By Jessica DeLeón
Black Panther, Superman and Harry Potter may have superpowers, but they can't do everything by themselves.
These characters come to life with the assistance of many staffers who work behind the scenes for the nation's leading entertainment companies -- including three UNT alumni who help develop their products, oversee the making of the amusement park attractions and tell their stories to audiences.
It turns out creating fun for others is fun.
Demarcus Johnson ('12) remembers when he first started working for Disney.
"I did pinch myself the first six months to a year," he says. "How am I doing this? Is any of this work?"
Cody Martin ('07) of Six Flags Entertainment Corp. adds that he loves the industry because everyone is so like-minded.
"We love creating experiences for the public," he says. "It's not work. It's fun. It's cool what we get to do every day."
When Demarcus Johnson shops at Target, he often sees kids running through the aisles grabbing the latest Aladdin toy or Soul product.
"Look, I worked on that!" he says. "The best part is the end result, seeing everything come to life."
As assistant manager of public affairs for Disney Consumer Products, Games and Publishing, he helps ensure authentic, representative products for brands such as Disney, Pixar, Marvel Star Wars, National Geographic and 20th Century Studios.
Johnson was a double major in communication studies and psychology, and an active member of the service organization Green Jackets. He also was active in the Eta Epsilon chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., which he says helped develop his personal, professional and leadership skills, and he also served as chapter president.
After receiving a graduate degree in public relations at Rowan University, he landed a job with the UNT System as coordinator of government relations in Austin -- receiving help from Green Jackets coordinator Hope Garcia, now at UNT at Frisco.
He then worked for a trade association in Washington, D.C., and for the American Film Institute in Los Angeles before going to Disney.
No day is the same. He and his team focus on issues management and proactive work that helps ensure the authenticity of the products from Disney's different brands and franchises, including Marvel and Pixar.
His most recent work was for Disney and Pixar's Oscar-winning film Soul, which tells the story of a Black musician named Joe as he lands his dream gig. Disney partnered with multicultural agency HUE Unlimited and tapped four Black artists to create artwork for the film that connected to Joe and the Black experience.
The artwork appeared on all kinds of apparel, from blankets to stationery, as well as banners, window clings and a mural at Disney's parks.
The message of Soul, in which Joe faced a brush with death before his dream gig, resonated with Johnson.
"I think for the most part, it was this idea that we're working every day toward a particular project and not knowing once you hit that milestone, it may not be what you want," he says. "What's important is what you already have -- in terms of family, people around you, being your authentic self."
The team gets its ideas from research as well as collaboration.
"What makes sense? What's going to make this most special for fans? What's going to inspire them?" he says. "We're telling a story, and we're doing it through our products."
As a kid, Cody Martin loved to decorate -- whether it was creating a haunted house for Halloween or putting up 13,000 lights at his home for Christmas.
"We were that nutty house in the neighborhood," he says. "But I loved every minute of it."
Martin was made for his new role this year as consumer experience project manager for Six Flags Entertainment Corp. in Arlington. He brings nine years of experience from Merlin Entertainments -- which runs Madame Tussauds, Sea Life Aquarium and Legoland Discovery Center -- where he has spearheaded numerous projects from mobile apps to themed interactive experiences.
"I think a big part of the love for this industry is that it is an escape for a little bit," he says. "It allows guests to forget their troubles a bit. It didn't matter what somebody is dealing with when you were transported to another world."
He came to UNT as a graphic design major, then switched to merchandising with the goal of working in visual merchandising. After a stint at Simon Malls, he moved to Merlin after he won the company's attention for his third-place win at a Lego Master Model Builder competition.
At Merlin, he oversaw 20 projects -- including the $2 million Justice League: A Call for Heroes, a life-size interactive exhibit at Madame Tussauds in Orlando. The project, timed for the Justice League movie, allowed guests to interact with DC Comics heroes, including Superman and Wonder Woman, and incorporated projection technology and pneumatics.
Guests can even lift a helicopter with Superman.
"The fans turn it on and smoke starts to build," Martin says. "You're like the strongest man in the world."
As project manager, Martin worked with the designers, vendors and story writers for 9 1/2 months. He kept track of 400 different items in the project scope, such as making sure the superhero costumes were produced on schedule and that the helicopter was designed and mounted per structural requirements.
Now at Six Flags, Martin examines data trends and oversees prototypes and testing for services such as mobile apps, food, beverages, rides and entertainment as his department is responsible for developing the theme park visit of the future.
Six Flags is working on a wide range of new ideas to enhance the overall guest experience.
For his latest project, he researched 90 Halloween events around the country.
"From the person who built haunted houses in the backyard, this is not work!" he says.
Eric Gray's ('04) latest assignment -- publicizing the Jurassic World VelociCoaster, a ride with a 140-foot drop -- is all part of a day's work.
"It's a great place when you've got roller coasters in the backyard of your office," he says.
Gray doesn't test the rides -- he has "insane" motion sickness -- but, as senior director of content and engagement at Universal Parks and Resorts, he gets to do what he's loved ever since he was a media arts major and broadcaster at KNTU.
"It goes back to my days in radio -- creating content and experiences people want," Gray says. "Doing it consistently. Doing it every single day."
Growing up a huge sports fan, Gray always knew he wanted to be a radio broadcaster and chose UNT after realizing announcers George Dunham ('88) and Craig Miller ('88) went here. He took three classes with radio legend Bill Mercer ('66 M.A.), cut together sports highlights for KNTU and announced Lewisville Fighting Farmers football games with John Liddle ('05), who is still a close friend.
After college, he worked for The Ticket 760 in San Antonio for three years, producing the afternoon drive talk show, then moved to EA Sports, where he helped build social media and YouTube strategy for the sports video game company.
In 2012, Universal needed someone to head its social media division. Gray was reluctant to leave sports, but he took the plunge.
He started out with a team of two people. Now he heads up a group of 15 staffers responsible for original editorial style content, videos and social programs -- such as its entertaining Twitter feed and YouTube channel -- about Universal's theme parks, restaurants and resorts.
He oversaw the opening of the Volcano Bay Theme Park, Transformers: The Ride 3-D, Bourne Stuntacular, five hotels and dozens of other attractions.
But his favorite was the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley.
"There is such deep fandom with those stories, the experience brought me such joy seeing people walking into the land for the first time," he says. "It was pretty memorable."