We had the good fortune of connecting with Natalie Nielsen and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Natalie, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
From a young age, I looked at the world and I knew that things could be better. Design-wise, certainly, but socially as well. Taking a creative path afforded me the opportunity to create work that could make an impact, influence, and connect with people in long-lasting ways.

For me, this is through placemaking and spatial storytelling – theme park design basically. The spaces we inhabit hold so much power and when thoughtfully designed they can make us feel empowered or disillusioned, included or excluded, and so much more. And as an experience designer, I can connect with people in deeper more meaningful tactile ways that have the chance to leave a mark on their minds and maybe even change their way of looking at the world.

As a trans femme nonbinary person, this is especially important to me, for my community and the many, many other communities that are regularly excluded from the common space of society. I do what I do so I can help create spaces that belong to everyone. It is a grand thought, but it is why I do what I do. And I love it.

Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I got to where I am professionally by leaning into risk, vulnerability, and trusting the spark inside of me. My initial goal in life was to be a filmmaker. I fell into it at around 13 and it was all I did and all l I focused on during my teens and early twenties. Theme parks and theme park design was another thing that completely captured my imagination, but only as a fan. It had not even occurred to me that it could be a career to pursue. But then, through a series of situations and happenstances and a couple of awards, I found myself at an opportunity to pivot myself from filmmaking to themed entertainment – theme park design. This was unbelievable! This was an industry that meant the world to me and that had a profound impact on my life. And here I was with an opportunity to be a part of these teams making spaces and experiences that connect with people all around the world. I knew I had to take it.

So, I took the steps I needed to take and I found my way from my home in Seattle down to LA about a year later. I very quickly found myself in the right meetings with the right people and four months later I had my first job. Was this easy so far? Kind of? Getting there was the easier part, it was the part about existing in those spaces that were hard.

The main challenges that I faced were the ones inside of me. The feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and imposter syndrome. So much of it was tied to the feeling of being thrust into this professional sphere without feeling “ready”. This was because of my lack of education in an area that I thought was relevant to my new industry – architecture, illustration, project management, anything like this. I put formal education on a pedestal. This fed into the feeling that I wasn’t good enough to be there. It was a constant thought in my mind.

But eventually, I found that the way of overcoming these challenges was to remind myself that I was there for a reason and that I belonged there. This can be taken in a more practical way and you can take it in a more spiritual way. Both have worked for me, and both came at different times in my life.
First, the practical way. Any work we do with others is mostly about the relationships we build and the time we spend with other people while doing it. Most times people are not hiring others that they do not enjoy being around or do not click with immediately. If you were not supposed to be there, you would not have been hired! I only came to this realization when I was put in charge of interviewing and hiring for creative projects. I also quickly realized that formal education has its place, but when you get a creative job you are bringing all of yourself into it. That opens the opportunity to use all that you have learned in all aspects of life. All of it is valid and useful. I soon saw the value in the skills and knowledge that I gained through things that I pursued on my own outside of formal studies.

The other perspective, the more spiritual one, is harder to pin down. I think it has to do with that spark I was talking about earlier. When you make something or talk about a specific subject and you feel that spark – that rush of energy – it is the barometer that can guide you. For me, it is very emotional, and it doesn’t work that well for micro, daily tasks but when it comes to making big decisions that are “steering the ship” of my life, it hasn’t steered me wrong yet. I may feel like I’m not ready to be in these spaces, but I am because I care, and I know how important an art form like Themed Entertainment is and I know what it takes to make it good.

Essentially, the feeling that we don’t belong is a fallacy. This feeling that we are not worthy of these things that we get in life, the things that feel good and right is incorrect. You must trust the process of living – especially in a creative career. Living is what fuels our work, it is what gives us that spark. And if you are breathing you are alive and worthy of being in these spaces. You are not there by accident.

When I came out as Trans Femme Nonbinary in the middle of my career I felt this even stronger. And it became even more important to me that I follow this path because people like me needed someone like them on their side. Both on the side of the audience and for those new queer people coming into the industry unsure if they belonged here. Me doing my thing and following my spark shows that they do belong and can flourish.

Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I think the best way to explore a city is to get a view of the whole of it first and then dive in. It would all start with visiting Griffith Observatory and the Universal City Overlook. These two spots give the best birds-eye look at Los Angeles proper and the San Fernando Valley, respectively. Plus, Griffith Observatory has a wonderful space museum as well. After that there are so many options! The basics are a lovely way to go from there, heading down to Hollywood and Highland seeing the Chinese Theater, Amoeba Music in their new space on Hollywood Blvd. If there is time seeing a movie in the Cinerama Dome is worth it as well.
Another interesting spot would be Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. This cemetery was designed as a public park and its layout and gothic facility buildings were a large influence on the artists that created Disneyland. There are so many interesting sights within its gates, like the worlds largest oil painting and a museum that has regularly rotating art exhibits (past exhibits have included Drew Struzan original poster art pieces, and a Charles Schulz Snoopy comic art exhibition) along with all the beautifully kept grounds. And again, because the cemetery is situated on a hill it offers lovely views of Glendale, Burbank and Atwater Village.
And then there is the Tiki Bar culture to experience. So many fun, weird, and cozy spots all over the LA area. My go-to’s are Tonga Hut in Valley Village, Lono in Hollywood, and Damons Steakhouse in Glendale. Each have their own distinct vibe, but each also contributes to the uniting idea of Tiki and really embody the weirdness that LA has to offer.
There are so many wonderful places to have a meal, the places I will point out have good food and an atmosphere that only LA can provide. Tam O’Shanter a Scottish steakhouse in Atwater Village has wonderful food and a style of architecture that can only be described as “Storybook”. This was a regular haunt of Walt Disney and his artists and Imagineers so that makes it extra fun if you are into that sort of thing. Chili Johns is a traditional American-style chili joint. Inside it has a large “U” shaped counter that offers a very uncommon communal dining experience and the chili isn’t too bad either.
This next place holds a special place in my heart – Disneyland. Yes it can be stressful, but when you are there and you just go with the flow with a very minimal plan it can be a very lovely place to just exist. A large part of this is to work in rest into your visit. Resting at Disneyland can be just as enjoyable as any of the attractions. And a mid-day rest at either the lobby of the Animation Building or at the bar in the Carthay Circle restaurant at Disney California Adventure can be just the thing to gain back some energy to see some fireworks later in the evening. I could go on and on but I will leave it at that.
Finally, experiencing sunsets at our many beaches cannot be beat. My favorite beach to do this at is called Zuma Beach in Malibu. There is a certain special secluded feel to the whole area and the light just looks different there. Spending time at the beach in general is worth the drive at anytime of day in LA, but during sunset is especially worth it. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I dedicate my Shoutout to my parents, Denny and Penny Nielsen. While growing up they always supported me and my creative projects no matter how strange or absurd. They taught me the importance of humor and being unapologetically weird. I am so thankful that they did not snuff out my little spark of curiosity and creativity, but instead fostered it and let it build as big as I could make it.

Also, I need to give a quick shoutout to my fiancée, Mae Catt. I am constantly inspired by her creativity and her work ethic. I am where I am in my life largely due to her, and I could not be more thankful that we stumbled across each other’s paths and became entwined with our beautiful brand of nerdery and love.

Instagram: @nnmakes

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nnielsen88/

Twitter: @nnmakes

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