By: Eric Wright
The Nassal Company: Building the Experience
The Harry Potter books and their blockbuster films have riveted multitudes around the world. But for the person with only a casual interest to the most devoted fan, the connection is moved to a whole different level when one is immersed in the story at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.
It is like moving from watching penguins on the Discovery Channel to experiencing the icy landscape of SeaWorld Orlando’s Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. And who hasn’t dreamed of rocketing into space? The closest most of us will come is the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. And what NFL team can celebrate a touchdown by firing cannons from their own pirate ship, moored in their end zone like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
The Nassal Company, the world’s leading fabricator of themed environments for attractions, zoos, aquariums, and museums, has helped create all of these imaginary venues. Each one tells a story in such a way that the visitor is plunged into that experience, making it meaningful, enjoyable and, most importantly, memorable.
The company had an inauspicious beginning in 1984 as a general contracting firm. A few years later, the founder, William (Bill) A. Nassal, Sr., was offered a fateful opportunity. Universal Studios Orlando wanted to construct a house for “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” which was to be filmed at the theme park. Nassal, which had done a number of projects for Universal, was approached about taking the job, though the company had no previous experience with that type of work.
William (Bill) P. Nassal, the founder’s son and now a partner in the company, remembers the impact the project had on the company and on him. “It was the first time Nassal had to hire an artist. It really amazed me how they could transform the building into whatever they envisioned. Once that project was complete, I never wanted to build anything boring again.”
High Risks, High Rewards
Looking at its portfolio, “boring” is not in Nassal’s vocabulary. The initial project was the kind of high stakes venture which completely alters a business’ trajectory. Soon Nassal hired its “artistic guru,” Pam Price, to join the team as art director and superintendent, starting a tradition of attracting and retaining remarkable talent from around the world. Price, somewhat of a legend in the industry and certainly at Nassal, is still with the company after 24 years.
According to Nassal, his father’s ability to work with demanding corporate executives and creative personalities was one of his gifts. “The Nassal
Company is a direct result of my father’s entrepreneurial spirit and outside-of-the-box thinking. He took what was once a very artistic management-driven industry and injected big business control measures. His entrepreneurial spirit was extremely influential throughout my career.”
Matt Brown, another partner in the company, was the younger Nassal’s roommate at the University of Florida, where both were studying building construction. Initially, he was tentative about coming to work for his closest friend’s father. “I was resistant at first, because I didn’t want to risk a great friendship. Then I came to Orlando and learned more about the company and thought, ‘this is for me.’ At the time I was building data centers in Atlanta, which was boring, and the idea that I could build unique, high-profile, interesting projects was a great draw.
“Fast forward 18 years, Bill and I have maintained our friendship and have built some of the coolest attractions in the world. There is nothing better than seeing the smiles on the faces of guests of all ages when they experience an environment we have built. Watching them get lost in the detail is awesome,” Brown said.
If You Build It They Will Come
“We make drawings and designs come to life so people can be immersed in the story,” explained Melissa Ruminot, director of marketing and business development for the company. “We build anything that takes you from one place and transports you to another through the environment and design intent.”
The process, from Nassal’s side, is to interpret the designs that artists and architects have created and transform it into a functional, durable, three-dimensional experience. When Universal or Disney comes up with an idea for some new park amenity, they have their creative department turn concepts into images, which contain the look and feel they are trying to capture, including what people will see at each position or stage. Nassal then takes these concepts and turns them into an interactive realty by fabricating and installing the scenes.
The challenge is that when you are dealing with story enthusiasts, they scrutinize every minute element of these imaginary worlds, which can be viewed from every angle and where touch has to be as authentic and convincing as the visual appearance. Therefore, the stakes are high. But when you hit the target, as Nassal has done repeatedly, thousands flock to see it from around the world.
Probably the most famous of Nassal’s creations is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But they also fabricated and installed the 120-foot, fully-interactive mining rig at the Silver Legacy Resort Casino in Reno, Nev. and the Disney characters for 110 stores in Europe and Asia. In addition, their work isn’t only on display in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, but at the hall of fames for the Pittsburg Steelers, Green Bay Packers and the Cincinnati Reds, not to mention zoos and aquariums around the country and Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi.
People Connecting With People
One might wonder, how does a company estimate something that has never been built before? “I am happy to say that it is not nearly as challenging
today to estimate the value of the attraction specialty works as it was when we started,” Nassal said. “We have been diligent about keeping historical cost data on all of the projects that we have executed over the last 30 years. With our recent acquisition of McGillivray Consulting Group, Nassal now has historical cost data for entire theme parks and attractions worldwide. We can now provide cost insight on projects from concept to completion.”
Over time, Nassal has even discovered ways to value engineer a client’s concept, to save money and to save time. With the launch of its new division called Attractions Construction Management (ACM), Nassal will be able to provide their know-how to clients at all phases, from concept to construction. “This offering will allow us to utilize our 30 years of experience in the attractions industry to help parks and projects around the globe avoid the pitfalls that we have identified as we work on these highly integrated projects,” Brown explained.
This new dimension of Nassal’s client offering enables them to leverage their experience in building themed environments and will include budgeting, planning, procurement and managing “specialist construction” for theme parks, zoos and hospitality projects worldwide.
That experience goes beyond building memorable, mindboggling destinations. It is really about connecting with people who want to connect with people which is what any theme park, zoo or museum wants to do. This seems to have been something Nassal, Sr. inculcated into the company’s DNA, which has attracted and retained their incredible and creative staff, while landing new clients from around the world.
Brown expressed it like this: “It started as a core principle when Bill founded the company 30 years ago. Our clients become our friends and our co-workers become our family. A testament to that is we have many of our artists and craftsmen who have worked with the company for 10-plus years and several who have been with us more than 20 years, which in this very transient industry is unheard of.”
The Nassal Company is proud to have been a supplier to Universal Orlando Resort® and to have helped bring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ to life. Universal elements and all related indicia ™ & © 2011 Universal Studios. All rights reserved. HARRY POTTER, characters, names and related indicia are trademarks of and © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.