The best way to describe the vibe I felt when I first crossed the threshold of the Falcon’s Creative Group office was enchanting. Hanging on the wall, a large, glowing Falcon’s logo drew my attention. It was beautiful and sleek, and it somehow suggested that powerful and imaginative things happen here.
After a short walk down a hallway featuring an array of circular mirrors, which was purposefully designed to draw you in, I stepped into an open space and saw the magnificent tree that looks like it grew straight out of the pages of a Tim Burton script. I knew this tree because I had been a long-time fangirl of the creative design studio that Cecil D. Magpuri started twenty years ago in Orlando, FL. I was very aware of the quality of Falcon’s work in the themed entertainment industry and wanted to become part of the team, and now here I am!
On my first day, I immediately noticed a different sort of atmosphere in the office compared to other places where I had earned a living. Employees aren’t clock-punchers who scatter in a million different directions when it’s time to go to lunch or go home. There is a genuine sense of camaraderie. We hang out with each other after hours, buy presents for each other, share food, do volunteer activities together, create silly Photoshops of our desk mates…the list goes on.
To commemorate the founding of Falcon’s twenty years ago, I asked Cecil and Yvette to take a trip down memory lane, and they gave me a generous amount of time, which is par for the course around here. Generosity is ingrained in Falcon’s DNA.
When Yvette met Cecil for the first time in January of 1999, she was looking to get back into the workforce after giving the stay-at-home mom profession a shot. She craved the challenges that a fulfilling career would offer. With the help of a supportive husband, who always encouraged her to do what made her happy, and her wonderful parents, who could help with the young kids, Yvette started to seek opportunities.
Having begun her career in hospital pharmaceutical management, Yvette knew what it took to successfully navigate complex worlds, but she didn’t want to go back to the medical profession. Instead, she sought a fresh start, something unique, so she answered Cecil’s ad that was printed in the Sunday paper. The headline was “Office Manager for an entertainment company.” She thought, “Sounds like fun!”
During their initial meeting at a restaurant, Yvette formed an impression of Cecil. He was “super chill, friendly, and smart.” She felt comfortable around him and knew she could be herself. She was also impressed with Cecil’s imaginative thinking and logical thought process. Many times, those characteristics do not reside within the same body.
Cecil told her that a west coast media company hired him to start an entertainment division in Orlando. He said,“We are in the business of fun.” Yvette was hooked, and after a few weeks, she joined the company.
Yvette learned everything she could about the attractions industry, and Cecil was a very good mentor. Under his tutelage, the young go-getter was empowered to implement operational methods she learned from her previous positions.
In January of 2000, Cecil and Yvette made a shocking discovery. All the profits they had secured for the media company that employed them had been distributed to other failing divisions within the company. Having been caught off-guard, the dynamic duo was now at a crossroad, but the seemingly unfortunate turn of events was actually the best thing that could’ve happened. It allowed Cecil to take control of his own destiny. This was the birth of Falcon’s.
Cecil wasted no time in asking Yvette if she would be willing to help launch his new company, and of course, she didn’t hesitate; she was all in. She knew Cecil’s drive and determination and Marty’s intelligence and sound business instincts would lead them to bright days. Yvette fondly recalls the first check she earned from Cecil, which came from his personal account. It had a superhero theme. “Man, I wish I would’ve kept a copy of that!” she told me.
One of the first orders of business was signing a lease for office space. They found a great location in the quaint town of Windermere. This exciting but also scary moment was the first major milestone for the yet-to-be named creative design firm.
I had to know how the name Falcon’s Treehouse came to be. Like a bird’s nest, the story is tangled. Naming a company is never easy, after all. One day, Cecil, Marty, and Yvette packed a lunch and went to Turkey Lake Park, a gorgeous setting filled with all of nature’s best trimmings. They wanted to discuss items that would be needed in the coming weeks to formalize the company, so of course, choosing a name was the top priority.
Yvette looked skyward and saw big birds flying overhead. She remarked how majestic and graceful they were. Cecil then mentioned his affinity for falcons. He loved the bird so much that he named his beautiful husky “Falcon.” A lightbulb switched on in Yvette’s brain. She suggested Falcon something, but they didn’t know what should follow. Ultimately, they decided it would be Falcon’s Studios and proceeded to incorporate under that name on February 1, 2000.
The snag came when they tried to secure the domain name. To their surprise, “Falcon’s Studios” was already taken by a…shall we say, risqué entity. The group had to change their name, but to what? That’s when inspiration struck a second time.
The Windermere office was nestled among a beautiful canopy of mature trees that you could see from every window. When people stopped by, they would always say it was like playing in a treehouse. Cecil connected a treehouse to a place where your imagination can roam freely, which was his goal for the company. Yvette performed a domain search for Falcon’s Treehouse, and it was available, so they amended the name on the articles of organization.
Tapping into her resources from the medical field, Yvette was able to procure a used but robust landline phone system. That was a big investment for them. They remember staring at the phones, willing them to ring off the hook. It wasn’t easy in those early days, but they stayed positive and soon landed their first turnkey project, which was a big one. It laid the foundation for a strong and healthy startup company. Because of that contract, Cecil was able to add a few members to his staff.
Cecil was already a recognized brand, if you will, after having opened Twister at Universal Studios Florida, so Falcon’s leveraged his good standing in the themed attraction industry, along with his personal portfolio, to land projects and build a collection of jobs. The management team also focused on the firm’s infrastructure. Things that topped the list were implementing sound accounting practices, outlining their marketing and branding efforts, and forming a strong team with excellent culture.
Their first website won a Webby award, which speaks volumes to how Falcon’s approached its work. Not many companies were putting an emphasis on their web presence at the turn of the 21st century, but Cecil, ever the forerunner, saw things differently. He wanted there to be artistic and interactive elements on the site. He wanted people to enjoy the time they spent on it.
The vast majority of that plan is still followed to this day. For example, he knew he wanted to be able to pick and choose the projects they would accept and having a streamlined overhead would allow him that luxury. In order to abide by that, he planned to limit the company to no more than 21 employees. As a side effect of this cap, he figured they’d never lose the close-knit culture they were instilling. He was right about being selective about jobs, but as the projects became more complex, he knew the employee count needed to grow, perhaps beyond 21.
Today, the company’s size is triple that of Cecil’s initial goal, but because of management’s diligent efforts, Falcon’s has maintained a culture of respect, cooperation, and friendship, and that is something that makes our founder very happy. In fact, when I asked Cecil what he was most satisfied with over the last twenty years, he said it was being able to maintain a positive working environment and an excellent culture for everyone. But it’s not just about the people who come to the office every day. Our culture spills over into our relationships with our clients and vendors. For everything to work right, our communication and attitude have to be authentic.
Falcon’s was starting to get a foothold in the industry during year one, but that huge project was elusive, until they received an unexpected call from iXL, a dot-com company based in Atlanta. The outfit was looking for a studio that could design a client solution center. iXL had initially contacted Walt Disney Imagineering about the project, but WDI doesn’t provide creative support for outside companies. However, they knew just the firm that iXL needed. Falcon’s had completed a job at EPCOT that was very well received, so that led to this recommendation, which was a transformative moment in our history. Soon, small venues, mainstream brands, and large theme parks came knocking on the Treehouse door.
One of those projects, the buzz-worthy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ride in England, earned a Thea Award for Falcon’s. Many industry accolades have since followed.
Cecil, Marty, and Yvette knew that diversification would be the key to their long-term success. They also knew they wanted to provide their services internationally. Because they had placed such importance on these principles, they survived the challenges that were brought on by 9/11. Many creative companies, even well-established firms, shut down because of the devastating impact of this national tragedy. Similarly, the financial crisis of 2008 that doomed many companies wasn’t even a minor blip on Falcon’s radar. In both cases, if Falcon’s wasn’t diversified, things could’ve gone in a different direction.
If there was one pivotal project in our history, Yvette says it was the award-winning Dragon’s Treasure™ attraction in Macau. It was a groundbreaking 360° dome experience that enveloped the audience physically and emotionally. The breathtaking content elicited audible gasps from an audience that is otherwise very reserved and quiet. Worldwide press groups covered it, partly because of the attraction itself and partly because of the long lines waiting hours to see it.
Cecil told me that some competitors flew to Macau to see what all the hubbub was about. One of those competitors called to tell him, “I can’t believe you did this. This is art,” Cecil humbly recalls. But it’s not just that we did it, it’s that we even THOUGHT to do it. I could hear the emotion in Yvette’s voice as she remembered being in Macau when it opened. “I was nervous because I had never been to a project opening of this magnitude, on the other side of the world. I got the chance to see the people enjoy the show and be amazed. They were freakin’ blown away! Literally, their mouths were open. Klaus’s music was so moving, too. I get goosebumps thinking about that moment.”
Enthusiasm also gushes from Cecil’s voice as he talks about the Dragon’s Treasure™ attraction. During the opening, Li Chung Pei, the son of famous architect I.M. Pei and an architect himself, was so impressed by the design that he asked Cecil how he did it. Talk about a surreal experience.
They found the ideal location in MetroWest, both for convenience and for the standard they hoped to attain…any old building wouldn’t cut it. However, the building we’re in now was still under construction, so they moved into temporary digs across the street. The team accepted the situation in stride, power issues and all, and eventually settled into our permanent space on the 3rd floor.
The growth spurt didn’t end there; we expanded our footprint on the 3rd floor two more times. I hear long-time Falcon’s employees sometimes say that everyone who worked at the company seven years ago could all fit into one of our small conference rooms. It seems unimaginable, but it’s true.
In addition to the 3rd floor, Falcon’s invested in another space in the building next door. We call this our Showroom, and it’s where we house one of our licensing products, the Spheron® Dome Theater. We use the theater to test our 360° dome content or present works in progress to clients. This area is currently under renovation with plans to reopen at the end of March 2020. It will feature an enhancement to the dome theater experience plus another one of our exciting products, yet to be announced.
He had been outsourcing this type of work, but because of his background, he knew that in order to provide the best experience, it was important for his own studio to be in control of the content so he could creatively manage the films. An added advantage was the potential to grow and strengthen Falcon’s internal capabilities and overall offerings.
The management team settled on the name Peregrine Pixels for this media “division.” A Peregrine is a fast-flying falcon, so it was a nod to the mother brand, but the name confused clients. Most of them thought Peregrine Pixels was a vendor that Falcon’s used to handle their content needs. Cecil admits the name was too artsy.
In early 2014, the team turned to branding experts to clarify their messaging and position in the market. The firm was invited to Orlando to hold two separate 2-day sessions to hash out a whole new rebranding strategy. For even more brain power, Cecil invited a few clients who had branding backgrounds.
During the first session, Cecil framed up all the different types of businesses in which Falcon’s had a hand. The group categorized them into buckets. Treehouse was obvious enough – this is the design side: master planning, attraction design, executive production, character development, and the like. Then there was the media side, the previously mentioned Peregrine Pixels. On top of that, Cecil had always wanted to create a consumer-facing entity to sell a clothing line, chess sets, and other high-quality items featuring the Falcon’s brand. Lastly, Cecil and his R&D team had been developing concepts for ride systems for many years, some of which were already patented. Those services and products didn’t fit into Treehouse, and therefore, weren’t easy to market.
For the sake of consistency, it was determined that the best approach would be to keep the Falcon’s name in front of the other divisions. They just had to think of the monikers for the other ones, and that is how Falcon’s Digital Media and Falcon’s Licensing were born.
The final step was grouping them under one umbrella. This was perhaps the most critical decision because it was going to better position Falcon’s services for the public and hopefully stand the test of time. As you can imagine, lots of opinions were voiced, but Falcon’s Creative Group came out the winner. There was also a decision to be made about how to set each brand apart in their own unique way. Enter color schemes!
Yvette recalls how enlightening those sessions were. “Our spirit came out. We felt we created a voice that was fresh but still held key components from our established brand. We consider that the moment when our identity evolved, which proved to be a pivotal flashpoint in our history.” By the end of the last session, Cecil and Yvette were excited to jump on the changes. They immediately updated their branding, social media, and website. There was a fair amount of work associated with this undertaking, but because everyone felt so strongly about it, they approached it with zeal.
Since the inception of Falcon’s Digital Media and Falcon’s Licensing, we have been able to increase our exposure to a variety of new clients, but as Cecil puts it, “We don’t diversify for diversification sake.”
A common mistake that throws some organizations off their axis is taking their eye off the ball. It’s tempting to chase opportunities that don’t align with your current business model because the risk can sometimes reap massive rewards. But at Falcon’s, that has never been an issue, nor will it ever be. “From the beginning, we’ve known not to dilute from our core business,” states Cecil. That’s why he and Marty have always been bullish on the future of the studio. There is still the same brain trust leading the way. We still have the same capabilities we had at the beginning, but we’ve enhanced them. That’s a big reason why so many clients return to us with more projects.
The variety of skills under our roof means we can offer value that other creative firms cannot. For example, media-based attractions are so special to us because our capabilities are profound when it comes to storytelling, animation, visual effects, and editing, in addition to the design of the ride experience itself. Our staff experts and leaders embrace new technology, and we know how to implement it in unique ways.
It was a first-of-its kind attraction. We brought all the ingredients to this party, including our patented ride technology, CircuMotion® Theater, which is a licensing product. The Hulk attraction is one of Yvette’s favorite projects because it marked a significant moment in Falcon’s history, but she’s sad that she hasn’t had the chance to ride it yet. I’m in that club, too!
Falcon’s owns just under three dozen patents now. The high number can be partially attributed to Cecil and Yvette’s commitment to holding recurring meetings to discuss new products and new experiences that we can bring to audiences around the world. It’s all part of our business plan and the overall strategy to remain on the cutting edge.
One of the best things about working at Falcon’s is our monthly team meeting, where we get to hear about all the stuff I’ve mentioned in this article, and then some. All 64 Falcons squeeze into our largest conference room and listen attentively as Cecil, Yvette, our VPs, and others give us a thorough rundown of what’s happening now and what potential projects might be in store for us.
I told Cecil and Yvette that I value this hour very much. Everyone here knows how rare it is for companies like ours to get together as a group and go into as much detail as we do. That’s why, after all these years, Cecil and Yvette continue to assemble everyone for this open discussion. Yvette compiles all the documentation for the meeting and sets the agenda, which includes shout-outs to people celebrating their work anniversaries and warm welcomes to our newest Falcons. She told me that she feels a sense of excitement when she preps for this meeting and still gets a tingle up her spine when she thinks of all the great experiences we’re designing.
Sometimes the topics that you've read in this article make their way into “Experience Imagination™,” our monthly podcast. Podcasts aren’t exactly mainstream in the themed entertainment industry, but Falcon’s likes to lead by example. You’ll hear our own in-house experts discussing their processes or specific projects, occasionally sharing airtime with other professionals or our clients. Several universities are now using our podcasts as part of their curriculum, which Yvette says is deeply rewarding.
There have been many rewarding moments over the last twenty years. If you asked twenty people to name their favorite memory, you might very well get twenty different responses. Yvette had told me that the Dragon’s Treasure™ attraction was special to her, so I followed up by asking if anything has surpassed the palpable reaction she felt from the delighted crowd as she stood among them. She coyly responded, “I think it’s coming up soon.” If that doesn’t fire your imagination, I don’t know what will.
Producer / Writer