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The Ride of His Life

Bob Shreve

WRITTEN BY BENYAMIN COHEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JESSICA TEZAK

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Bob Shreve has the enviable job of making people smile for a living.

He’s spent most of his career designing theme park attractions for Disney and Universal. And, yes, he also gets paid to ride roller coasters all day. “After you ride it 50 times, it’s not like the first time you rode it,” he admits with a laugh. “But at the same time, a ride’s a ride. They’re a lot of fun.”


Shreve’s route to the “happiest place on Earth” was, like any good roller coaster, a circuitous one. Growing up the son of a military man, he was moving constantly – bouncing around with each new posting. As Shreve, MA ’80, Theatre Design, describes it, he was only born in West Virginia “by accident.” His pregnant mother made a brief pit stop in Fairmont to say goodbye to a few relatives before moving to Germany for a stint. But Shreve and his twin brother had other plans, arriving two-and-a-half-months early.

The family returned to West Virginia when Bob was in high school, which is when he first discovered his love of theater. He was cast in a junior class production of “The Boarding House Reach,” a comedy about a precocious little boy who reminded him of himself. “I got smitten,” Shreve recalled.

He studied acting and directing. After earning his master’s degree at West Virginia University, he taught at WVU.


Then came an unexpected phone call from one of his former WVU students who was now working at Disney and had heard of a job opening. “Sure, I’d be interested,” Shreve told him. The next thing he knew, he was moving his family from West Virginia to California. 


“I wish I could say that it was a grand plan, but there was no plan to it at all,” Shreve said. “It was just one thing led to another. And it’s pure luck that I ended up where I’m at.”

In Hollywood, Shreve designed a Muppets 3-D theater for Walt Disney World. He worked on the Tower of Terror ride and was even tasked with building a diner. 


“It was a unique concept where you walked into this restaurant, and there’s all these old 1950s cars set at a drive-in movie theater,” Shreve explained. “And then you were watching a big screen, and it would show all the old classic 1950s B-movie trailers, while you were eating. So we had to figure out how to make tables and booths that looked like 1950s cars. And I had never done anything like that in my life. I was scared to death, to be blunt.”


Bob Shreve at Dollywood
Despite his fear, he powered through. “The secret is I always gave 110 percent,” he said. “If somebody asked me to sweep the floor, I swept the floor, vacuumed it and washed the walls at the same time. There was never anything that was beneath me. And that was always a big hit with the people at Disney because there were a lot of people there that said, ‘Well, I’m not sweeping that floor. They got janitors to do that.’ And I said, ‘Get over yourself and go grab a broom and start sweeping.’”


The restaurant also taught him how to build a truly immersive experience, a new trend of theme parks at the time. Those skills landed him a job at Universal Orlando, where he was put in charge of designing attractions for shows and rides about “The Mummy” and “Shrek” film franchises. His pièce de résistance was becoming the show producer for Isla Nublar, an island modeled after the “Jurassic Park” movies. His attractions included the Jurassic Park River Adventure, Camp Jurassic, the Discovery Center and Triceratops Encounter. These fully immersive theme park experiences that Shreve helped create were an early precursor to the park’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.


For the past 14 years, Shreve has been the vice president of attraction development at Herschend Family Entertainment. The Atlanta-based company operates theme parks, aquariums and other attractions across the country – including Dollywood and Silver Dollar City.


He’s told his boss that he plans on retiring next year. At 67, he hopes to start creating adventures for himself instead of those for other people. “My wife is a very good artist,” he said, “and I want to take her places that’ll inspire her and inspire me.”


So after a career that spans the most well-known theme parks in the world, what’s one of his favorite moments? Before Universal, before Disney, before all of that, he spent time as a lighting designer for the West Virginia Opera Company. “We toured the entire state of West Virginia in a beat-up van and did opera in high school gyms,” he said. “And I’ll tell you what, it was one of the most fun experiences I ever had in my life.”