Making a Splash at Universal Studios Japan
MIT Technology Review
At Universal Studios Japan, one of the world’s most popular theme parks, a single parade can run 45 minutes and involve more than 100 performers, a half-dozen floats, intricate choreography, and a huge all-out water fight with the audience. It’s an enormous feat of engineering. Good thing an MIT alumnus is in charge.
Daniel Pérez ’10 is the vice president of entertainment creative at the park, where he directs 40 to 50 projects every year, ranging from a virtual reality monster hunt to a Harry Potter celebration featuring large-scale video projections. He led the creation of the park’s Demon Slayer rollercoaster experience (inspired by a blockbuster anime franchise), its Guinness World Record–holding Christmas tree (most illuminated, with 612,000 lights), its award-winning Hello Kitty Happiness Brass Band show, and much more.
Pérez was always interested in the performing arts as well as the sciences, but he didn’t think entertainment was a viable career choice when he was in high school. MIT changed his mind.
Growing up in Miami as a first-generation Cuban American, Pérez considered it an act of rebellion to leave Florida. He hunted for a free program one summer and happened upon Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science, MIT’s six-week science and engineering program for rising high school seniors. “I loved Boston, Cambridge, MIT. So after that, I thought I’d definitely go to MIT, definitely become an engineer,” he says.
He began studying civil engineering as an undergrad, but soon he was spending all his free time in MIT’s theater groups—Musical Theatre Guild, Shakespeare Ensemble, Dramashop, and Teatro Latino, a group he spearheaded that produced plays in English and Spanish.
“Dan threw himself into every opportunity in theater at MIT that came his way—be it performing, designing, or producing,” says Sara Brown, an associate professor of Music and Theater Arts. “By following his curiosity, he found a unique way to bring together his interests in theater and engineering.”
Brown encouraged Pérez to pursue the arts more seriously, and he ended up double-majoring in civil engineering and theater arts—fields with some surprising overlaps. “Both are about people who are experts in their fields coming together to do a project that betters humanity in some way,” says Pérez, whether the final product is a bridge or a parade. “In one you’re talking about steel and concrete; in the other, lights or costumes or glitter—but it’s still similar.”
After graduation, Pérez went to Yale’s School of Drama and earned a master of fine arts degree in technical design and production. Then he took a job at Hudson Scenic Studios, a theatrical automation and scenery production shop. While at Hudson, Pérez had the chance to work on theme park projects all over the world—including Asia—and in 2016, he joined Universal Studios Japan as creative manager.
Just a few years later, however, the pandemic struck a devastating blow to the entertainment industry. Universal Studios Japan closed for several months, and when it reopened, Pérez and his team were tasked with incorporating new safety protocols at the park—for example, adjusting horror attractions to prevent face-to-face screaming.
Fortunately, Pérez—who was promoted to vice president in March 2022—enjoys taking on novel challenges. “That’s how I ended up in this career path,” he says, circling back to his time at MIT. “Because I got to try new things in performing arts, I was able to find this niche for myself.”
Pérez is a long way from Florida now, but he says he hopes his career brings him back there one day. “I’ve had so much opportunity to do so many amazing projects throughout the world, but I still feel I haven’t given back to my community, to my roots,” he says. “My dream is to create something like the Cirque du Soleil of Miami— something really fantastic and fabulous in my hometown.”
This article also appears in the March/April 2023 issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.