonance. Notable projects include One World Observatory at One World Trade Center, New York City; the High Roller Observation Wheel at The Linq, Las Vegas; and Beyond All Boundaries at the National World War II Museum, New Orleans.  

Prior to starting his own company in 2002, Hettema worked as the Senior Vice President of Universal Creative and in managerial positions at Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. He has also been credited as a production supervisor of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics, and has several patents to his name.

Phil is an alumni of ArtCenter College of Design, where he has instructed courses and endowed a scholarship for Environmental Design. He is currently the President of the Board of Directors for Ryman Arts and has been a guest lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University, USITT, IAAPA, KIN, ICOM, SIGGRAPH, and TED. Phil holds four patents for entertainment technology solutions and has been honored with numerous awards from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) including The Buzz Price Award, recognizing a lifetime of distinguished achievement (2018), as well as Thea Awards for One World Observatory (2016), Beyond All Boundaries (2010), FiestAventura (2000), The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (2000), Universal’s Islands of Adventure (2000), and Terminator 2:3D (1997).  

Early life[edit]

Hettema was born in 1954 and grew up in Southern California.  He describes himself as a “child of the theme park age.” As a Californian, he visited Disneyland regularly in his youth, and it captured his imagination. Later, when studying music at California State University, Long Beach, it made sense to apply for a part-time job at Disneyland. It turned out to be a life-changing decision.


By the age of 18, Hettema was studying music at California State University, Long Beach, with weekend employment in the wardrobe department at Disneyland. After a short stint, he was relocated to the character department to work on parade design and costume development. Hettema quit his music degree as he was promoted to managerial positions within Disney. In these roles he oversaw costuming for the Main Street Electrical Parade and America on Parade Bicentennial Celebration in Florida.  Hettema quit Disney and returned to California to study illustration at Art Center College of Design. Before he could finish the degree he was offered a job working with puppets for Sid and Marty Krofft.[1]

Hettema then worked with a number of Walt Disney Imagineering employees to develop attractions for a Beatrix Potter theme park in England. Although this theme park never eventuated, these connections led to him working as one of three production supervisors on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The production supervisors from the Olympics then worked for Liberty Weekend, a celebration for the centenary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986.[1]

Universal Creative[edit]

In January 1987, Hettema joined the six-person team at MCA Planning and Development, Universal Parks & Resorts' research and development division that was later renamed Universal Creative.[1][2] He joined as a line producer for a planned show at Universal Studios Hollywood; however, on his first day he was told the existing script was discarded and he would be required to start fresh. During the development of a show themed to the Rambo film series, Hettema was informed the show's theme would be changed to Miami Vice. This left Hettema and his team less than four and a half months to develop the Miami Vice Action Spectacular, prior to opening on July 4, 1987.[1]

Hettema's next project was to help design Back to the Future: The Ride, which was originally set to debut at Universal Studios Hollywood.[1] Steven Spielberg tasked Universal Creative and the Totally Fun Company create a simulator ride concept based around Back to the Future. The project was an attempt to better George Lucas' Star Tours that had recently opened at Disneyland. However, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts were building Disney-MGM Studios, a studio tour-themed park, something Universal had previously envisioned for the Florida area. As a result, plans to develop Universal Studios Florida were revived and Back to the Future: The Ride opened in 1991 at the park.[3]

Not long after the opening, planning began for a second theme park at the Florida site. Hettema worked on the initial concepts of Cartoon World, a park to feature DC Comics, Dr. Seuss and Warner Bros.-themed attractions.[1] With the successful release of Jurassic Park, and unsuccessful negotiations with Warner Bros., the designers had to rethink the concept of the park.[4] Islands of Adventure was subsequently developed featuring the intellectual properties of Dr. Seuss, Jurassic Park, Marvel Comics, Jay Ward Productions and Paramount Pictures. While Hettema oversaw much of the park's design, he is credited with helping to invent the ride systems for The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and The Cat in the Hat.[5][6]

As the development of Islands of Adventure was wrapping up, Universal Creative employees began developing concepts for Universal Studios Japan and the Men in Black: Alien Attack attraction for Universal Studios Florida. Hettema headed up both projects.[2][7] The Men in Black design team initially intended to utilize the Spider-Man ride system; however, when shooting tests were performed on the ride, the vast motion of the vehicles made it impossible for riders to achieve a reasonable score. As a result, The Cat in the Hat system was selected for Men in Black: Alien Attack.[7][8] A patent relevant to the attraction's technology cites Hettema as an inventor.[6]

Before finishing up with Universal Creative, Hettema was credited with working on Backdraft, Jurassic Park: The Ride and T2 3-D: Battle Across Time.[9] He was also part of the team that made the first pitch to Warner Bros. for the rights to Harry Potter in amusement parks. As part of their proposal, a stage show was devised consisting of live actors and a variety of special effects. In other Universal Creative planning meetings, Hettema voted against the company obtaining the theme park rights for The Lord of the Rings.[1] Hettema left Universal Creative in 2001.[2]

The Hettema Group[edit]

Not long after leaving Universal, Hettema was called by a representative of the King of Jordan in the Middle East, who had an idea involving the creation of a new development community in Aqaba, Jordan. After accepting the project, Hettema and a small group of friends, collectively known as Phil Hettema and Associates, flew out to Jordan on one-way tickets.[1] From 2002 through to 2006, the team developed concepts for the Saraya Aqaba development in Aqaba.[2] Phil Hettema and Associates ultimately became The Hettema Group.[1]

The Hettema Group is unique among most experiential design specialists in that they have a deep creative team, highly experienced media producers, as well as full in-house architectural capabilities. The Hettema Group’s projects frequently achieve iconic status, and they inspire long-standing relationships with colleagues and clients.

Phil Hettema and The Hettema Group have worked closely with Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation as their exclusive designer for theme park attractions and location-based entertainment. “Phil is one of the most innovative and creative and dynamic storytellers in the world of live experiences,” said Katzenberg. “He’s done so many amazing projects over the years – everything from Seuss Landing at Universal, to One World Observatory in New York. He’s just incredibly diverse and skilled at all the many elements of three-dimensional storytelling. He is pretty unique.”

The Hettema Group has performed a number of projects for various clients around the world. These have included Dragons Wild Shooting at Lotte WorldHigh Roller in Las Vegas, and the One World Observatory in New York City.[11][12][13][14][15] Additionally, The Hettema Group has also worked for Universal Creative, reimagining the original Jurassic Park ride for Universal Studios Singapore where Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure was subsequently opened.[16]


With Universal Creative
Attraction Original location Year opened[nb 1]
Miami Vice Action Spectacular Universal Studios Hollywood 1987
Back to the Future: The Ride Universal Studios Florida 1991
Backdraft Universal Studios Hollywood 1992
Jurassic Park: The Ride Universal Studios Hollywood 1996
T2 3-D: Battle Across Time Universal Studios Florida 1996
N/A Cartoon World Concept only
N/A Islands of Adventure 1999
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man Islands of Adventure 1999
The Cat in the Hat Islands of Adventure 1999
Men in Black: Alien Attack Universal Studios Florida 2000
N/A Universal Studios Japan 2001
With The Hettema Group[10]
Attraction Location
America I Am: The African American Imprint United States
Beyond All Boundaries New Orleans, United States
Dragons Wild Shooting Lotte World, South Korea
Everland Sky Cruise Everland, South Korea
Explore: Blue Planet Red Planet Museum of Science and Industry, Illinois, United States
ExplorOcean Newport Beach, California, United States
Hello Kitty Park Anji County, China
High Roller Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
Intercontinental Hotel Aqaba, Jordan
Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure Universal Studios Singapore, Singapore
Malaysia Truly Asia Center Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Matching Movie Town Thailand
Motion Picture Theme Park Middle East
One World Observatory New York City, New York, United States
Project Crescent Middle East
Russian Jewish Museum Moscow, Russia
Saraya Aqaba Aqaba, Jordan
Themed Destination Resort Middle East
TreePeople Center for Community Forestry Los Angeles, California, United States
USA Pavilion Expo 2012, Yeosu, South Korea


  1. ^ These dates indicate when the various projects opened to the public, not when Hettema was working on them.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Hettema, Phil (1 October 2013). "#246 - The Phil Hettema Interview". The Season Pass Podcast (Interview). Interview with Doug Barnes and Brent Young. Retrieved 13 October 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c Hettema, Phil. "Phil Hettema". LinkedIn. Retrieved 13 October 2013. 
  3. ^ Alexander, Peter. "King Kong: The Monster Who Created Universal Studios Florida". Totally Fun Company. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 
  4. ^ Schneider, Mike (July 5, 1998). "Theme Parks Set in Motion Around Conference Tables". Lakeland Ledger. Retrieved October 15, 2013. 
  5. ^ US patent 6095926, Hettema, Philip D.; Mason, William D. & Goddard, Gary, "Amusement ride vehicle", issued August 1, 2000, assigned to Universal Studios 
  6. ^ a b US patent 6220965, Hanna, Craig R.; Sauer, Jennifer K. & Hettema, Philip D., "Amusement system", issued April 24, 2001, assigned to Universal City Studios, Inc. 
  7. ^ a b O'Brien, Tim (March 6, 2000). "$70 Million Interactive Ride Set For Universal". Amusement Business. 112 (10): 1, 18. 
  8. ^ Hill, Jim (May 20, 2003). "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you .." Jim Hill Media. Retrieved September 7, 2013. 
  9. ^ Hettema, Phil. "Phil Hettema". The Hettema Group. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 
  10. ^ "Projects". The Hettema Group. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 

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