Walking amid the collage of colors highlighting attractions and the buzz of anticipation emanating from thousands of patrons, Cory D. Karges resembles a typical tourist. In his untucked brown polo shirt, jeans, and white sneakers, he purposely blends into the sun-soaked crowd at the Universal Orlando Resort.
His presence may be subtle, but his connection to the famous destination and other world-renowned parks stands out.
The Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate is the design manager for the company responsible for much of the creative signage – from bold marquees to tiny arrow markers – that complement and enhance the inviting themes of Universal’s various thrill rides, restaurants, and hotels.
“When you go into the park and you’re standing next to something that you’ve made, and a family comes up and takes a picture of it, you’re like, ‘Oh that’s cool!’ The thing that I made that nobody thinks about is probably in hundreds, thousands of pictures on Facebook and Instagram,” Karges said. “It’s way better for me than making widgets, that’s for sure.”
While tens of millions flock each year to Disney World and Universal, Karges doesn’t have to worry about crowds at his nearby “playground,” a nondescript 25,000-square-foot Orlando manufacturing facility. In a quiet office, he sits in front of dual computer monitors and employs computer-aided-design software to craft the latest creation for his employer, the aptly named Sign Producers Inc.
For Karges, the job is a thrill ride.
“I realized that Sign Producers is the best place to be for what I wanted to do. I guess you could say that I knew I wanted to be here, so I found a way to be here,” said Karges, who graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial design.
A family-owned company, Sign Producers is a custom designer, builder, and installer of signs for Universal, Disney, and other entertainment venues throughout the world. Sign Producers manufactures brand-building elements, whether it be a two-day turnaround job or an intricate challenge requiring a couple years of work.
Two of its latest projects include signage for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a 14-acre showcase at both Disney World and Disneyland inspired by the “Star Wars” movies, and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, an immersive coaster experience added to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal.
The job is a perfect fit for Karges, who realized he wanted to “make really cool stuff” after flirting with an information technology career at a community college near his Whitney Point, New York, home.
“I was good at computer science, but it wasn’t fun for me,” he explained. “The best advice I got was: Find the thing that you’re really good at and you really enjoy doing. Then find a way to make money doing it, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
After months of research and self-examination, Karges found the perfect match for his inventive mind: industrial design, the practice of transforming ideas into designs of marketable projects and systems. A tour of Penn College and interaction with Thomas E. Ask, the professor spearheading the new industrial design major, convinced Karges to use the program as a career building block.
“We called Tom our ‘champion of industrial design.’ He had as much passion for it as I did,” Karges said.
The program began with Karges and four other students. Today, 43 students are majoring in industrial design.
“I never felt like I had homework assignments because when you’re there, you’re doing what it is you want to be doing,” Karges said. “So you were always inventing something, creating something, doing some type of study. You learned by going out and doing it, which was every single day.”
The Dean’s List student excelled, even completing a project for the General Electric Co. He worked with a couple other students to expand GE’s design of a miniature ultrasound system.
“Cory wanted to do more than just finish assignments,” Ask recalled. “He wanted to do an excellent job at whatever he worked on. During his time at Penn College, he combined hard work and passion in a powerful way.”
Following graduation and a stint in the natural gas industry as a field engineer, Karges migrated to Florida where he obtained a job as a design engineer for a fabricator of architectural specialties, including signage. In March 2018, he found his home at Sign Producers.
“This is a team-oriented place. We all work on everything together. We’re all going to make sure each one of us succeeds here, which is way better than feeling like you’re the only one responsible for something,” Karges said.
“It’s always been about family and quality. It’s because we hold such high standards for ourselves that we employ the best talent in the sign industry,” said Daniel Scimé, director of Sign Producers. “Cory is part of that and helps us achieve the highest level of creativity and quality that we believe our clients deserve. He is an instrumental part of what we do at Sign Producers.”
Design decisions must account for more than aesthetics. Signage material and engineering quality are also critical considerations.
For example, attractions at Universal like Skull Island: Reign of Kong and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure call for wood signage. However, wood is prohibited in the park because of the fire hazard. Instead, Sign Producers substitutes polygem epoxy, an artistic concrete, to mimic the appearance of wood.
Whether made of polygem epoxy, aluminum, or steel, signage is engineered to “five times what it would actually take to fail,” according to Karges. The signs must be able to withstand tropical storms and hurricanes in Florida and earthquakes in California.
Karges is privy to the engineering and fabrication process since Sign Producers’ manufacturing wing – consisting of a machine shop, welding stations, computer-numerical-control routers and paint booths – is located just beyond his office space.
“If I have a problem or I need to know something, I walk through one door and I ask the right people, and it’s taken care of almost immediately, which is cool,” Karges said. “And it’s always a chance to learn something.”
His most recent project at Universal was the marquee for The Bourne Stuntacular, a live-action stunt show debuting this spring that is based on the “Jason Bourne” film franchise. The design – featuring the title of the attraction in three shades of blue and varying amounts of raised lettering – was fun and challenging, according to Karges. So was keeping the work a secret. Theme parks don’t want the public to know about coming attractions until an official announcement is made.
“You’re working on signs for stuff that you can’t talk about, which sometimes is the hardest part of the job,” Karges said with a smile. “The new Harry Potter ride was hush-hush for two years when we were working on it.”
To prove his point, Karges cheerfully preempted any discussion of future projects with Universal and Disney.
“We have a lot of cool things coming up. That’s all I can say.”
Once again, Cory Karges didn’t want to stand out - but his work will for generations to come.