For many SCAD students, being a Bee represents the second leg of their collegiate journey, whether that means they transferred in or enrolled in a graduate program. The former was the case for Kevin Kalbfeld who discovered SCAD after several significant experiences and encounters through his love for themed entertainment design.

Kalbfeld grew up in Oak Park, California and graduated from SCAD in 2016 with a BFA in production design with a minor in themed entertainment design. He currently works in Burbank at Rethink Leisure and Entertainment, a themed entertainment design firm working on multiple, large-scale projects.

Image courtesy of Kevin Kalbfeld.

Before Kalbfeld got to SCAD and eventually Rethink, he started at the University of Arizona in their engineering program and then their architecture program. According to Kalbfeld, he was disillusioned by the curriculum in both programs, because it did not seem to align with what he wanted to pursue professionally, theme park design.

“I found myself in a semester where I couldn’t take any architecture classes and decided to do something I’d always wanted to do, The Disney College Program,” Kalbfeld said. “I started in August of 2012 as an operator for Pirates of the Caribbean at Walt Disney World. I also found being on the east coast to be [an] advantage, for I had always wanted to attend the IAAPA (the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) Expo, exclusively held in Orlando.”  

Kalbfeld took a taxi from his College Program apartment at Chatham Square to the Orlando Convention Center every day of the Expo that November. While waiting in line for a panel discussion about Disney’s EPCOT’s 30th Anniversary, Kalbfeld noticed a group of about 15 students in line with him.

“As these were the first students I had seen all week, I had to ask them where they were from,” Kalbfeld explained. “They proceeded to tell me about this mystical place called SCAD where there was a theme park design program already implemented and where others, obsessed like me, attended theme park design classes.”

Many of those students Kalbfeld chatted with before and after the panel are now good friends of his, including one who became his current roommate. Following the presentation, Kalbfeld met and talked with Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter.

“We really hit it off and decided to stay in contact,” Kalbfeld said. “While back in California, I attended my local community college for a semester and teetered on where I desired to go next. During a meet up at Walt Disney Imagineering between me and Tony, I point blank asked him, ‘Should I go to SCAD?’ Just as I had hoped, he gave me an honest answer that SCAD seemed to have the right people and a passionate set of students and that I should definitely give it a shot. So that’s how I decided to go to SCAD. It only took inspiration from my peers and a push from my hero.”

For Kalbfeld, one of the best things about his SCAD experience was that it provided him with a “protective bubble” where he could “freely fail.” Kalbfeld said his professors created an environment in which he could constantly try new things while creating his artistic voice.

“I didn’t even find that voice until the very end of my time at SCAD,” Kalbfeld said. “My teachers did not grade me on how well a project turned out for face value. They truly cared whether I was pushing myself. This made me want to push harder and try new things with every project. Yes, most of my projects at SCAD were things I would not show to a potential employer today, but each one was an iterative step for me to find my voice as an artist. That experience is invaluable. Without the grace and understanding of my instructors and mentors I would not have the opportunity to learn how to fail well.”

Kalbfeld said SCAD also taught him that everything is a learning experience, even academic efforts that seemed monotonous. He pointed out that, as with any university, there are required classes students prefer not to take, but for his courses at SCAD, not one was a waste of his time.

“Some classes I foolishly predicted to be useless, like script interpretation and art history, ended up being the most valuable classes I would take in my educational career,” Kalbfeld said. “Those classes taught universal truths of design that can be applied across all forms of art and all mediums. During my time at SCAD, I learned that, as artists, we must be willing to take every new experience as inspiration and education.”

A combination of great work as well as SCAD’s reputation in the industry helped Kalbfeld land a full time job at Rethink almost a year before he graduated. After spending much of his time learning what he was not good at, Kalbfeld said SCAD allowed him to find his artistic voice and proper communicative process in storytelling and 3D modeling.

“SCAD felt like a practice run, where we were all learning together, professors and students,” Kalbfeld said. “If in the grand scheme of things one’s college education is a drill of what they will do in the real world, my time at SCAD kept preparing me, even up to the moment I had the diploma in my hand.”

Aside from living with a fellow SCAD alumnus, Kalbfeld said he sees at least a dozen SCAD alumni on a weekly basis either his own admission or at an industry mixer.

“It’s really fantastic to see old schoolmates being so successful out here as well,” Kalbfeld said.

Because the themed entertainment industry changes so frequently, Kalbfeld described his professional goals as a “constantly moving target.” Ultimately, he said he believes his ambitions at the core of his artistic being will never change.

“I will always strive to create storied environments that validate user existence and portray a parallel, optimistic reality,” Kalbfeld said. “The future is unknown for theme parks but no matter what happens I can’t wait to see what new challenges I can overcome every day.”

Kalbfeld advised students currently seeking a career within the realm of themed entertainment to learn about the industry. Knowing the tools at their disposal such as fabrication vendors, ride systems, technical capabilities when designing is also imperative to creating a solid design that fits the creative direction of a project.

“Understand that you don’t know everything,” Kalbfeld said. “As an artist, nothing should be seen as a waste of time. Everything is experience, and everything is inspiration. Like artistic expression that can come from both bad and good internal sentiments, inspiration comes from both bad and good experiences. Every person you meet is an expert in something you probably know nothing about. Always be willing to learn from others around you, especially those who think differently.”

Themed entertainment, according to Kalbfeld, will always draw from real-world experiences and iconography, which is why it is important for students to be open to and never stop learning. Kalbfeld also said it is important to network beyond friends at SCAD, because it can be easy to hang around people you already know at networking events.

“This is a big mistake as, I can say from experience, professionals notice this,” Kalbfeld said. “I challenge you to, at every opportunity, meet a new professional and make a lasting, positive impression on that person. You never know where your next job may come from.”