If Mark Fuller’s parents hadn’t already realized their son’s engineering and creative potential, his waterfall and fish pond project—which he worked on through high school and college with his grandfather—would have been a dead giveaway. Rather than install standard fish ponds in his family’s backyard, Fuller connected them by an underground tunnel managed via a secret control panel.
“We used the pumps and guts of old washers,” says Fuller, who went on to start WET, which designs large-scale, tech-driven water features, including the iconic dancing fountains at the Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. The creations—there are more than 300 in 20-plus countries—feature water, lights, music, fog and even fire, cavorting in awe-inspiring permutations.
Fuller founded WET in 1983 with two other former Walt Disney Imagineers, Melanie Simon and Alan Robinson, using funds pulled together from 13 credit cards. Fuller’s small condo was the company’s first office, and Robinson’s backyard was used for experimenting.
Today WET is housed on a sprawling 140,000-square-foot campus in Los Angeles that includes high-tech chemistry and optics labs, a state-of-the-art wood shop and 45 custom fabrication machines. On any given day, some 300 employees—graphic designers, scientists, engineers, animators and architects—are at work on the 18 to 21 projects that will launch in the next three years.
A typical project has a team of 50, who take it from concept to completion in one to two years. After that, WET offers clients support ranging from annual site visits to periodic tuneups; in some cases, WET staff will remain permanently on-site to operate and maintain the feature. High-profile assignments have included the restoration of the iconic Prometheus Fountain in New York’s Rockefeller Center, the cauldron for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and what’s billed as the world’s largest performing fountain, with water reaching heights of 450 feet, in Dubai.
The company is on track for at least $50 million in revenue this year, Fuller says, while next year could bring in $70 million to $75 million, thanks to projects in Beijing, Shanghai, Chicago, Dubai, Istanbul, Mexico City, Las Vegas, the Bahamas and Kuwait.
WET’s first major project came in 1986: Fountain Place in Dallas, a collaboration with architect I.M. Pei and landscape architects Dan Kiley and Peter Ker Walker. It was the “first-ever fountain on planet Earth where the jets didn’t come out of the pool,” Fuller says.
But growth after that was slow, until Steve Wynn asked Fuller to dinner to discuss creating a never-before-seen attraction for his new Las Vegas hotel. The conversation led to the Fountains of Bellagio, which started dancing in 1998. The project marked a milestone for WET, proving that the company installations could become destinations in themselves, drawing tourists and their dollars.
“The fountains have become synonymous with our resort,” says Jenn Michaels, senior vice president of public relations for MGM Resorts International. “We know visitors come from around the globe to see our signature attraction. And then they come inside to enjoy everything else we created at this very special hotel.”
In 2013, the Fountains of Bellagio was named the top U.S. landmark by Trip-Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Attractions awards. “People see that single image and know immediately that it represents Las Vegas and it represents the Bellagio,” Michaels says. “It is an amazing feat when a single image can be so meaningful in the eyes of people around the globe.”
WET is exploring other elements in projects set in Las Vegas—which, after all, is the capital of spectacle. At the Mirage, water and fire tango to create the world’s largest daily artificial volcanic eruption. And at CityCenter Las Vegas, frozen columns of ice slowly emerge from a shallow pool, providing visitors a welcome respite from the hot desert sun.
All very cool.
- WET has been an innovator for 30 years, but pioneering a new field can be a blessing and a curse. The company often comes up with never-before-seen ideas but then is expected to up the wow factor for its next client. Co-founder Mark Fuller offered us his tips for moving forward without repeating the past.
- Keep it exciting. “We keep working on a design until we can’t stand that it’s not built yet,” Fuller says. He knows a project is on the right track when its designers can’t wait to see it built. “If we’re not feeling that, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m ready to wet my pants so we can go out and see this fountain in real life,’ we know we haven’t gotten far enough yet.”
- Embrace teamwork. Creating a WET project involves people from myriad disciplines, from chemistry to mechanical engineering. Everyone is encouraged to speak up. “People must be championing their ideas, bubbling with vigor about expressing what they want to see the project come to—or something is wrong,” Fuller says.
- Encourage learning. “We never fire anyone here for making a mistake,” Fuller says. WET’s leaders foster curiosity, exploration and learning—and the missteps that come along with them. The company’s WET YOU program offers free classes ranging from physics to stand-up improvisation, meant to broaden employees’ horizons.
- Be fearless. “We look for challenges that scare us,” Fuller says. “We tackle things that we suppose are doable, but are not obviously so.” The experimental mindset allows WET’s designers to test ideas using the company’s extensive resources, which include a 3-D printing lab, woodworking shop and a network of equally creative, involved colleagues.