Theme Park Design – Yay or Nay?

3 Apr

Mention theme parks and people default to sneering derision.  If you don’t have kids the prevailing attitude is that they represent a destination for those lacking in imagination and a fear of experiencing ‘real culture’.  Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, it is undeniable that theme parks showcase a level of ground-up immersion and conscious design that is rarely seen beyond the gates.  Creating an environment which has to marry the notion of entertainment, functionality and durability is not an easy ask – but theme parks around the World regularly unveil new concepts which have to appeal to a broad audience whilst employing a cavalcade of new technologies in order to remain ahead of the competition.

Whilst the film, game and television industry are masters of illusion,  the task of a theme park designer is significantly more complex.  Whereas those who create their vision within the confines of a screen are gifted the luxury of fixed perspectives, edits and dictated narratives, the theme park directors need to ensure it looks its best day-in-day-out regardless of weather, crowds or age.  Which neatly brings us to Disney and their slightly ugly name for attraction visionaries; Imagineers.  Originally selected by Walt himself, the Imagineers comprised of individuals culled from other arms of the Disney empire – brought into the nascent theme park division to help forge the physical realization of the company’s ideology.

At the forefront of their discipline for decades, Disney parks (first in California then Orlando then the World) took the traditional notion of a Coney Island style experience and produced something which treated the environment and surroundings as an attraction to rival that of the rides within.   Whilst you can dispute the nostalgia-tinged view of America these parks perpetuate, Disney cannot be faulted for their attention to detail and understanding of the elusive magic quality which has enraptured generations of visitors whilst plumbing them for every cent they carry.  In recent years Disney has seen their iron-grip on the American theme park market weakened as Universal shrug of their malaise to create potentially one of the most immersive and well realized lands ever with The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter within their Orlando resort.  Magic!

Tucked into the far corner of their Islands Of Adventure park, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was unveiled to much fanfare and saw Universal Orlando’s attendance bump by 68%.  Whilst this hasn’t yet seen them dent Disney’s dominance, it has nonetheless offered guests the first genuine challenge to the Mouse’s long undisputed throne.  In taking on the Harry Potter franchise and translating it into something tacit, the Universal creative team led by Thierry Coup (previously responsible for the original Amazing Adventures of Spiderman) had to approach their design and execution with clearly defined parameters.  Broadly speaking these (probably!) fell into the following groups;

  • IP Owner
  • Audience
  • Business Needs

Unlike Disney (exceptions like Avatar aside), Universal is happy to create experiences which don’t come exclusively from their own portfolio of intellectual property.  In the case of Harry Potter this meant having to deal with the notoriously protective J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers who had created the film franchise which many visually associate with Hogwarts et al.  Coming at this from a creative perspective, the team at Universal would have needed to create a pitch which satisfied all external parties in terms of both protecting a billion dollar business concern and sticking close to the vision which Rowling has established since she published the first novel in 1997.  Whilst such negotiations are understandably protected, it’s safe to assume that an overview of the land, examples of attractions and general branding / marketing support would all have been discussed.  Whilst only the first stage of the design process, this concept approval is a vital part in getting the project off the ground; go in too conservative and you will be castigated for a lack of ambition, go in too ambitious and you will be seen to not value the IP.  Balancing act!

To make money you need to have people pay to attend your park.  As such, audience is everything and with a theme park there are all manner of considerations which will dictate your approach to snaring as broad a demographic as possible.  Do you focus chiefly on children, families, teens or a catch-all ‘everyone’.  Whatever the decision it will fundamentally alter your design from the off; offering guiding principles which range from the attractions, food outlets and crowd flow through to branding, signage and audio.  In fact, the design of a theme park is a truly interdisciplinary undertaking that requires tight project management and a creative team who remember every last detail in order not to break the all important levels of immersion.  For the visitors, they want their visit to feel like the only day the park is open – something Disney has been perfecting for years.  As such a designer has to ensure the environment continues to look fresh and alive even after millions of feet and hands have explored corners of their creation.

Whilst American parks err towards grand facades and richly imagined environments, their British counterparts favour apocalyptic wastelands and military installations.  Ignoring for now what this tell us about the respective national psyches, the likes of Nemesis and Oblivion at Alton Towers and The Swarm at Thrope Park see the design team maximizing their modest budgets with areas which require less maintenance to keep them looking new (crumbling, war-torn environments should be rough round the edges) whilst avoiding costly IPs through theming everyone is familiar with thanks to broader culture.

Back to the point…  Having attended Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, I fall neatly into one of the demographics that the creative team would have considered; those who happen to visit but have no real interest in the franchise.  Given the rabid and dedicated fan base the Harry Potter franchise has established, Universal could have primarily targeted this audience and assumed the attendance would have sky-rocketed regardless.  And to be fair, it would have.  But as a non-Harry Potter devotee the environment they created still held genuine interest and wonder – with all aspects of  Hogwarts and Hogsmeade so richly detailed that it was impossible not to be pulled in regardless of whether the detail had contextual cues from the franchise or not.  An example?  The glistening snowy roofs that (although juxtaposed with Florida’s raging heat) engendered a sense of British charm that succeeded despite their utter fabrication.  The crowded shops which sacrificed air-conditioned hangers for an intimate and cluttered experience that evoked a bustling town and not a mere merchandise opportunity.  The giant kegs of Butterbeer that dispensed a frothy and eye-wateringly sweet concoction as opposed to branded soda pumps that churned out Coke and ice for the thirsty muggles…  Digested read; it all seemed so real that a prior knowledge of the source material was a luxury rather than a necessity.

This duality must have been an aim from the off.  There are only so many Harry Potter fans with the disposable income to make a trip to Universal Orlando and whilst these visitors must feel that they have been thoroughly sated in their Rowling fantasy, the casual attendee must still consider the area and attractions worthy of their attention.  Walking through Hogwarts (a richly elaborate queue for the park’s primary attraction The Forbidden Journey) there was no doubt just how committed the designer’s vision must have been – with the necessary budget in place to realise it.  The ride itself is a testament to the ingenuity of those involved; massaging cutting edge-technology into a thrilling and cohesive narrative which has to be experienced to be believed.  In fact the only point where the creative team have failed is with the humdrum necessity of railings (discussed in an interesting post at Theme Park Insider).  A massive consideration in any planning procedure, the science of crowd control keeps people safe and is crucial during an emergency – however the installation of metal railings seem utterly incongruous with the immersive environment around them and are surely the next challenge to be confronted head-on by imagineers

Theme parks are meant to be fun.  However the fiscal motivation behind them is anything but.  Disney parks bring in over eleven billion dollars revenue a year to their parent company – a significant cash grab even for a corporation of their size.  As such, any new investment will likely be subject to an intensive SWOT analysis wherein budgets and timelines will be measured against a set of metrics which seek to assess the impact of a new park addition.  Whilst this can never be an exact science, the designers will nonetheless be tasked with delivering to a defined set of parameters that are measurable throughout the process.

An interesting interview with Dave Cobb from the Universal creative team gives insight into how these constraints differ on a project to project basis and just how much they ground the attraction which ultimately emerges from the process.  Harry Potter had already proven itself as a fiscal heavyweight, but in terms of business the need to strike sooner rather than later was undoubtedly paramount so as to negate any potential franchise drop off as the film series came to an a close.  Yet rather than deliver a weakly themed area that would have drawn in an initial swell of visitors (and cash), Universal instead set about laying down a new level of themed immersion which must have played some part in Disney’s subsequent acquisition of the Avatar franchise.

So there we have it.  Theme parks may be mocked by many, but they represent a microcosm of modern design – requiring a truly interdisciplinary approach which is dictated by a slew of dependencies and external considerations.  In designing something which is by its very nature fake, but must seem real within established confines, the theme park designer must choose to continually balance the needs of the audience, IP holder and business to create an experience that lasts for years and entrances generations.  Simple as that.  Now scream!

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